Once Found Only in the Southwest, Coyotes Have Expanded their Range
The coyote is clever and adapts so well to new habitats that it has spread right across much of North America. Now it is becoming dangerously used to humans.
Native people call the coyote (Canis latrans) the Trickster. There are many legends about the cleverness of Coyote and how he can fool others to get what he wants.
In areas where coyotes have become bold and overly familiar with humans, farmers are losing sheep and poultry to these opportunistic hunters. Now city dwellers in eastern Canada and the United States are discovering that the coyote’s reputation is well earned. Some are paying the price, as coyotes will not hesitate to attack and kill small pets.
The October 27, 2009, mauling of singer Taylor Mitchell by a pair of eastern coyotes in Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia was the first-ever fatal attack by coyotes on an adult human, and only the second fatality ever recorded. It may be a sign that coyotes, especially the larger eastern variety, are losing their fear of humans.
If so, that does not bode well for the Trickster. When predators start competing with people, humans usually win.
Coyotes Fill a Vacuum in the Ecosystem
Ironically, humans have brought this on themselves. By nearly eradicating other predators such as eagles, wolves, cougars and lynx from much of eastern North America, people paved the way for the coyote to move right in and make himself at home. With no large predators to keep them out, coyotes found an empty niche and promptly filled it, rather like an unwanted guest who moves into one’s unused spare bedroom and refuses to leave.
In the east, the problem is more serious simply because of the size of the coyotes. The average weight of a coyote in its native western habitat is about 20 to 30 pounds. But as coyotes gradually moved into the eastern United States and Ontario, they began mating with brush wolves, Eastern Canadian wolves (Canis lycaon) and possibly dogs. As it kept moving eastward, the now-hybridized coyote began to increase in size and weight.
The coyotes found in Canada’s Maritime provinces carry the DNA of these larger cousins, and they are big. Generally, the males average 40 pounds, although there are reports of considerably larger ones. Western coyotes typically eat mice, rabbits and other small game, and are unlikely to kill an adult person; they are simply too small. But tragically, the hybrid eastern coyote has proven it is quite capable of doing so.
Coyotes Becoming Bolder
Normally, coyotes are shy animals, like wolves, but once they move into populated areas in search of easy prey like rats, pets and garbage, they begin losing their fear of humans. Coyote problems have been reported in cities as far apart as Los Angeles, Vancouver, Chicago and Toronto. Coyotes are expanding their range and moving into cities and towns.
In the southern Ontario town of Grimsby, coyotes have been seen walking down sidewalks in residential areas, showing little fear of people.
At a meeting of Grimsby Town Council in October 2008, wildlife researcher Barry Leighton of St. Catharines, Ontario, said problems arise when coyotes lose their fear of man, because then they will start attacking livestock, pets and people. Some people actually feed wild animals such as coyotes, which is dangerous because it encourages them to see people as a food source and makes them much less wary of close contact with people. He suggested trapping and hunting to control coyotes and restore their fear of humans.
But Lesley Sampson of Coyote Watch Canada told Council that only the specific coyotes causing problems with people should be hunted or trapped. She said coyotes eat mice, rabbits and other small game that do considerable damage to crops, so coyotes that stay wild and do not prey on livestock should be left alone.
Sampson also said that trying to rid an area of coyotes is counter-productive, because any remaining animals will produce more pups than average in response to the reduced population. As well, other coyotes will move in to take over a vacant territory.
Learn to Live with Coyotes
There is no permanent solution to the coyote problem, so people will just have to learn to live with them. The following tips will help.
- Don’t let dogs run loose, or leave them tied outside unsupervised in areas frequented by coyotes. They could become a coyote’s next meal.
- Don’t feed coyotes, either deliberately or otherwise. Keep dog or cat food indoors where wild animals cannot get at it, and don’t leave pet food dishes outside. Keep garbage in animal-proof containers.
- Never approach a wild animal or try to pet it. This encourages the animal to become less afraid of people, increasing the chance the animal will bite someone.
- If approached too closely by a coyote, don’t run. Back off slowly, then walk away.
- Carry a large walking stick or staff for protection while hiking or walking in an area frequented by coyotes, especially if accompanied by a child or dog.
- Never hike alone; there is safety in numbers.
More information about coyotes is available from Eastern Coyote (Coywolf) Research (see link with photo), local conservation area offices, provincial/state or national departments of natural resources and national and provincial/state parks.
Cook County, Illinois, Coyote Project
Government of Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources
Eastern Coyote (Coywolf) Research website
Kim, Edmond. The Bio-geography of the North American Coyote (Canis latrans). San Francisco State University Department of Geography, Fall 2001.
Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources
Parks Canada, Cape Breton Highlands National Park
Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Cheticamp, Nova Acotia
Schubenacadie Provincial Wildlife Park
Way, J. G. Suburban Howls: Tracking the Eastern Coyote in Urban Massachusetts. Dog Ear Publishing, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, 2007.