Coyotes in the Preserve
September 17, 2015
Written by Thom Parrish
This entry is about one of the most talked about animals of the preserve and one of the most controversial animals of North America, el coyote!, canis latrans, aka: the prairie wolf, brush wolf, American jackal, and the trickster.
I pulled onto Tarshes Drive early Sunday morning just before 7 am, hoping to sit and watch some wildlife before the Nature Center opened. Last week's heat wave finally over, I drove with my windows down to feel that long awaited cool Fall air. The sky was gray, falling oak leaves flew in the wind and "V" shaped squadrons of Canadian geese honked overhead. The sky's gray however, was due in large to the smoke being carried from the wildfires burning to the North, bestowing an eerie soft pink glow to the morning's rising sun light.
As I neared the center a dark slinking movement to the left caught my eye. An adult male coyote was quietly plodding its way across the field of grass opposite the golf course on the other side of Tarshes. I slowed and watched the coyote move. This coyote wasn't ambling about, he appeared to be fixed on a course. He made a quick glance toward me, but paid no mind as he continued toward his destination. His steady movement was impeded only by the need to stop periodically to scratch furiously at flea bites he couldn't ignore. Despite being ridden with biting parasites, this coyote looked in good shape. He was strongly built and sported a full healthy coat of peppery gray fur with golden brown hues. He had the appearance of a small bushy tailed wolf with over-sized ears.
He was heading in the direction of the preserve. I drove ahead, made the turn onto San Lorenzo and pulled my truck over to the side. I quickly stepped out, walked behind a nearby oak tree for cover and silently waited for the coyote. A moment later he came trotting across the road and ducked under the wire boundary line into the preserve's meadow. He continued to move in about twenty yards and then stopped, opened his jaw and let out an audible "huff!" No sooner than he made the sound when a miniature sized coyote bound out from its hiding place in the tall grass. The juvenile sized pup was visibly filled with glee at the sight of its parents return and proceeded to leap upon its father's head and bound about excitedly. The older coyote then promptly produced a before unseen large strip of red meat from inside its mouth. The pup immediately attacked the meat, hungrily chewing with wide gnawing bites as the older coyote stood and monitored the surrounding area. When the pup finished its meal it contentedly sniffed the ground for a comfortable spot in the tall grass and plopped down to rest. The pup's father continued to stay watch for a few minutes more, throwing occasional glances at the tree from where I sat still, obviously aware of my presence. When he seemed satisfied that there were no threats he wasted no time finding his own soft patch of grass of his own and lay down to finally rest.
Coyotes are members of the Canidae family, its ancestors having first diverged from the gray wolf an estimated 1 million years ago. There are 19 recognized sub species of coyote that range across nearly all geographic regions of North America. The coyote species that inhabits the Effie Yeaw preserve is Canis latrans ochropus, also known as the California valley coyote. The valley coyote is characterized by being slightly smaller with a peppery grayish brown colored coat compared to the yellow furred neighboring coyote of the American plains. Another distinguishable physical trait of the valley coyote is their ear size being larger in relation to the size of their head.
The name "coyote" was derived in Spanish from the Nahuatl Aztec word, "coyotl," which translates to "barking dog". Throughout the American Indian cultures of the plains, the desert southwest, California and Mexico, the coyote is perhaps the most notable animal figure found in their mythology and folklore. The coyote was seen as a crafty and intelligent animal, but its moral character sometimes varied from tribe to tribe. In some myths the coyote was revered as a hero that taught and helped human ancestors, in other tribes the coyote was seen as a trickster and trouble maker often representing greed. In the mythology of the Nisenan Maidu, the coyote's character could be a combination of both depending upon the story. The coyote was the assistant to "Earth Maker" in the Maidu creation story and was sometimes helpful to people, but most often the coyote was seen as the trickster.
Prior to European colonization the coyote was primarily confined to the plains and desert regions of the American west. Environmental changes brought on by the growth of farmland with livestock and the near eradication of competing eastern wolves paved the way for the coyotes eastward expansion. The coyote is still seen as an iconic symbol of the west, however they are not uncommonly found thriving in major eastern cities and countryside. Early American farmers viewed them as destructive pests. Coyotes quickly were assigned the traits of being a cowardly, thieving and untrustworthy animal, a persistent stigma that still affects the way many Americans feel about coyotes. The protection or extermination of coyotes is a frequent and on-going controversial debate. Many people feel coyotes are too problematic to live near urban and residential areas as well there are farmers that must deal with coyote predation of livestock. Coyote extermination and trapping programs however have proven to be a temporary and ineffective means of dealing with human coyote conflict. When aggressive attempts are made to control coyote populations coyotes are able to increase their reproductive rate by breeding at younger ages and significantly increasing their litter size, allowing the coyote population to quickly rebound. Discouragement techniques offer the most effective and humane methods for preventing coyote conflict. Coyotes are among the animal kingdoms ultimate survivors. They are masters of adaptation. As human development further encroaches on countryside, coyotes continue to find new ways to adapt to these changes and even thrive. I recently read an article about coyotes living on Manhattan Island. The article claimed that coyotes have even been seen using the subway. Don't underestimate the savviness of the trickster! Their conservation status lists them as a species of least concern, LC. Despite efforts to control them, coyote populations in the U.S. are estimated to be higher than ever.
Coyotes will typically mate for life. Breeding season takes place in late winter. Females have a gestation period of two months with a litter of 3-10 pups. The litter size may vary with food supply. Coyotes form family groups, both male and female parents participate in the feeding and protection of their young. The female and pups will typically stay in a burrowed underground den while the pups are nursing (about two months). A family of coyotes may utilize two or even more dens within their territory. Parents may move pups to other den sites for safety measures and to prevent parasite build up. Coyotes will often use the same dens for multiple years. After den life is over coyotes like to sleep out in the open grass, sometimes under the cover of tree or brush. I believe the female coyote at Effie Yeaw whelped a litter of 5 or 6 pups sometime in April as the pups were ready to leave the den by the end of May. One of the pups did not survive past den life. The last time I saw the adult female was the first week of September. She is lighter brown in color than the male and at the time had a very short haired summer coat. I observed her with three pups in the meadow area of the preserve near the ditch line. The coyotes have two underground dens that I am aware of. One den is located on the 2nd trail heading toward the nature study pond and the other is about 10 yards off the stairs trail at the other end of the preserve. Coyote parents may become fiercely protective of den sights during the nursing period, an important reason to keep knowledge of den locations to staff only. They are typically solitary hunters, most active during night-time hours. During colder winter months a family group will sometimes join forces to hunt in packs. Coyotes are fast! They are able to run at a speed of 40 mph! Easily fast enough to catch a taunting roadrunner. ;) Coyotes are omnivores that will eat just about anything. The coyotes in the EY preserve seem to enjoy the abundance of turkey and deer. Recently I found the remains of a house-cat in their hunting grounds. I find a quite a bit of black berry seeds in the coyote scat that is left on the trails as well.
The presence of an active coyote family living in the preserve has been an exciting sight for both staff and visitors this year. During the weekends that I am at the Nature Center coyotes have been the animals that visitors are most excited to report sightings of and ask questions about, with exception of perhaps rattlesnakes. Often the visitor's questions inquire about the possibility of dangerous encounters. I believe it is important to the future of coyotes living in the America Parkway to help visitors see coyotes with a fair and positive perspective. They can be troublemakers near farms and residences for sure, but they are also shy and secretive animals that will normally avoid human contact. The best way to prevent coyote conflict is to keep their food source wild. Never feed a coyote and never leave accessible food unattended in the picnic area. Sounds kind of like rules for gremlins; "(1) no bright light, (2) don't let them get wet, and (3) never ever feed one after midnight, no matter how much it begs." :p
Coyotes have a timeless and integral importance to the American Parkway. Their cultural and historical past here alone should make people want to protect their presence in the Parkway. More importantly coyotes are a keystone species that help maintain the balance of the food-web. Their absence in the Parkway would have a significant impact on the biological community. For me, nature doesn't get more magical than the sound of a coyote howl at night.
The clarity of the photos isn't what I would've like for them to have been, I just couldn't get a good focus, but the pictures tell a story though so I'm happy to include them with this blog entry. :) Here are descriptions for the attached photos below:
- Adult male coyote passing the guard shack.
- The same coyote crossing the field toward the preserve.
- Scratching fleas.
- crossing under the boundary line in to the preserve.
- Father and pup reunited
- Pup chowing down.
- Pup still chewing
- Pup sniffing around
- Pup's resting spot
- Watchful dad
- Dad finally rests