Natural Wonders

The Coyote Controversy

by Mike Roberts, Contributing Columnist


With all the bad press aimed at coyotes these days, exposing a few facts might help some readers see Virginia ’s newest and most misunderstood predator in an entirely new perspective.

For some time I have avoided writing about coyotes so not to stir the dander of wildlife conservationists, sportsmen and livestock farmers, knowing full well that any positive comment about these so-called “killers” could make me a prime candidate for tar-and-feathering. On the other hand, the risk of presenting factual information is sometimes a responsibility – regardless of the consequences.        

Perhaps it’s best to begin by establishing that coyotes roaming the fields and forests of our Commonwealth today are quite a bit different from those ranging across the American West. Yet, from a taxonomical standpoint, there is only one species – Canis latrans (Latin terms respectively meaning “dog” and “barking”).

True to their scientific namesake, coyotes are indeed wild dogs and one of the most vocal. More than a half-century ago, western coyotes began expanding their home ranges northward into Canada and eastward. In doing so, they hybridized with gray wolves (Canis lupus), which produced a unique eastern subspecies. Successful hybridization of two separate species within the same family, although possible, is rare. Whereas western coyotes are typically pale tan and white in color, the coat of the eastern varies from reddish-brown to jet black – visible proof of wolf genetics. On average, the eastern subspecies weighs 10 to 15 pounds more than the westerns, with males occasionally tipping the scales at over 60 pounds.

From a behavioral standpoint, eastern coyotes seem more secretive than their western counterparts. And while that may be true, western coyotes inhabit open terrain – making them more visible. Eastern-coyote habitat usually has a higher population of humans and the added pressure tends to make the animals nocturnal. Even their vocal serenades are typically sounded after nightfall.

There is one other potential occurrence in the world of the eastern coyote worthy of noting. Some of the earliest reports of coyotes in Virginia , particularly on Allegheny Highland sheep farms, were not really about coyotes, but rather animals that are the result of coyote and domestic dog cross-breeding. Coy-dogs, as they are called, are true sheep killers and likely responsible for initiating the coyote’s haunting reputation.

Beyond the classification and physical-feature differences, coyote behavior is similar regardless of where they’re found. As a true carnivore, its sharp teeth are designed to rip and tear meat. They are opportunistic feeders that eat a wide variety of foods, including rats, mice, voles, squirrels, cottontails, woodchucks, birds, bird eggs, deer (young, old, sick, injured and healthy), house cats, small dogs, domestic sheep, pet food, and carrion. The coyote uses its keen senses of hearing and smell to help satisfy a two- to three-pound daily food requirement. When prey is in short supply, carnivorous coyotes are quick to supplement their dietary needs with plant material.

Living in a structured social unit more complex than that of foxes, but less regimented than the wolf pack, coyotes are at home in deserts, dense forests, swampy environs, mountains, rural farmlands, urban areas, and cities.

The annual breeding activity between monogamous pairs of coyotes typically occurs in February and March. After an approximate 60-day gestation period, the half-dozen or so pups are born blind and helpless in the security of an underground den. During the crucial first two weeks following birth, the female remains with her offspring to provide nourishing milk, warmth, and protection from other predators. While she oversees the den activity, her faithful mate hunts to furnish food for both adults.             

Within a month the growing pups begin to explore a new world of sights, sounds, and scents outside the den. Even though it may appear that their frolicking behavior is merely play, the running, jumping and fighting serves to develop skills necessary for surviving the challenges of a tough future. At best, only about 50 percent of the pups will live one year. Within a couple of months the juveniles join their parents on hunting forays, and come late autumn, those that survive disperse to seek their own territories.

Now that we have skimmed the surface of the coyote’s world, let’s investigate the controversy. To start with, it seems that almost everyone dislikes them. Why? The answer is simple – coyotes kill all the white-tailed deer and wild turkeys or at least, that’s what I’ve heard. And too, I hear that they kill newborn livestock and are a threat to pets and young children.

What coyotes do best is fill the predatory niche that has been missing in Virginia since the 1800s, when indigenous wolves and cougars were purposely extirpated. Sure, they kill deer, particularly fawns, but probably no more than

free-ranging dogs and black bears. Should we be concerned about such depredation of our deer herd? Hardly! Thanks to sportsmen, there are more white-tailed deer in America today than when Columbus first laid eyes on this continent – some 40 million. Oh, and by the way, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries did not introduce coyotes to reduce deer numbers, as I hear about a million times each year! 

What about turkey predation? Sure, coyotes eat some, but so do bobcats, foxes, and great horned owls. By the 1920s America’s wild turkey population (estimated at 10 million when European settlers arrived) had been decimated by over-hunting and habitat loss. Thanks to dedicated conservation efforts, turkey numbers in America have rebounded to almost 8 million birds. Kit Shaffer, a retired Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries biologist, once told me that game birds cannot be stockpiled. What he meant was that a high percentage of them, whether hunted or not, will fail to carry-over to the following year. That natural law (based on predator/prey relationships, of which coyotes are a part) cannot be revised by wildlife agencies, politicians or sportsmen.

Okay, coyotes kill sheep. I am sympathetic to those farmers who lose their profit to coyotes that learn slow, dumb domestic animals are easier prey than fleet-footed deer. What about calves? I’m not saying it never happens, but having grown up on a farm around cattle, I know how protective those big mamas are of their newborn. Coyotes are blamed for much of the sinister activity of free-ranging dogs.  As for fear of coyotes dragging your children from the yard, unless they are rabid, these shy animals avoid humans. Don’t forget, though, if your cats and little dogs run free, they are definitely on the dinner menu!

No doubt, coyotes are the wariest and smartest mammals in America, but there are quite a few outstanding trappers in Virginia who can and do catch a lot of them. Predator-calling works, sometimes; but leg-hold traps and snares are a more consistent means of control. Checking coyote numbers is important, but I am not a proponent of placing bounties on their carcasses. Bounty programs seem more of a benefit to local politicians searching for votes than a solution to the concern.

There is one thing certain about the coyotes in Virginia – they are here forever! Studies in western states have revealed that the more of them that are shot, trapped and poisoned, the higher the number of pups per litter. Perhaps there is some underlying truth to the legend that declares a coyote will be the last animal alive on Earth.

If you are fortunate enough to catch sight of this wild dog on the prowl, take some time to observe the poetry in motion; you might just see the coyote as something more than a villain!


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