Living with the wily coyote
Humans find savvy survivalist, squeezed by development, living near their homes
By JEREMY D. BONFIGLIO
Tribune Staff Writer
December 19, 2004
CeAnn Lambert has a coyote on her couch.
"Get down," she says, trying to muffle the phone. "Go on Amber, get down."
Her voice cracks as she begins to laugh.
"I wouldn't recommend this for everyone," she says.
Amber, who came to Lambert in 2001, is one of 19 coyotes living at the Indiana Coyote Rescue Center in Bringhurst, Ind., between Lafayette and Kokomo.
"I'm fascinated by them," Lambert says. In the 20 years she's spent studying coyotes, Lambert has seen couples form and territory disputes play out, "even with the coyotes I've had for a long time."
While coyotes don't make good house pets, Lambert says, they're also not the vicious predators lurking in the bushes. Coyotes are clever survivalists that adapt to their surroundings -- even if that means sharing their habitat with humans.
A cry in the dark
"They get a bad rap," says Maria Peacock, interpretive services manager for Potato Creek State Park, North Liberty. "They're pretty secretive and pretty shy. From what I've experienced, their first instinct is to run away from humans."
Footprints in a garden. A blur of fur beyond a headlight's reach. It's these glimpses of coyotes that so many people find unnerving.
"People always ask about coyotes," Peacock says. "They've heard a horror story, or they might have had a glimpse of what they thought was a coyote."
With long, slender snouts and pointed ears, coyotes are sometimes mistaken as small German shepherds. It's their bushy tail and proportionately long legs that distinguish them from their domesticated cousins.
"People think coyotes are bigger than they really are," says Tim Cordell, a naturalist at Potato Creek State Park.
Coyotes, in fact, are smaller than wolves and slightly bigger than foxes, weighing between 20 and 50 pounds.
Coyotes are most active from dusk to dawn and are typically recognized by their moonlight serenades, often described as yodeling, howling and yipping -- which is why the coyote's scientific name, Canis latrans, simply means "barking dog."
"We don't see them very often, but you can hear them quite frequently (in the park)," Cordell says.
Lisa Calvert, an officer with the Humane Society of St. Joseph County, has responded to two night calls for coyotes that were struck by cars.
"We've had a couple near forest areas in (South Bend) city limits," Calvert says.
Unlike wolves that live and hunt in tight family packs, coyotes are more solitary animals. They howl to stay connected to family members, who, like people, get together for special occasions -- including the birth of a litter.
Coyotes mate once a year and typically pair up for life. They dig dens on brushy slopes, under rock ledges and in steep banks. If there is any threat to the litter, real or imagined, a new den is dug and the family moves.
Both coyote parents take responsibility in the care and feeding of young coyotes. Initially, it's the father job to feed mom so she can save her energy to produce milk for the babies. His hunting trips provide small game for his stay-at-home mate. Later, both parents will bring food to the growing family. When the litter is old enough, other adults get involved in teaching the youngsters how to hunt.
Of mice and men
Coyotes usually eat small mammals such as mice, moles, rabbits and squirrels. However, they're opportunistic animals and will eat what they can when trying to survive. In urban areas, coyotes take advantage of pet food left outside, fruit fallen from trees and garbage. When coyotes are attracted by such things, small pets may be in jeopardy.
It's only when food is scarce, experts say, that coyotes prey on domestic animals.
"They're not trying to be mean or nasty," Cordell says. "They're just trying to eat."
Because they sometimes prey upon small livestock as well, coyotes are considered to be a "nuisance animal" in Indiana. The designation gives farmers without a permit the right to kill coyotes on their land at any time of year.
While coyotes are not considered a nuisance animal in Michigan, both states have coyote hunting and trapping seasons to curb populations. Unlike deer or waterfowl, there's no limit to the number of coyotes that can be killed.
Despite being continuously trapped, poisoned and hunted, coyotes remain the only North American predator to increase in numbers and range over the past century.
Checks and balances
Some wildlife naturalists contend that population control practices have made it worse on farmers.
"If you don't have these animals in the food chain, you have a lot more mice and rabbits that go after vegetation and grains," Cordell says. "Coyotes are part of nature's checks and balances."
This is a system that's evident with coyote litters. When prey is scarce, they tend to be smaller, but with little competition for food, females can have up to 12 pups instead of a typical litter of four to six.
"If we would leave coyotes alone, they would police themselves," Lambert says. "People think we are seeing more coyotes. We are seeing more coyotes because there are more spaces without trees and brush for them to hide."
By the numbers
While some estimate the two state's coyote populations to be in the tens of thousands, the Department of Natural Resources does not have an accurate count.
"We have no idea," says Bruce Plowman, furbearer biologist with the Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife. "You're not going to find hard-core numbers."
Since coyotes traverse such large territories, it's difficult for researchers to get reliable statistics. Still, trends suggest that the coyote population exploded in the 1970s and has since leveled off. The perception, however, remains that the region is seeing another population boom.
"This is the time of year when I get calls from people saying 'We have too many coyotes in Indiana,' " Lambert says. "A lot of young coyotes are passing through."
Beginning in October, coyote pups leave their mothers to find territories of their own, traveling hundreds of miles to do so. Sometimes that means crossing through back yards or across roadways.
"We're getting coyote phone calls quite often -- at least once a week," says Val Grimes of Berrien County Animal Control. "As new houses are built, we're encroaching on their territory, and so they are encroaching into ours." Coyote populations have fluctuated as the human population has grown. Now that they've had a few centuries to get used to people, Miller says, coyotes are adapting to new environments even in old habitats.
"They're finding a way to readapt to the areas that they've formerly inhabited," Miller says. "Including Indiana and Michigan."
Coyotes inhabited natural plains in Indiana and Michigan before the region was settled. Now, centuries later, they live where they can -- often that's in the miniature prairie habitats of subdivisions, golf courses and office parks. Like starlings and squirrels, coyotes thrive in this sort of artificial landscape.
It's here where coyotes and people often collide.
"The most common misconception people have is that coyotes are out there just waiting to attack their child," Lambert says. "Coyotes really are afraid of you. It isn't in the coyote's advantage to be in contact with humans."
Something she sees daily.
Some of the coyotes at the ICRC were injured in the wild and privately rehabilitated; others were ill-advised pets dropped off at shelters. All of them are too used to humans to make it in the wild and too wild to live with humans.
"The humane shelters found me, and I just started taking them in," Lambert says.
In 1987, while volunteering at Wolf Park in Battle Ground, Ind., Lambert helped hand-raise a litter of coyote puppies. After that, she was hooked.
"I got pretty attached," she says. "So they told me that if I built a proper pen and got the proper permits that I could take two of them with me."
Since then she's sheltered more than 26 coyotes, relying on donations to keep the 1 1/2-acre facility afloat.
She gives them names such as Amber and Blaize, Macho and Tudi. They live in pens and feed on a variety of roadkill and freezer meat. In this setting, it's easy to forget they once were wild animals.
While these coyotes have found a home with Lambert, many others continue a tenuous relationship with people. It's a relationship naturalists believe would be better served if humans adapted to coyotes as well as they've seemed to adapt to us.
"They're here," Miller says, "and we need to learn to live with them."