2012 Annual Guide to the Outdoors
What to do when you encounter these crafty canines
by Ellen Rathbone
We’ve all heard it: that hair-raising yipping and howling that begins with one voice and swells into a full-throated chorus. From indoors, it’s a wild song that reminds us the world hasn’t quite been tamed. But if there’s nothing between you and the voices but a tent ﬂap or some trees, you might wonder just how safe you are.
The eastern coyote, Canis latrans, is currently the largest wild canine in the Adirondacks. As far as scientists can determine, there is no breeding wolf population within the park today. The last of the original native Algonquin wolves was trapped and killed near Brandreth Lake in 1893 by Reuben Cary. In 2002 a wolf was shot in the southern Adirondacks by a man who thought it was a coyote. It was later determined that this animal probably wandered into the park from Canada.
Not long ago even coyotes were not found here. Historically, they were desert/prairie animals, living between the Rockies and the Mississippi—they prefer to live in the open. (Their dislike of closed-in spaces is so strong that once they are adults, they are reluctant to go underground. Males won’t enter a den at all and females will do so only because they must nurse their young.) Since coyotes never really specialized, like wolves or foxes, they remain ﬂexible in their behavior, a trait that makes them highly adaptable to a range of habitats. They are also proliﬁc breeders: as their population expanded, so did their range.
Coyotes moved east during the 1800s and early 1900s. When they reached the Mississippi River, some went north into Canada, circumventing the Great Lakes, while others continued east and south. In the early 1940s, according to Gerry Parker’s Eastern Coyote, “wild hybrid canids” were being trapped in the Adirondacks for the ﬁrst time. By the 1950s the eastern coyote was well established, ﬁlling the niche left behind by the wolf.
The question that’s often raised about the eastern coyote is why it is so different from its western relatives. After all, it started off as a western coyote. The current theory suggests that when the front line of migrating coyotes found themselves in new territory, there were no other coyotes with which to mate. Most animals mate exclusively with their own kind, but canines seem to be the exception to this rule, and those early coyotes mated with wolves. The introduction of wolf genes has resulted in a canine that is larger than the original model. The western coyote averages 29 to 33 pounds, while the eastern coyote comes in at 30 to 50 pounds. An eastern coyote also measures, on average, 48–60 inches in length, nearly twice that of a western one.
Beyond the numbers, the animals have a lot in common, according to Stanley Gehrt, Ph.D., of Ohio State University, who is also a researcher with the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation, of Dundee, Illinois. Gehrt has studied Chicago’s urban coyotes since 2000. His work has taken him across North America, investigating coyote behavior and attacks, including the much-publicized 2009 account of a pair of coyotes killing folk singer Taylor Mitchell in Nova Scotia. No one knows why the animals attacked.
Gehrt has learned that just like people, coyotes have individual personalities. All are extremely clever and most avoid people, but some exhibit more curiosity about humans while others use their well-developed hearing and smell to avoid all contact with people.
Gehrt’s research parallels much of that done with bears, trying to determine why some individuals become aggressive toward humans. We’ve all heard the saying “a fed bear is a dead bear”—when bears become habituated to people, usually because people feed them, they can become aggressive. The same is true for coyotes. The majority of cases where coyotes attacked were traced to animals used to people because they were being fed. Dogs are, according to Gehrt, “wild cards—we just don’t know if the presence of a dog will trigger an attack or not.” In the world of wild canines, bigger species will attack and kill smaller ones. To a coyote, most of our dogs are smaller canines, potentially invading their territories, and therefore legitimate targets.
So what to do? I’ve had encounters with coyotes in the Adirondacks that made me nervous. They’ve followed me in the woods, and I’ve heard them “exchange words” with my dog while we were out walking. The logical part of my mind tells me they aren’t going to harm me, but there’s always the chance, however remote, that one might be more curious, or more aggressive, than the average coyote.
Gehrt says to watch the behavior. Any wild animal, and coyotes are no exception, will usually turn and run when confronted with a human. If you’re being followed by a coyote, turn and face it—the animal should run. If it doesn’t, try advancing on it slowly—only a step or two. If it still doesn’t run away, you should look for the nearest tree to climb, shelter to enter, or means of defending yourself.
Coyotes, like wolves, are mostly pack animals. Some solitary individuals exist, but once they form a pack, you have a situation like that found with wolves: an alpha male and female, which are the only ones to breed, and some helpers. The alpha pair is monogamous, which is unusual among mammals, and both care for the young. If the female dies, the male will take over rearing the young, with help from the rest of the pack.
And those howls? There are two known reasons for the pack’s vocalizations. First, it is a social bonding exercise—it calls everyone together at a rendezvous site and they share the news of the day. Second, they call to advertise that a territory is occupied and how many individuals live there (apparently coyotes can count). Coyotes also bark—a vocalization that serves as an alarm call, telling pups to get to safety and warning approaching danger to stay away.
Should we be afraid of them? Treat the coyote like any other wild animal: be aware of its behavior and don’t put it in a situation where it feels cornered. Any animal can attack if it feels threatened, but most prefer to avoid contact with people. If there are reports of unusual coyote activity in an area, act accordingly. But otherwise, enjoy these wild animals for what they are: fellow travelers on this planet we all call home.
Ellen Rathbone, former environmental educator at the Newcomb Adirondack Park Visitor Interpretive Center, is education director at the Dahlem Conservancy, in Jackson, Michigan.