By Lisa Moore
Hometown Weekly Correspondent
A high-pitched howl pierces the cold winter evening.
Perhaps it is the call of the Eastern Coyote on the prowl as it searches for a mate.
January through March is mating season for the Eastern Coyote, a canid native to North America and a relative of the grey wolf. Perhaps the most persecuted carnivore, humans have been trying to get rid of the coyote for over a hundred years, yet these remarkable creatures adapt to the changes in their environment and have steadily spread throughout North America, Mexico and into Central America.
In an attempt to educate the public and teach about human-coyote coexistence, Needham residents packed the Needham Public Library lecture room in mid-February to hear a talk about coyotes given by biologist, Chris Schadler. With passion and wit, Schadler shared facts and anecdotes about the Eastern Coyote, its history and ways that humans can learn to coexist with this important member of the ecosystem.
From 1620-1926, original forests in the US were destroyed as humans settled the region. New forests are different from old forests and they support different communities of creatures. While some species were pushed out of their habitats, unable to adapt to the changes created by man, the coyote has proven to be very adaptable, utilizing almost all available habitats including prairie, forest, desert, mountain, and tropical ecosystems. Coyotes have learned to exploit human resources and are able to exist in urban areas too.
The Eastern Coyote is actually a hybrid formed from interbreeding between coyotes, domestic dogs and wolfs. Genetically, it is composed of 10 percent dog DNA, 30 percent wolf DNA and 60 percent coyote DNA. Due to this hybridization, the coyote exhibits a wide variation in characteristics like shape of face and muzzle, ear placement, coat color and size. Through “hybrid vigor, nature sculpts the kind of predator we need. Nature knows best” declared Schadler.
The coyote is naturally a timid animal that lives in small packs, with only the dominant male and female breeding. The pack is related by the top breeding pair. If left undisturbed, pack size is self-regulated by monogamy and territoriality. Pack size and territory size are determined by the availability of food, water and an appropriate den site to rear young. The average sized territory for coyotes in this area is approximately 3 square miles. Human intervention by hunting coyotes can actually cause a rise in coyote populations by triggering more females to breed.
March and April is the time of year when coyotes will select a den site. The den is used solely as a place to raise young pups. Pups are born in the spring usually between April and May after a 63 day gestation period. The young are raised and taught to hunt, and once the pups are weened at around 6 to 8 weeks old, they will move out of the den and disperse. Yearling males may leave the pack to start a pack of their own, and only if the top breeding female dies will the other females in the pack breed.
Understanding coyote behavior can help to limit negative human/coyote encounters. April through May is the time when most human/coyote encounters occur. At this time of year, the coyotes are very defensive of their territory and especially of their dens and pups. Project Coyote is an organization created to help “coyotes be good neighbors” by teaching people about “coyote hazing.” If you encounter a coyote near its den, they may ferociously guard it. Schadler advised “Never turn your back on the coyote. Back slowly away from the den area, talking softly. The coyote might escort you, until you are away from its den. If you come across a coyote in your yard or neighborhood, use techniques that reinforce their natural timid nature, haze them if they seem too close for comfort.”
Hazing occurs by scaring the coyote away from you, your yard, and your neighborhood. This strategy reinforces coyote’s natural instincts to avoid people, without harming them. Schadler suggested, “Never run away from a coyote, walk purposely toward it, be loud, big, and persistent. Wave your arms and yell at the coyote until it turns away. Make sure, if it turns back toward you, to continue to be big and loud. This behavior will scare off most coyotes.”
As houses get bigger and green spaces shrink, human/coyote encounters are bound to rise as the animals search for food, a mate and den sites. With a little bit of understanding and preventive measures, negative interactions can be avoided. Schadler advised residents to remove possible food sources that might attract coyotes including pet food, garbage, fallen fruit and vegetables from their yard, and keep small pets inside when unattended to deter predation. She explained that coyotes are so well adapted that they are capable of climbing an apple tree for a choice apple and scaling an 8-foot fence in pursuit of food.
It is clear that coyotes are intelligent, adaptable, and resourceful. Keeping a balance between nature and human development is essential for the survival of all of the members of an ecosystem. Coyotes play an important role controlling rodent populations in the ecosystem. Their diverse diet is comprised of approximately 62 percent rodents, 18 percent deer (30% fawns in spring), and the remaining 20 percent made up of bugs, weasels, groundhogs, amphibians, frogs, rabbits, fruits and vegetables. Without coyotes, the rodent and deer populations would increase, disrupting the ecosystem.
If coyotes are allowed to have the space they need, humans and coyotes can peacefully coexist.
For more information about Project Coyote and coyote hazing, visit www.ProjectCoyote.org.
For more information about Chris Schadler’s work, visit www.nhwildlifecoalition.org.