Along the Path: A Young Person’s Guide to Exploring Nature
By Susan Rothrock Deo (Featured photo by Paul Blieden)
Have you heard them howling? Have you seen one prancing down the road? Coyotes are alive and well in our community. There is a lot of misinformation about these intelligent animals. If we are going to coexist, we need to educate ourselves about them.
The coyote, Canis latrans, is a clever and adaptable predator that has lived in North America for over one million years. Their original habitat was the central plains but today they’re found throughout the lower forty-eight states. They’ve been in Southern California about one hundred years. The coyote and the wolf (Canis lupus) diverged from a common ancestor only 55,000 to 117,000 years ago, dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) from wolves even more recently. All three species can interbreed; thus we have coy dogs and coy wolves. Genetic studies show most American wolves have some coyote DNA. Coyotes are bigger than foxes and smaller than wolves and they have bushy tails with black tips. Their snouts are more pointed than wolves’ and their stand-up ears are larger in proportion to their heads.
Coyotes have a keen sense of smell and can detect a food source up to a mile away. Although they are mainly carnivorous, feeding primarily on rodents such as mice, rabbits, and ground squirrels, as well as insects and reptiles, remember: they also eat fruits and berries. (See “attractants,” p. 4.) What brought them to urban areas like Los Angeles? Foremost, they are explorers that quickly adapt to a variety of habitats. Second, we humans basically exterminated their predators and chief competitors, the wolves. They have also benefited from our urban environments, which are full of food and cover. The life span of coyotes in rural areas is about two and a half years, while in urban areas it is twelve to thirteen!
Coyotes are very vocal, earning their nickname “song dog.” They howl to invite females or claim territory, yelp in excitement or criticism, and bark when they are threatened or protecting their dens. They are so tuned to these vocalizations that if some individuals in their community are removed, the reproductive systems of those remaining trigger an increase in litter size from 5-6 pups up to 12-16! (So not only is trapping, moving or poisoning coyotes illegal, but these methods don’t work.)
Coyotes breed once annually, from late January to February. Pups are born in March and April. They join in hunts at about ten weeks and leave their parents when they are seven to eight months old.
Coyotes help maintain the balance of nature. They eat destructive, vegetation-eating rodents and harmful insects—a real plus for us. Ecosystems benefit too. For example, the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve has had an increase in nesting pairs of the endangered Beldings Savannah Sparrow because coyotes are keeping the medium-sized predators, like red foxes and raccoons, in check.
Coyotes naturally fear humans. But they lose their caution when they get accustomed to us and can easily get human food. That’s when they can be dangerous.
Here are some tips for coexisting:
- Do not feed coyotes.
- Do not approach or try to pet them.
- Supervise your pets outdoors, feed them indoors.
- Remove attractants: fallen fruit, garbage, cover for coyotes or their prey (open crawl spaces under porches, shrubbery near ground level).
- Keep coyotes wary. Discourage them with “hazing” – methods that cause them to move away or stop undesirable behavior. One hazing guide: http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/coyotes/tips/hazing_guidelines.html?credit=web_id145587100
- Educate yourself and your neighbors.
- Appreciate coyotes and observe them from a distance.
To review or report coyote sightings: http://ucanr.edu/sites/CoyoteCacher/
To report an aggressive coyote: call your county animal control office, or the California Wildlife Services (of the U.S Department of Agriculture) at 916-979-2675.
Susan Deo has taught life science and environmental education from preschool through college. A docent with Los Serenos de Point Vicente, she has published short stories and essays and is working on picture books and middle grade novels.