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Understanding the Wily and Adaptive Trickster, the Coyote

Coyotes are members of the canine family that have been around for a long time. They are likely to be around for a long time to come. Part of the reason is that through many hundreds of years, coyotes have developed a relationship with man that often isn’t understood and is often ignored. The bond exists even if it is one-sided.

Coyotes to Native Americans 

          Coyote pups at a den:

Different American Indian tribes thought of coyotes in different ways, however, it was often thought of as a trickster. To some, the coyote was wily but cowardly and was intelligent enough to outwit its many enemies. For many tribes, coyotes were and are very important totems and symbols of ingenuity.

The coyote, like the wolf, is also a symbol of loving families. This is because coyotes tend to be devoted parents. They are loving, protective and nurturing to their young. American Indians could observe this and also see how the parents often played and frolicked with their offspring.

Coyote populations and family structure

Despite what some people have reported, coyotes normally don’t congregate in packs as wolves do. They do, however, stay together as a family unit until the pups have grown up sufficiently to survive on their own. Coyote parents will teach the pups the art of hunting and this is part of the misconception that they form packs.

At night, while hunting, a family group may spread out and move rapidly, occasionally giving their distinctive barking howls so the group can maintain contact with each other even when they can’t see each other. The group may be no more than the mother, father, and four pups, but it can sound like there are many more, since they can move so rapidly.

Even though they don’t form true packs, coyotes can be very numerous in some areas, if there is enough food for them. Considering the diet of coyotes and the fact that they tend to follow human settlements, this means that there is usually food for them in most areas. Their dietary choices are also the reason coyotes are often despised.

Coyote diet

Coyotes are very opportunistic feeders. They will catch and eat meat and this is their top choice. However, they will also eat fruits, vegetables, insects and even carrion. In agricultural fields, they will happily devour fruit and vegetable crops.

Since meat is their preference, they will also hunt and eat nearly any creature they can catch. This includes domesticated chickens and other fowl. It also occasionally includes cats or small dogs. This naturally doesn’t make them tremendously popular with a lot of people. It should be noted, though, that they will normally not go after cats or little dogs if there is an adequate supply of food and if the coyote is healthy.

On the other hand, in most places, coyotes eat a huge amount of mice, voles, lemmings, and squirrels. This is an obvious positive. In fact, small rodents usually easily make up the bulk of a coyotes diet. They are so in tune with being nature’s mouse catchers that when rodent populations peak, which they are prone to do periodically, the coyote population also usually increases.

Lessons to be learned 

          Footage of a coyote hunting mice in Yellowstone National Park:

In some places, coyotes are actively destroyed when they are seen. At times, a bounty is even put on them. The goal is to eradicate the coyote from those locations, usually with the standard excuses of protecting livestock, pets, crops and because coyotes have the potential to carry rabies (as is true of all mammals). We can learn a lot from those efforts.

Eradication measures were begun in a town in southern Oregon in the 1970s because it was noted that there had been a noticeable increase in the coyote population in the agricultural land surrounding the town. They used the same excuses that have been mentioned, but truth is that there were no reports of livestock being attacked or killed, there wasn’t an increase in pet disappearances, most of the crops consisted of wheat, alfalfa, and potatoes, which hold little interest to coyotes unless they are starving, and there had been no reports of rabid animals of any sort in the area. Still, the town put a bounty on the coyotes.

A large number of the animals were killed and subsequently destroyed. Late that fall, as the growing season ended and cold temperatures arrived, people started noticing an abnormally high influx of deer mice in town. The problem got continually worse through the winter and by spring, the mice were in almost plague numbers.

Even more telling was the fact that another, much smaller and more agricultural town that was only about 30 miles from the one that had been over-run by mice didn’t attempt to kill out the coyotes in that area. They had no increase in the mouse population. Coyotes, it seems, were far more important for their ability to keep rodent populations in check than most people realized.

Coyotes have a huge range

Coyotes are found naturally in all continental states in the North America and Canadian provinces. They are even found in Mexico. They live in wilderness places, but also have an undeniable link to man and tend to be found nearly everywhere man lives on the continent. Though they are normally shy animals, they are occasionally seen wandering streets of towns. This behavior might seem strange until it is considered that rodents also have a connection with man and are often found in great numbers wherever people live.

Coyotes are creatures that should be respected and appreciated rather than feared and destroyed at every opportunity. They are one of natures best mouse traps.

What do you think?

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Written by Rex Trulove

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7 Comments

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  1. Great post Rex! We live in an area where it was mostly wild animals roaming around. Throughout the years, housing developments were built, huge shopping centers and golf courses. The people that live in these areas are upset because of the bears, deer, and coyote running through. I have also told them, the animals were here first, you disturbed their home, now they have no where to go.

    • You are no doubt hearing family groups since coyotes aren’t pack animals. Still, people continue to call them packs, thinking that is what they are. It doesn’t make a lot of difference. Wolves are almost never a threat to people and coyotes are even less of a threat. The CAN be a threat to cats and small dogs, though.

      I love listening to the coyotes howling at night. Most of the places I’ve been camping, there have been coyotes.

  2. Good post Rex. Now the other side of the coin. Now remember I love all wildlife.. I have to tell you a short story.. We kind of talked about this in the past, the problems with coyote mixes. Back 40 years ago in North County San Diego, the also noticed an increase in coyote populations, and would hold coyote hunts twice a year for a week. This kept the numbers down to normal. What they have been for years. You would rarely ever see one when I was a kid. In the 80’s PETA stepped in and put a stop to the hunts. Now jump to 2017 and we have a real huge problem. The coyotes have mixed with the GSD, German Shepherd Dog, they are now the size of a large German Shepherd, the muzzles a bit thicker, head a bit different and huge barrel chests with long legs. They have lost their wariness of human. We now have 10 coyotes or coydogs per square mile. They can clear a 12 foot fence without a running start or even touching the fence. They just pop right over. They have attacked children in their yards, and we cannot have a small dog outside in the yard. My moms dog ( chihuahua x) is leashed to go pee in the fenced yard. Just this year I lost two of my cats in the yard, in front of me in broad daylight one was at 11am the other was at 2pm.
    Getting rid of them completely messes up the whole ecosystem just like taking the wolves out of Yellowstone. Now that they are back things are balancing out. But like I said in the beginning there is another side of this coin. WE got rid of the wolf in Southern California. They coyotes took over with no natural predator, when this happens we need to step in to control the numbers..

    • Like most animals, coyotes can over-populate when natural controls are removed. In that case, they do need to be controlled, but with an eye toward management. That is, tags can be issued to remove a set number of the animals, just as they do with cougars (and wolves) in most states that have them. The cross-breed problem is the same as with feral dogs and there is little choice but to control them or pay the price.

      In regard to wolves in Yellowstone, it looks like the native prairie wolf is now extinct from the park, wiped out by the Canadian timberwolves they planted in the park. Smart move Elk and deer herds are being decimated at levels never recorded and the wolf is now over-populating. Coyote populations in the park are also falling fast, as are foxes.

      • Now why wouldnt they use something similar to a prairie wolf then. I had no idea that timber was not native. So years on down the road from what I had heard this is happening. Amazing. I know a pro wildlife photog that shoots there twice a year, I should ask if hes noticed a huge difference now days.

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