A DEC wildlife biologist shared the habits and habitats of the versatile canine at a presentation at Finger Lakes Community College.
“I may know a lot about coyotes, but I’m not an expert,” Scott Smith told a crowd at Finger Lakes Community College on Oct. 23. “I don’t think there is a real coyote expert in the country.”
Smith, a wildlife biologist who has worked with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation for 18 years, was not just being modest. It’s impossible to have a complete understanding of the coyote, he explained, because Canis latrans is one of the most adaptable, rapidly evolving species in the mammalian world. Coyotes’ size and color vary based on what part of the country they live in, and there are few things they won’t eat, few animals they won’t attack if challenged or in dire need of food.
“When it comes to coyotes, I never say never, and I never say always,” said Smith. “This animal is trying to decide what it wants to be. We’re getting to see evolution before our eyes.”The coyote’s range was limited to the middle Plains until the mid-1920s, when it began to spread eastward thanks to the extirpation — or local extinction — of major predators, like wolves and mountain lions, in the Northeast.
“Here, we really didn’t see a population established until the 1970s. Now, they’re everywhere — except on Long Island,” said Smith, though there was even a report of a coyote seen on Jamaica Bay in January, 2004.
As the coyote expanded, its diet expanded, too, beyond the moles, voles, mice and small birds it preferred on the prairie. Now, said Smith, it's easier to list what the coyote doesn't eat than what it does. In the summer, coyotes eat berries, insects and rodents; in the fall, they obtain their protein from abundant grasshoppers. They go for larger prey — white-tailed deer — specifically in late winter, when the ice crust atop the snow is thick enough to support the coyotes but thin enough that deer sink through it.
Coyotes have also been known to go after cats and small dogs, but Smith reminded the audience that coyotes are only one of a long list of predators that threaten outdoor pets. Coyotes generally won’t bother larger dogs, or medium-sized dogs that act submissively and acknowledge the coyote’s dominance. Encounters between dogs and coyotes tend to be most numerous in March and April, as that's when the coyotes are getting ready to have their litters, which range in number from one to about nine pups.
Many suburbanites, unaccustomed to having wild predators in their backyards, are surprised that coyotes can live in such a variety of habitats. Shoppers in Macedon were shocked to watch an injured coyote run into a crowded plaza there last March.
Attendees at Smith's presentation were shocked to learn that while a coyote family in a wilderness area like the central Adirondacks needs from 15 to 20 square miles of territory to survive, a family unit in a more suburban setting requires just two to three square miles. That's because of the abundance of food — squirrels, pets, garbage — in more populated areas.
Those two to three square miles don't need to be contiguous, either; coyotes can string together enough scattered small “greenways” like yards and fields to make up a complete territory, said Martin Lowney, state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife services program.
Human-coyote encounters have become inevitable.
About half of the documented coyote attacks on humans have been on children, half on adults. A three-year-old girl was killed by a coyote in California in the early 1980s, and two children in New Jersey were attacked by coyotes this year.
But Smith said that most of the time, coyotes aren't a threat to humans. If you encounter one, the safest thing to do is to act aggressively. “Make noise, make yourself look as large and threatening as possible, throw sticks if you have to,” said Smith. Cowering is seen as prey behavior and could spur the coyote to attack.
Smith said “the DEC has adopted a zero-tolerance guideline for aggressive coyotes that threaten public health and safety.” He encourages people to call the DEC if they observe an increase in coyotes in the streets or in yards at night; if they see coyotes being aggressive toward adults during the day; if coyotes are seen hanging around areas with lots of children, like school yards; or if coyotes are chasing joggers or approaching pets on leashes while their owners are nearby. In the case of an imminent attack or an especially aggressive coyote, Smith says to call 911.
New York has an established coyote hunting season, running from Oct. 1, 2007 to March 30, 2008. Coyote hunting is permitted in all areas of the state except on Long Island.
For the past few years, a coyote-hunting contest in Honeoye has caused a stir. Hunters draw the animals into shooting range by emitting a call similar to that of a coyote in distress, and protesters have called the contest “barbaric.”
Irrespective of the controversy, biologists say that hunting is unlikely to significantly reduce the total number of coyotes in our area. They estimate that 80 percent of the coyote population would need to be removed each year in order to cause a significant decrease in their numbers. That’s partly because coyotes have a natural tendency to have more pups when their numbers drop.
DEC biologists and students of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry have been collaborating on a pair of research studies to learn more about the unpredictable coyote. They are tracking coyotes in Otsego and Steuben counties with radio collars and collecting coyote scat, or droppings, from areas across the state, in order to answer questions about coyote behavior, abundance and diet.
With their answers, the coyote may become a less mysterious, more predictable presence in New York parks, fields and backyards.
Hilary Smith can be reached at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 343, or at email@example.com.