Coyotes adapt and improvise

T-R PHOTO BY GARRY BRANDENBURG The coyote (Canis latrans) is a true survivor. Outdoors enthusiasts seldom see this very common wild canine predator, but we all can attest to its presence when its yelps, barks and its eerie howls pierce the airwaves of early evening just before sunset. It seems the call of this wild dog perks up the ears of every neighborhood dog as a primordial trait kicks in to make domestic dogs howl back. This “coyote talk” is one way this four-legged predator communicates with others of its kind. Coyote ancestors have been around for millions of years. They are above all else very adaptable. And that is how this critter of the Great Plains originally has spread eastward into and colonized every eastern state, all of our northeastern states, southern Canada and even distributed itself across sea ice in the mid-1980s onto Newfoundland Island. Today's image is of a mounted specimen made at the Iowa Taxidermist Association meeting at Marshalltown in 2015. For this author and wildlife photographer, capturing quality images of a wild coyote remains a bucket list item.

COYOTES are smart, cunning, adaptable and almost everywhere. Even our cities and towns have this animal cruising at its leisure during night time hours while us humans are asleep. But in the morning, if our pet’s food dish left outside is empty, it could just be that a wild canine helped itself to free food. Out in the country, night time forays by coyotes are on the lookout for rabbits, mice, small rodents, insects, grass, berries, carrion and any other opportunity to feed itself. Baby livestock is on the menu also which derives the coyote a no friend status by the farmer/rancher. In fact that status alone has earned the coyote as a species no legal protection by Iowa Fish and Game laws. Coyote hunting season is a continuously open season. Coyote trapping season doe exist primarily to coincide with other furbearer seasons. That date this year begins Nov. 4.

Now the practical side of an open season is this: where are they and how does a farmer/rancher or hunter find them during Spring, Summer and Fall? The answer is you most likely do not see them due to tall vegetation of area native grasslands, forests, or crops vigorously growing which create temporary but effective cover to move through unseen. Come late fall when crops are harvested, cover is greatly reduced. Still it is adequate for coyotes to use effectively. However, the first time the weather is cold enough for snow to fall, when soil surfaces turn white to stay white, a coyote profile stands out much more readily. And that is when avid sport hunters make a set up, use calls to mimic the distress of an injured rabbit, and see how the curious coyote can become vulnerable. Even then it remains a test of skills between critter and mankind to see who wins.

Coyotes continue to impact and play a role in ecosystems of the Midwest and Iowa. Actual numbers of this animal are difficult to specify, but statewide it is in the tens of thousands. They can be found anywhere on Iowa’s landscape. They can and do find enough food to proliferate. They hide and raise young in piles of brush or dead trees. They use large agricultural drainage ditches and large tile outlets as places to escape. Abandoned farm buildings will work also. As noted earlier in this story, the coyote is a cunning and adaptable.

Coyotes are native to North America and nowhere else. Before European colonization, coyotes preferred to live in open areas of prairie grasslands or deserts. That is how the mis-labeling of its name “prairie wolves” or “brush wolves” came to be. But a true coyote is not a wolf at all. When it comes to adaptation however, DNA tests of coyotes in our northeastern states have determined a bit of true Great Lakes wolf hybrid ancestry. It is not much, but researchers have found the evidence to make their point. Dog/coyote crosses are also on record which leads to a totally different sort of “coyote.”

The skull of these hybrids is larger than its Midwest cousins, and the anchoring points of its jaw muscles is more substantial. These more beefy coyotes can take down larger prey. And, unfortunately, in 2009 in Nova Scotia, a female hiker, 19, was killed by a coyote. Rare but true. Fossil evidence of coyotes is also abundant. One site at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Kimberly, Oregon shows adaptations over the past 25,000 years that allowed coyotes to make the most of its environment and new opportunities.

Pure coyote blood lines do exist for this master of adaptation. And adaptation is the trait coyotes used to exploit the void left after settlement killed out as many wolves, bobcats, or other predators that had competed for many of the same food sources. Coyotes filled the ecological void and prospered.

Coyote parents take care of their pups as a team which increases the youngsters chances of reaching maturity. The pair of parents bond over winter in a monogamous relationship. On average six pups are born a few months later in an earthen den that the parents either dug or cleaned out from a previous skunk, badger or woodchuck den site. The coyote family will stay together near the den until late summer. Winter time is the social time for coyotes to work together on hunts. Summer time will find them being much more solitary foragers to find food. Over time the bond of the family will weaken as young males disperse. Young females may stay close to their mother and may even assist in raising the pups of next spring’s new litter.

If you happen to be in the right place at the right time to get a good look at a coyote, look fast, because this skillful survivor will not linger long in any one spot. It will be like a ghost in the night, slipping easily out of sight. And when the nighttime moon starts to rise in the east, just listen carefully and you might just hear the song dog talking his coyote language of barks, yelps and yips. It is an eerie sound, a natural moment to savor.

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This Labor Day Weekend is perhaps a three-day event for many. Enjoy your extra time and make some of that time dedicated to an outdoors adventure. Cooler weather is just around the corner. Fishing for big catfish, bluegill, walleye or bass is a fun thing to do. Camping or hiking at any county park is another. Wading in the Iowa River might get your ankles wet as sandbars are abundant. Look for clam shells, bits of polished river rocks, or small fish in backwater eddies. Enjoy a campfire, marshmallows and good conversation with friends.

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“Simplicity boils down to two steps: identify the essential, eliminate the rest.”

— Leo Babauta, writer


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at P.O. Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.