Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Tuleyome Tales: Keeping wild coyotes wild

Howling Coyote PupW

A coyote pup shows off his vocal abilities. Roger Jones/Courtesy photo

By Mary K. Hanson

You hear their yip-yip-yowling in the early evening and you know immediately what they are: western coyotes, a native of California, who make up one of the three types of wild candids found in North America. Their name comes from the Aztec word coyotl, and their yodeling howls can travel up to 3 miles.

Larger than foxes but smaller than wolves, coyotes have carved out a niche for themselves in the ecosystem. Weighing in at anywhere from 20 to 50 pounds, these smart and highly adaptive predators have keen senses of smell and vision, and can run at bursts up to 40 miles per hour.

These attributes suit them well when they’re on the hunt for rabbits and rodents (which comprise 80 percent of their diet) as well as frogs, young deer and even fish. In fact, coyotes are very good swimmers. Coyotes also will eat fruit, insects, snakes and carrion.

In our region, the coyotes generally mate in February. By April or May, the pups arrive (in litters anywhere from three to 12) and the mating pair forms a solid family group, feeding and protecting their pups. Coyotes always set up a “den” site in which to birth and rear their pups, and these dens can be anything from a small cave or rock outcropping, to a hollowed-out tree, dense bush, a burrow in the ground … or an abandoned outbuilding.

Pups can start hunting with their parents when they’re about 10 weeks old and remain with them for about eight months. Although the pups are darling, they’re not playthings, and their parents will be fiercely protective of them. So if you come across one, do not approach it. Photograph it from a distance.

Coyotes mate for life, and live in a social pack structure similar to wolves. There is typically a mated “alpha” pair (the top dogs) at the head of the pack, and then various generations of offspring and extended family members below them. Their territories are vaguely circular in shape and usually revolve around wherever their central den is.

Coyotes can be aggressively territorial, especially in the late spring and early summer — which we’re in right now — when their pups are born, and will protect their dens, packs and hunting grounds from trespassers when they have to. This natural territorial behavior can become something of a problem when humans deliberately (or inadvertently) invite the coyotes into residential areas.

Normally, coyotes are instinctively wary of humans and will avoid contact with them, but when you supply the coyotes with food and shelter, these incredibly adaptable animals will quickly lose their fear of you and commandeer your neighborhood for themselves and their offspring.

You may be feeding the coyotes without even realizing it. Whenever you leave food outside for your pets or leave bags of garbage in your yard, you are supplying the coyotes — and other animals, like opossums, rats and raccoons — with a sure and steady food source. This can cause a cascade of unwanted issues.

The coyotes may come to view your pets as “interlopers” in their territory and attack them, or view your un-spayed or unneutered dogs as potential mates. (Yes, coyotes can mate with domesticated dogs.) They may also hijack your garbage cans as their personal buffets, and your outbuildings as their dens.

In less populated areas where there is more livestock, coyotes also can be an issue. Since leg traps, poisons and other older methods of eradication are now illegal throughout most of California, when coyotes cause problems for farmers and ranchers, they call in professional wildlife damage management specialists who are employed by federal, state or county agencies to assist them in developing appropriate management strategies for specific situations.

Never try to trap, relocate or kill a coyote by yourself. Let the professional handle things.

Remember that coyotes are wild animals, not potential pets for you to try to “befriend” or “tame.” They are handsome, adaptable, intelligent creatures with a lot of fascinating habits. But the best way to view them is from afar.

— Mary K. Hanson is an amateur naturalist and photographer who is the author of “The Chubby Woman’s Walkabout” blog. Tuleyome thanks Roger Jones, certified wildlife biologist and senior natural source specialist at the SRWTP Bufferlands in Elk Grove, for the use of his photographs. Tuleyome Tales is a monthly publication of Tuleyome, a conservation organization with offices in Woodland and Napa. For more information, visit www.tuleyome.org.



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