PHOTO COURTESY OF GARRY KESSLER
November 4, 2016, Page A8
By Annie Reid
Westborough Community Land Trust
Coyotes Are Nearby
Have you ever heard distant howling through an open window on a late summer or early autumn evening? Depending on where you live, you might have this experience of our eastern coyote (Canis latrans var) neighbors.
They howl to communicate, typically as a vocal way of guarding their territory from other coyotes or foxes. In this part of the year, partly grown young coyotes practice howling by joining in when their parents howl. Coyote howls are high-pitched, accompanied by some yips. Coyotes also howl at other times, such as the height of their mating season in February, but we’re less likely to hear them then.
Massachusetts isn’t exactly the wild west, so how did coyotes get here? They’re native to North America but not to New England. These relative newcomers moved into our area from the upper Midwest. They traveled eastward via the wilds of Canada, moving from Michigan and Minnesota through the provinces of Ontario and Quebec and crossing the frozen St. Lawrence River. Coyotes arrived in New York in the 1920s and 1930s, in Vermont in the 1940s, and in Massachusetts and Connecticut in the 1950s. By the 1980s, coyotes were living throughout Massachusetts.
Why did they come? As usual, humans had something to do with it. When European colonists arrived on the east coast, they made themselves at home by cutting down the forests to create farm and pasture land and by hunting the native wolves that lived in the forests. Generations of settlers continued the process as they pushed toward the Midwest. Once wolves were finally wiped out of New England in the late 1800s, their former territory was left open for the taking. Enter the smaller but adaptable coyotes, with a knack for living near people.
The story is not quite that simple, however. As coyotes moved eastward, they changed. Some of them bred with wolves in the Great Lakes region of Canada. As a result, today’s eastern coyotes are about 20 percent larger than western coyotes, but still smaller than wolves. Their increased size brought new advantages, making them better able to survive the cold and the deep snow of the northeast, and more capable of bringing down large prey such as the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) of the northeast. Genetic evidence today shows that many eastern coyotes have about 30 percent wolf DNA. For this reason, eastern coyotes are sometimes called “coywolves.” Yet they are still coyotes, capable of breeding with other coyotes throughout the continent. Genetic evidence also shows some dog DNA, but not more than about 10 percent.
What do our eastern coyotes look like? They’re sometimes described as looking somewhat like a shaggy German shepherd. Their fur makes them appear bigger than they are. At 34-47 lbs, males in Massachusetts are larger than females at 33-40 lbs. Our eastern coyotes are larger than red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) at 8-15 lbs, but smaller than eastern wolves (Canis lycaon) in Canada, at 52-62 lbs. Coyotes often have black hairs on their back, a black tip on their bushy tail, and a black spot near the base of the tail. Their fur typically looks mostly gray or tan but can be blond, reddish, or black.
Our eastern coyotes are adaptable, making use of fields and swamps, as well as the forests that have re-grown in our state. Pairs have territories of 2-30 square miles, which they defend from competitors.
You’re more likely to see a red fox than a coyote because foxes tend to avoid coyotes by living closer to people than coyotes do. Coyotes can easily travel 10 miles a night.
A key feature of a territory is the food that’s available. Coyotes eat a great variety of food – whatever they can find and whatever is easiest to get. They are scavengers as well as predators. Standard fare includes rodents – such as mice, rabbits, squirrels, woodchucks – as well as frogs, snakes, and carrion, including roadkill. They vary their diet with season (somewhat as we do). In summer they eat more wild berries, ground-nesting birds, and insects such as grasshoppers. In fall and winter they capture more small mammals. In the depth of winter, when other food is scarce, a coyote pair may take a deer, usually one weakened by age, disease, or starvation. In late spring, they go after fawns. Year-round, coyotes are attracted to easy food found near humans, such as garbage, pet food, bird food, table scraps in compost piles, and fallen fruit under trees.
What about your pets? Cats and small dogs (under 25 lbs) can become prey. Coyotes are apt to view larger dogs as competitors rather than prey.
Coyotes form family groups, usually consisting of a mated pair and their most recent offspring, and sometimes a grown youngster from the previous year. These “packs” of 3-6 typically break up in late fall as the offspring leave to go out on their own and establish their own territories. They’re typically gone by January, when the breeding season starts.
Coyotes give birth to an average of five pups in late April or early May. They use a den dug in the ground, but only for about two months, until the pups are weaned. After that the family lives outside all the time. They may have certain resting areas where the adults park the pups while both parents go hunting. Coyotes are usually active in early evening, the first half of the night, and around dawn, but you might also see them in the daytime, especially when they have pups to feed. All coyote pups may not survive to adulthood, but adults basically have no predators (except humans) in our area and can live 14 years.
Like most wild animals, coyotes are by nature shy of people and will avoid you. It’s best if they don’t learn to associate people with food. So don’t feed them, either deliberately or inadvertently (by leaving out pet food or garbage, for example).
Coyotes live near us, whether or not we see or hear them. Estimates of the number of coyotes in Massachusetts range widely, from 3,000 to 10,000. Massachusetts runs a hunting season for coyotes, October 15 – March 8, hunting licence required.
North America (from Central America to Alaska) has 20 subspecies of coyote.