Coyotes are ‘generalists’ and ‘opportunists’ — and in our midst

On the prowl: Ernest Seton Thompson, an author and naturalist, drew this coyote in 1886. A decade earlier, Mark Twain, wrote in “Roughing It”: The cayote is a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry. He is always poor, out of luck and friendless. The meanest creatures despise him and even the flea would desert him for a velocipede.”

Russell and Amy Pokorny have lived in rural Knox for a quarter of a century and had had, until this summer, coyotes as their constant companions.

The Pokornys have only rarely seen a coyote but they regularly heard their calls. Amy Pokorny vividly recalls the time she saw a coyote near their house in the morning light.  “It was beautiful, majestic, on the other side of the pond near our house. Its eyes were golden with the sunlight hitting them.”

Pokorny noted, “We don’t have livestock so coyotes are no threat to us.”

While the sighting was an event, the sounds of coyotes were commonplace. “Many, many nights we’d step out on our porch to hear them singing,” said Pokorny. She estimated there were as many as 50. “We could hear all their voices separately but blending together. It’s hard not to imagine their social life. It’s nice to hear them.”

But, unexpectedly, the commonplace disappeared. “We don’t hear them singing anymore,” said Pokorny this week. “We haven’t heard them all summer.”

The Pokornys have also noticed more rabbits and rodents — rats and mice, she said, presuming that, without coyotes to prey on them, their numbers increased.

Guilderland residents who live beneath the Knox portion of the Helderberg escarpment also have not heard the regular calls of coyotes this summer.

Another Knox resident, Sandy Gordon, who raises grass-fed cattle, also says he has many fewer coyotes on and around his farm this summer.

“Usually when the fire whistle went off, the coyotes would keep howling for five minutes,” said Gordon. “Not this summer.”

Also, he said, in years’ past, “They would follow me on the tractor when I was cutting hay…They’d pick up the mice in the field…I liked it, just watching nature in balance. Only one came out this year,” he said.

Gordon said he had heard of a trapper in Knox who had bagged 100 coyotes, to sell the pelts.

The view from the DEC

It is not possible that a local population of coyotes would be decimated, said Michael Clark, the state Department of Environmental Conservation wildlife manager for Region 4.

“People may not be hearing them, but they are out there in the landscape,” Clark said. “The coyote is a generalist and so adaptable, if there is a void, they’ll move back in.”

Told about the Knox farmer who usually has a pack of coyotes following him as he cuts hay but this summer had just one, Clark said, “It’s been a weird year, dry early on. Coyotes are omnivores; they’ll eat vegetables and plants.

“They are opportunistic feeders. This was a good year for groundhogs, chipmunks, rabbits, and skunks,” he said, indicating that coyotes may have gotten their fill on those animals and had no need to follow a tractor.

Clark explained that there are no legal limits on the number of coyotes that can be hunted or trapped. The hunting season runs from Oct. 1 to the end of March and the trapping season goes from Oct. 25 to Feb. 15.

“There are no bag limits,” he said. “You can hunt at night or during the day.”

While the DEC counts “harvested deer,” monitoring and regulating populations through permits, the numbers of coyotes killed are “extrapolated” through hunting and trapping surveys.

The coyote’s breeding cycle begins with mating in January, and, according to the DEC, coyotes may, during this period, approach or behave aggressively toward domestic dogs.

 

Pups at play: Coyote couples are monogamous and provide for their young until they can hunt on their own. Zoologist Roland Kays has researched the DNA of coyotes and determined that the eastern coyotes, which populate New York State, have mated with wolves and are generally larger than their western counterparts.

 

Zoologist Roland Kays has researched the DNA of coyotes to determine the amount of interbreeding with wolves and with domestic dogs. He found that the eastern coyotes, which populate New York State, have mated with wolves and are generally larger than their western counterparts, making them able to hunt not just smaller prey like rabbits and mice but also larger prey like deer.

A female coyote attracts males by howling and scent marking. A half-dozen or so males will follow a female in heat for up to a month until she has selected one of them to mate with.

Coyotes are monogamous and, once the female has chosen her mate, the other males that have been following her move on to look for another female. Females that don’t mate will often help their mother or sisters raising pups.

The mated couple, in March, will stake out a territory and dig a den or take one over from a badger or skunk. The male often hunts by himself to bring food back to the pregnant female.

Gestation lasts 62 days. The number of pups born varies, depending on the food available, but usually averages around six. The pups nurse for 10 days when their eyes open. In 10 more days, they are walking, and in six weeks, they are running. The male helps the female with feeding, grooming, and protecting their offspring.

The den is abandoned in June as the pups follow their parents in hunting their territory. Pups may leave their families at the end of the summer but can stay for much longer. Born at about a pound apiece, each pup has grown to full size of 35 to 45 pounds in nine months.

A graph charted by the DEC shows the annual pattern of coyotes’ reported interactions with humans is the lowest in the winter months — 20 were reported in December — and the highest in the spring and summer — over 100 were reported in May.

Sightings may spike in May, the DEC says, while coyotes are seeking food for their young while, at the same time, more people are outside in the warm temperatures.

Howling increases in late summer. “Howling can be territory signaling,” said Clark. “It can be telling others they made a kill; it’s dinner time. They yip when hunting.”

He also said, “When the young emerge from their dens in May and June, they get excited. With three or four going at once, it can sound like 20.”

 

An urban coyote was photographed in Bernal Heights in San Francisco by Frank Schulenburg. 

 

A trapper’s insights

Barry Kuhar has 80 head of cattle on his Rensselaerville farm. “Some farmers shoot every coyote they see. I don’t,” said Kuhar.

“I am a farmer and I am also a lover of nature,” he explained. “I hunt, trap, and fish. I have a great love and respect for wild animals.”

His understanding of coyotes is what has led him to shoot them only selectively. “The one you shoot might be replaced by a calf-killer or stock-killer,” Kuhar said.

He explained that, since coyotes are territorial, having one in the same territory as his cattle that is not killing them keeps other coyotes from moving in.

“If there’s a coyote with your animals all the time and it’s not killing them, why would you shoot it?” he asked.

Kuhar said he knew of a trapper in Knox who caught over 100 coyotes a few years ago when the prices for pelts were high.

“At the moment, the price is not very good, but it’s better than all other furs,” he said of coyote pelts. Coyote fur is used primarily for trim on jacket hoods, he said.

“It crashed three or four years ago,” Kuhar said of the market for furs. “A lot of it had to do with the oil prices in Russia.”

Russia, Greece, and China are the predominant buyers of fur in a global market, said Kuhar; when the oil prices in Russia went down, so did the demand for furs, he said.

Five years ago, Kuhar was selling his muskrat pelts for $15 to $20; now they’re worth $2, he said.

“So people aren’t hunting and trapping for fur as much,” he said.

A coyote pelt can be worth anywhere from $20 to $80, depending on its condition; color; and texture, which can range from soft to rough, he said.

In his youth, Kuhar sold his pelts to a “country buyer,” a local buyer who would pay cash.

Now, he primarily sells his furs on the international market, going online to find an agent, who will drive a 200- to 300-mile loop, collecting a truckload of furs to sell at auction.

“They’re labeled and bar-coded,” Kuhar said of the furs. “You have to trust him for a month or two until you get your money, but it’s a whole lot more…You could get 90 bucks from the auction instead of 20 bucks from the country buyer.”

A third option, said Kuhar, is selling directly to fur houses in the garment district in New York City.

Kuhar has trapped muskrat, raccoon, otter, fisher, and skunk. He has never caught a bobcat but he saw one last week, he said.

Kuhar said that, in Rensselaerville, he is hearing more coyotes than he did a year ago.

“This time of year,” he said of late summer, “you’ll hear a lot more as the pups are getting out on their own. That yip! yip! yip! Is them chasing rabbits, almost like a beagle dog. It raises the hair on the back of your neck.”

He went on, “Other times, you’ll hear that single howl when a coyote is marking territory.”

Kuhar said this summer he has heard coyotes every night “in two or three different spots.” He’ll hear one from his house and then hear the response a mile away, he said.

Kuhar has also had the summertime experience of a female with pups barking at him. “They want to draw you away from their babies,” he said. He likened it to the ploy of the killdeer, a bird that will feign injury, hopping about as if wounded to draw a predator away from its nest.

“I’ve had a mother coyote do that to me,” said Kuhar.

He estimates he sees a coyote once a week. “I observe nature,” he said. “I live with them.”

He also said, “I might have lost a calf to one a month ago. I could find no evidence.” He didn’t know if the calf had run away or was taken down by a coyote.

Kuhar concluded, “Coyotes are opportunists.”

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