Related to wolves and domestic dogs, their scientific name, Canis latrans, means barking dog. A few can sound like dozens as they vary their voices almost like a ventriloquist. A passing train’s whistle or emergency vehicle siren can really set them off.
Coyotes abound in Native American tales where “Coyote” is a philosopher, a mischievous clown, or an evil trickster. The Aztecs called them “coyotl,” meaning “holes” (where they spend the first part of their lives), and whether you call them KI-oats or ki-OH-tees we certainly have plenty of them here in Deep East Texas, where population estimates run as high as 15,000!
Why do coyotes make so much noise? They do it to keep in contact with their group, tell other roving bands where they are, help them estimate the abundance of kin, near and distant, and decide whether the neighborhood is just “gittin’ too crowded.” In spite of the way coyotes sound, a pack usually consists of less than a dozen.
Some people say coyotes are varmints that should be wiped out, swearing that they seriously threaten deer herds and cattle. That’s just not true and anyway, exterminating them isn’t easy, since the number of pups in a litter increases as coyote population densities decrease. Instead of only five or six to a litter, Mom may produce and be able to care for as many as twelve. The surviving animals also get smarter.
A coyote’s diet consists mainly of small animals like mice, rats, rabbits, fish, frogs, and snakes. But they will also eat your cat or dog if you let them out at night. Traveling in packs, a pet is easy pickings for them. A lone decoy coyote is suddenly joined by six or more of his pack mates and goodbye Fido or Kitty.
These “barking dogs” also consume berries, corn and fruit from farm fields and orchards. Deer and cattle are usually only eaten after they have died from other causes, although newborn calves or those weakened by disease are sometimes killed and eaten by coyotes.
Found in virtually every state coyotes average around twenty-five to thirty-five pounds, with a black tipped tail. Coyotes breed during January and February, giving birth about nine weeks later to between two and twelve pups which stay with the mother at least until fall, but some remain as long as two years before relocating five to ten miles away. Sometimes they mate with domestic dogs, producing “coydogs.”
Until recently, there had been no reported coyote attacks on humans in Texas. But recently things have changed. Coyotes are appearing in increasing numbers in and around some Texas cities. And since October of this year residents in Frisco, Texas just north of Dallas have reported seven incidents where coyotes attacked humans.
According to a recent KERA radio broadcast, Sam Kieschnick, a Texas Parks and Wildlife urban biologist, is working with the city of Frisco on the issue. He said “We think that people were feeding the coyotes, intentionally or unintentionally…leaving out trash…chicken bones and pet food.”
In Southern California, where I’ve seen coyotes sit on a city street and howl at a streetlight, and where some misguided people feed them, there have been several attacks on joggers and small children. Leaving food out to feed coyotes is a very bad idea. They become accustomed to humans and potentially more dangerous. When they lose their natural fear, a running person, particularly a small one, may be viewed as prey.
One of the most serious concerns is that coyotes carry rabies and can infect an unvaccinated pet which in turn can infect its owner or other people.
On the other hand, Old Man Coyote’s call of the wild is definitely a part of nature’s symphony in the fields and forests of East Texas and frankly, I have to admit I kind of enjoy their performances.
Dr. Risk is a biologist and professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at SFA. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.