Featured Animal March 2016

    Coyotes Past and Present in North America

    By Mallory Ortego


    Over the last several years the coyote (Canis latrans) has made quite a name for itself. The coyote is one of several North American animals whose name has a Native American origin. The word “coyote” was originally a Spanish corruption of the Aztec word for the animal coyotl. Native Americans told many stories about coyotes and would note their crafty intelligence, stealth and ravenous appetite. The coyote’s characteristics varied between tribes during this time. In some cases the coyote was viewed as a hero who creates, teaches and helps humans and in other stories he is the antihero who has negative behaviors such as greed, recklessness and arrogance. In any case we can say that the coyote over time have been able to exercise their intelligence to adapt to the drastic changes in their environment.

    Coyotes are members of the dog family (Canidae) and at one time lived primarily in open prairies and deserts. Over time they have been able to expand their habitat. Land conversion and the removal of wolves after the 1900s have given the coyote access to a wide range of habitats. We now see coyotes well distributed throughout North America, Mexico and into Central America. Because the coyote is so well distributed, we can assume that these animals can utilize a variety of ecosystems. These habitats include prairie, forested, mountain and tropical systems. We have lately observed the coyote in suburban and urban areas.

    coyote range map
    The coyote population over the years seems to be increasing in distribution as humans continue to modify the landscape. The amount of packs in an area will depend heavily on the amount of resources in an area. One major factor to consider as to why there is such an abundance of coyotes and why it is so hard to manage for them is their reproductive system. A coyote litter size can range from 1-19 pups but the average is usually 6. Coyote growth rate is faster than in the wolves and emerge from the den about 35 days after they are fully weaned. The pups will reach full growth between 9-12 months, reach sexually maturity at 12 months and will be ready to reproduce continuing the cycle.

    coyote and cub

    Coyotes are considered opportunistic. In a normal situation they will hunt or prey on other animals to obtain their food. Coyotes although are known to have a wide range diet depending on available resources. Interestingly enough these canidaes have been known to eat fruit, vegetables, insects and human-made food. Coyotes can also thrive in urban areas and will feed on rodents and small pets.

    Since coyotes have taken such advantage of the land over the last several years many people see them as an uninvited predator. Yes their abundance can be an issue, but many management measures such as the Predator Control Program, part of USDA APHIS Wildlife Services, are in place to try and maintain these populations.

    coyote by residential community
    It is note worthy to speak of the good that this species does for our environment. Coyotes play a critical role in keeping natural areas healthy. We consider coyotes to be keystone species meaning that their presence or absence has a large impact on the surrounding biological community. Coyotes have an effect on smaller prey predator populations. Results from a study resulted in sage grouse benefiting from the present of coyotes because they reduced the number of nest predators. Several other examples like this exist in favor of the coyote. Like with any other animal we need to try and learn to live with this crafty, intelligent, stealth and ravenous hungered creature. The coyote is a species that we need around to keep our natural areas natural. So the next time you hear the howl of a coyote remember all the good this animal is doing to keep our ecosystem healthy and thriving.

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