As the flickering campfire crackles beneath a fading lavender sky, a distant coyote begins to wail at the rising moon. Soon more coyotes join in to produce an eerie chorus of yips and yowls that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Sound like day’s end on a cattle drive over 100 years ago? Maybe. But this scene could just as easily be taking place at any campsite in the Finger Lakes region, or anywhere else in New York State.
Today the Eastern Coyote, or Canis latrans, is the Empire State’s top predator. If that’s not surprising, consider that coyotes didn’t exist in New York prior to the 1930s. Most biologists believe that in the early 1900s, after timber wolves disappeared from eastern forests, western coyotes began an eastward migration to fill the void, which brought them around the wild Canadian shorelines of the Great Lakes. Along the way, they are thought to have interbred with Canadian timber wolves, creating a distinct subspecies that could explain why the Eastern Coyote is larger than its western cousin. Lacking competition, the coyote eventually established itself as the top of New York’s predatory food chain. (A less-accepted theory contends that coyotes were already here before Europeans settled in North America. When forests were cleared for farmland, those coyotes were pushed into remote areas of the northeast, like the Adirondack Mountains. As farmland gradually became abandoned and reforested, the coyote simply returned to its former ranges.)
The Eastern Coyote resembles a medium-sized German Shepard dog, but with a pointier snout and a long, thick, grayish-tan to reddish-blond coat, often streaked with black. Its trademark bushy tail, which it carries low, is what most likely coined its nickname of “brush wolf.” Adults range from 35 to 45 pounds, with larger males exceeding 50 pounds. Some may get bigger, but that is uncommon. When breeding takes place in February, territories are marked with the skunk-like aroma of coyote urine. Four to six pups – sometimes more – are born in early April. Dens are usually remodeled fox or woodchuck burrows. Bones and feathers scattered in front of a large tunnel are sure indications that it is a coyote den.
According to Sean Hanna, Region 8’s director of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), coyotes are firmly established throughout the state. A conservative statewide summertime coyote population estimate, which includes pups, ranges between 20- and 30-thousand. “Their numbers are growing, and they’re here to stay,” Hanna said.
Hanna notes that coyotes are opportunists and will eat whatever is easiest to find or catch. “Their diets may change significantly, depending on the season. In the spring they may eat small mammals or fledgling birds.”
Ground nesters like turkeys, pheasants and ruffed grouse are particularly vulnerable. “During summer, coyotes will feed on berries, insects and rodents,” said Hanna. “They rely on grasshoppers and small mammals in the fall. As winter becomes harder and small mammal populations decline, coyotes sometimes turn to whitetail deer.” Road-killed deer are also an important food source.
According to Hanna, coyotes will sometimes kill deer, but only when it’s the easiest meal available, usually during a tough winter. “The impact on most deer populations is very small. In the spring, coyotes may affect fawn survival rates in localized areas. A more significant impact on deer populations might be seen in areas like the High Peaks in the Adirondacks or the Catskill Mountains, where the coyote’s food options are fewer.”
David Salomon, a Pittsford resident who has owned a hunting camp in southern Livingston County for 25 years, disagrees. “I just don’t see the deer that I used to. Does with twin fawns in early summer are down to one – or none – by fall,” Solomon said. A coyote den located in his woods last year tends to back that statement up, with deer bones and fawn hooves among the skeletal remains found outside its entrance. Salomon’s coyote experiences aren’t just limited to his camp. He has seen coyotes in the woods alongside his yard in Pittsford. Hanna agrees: “You might see a coyote anywhere … in the wilderness, in agricultural areas, suburbs and in cities.”
If they are so plentiful, how come we seldom see them? Coyotes are among the wariest of all wild animals and have the ability to simply melt into the landscape. In addition, they are primarily crepuscular – active at dawn and dusk – although they will hunt all day and night when feeding pups. The more coyotes are pursued, the more nocturnal they become. For most people, a coyote experience doesn’t involve seeing them at all (it’s hearing them) usually on frosty mornings, clear evenings or when the local fire whistle goes off.
DEC’s position is that coyotes can provide a great many benefits to New Yorkers through observation, photography, hunting and trapping. However, not all interactions are pleasant because some coyotes in suburbia have lost their fear of people. Coyotes in residential areas quickly learn to associate people with food. Garbage and pet food are saturated with human scent. This can result in a potentially dangerous situation, especially since human behavior has evolved to become non-threatening to coyotes. “Running into your home after seeing a coyote is behaving like prey,” Hanna cautioned. In the coyote’s mind, food smells like people and people behave like prey, which can embolden the animals.
Hanna also advised, “Keep in mind that even nationally, the number of confirmed coyote/human attacks is still very, very small. But we’ll see what happens as coyote populations grow in the suburbs and cities, and as coyote/human contact becomes more frequent.”
Robert E. Chambers, Professor Emeritus at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) at Syracuse, said that coyote attacks “have become more frequent as both coyote and human numbers have increased and merged in space and have been reported in several states (including New York), but most notably in California. Attacks have primarily occurred in suburban areas where coyotes have lost much of their fear of humans. In some cases, coyotes had been deliberately fed.”
A more immediate concern is the interaction between coyotes and pets. Cat owners should be aware that cats allowed to roam free are at risk for many different factors, including coyotes, foxes, dogs, bobcats, vehicles and even great horned owls. Hanna pointed out, “Coyotes in some areas appear to become ‘specialists’ at catching and killing cats.”
Conflicts between dogs and coyotes occur primarily in the spring when coyotes are preparing to den and become exceptionally territorial. They view other canines, even foxes, as a threat to their young. “Essentially it comes down to a territorial dispute between your dog and the coyote. Both believe that your yard is their territory,” Hanna said.
Professor Chambers agreed: “Attacks on dogs in rural areas most often occur during the coyote mating and pup-birthing period (January through June) as a territorial defense behavior.”
Hanna noted that most problems with coyotes and livestock involve sheep or free-ranging chickens and ducks. They may occasionally kill young calves. However, Chambers maintained, “Uncontrolled domestic dogs are a much greater threat, responsible for losses to livestock far exceeding losses from coyotes.”
Coyotes view red and gray foxes as both a territorial threat and competition in the food chain and have been known to kill foxes for those reasons. Whether or not coyotes eat foxes remains a question.
Regulated hunting and trapping seasons are the most effective management tools that DEC has to control wildlife populations and keep them at sustainable levels. But because of the coyote’s extreme wariness, success requires an inordinate amount of skill by both hunters and trappers. Combine that with the declining interest in the trapping of furbearers, and it becomes obvious that hunting and trapping have little effect in the control of coyote population levels, even though there are no bag limits during open seasons. Because hunters and trappers must report their take by phone, DEC has some indication of annual coyote kills, but the most recent figures haven’t been published. (Refer to DEC’s hunting and trapping regulations for season information and dates.)
Salomon, a knowledgeable woodsman, is adamant when he says, “Coyotes don’t belong here, and they shouldn’t be given the protection of a closed season.” He feels that they will systematically decimate small game populations and then concentrate on deer. “What happens when the rabbits, woodchucks, turkeys and grouse are all gone?” he asked. “The wholesale killing of deer will be next! I’ve seen it happen in the Adirondacks, and now it’s happening here.”
It appears that coyotes are here to stay. Aside from the current hunting and trapping seasons, DEC does not have a more definitive coyote management plan. In addition, the coyote has an astounding ability to adapt to any environment. However, in conjunction with Cornell University, DEC has undertaken a coyote research project to learn more about coyotes in suburbia using radio collars and telemetric tracking. For more information, see www.nycoyote.org. and www.dec.state.ny.us.
story by John Adamski, photographs by Bill Banaszewski
John Adamski is a freelance writer who specializes in wildlife and outdoor subjects.