One night in December, my family was awakened twice by a pack of howling coyotes. They were loud — it sounded like they were right outside our door. The noise went on long enough to be disconcerting. What exactly was going on out there?
I found out later that day, through my neighborhood’s Facebook group, that something – maybe coyotes, maybe a fisher cat — had taken down a deer in a backyard just three houses away. The homeowner photographed the evidence: all that was left was a ribcage and a leg bone. Neighbors were saying, “Don’t let your cats out,” but I have to admit I was a little concerned about us humans too. We’re not much larger than deer.
To ward off the nightmares, I did some research. On its website (see below), the state’s Department of Fish and Game offers some basic information on the Eastern Coyote, as well as numerous other critters who make Massachusetts their home. Being blissfully unaware has its merits, but it probably makes more sense to familiarize oneself with the wildlife with whom we coexist.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far. Coyotes are often associated with the desert, but their habitat is actually pretty diverse. They arrived in Massachusetts in the 1950s. While they have yet to make the journey over to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, they can be found now in every other town statewide. They are quite adaptable, and can be at home in the city as well as the countryside. Their range extends north to Alaska and most of Canada, and south as far as Panama, plus all the way across the continental United States.
Coyotes can easily be mistaken for German Shepherds, especially when spotted in a residential area. Size-wise, they are similar to a medium-weight dog, but you won’t see much tail-wagging. Coyotes’ tails point down and are tipped with black (their pointy ears, however, stand straight up). Coyote fur is more substantial than the average house pet’s – longer and thicker — and because of that volume, coyotes may appear heavier than they actually are. Typically they weigh 33-47 pounds, but can go as high as sixty. Colors vary. A coyote might be blond, reddish, various shades of brown and gray, or even black.
Coyotes aren’t exactly particular about what they eat. They are what’s known as “opportunistic feeders” – thus “easy” and “available” are at the top of their list. So while coyotes most commonly consume berries, fruit and the small creatures that inhabit the typical undeveloped area – fish, frogs, insects, snakes, birds, rabbits, and other small furry things – they will not turn their noses up at roadkill, garbage, pet food, or even pets. Yes, pets. Housecats and small dogs in particular.
Overall, this is a good thing. (Not the pet consumption, but otherwise . . . ) Since coyotes often dine on rodents, they help to keep – for example – the woodchuck population under control. Anyone who’s ever had a woodchuck take up residence in his or her vegetable garden knows what I mean. Coyotes and other predator species help to maintain the natural balance within a given habitat. They keep pest populations down.
Coyotes prefer to keep a low profile. You’re most likely to see them when they’re looking for food, which could be day- or nighttime; dawn and dusk sightings are most common. They do not hibernate. They establish a territory of 2-30 square miles, and travel in pairs, or small groups, or even individually. The territory of a single family – or pack — of coyotes could easily constitute an entire town.
Family size varies. Breeding happens in February and March, with the pups being born in April and May. Because they are extremely territorial, a pack of coyotes will fight for what it has deemed its own. An intruder in its territory could elicit howling, scent marking, posturing, or even confrontation. Coyotes can run at speeds up to 40 mph.
But the howling doesn’t necessarily indicate that there’s a problem. In fact, it’s the primary means of communication within the species. So a howl could mean that a mama coyote is trying to find an errant pup, or that the pups are simply honing their communication skills. On the other hand, howling is also employed by coyotes to distract predators or to warn off trespassers.
Scared yet? No need to be! We have been co-existing with coyotes for decades now. The Department of Fish and Game offers some helpful tips on preventing conflicts with coyotes. Here’s a quick summary.
1. Don’t let coyotes intimidate you. They don’t like loud noises, bright lights, water sprayed in their faces, or small objects like tennis balls hurled in their direction, so if you have to scare one off, try one of the above deterrents.
2. Secure garbage. Coyotes and other critters will raid your trash and compost if you let them. Use tight-fitting lids, and don’t make your garbage too accessible.
3. Don’t feed or try to pet coyotes.
4. Keep your pets safe and restrained. It’s worth noting that free roaming pets are more likely to be killed by automobiles than by wild animals.
5. Feed pets indoors.
6. Keep bird feeding areas clean. When seed falls to the ground, it attracts the small mammals that coyotes consider lunch. Remove bird feeders if coyote sightings are a common occurrence in your yard.
7. Close off crawl spaces under porches and sheds to discourage coyotes from taking up residence there.
8. Cut back brushy edges in your yard as coyotes consider brush to be prime cover for hunting.
9. Protect livestock and produce. Install fence. Clear fallen fruit.
10. Educate your neighbors. Pass this information along. If the whole neighborhood follows these tips, you will be much less likely to see a coyote family move in.
by Kezia Bacon
Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit www.nsrwa.org. To browse 15 years of Nature (Human and Otherwise) columns, visit http://keziabaconbernstein.blogspot.com