The Ecology of Fear, Part III

This is Part III of a series on coyotes. Part I can be found here and Part II here.

Native stories about coyotes tend to focus on their mischievous and cunning behavior as well as their apparent lack of morals. Coyotes have faced intense pressure from hunters, dating back to when Europeans  first arrived in North America. Unlike wolves, cougars, and bears, coyotes have adapted and thrived in the face of persecution. How do you explain this?

Coyotes are very opportunistic, so they are sometimes active throughout the day. Typically, they are most active during the early morning and late evening hours, making them crepuscular.  It may be that in areas of high human activity, like urban environments, coyotes become more nocturnal to avoid conflict. Coyotes have the amazing ability to remain unseen by moving where terrain provides them the most cover. The video below shows a family of coyotes here in Statesville, NC, and is actually about 1.5 miles from downtown. These coyotes are most active from 1:30a.m. to 5:00 a.m.

This coyote, however, was active in the early afternoon for several days in a row in an area not inhabited by many people.

When it comes to feeding, coyotes are known as ecological generalists. As their range expanded, their diet also expanded. Coyotes are really good at eating all sorts of food, including meat, fruits and vegetables, nuts, carrion, and even trash. They have been known to eat pet food off of porches. A large portion of our NC coyotes’ diet consists of small mammals, like rodents and rabbits, insects, fruits, and nut crops.

Coyotes could also be considered habitat generalists, meaning they can make their home in woodlands, grasslands, deserts, mountains, agricultural, and urban areas. Territories vary depending on what season it is, population in a certain area, as well as pack status. Transient coyotes, or loners, tend to roam more and may establish large territories. Coyote packs are more likely to establish a smaller territory.

Whereas wolves are highly social, coyotes are typically less social.
They do exist in packs in some areas. However, they are also found in pairs or as individuals. A “pack” is usually just a mating pair and offspring. Western coyotes tend to be a little smaller and have to avoid top predators like wolves. In places like Yellowstone, wolves have pushed coyotes into areas inhabited by people like campgrounds and roadsides. Here in the southeast, coyotes compete with grey and red foxes. They are usually dominant over both species, with grey foxes having the advantage over red foxes because they can climb trees.

The Urban Coyote Program is a long-term research project that was started in the Chicago metropolitan areas in 2000 “as a non-biased attempt to address shortcomings in urban coyote ecology information and management. The following are some major implications that this program lists from it’s research:

  • As a top predator, coyotes are performing an important role in the Chicago region. Increasing evidence indicates that coyotes assist with controlling rodent, deer, and Canada goose populations.
  • Coyotes in urban environments switch their activity patterns to be more active at night when human activity is minimal.
  • Most coyotes are feeding on typical prey items, such as rodents and rabbits, and generally avoiding trash.
  • Wildlife feeding will eventually habituate some coyotes, leading to conflicts.
  • Coyotes appear to be monogamous.
  • Coyotes are exposed to a wide range of diseases; however, to date, none of them pose a serious human health risk. In general, the coyote population appears to be relatively healthy.
  • Effective control programs target nuisance coyotes, rather than targeting the general coyote population. Coyotes removed through lethal control efforts or other causes are quickly replaced.
  • There are individuals who exhibit dangerous behavior that sometimes should be removed from the population.
  • Successful management programs include public education and outside consulting.
  • Some types of repellents, such as electronic devices employing lights and sound, may be useful for preventive control of coyotes, but more work is needed to evaluate their effectiveness and other hazing techniques.

Ecological benefits?
As highlighted above, coyotes do seem to benefit ecosystems. In some areas, coyotes may act as keystone species and help regulate populations of other species. Domestic cats may kill as many as 4 billion native birds per year in the U.S. This recent study shows that coyotes may help native bird populations by eliminating cats from certain areas, or at least causing cats to avoid certain areas.

Because coyotes are here in Statesville, and because they do benefit local ecosystems, we will take a look at best ways to avoid conflict with these animals in Part IV.



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