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Spotlight on Coyotes
Quiet and intelligent, coyotes play a special role in our sense of the natural world and in our eco-system.
Though our interactions with coyotes are rare, these fascinating animals live in nearly every city in the country, and in every forest and town in between. Because they’re predators that will occasionally prey upon the domesticated animals we love—our cats and chickens—coyotes have been reviled by many. But it’s important to keep in mind that, like any predator, coyotes play an important role in keeping our ecosystem in balance.
42% of a coyote’s diet is made up of rodents. That means that coyotes work hard every day to keep a cap on the mouse and rat populations in our area. In farming areas, coyotes can be seen following farm machinery as they catch the voles and rodents that flee the machine. Nearly 30% of their diet is berries and grasses.
Like all omnivores, coyotes will take food wherever they find it, which means that they will also eat insects, fawns, birds, frogs, snakes, and human trash. Coyotes eat raccoons. And, given the chance, a coyote will eat a cat. This happens rarely, however—studies show that cats make up less than 1% of a coyote’s diet.
In many parts of our region, coyotes are an apex predator, which means that they are at the top of the food chain. By nature, they keep the other animal populations in check.
Humans and Coyotes
Because coyotes are predators, their history with humans has been filled with violence. Coyotes are hunted in many parts of the country, including Washington State. Yet studies show that where coyotes are hunted and trapped, females produce more pups per litter than in areas where they are protected.
Many people worry that coyotes might attack or bite a human child, but the truth is that coyotes shy away from people. In Kitsap County, for example, in 2007 there were 189 dog bites reported. There has never been a coyote bite incident in Kitsap.
Not all humans fear or dislike coyotes. For many of us, the coyote is a mystical, elegant animal. There’s magic in seeing a silent coyote standing on the forest’s edge, watching us warily before trotting, light-footed, into the woods. Coyotes are the closest thing we have to wolves, to the wild equivalent of the dogs we know and love in our homes.
Some coyote pairs live together for years, hunting and raising pups together. From time to time, these bonds last for life. Coyotes breed in late winter (something to think about on Valentine’s Day.)
During pregnancy, the female digs a den under an uprooted tree or log or in a thicket or other protected area. The den usually has a small opening, but is 5 - 15 feet inside with a sizeable nesting chamber at the back end.
After 63 days of pregnancy, the female will enter the den to give birth to a litter of pups. The average litter is four pups, but this varies depending on food availablility and the density of the local coyote population.
Coyote pups are mainly cared for by their mother, sometimes with help from an older sibling. The male hunts for the family during this time. After the pups emerge from the den at 2 - 3 weeks, they’re ready to start eating regurgitated food in addition to their mother’s milk.
Coyote parents with young pups often move from one den to another in order to keep their pups safe and secret. Moving also helps limit the mess in any one house!
Young coyotes usually stay with their parents until they’re 6 - 8 months old.
Coyotes are incredibly adaptive, even to human society. In pioneer days, coyotes lived exclusively in the Intermountain West, but as people have expanded their territory, so have the coyotes. Human trash, development, and infrastructure have helped coyotes spread all over the country.
They may be quiet around people, but coyotes have plenty to say to each other. They bark and howl to signal danger, woof and growl to show threat, and they whine or yip in greeting. Group howls are often given when the family is trying to communicate with an absent family member.
Read more about Coexisting with Coyotes and Fun Facts about Coyotes.