The big red coyote stood staring back over his shoulder at the sand dunes above Wingaersheek Beach, the light sea breeze ruffling the long guard hairs of his luxurious coat. I am not sure what caught his attention, but he did not see us in the canoe. Slowly he turned in our direction, spotted us, and in two quick jumps disappeared into the brush.
Large carnivores are disappearing across the globe. They usually need a lot of space and sufficient prey which usually puts them in conflict with human interests. The Eastern coyote is the largest carnivore we have in this area, but to his great credit, he has learned to co-exist with us. There are a lot of them on the North Shore and they are here to stay.
The Eastern coyote first appeared in Vermont and New Hampshire in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s and then spread slowly throughout the eastern seaboard. They were often called coy dogs or brush wolves in the mistaken belief they were a cross between the western coyote and feral dogs. Like many animals on our planet, there has been significant evolution over time in the wolf/coyote world.
Modern DNA testing has been able to shed a lot of light on the history of this particular animal. First it is important to understand that there are several distinct wolf populations and distinct coyote populations in North America. For our discussion there is a small wolf, called the Great Lakes boreal wolf that has a range from the Great Lakes, across Manitoba, northern Ontario, and northern Quebec and another small wolf called the eastern wolf that is found in the Algonquin Park. There are three distinct populations of coyotes; the western, the mid-western and the eastern.
Research conducted by L.Y. Rutledge, et. al., suggests that the coyote in our area has a mixed wolf/coyote ancestry. There was a suggestion in earlier research that the Bergmann Rule (that animals get bigger the farther north they exist), should apply to the coyotes in our area; that the increase in size was only because of the need to be larger to deal with the colder temperatures.
However, that was debunked in the case of the coyote as studies showed that the variation in size was greater east to west rather than south to north. The coyote in our area has a mixed coyote /wolf DNA which most scientists believe is the reason for it’s increased size. These animals can grow to 55 pounds or more, with the average around 40.
Coyotes mate on the North Shore around the first of February and produce pups about 63 days later. We always get a lot of calls about coyote activity this time of year. It is because the females will be in estrus for a pretty short window, as a result, they will be less cautious about being seen. The females will give birth to an average of five youngsters, but a litter of up to 12 is not unheard of.
They den up in holes in the ground or under outbuildings. These dens can be under roots or trees and can extend up to 25 feet with a large underground chamber. The coyotes are fastidious around the mouth of their den, not allowing any debris to accumulate there. You will not see any bones or other signs of kill around the opening. In fact, the adults eat the feces of the young to keep the spot as odorless as possible. They do not want their den being discovered by other predators. Most food is ingested elsewhere, brought back to the interior of the den and then regurgitated for consumption by the pups.
Although there are lone mated pairs, most of the time there are other young coyotes in the pack who have yet to leave their parents. These youngsters often help in hunting for the group and bringing back their catch for the benefit of the pups.
By the first of May the pups are ready to eat the regurgitated meat. The parents are seldom together during that time. One watches the youngsters while the other is out hunting. It takes a lot of meat to keep these growing pups satisfied. Once the pups get big enough to get outside, the teaching to forage takes place.
The adults and pups do not use the den after that. They will find hiding spots where they can be together at night, but they will be out foraging most of the day. The little ones start hunting bugs like grasshoppers and crickets and then move up to catching voles and mice. Mice compose a huge part of their diet. Cats are also part of their food supply. If you must let your cat out of the house, do so at mid-day when coyotes are less active. However, if you let your cat roam at night on the North Shore, you are providing another food source for coyotes.
It is during the summer that you will hear the most howling from coyotes. As the youngsters get larger and larger, they will range out farther and farther to feed. The howling is one of the ways they find each other. Also, the howling can be a mechanism for defining their territory.
One pack usually dominates about a five mile square. As the older pups leave the pack, they range out to find a mate and their own space. Wandering coyotes can travel as much a hundreds of miles from home before settling into a spot.
Coyotes are here to stay. They are a part of the natural world that surrounds us. The only real impediment to their growth in numbers is disease and predation. They pose no threat to us and are just part of the ever evolving world around us.