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By Dave Sartwell
Photo – Coyotes can adapt to the most hostile of environments and are here to stay on Cape Ann and New England as a whole.
Last week a coyote attacked and killed a poodle that was leashed outside a home on Rocky Neck in Gloucester. The woman who owned the tiny dog had left him outside unattended for just a few minutes. When she heard her pet panic barking she went outside but it was already too late.
The eastern coyote is now everywhere on the North Shore including crowded residential areas. They have adapted to living in and among humans in a way that most people do not understand. Wherever you live, you are within half a mile of a coyote, and, they seldom live alone. The eastern variety (Canis latrans themos, literally translated dog barking brush) is one of the largest of the 19 subspecies found in the Northern Hemisphere. Believed to have come from a cross between the smaller western coyote and the Eastern Red Wolf, they found their way into New England in the 1950’s.
These animals grow to be anywhere from 23 to 26 inches at the shoulder and weigh on an average about 35 pounds. They have a body length that ranges from 42 to 52 inches long with a tail of 12 to 15 inches. However, they can get to be much bigger. One winter we shot a female in northern Vermont that weighed 55 pounds. The males tend to be a bit bigger than the females. They have 42 teeth including four long incisors. Their eyes are yellow or amber with round, black pupils which indicate that coyotes used to be daytime hunters. Their guard hairs are three inches along the back and five inches in a mane between the shoulder blades.
You will see them during the daytime in late January and February more often than any other time of year because this is when they are mating. Although there is evidence that a couple will mate for life, if one of the mates is killed the survivor will find a replacement. The young coyotes become sexually active at about two years of age. The females have an average litter of five pups, but they can bear as many as twelve. The pups are born blind about 63 days after conception. The farther north you go the later the breeding, but most pups are born by mid-April.
The females will dig a small den with the opening about the size of a basketball or they will take advantage of a spot under a downed tree, woodpile, scrap heap, or junk yard. They will sometimes just enlarge a hole already made by a woodchuck, fox or skunk. These holes usually range from 5-10 feet deep, but can be much larger depending on how soft the earth is where they are digging. They keep the mouth of the den very clean. As the pups start to grow, the adults will even eat their offsprings feces to avoid attracting other life forms to the den.
The pups are fed their’s mother’s milk to start with, their eyes opening about two weeks after birth. The female will stay constantly in the den during this period being brought food by the male and other members of the pack. The young soon switch to regurgitated meat provided by the mother and other members of the pack. While often inseparable in the late winter, the male and female take turns watching the youngsters. The younger members of the pack, usually last year’s pups, also help in the rearing and food gathering. As the pups get older they venture out of the den on forays with one of their parents. They start out hunting grasshoppers and other insects, soon graduating to mice and other small life forms.
As the litter grows, one or two of the pups will be more dominant than the others. It is not usually about size, but attitude. These dominant pups will stay with the litter, but the others will eventually leave the pack to make out on their own. The young usually disperse in November or December, looking for a territory they can claim as their own. Males will travel as much as a hundred miles from their birth territory. They have about a fifty percent chance of survival.
One of the reasons coyotes are found in our neighborhoods is the abundance of food found there. Once dubbed “suburban ghosts” these animals of opportunity have learned to eat what we often throw away. They become skilled hunters with a good sense of smell, vision, and hearing. There is an abundance of squirrels at feeders, mice in the fence lines, or cats that are left out at night. Mary Gayle and I once watched in fascination as a big coyote pounced up and down in the snow driving a mole into the open which then became supper. They will also consume rabbits, deer, and the eggs of ground nesting birds like ducks and geese. If food is scarce they will also eat apples, grapes and ground strawberries.
During the spring time that folks walking their dogs will report often of being followed by a coyote. It is probably because they have ventured close to a den and the adult coyote is just making sure they do not interfere with their pups. Although seldom does much come from these encounters, they can be a bit unnerving. There have been very few coyote attacks on humans, but it is believed that most of them have been because the coyote felt cornered or was protecting their den.
The coyote is here to stay. We can hunt them, poison them and trap them, but they have a unique ability to survive in the most hostile of environments. We have to learn to live with them. The best we can do is keep our yards clear of debris to discourage dens, keep lids on our trash cans, have only indoor cats, and leash our dogs at all times. The only real levelers of their population is distemper and rabies which eventually is how Mother Nature keeps their numbers in check.