A few weeks ago, I was visiting with my parents, who live in McLean, VA. They were lamenting the fact that the raccoons they used to feed on their back porch were no longer appearing. In fact, nor were the cats. It seemed to them that someone must have put out a poisonous bait to eliminate the raccoons, affecting the cat population as well. That may well be the case. However, I proposed an alternative hypothesis to account for this sudden disappearance. How about coyotes? It’s not that farfetched. I recently read about coyotes making an appearance in Fairfax City. In fact, during the preparation of my Appalachian Mammals website (www.bobpickett.org), I was told by the State fur bearer biologists that coyotes could be found in every county in PA, MD, VA, WV, and NC! I was also told the word should be pronounced, “ky-o-tee”, not “ky-ote”. The name coyote comes from the Aztec word coyotl, meaning barking dog.
Coyotes, and their close relatives, the timber, or gray, wolf, had been extirpated from this region over a hundred years ago by our farming ancestors who feared for the well-being of their livestock. But, the coyote is back. Traveling east from the Great Plains, our coyotes mixed their genes with the much larger timber wolf as they met in the Great Lakes region before continuing east and south to our neighborhoods. Western coyotes weigh 20 to 25 pounds, while our eastern coyotes average 35 to 40 pounds (this contrasts with the 110 pound gray wolf). Concurrently, coyotes spread through Texas to the east and northeast to Virginia.
As coyote populations increase in our eastern States, their presence will eventually be known to all. They are incredibly adaptable and behaviorally variable as a species. Coyotes may live singly, in pairs, or in packs. The available prey will in large part determine size of the social unit (solitary in areas of rodents; packs of 3 to 7 in areas with only large ungulates). Thus, as opposed to the western, open grassland populations, supporting large herbivores, it would be reasonable to assume most coyotes in the east would tend to be in pairs or singles.
Their diet in our area would be primarily small rodents and rabbits, with some fruits, herps, insects, and winter carrion to add to their omnivorous nature. The coyote is also a significant predator of deer fawns in the spring and weakened adult deer in winter. However, it is noted that they can, and will, prey on other small mammals they might find, including raccoons and roving felines!
Similar to a slightly built German shepherd, this carnivore has a busy tail tipped in black. Large variations in pelage exist from nearly all black to nearly all white phases (approximately 25% of the coyotes in Virginia are mostly black). In the continuum of canid sizes, from largest to smallest, our native species include the gray wolf, red wolf, coyote, red fox (see my website for details about the debated origins of this species), and gray fox. This size difference enables each species to specialize on a slightly different prey base.
Although some coyote pairs are monogamous, bonding for life (especially in areas of low densities), coyotes normally don’t mate for life, but may stay as a pair for several years. Nor do they live in dens, except for birthing. Rather, they will sleep anywhere a concealed site can be found within their flexible home range.
The eastern population doesn't seem to howl as much as western populations, but their calls are becoming more prevalent. When running, coyotes distinguish themselves by holding their tail between their legs. All other canids run with their tail either parallel (wolves) or curled over the back (domestic dogs).
In Virginia, the coyote is considered a nuisance animal, with an unlimited, year-round open hunting season. In fact, four SW Virginia counties still offer $50 bounties, with each county maintaining a budget of $1500 - $2500 per year. However, this is changing as counties realize the futility of bounties to control livestock damage (and as State budgets are being slashed).
More than 6,000 coyotes are ‘harvested’ as a game animal each year in both Virginia and Pennsylvania. An estimated 20,000 coyotes live in Virginia.
Coyotes readily breed with domestic dogs and give birth to fertile offspring (coydogs), who also can breed with either dogs or coyotes. While all members of the Canis genus (dogs, wolves, and coyotes) can (and do) interbreed, due to the size difference, male wolves are known to breed with female coyotes or dogs, but not typically the other way around. Before the advent of Man, geographic isolating mechanisms kept the various species from interbreeding. With coyotes coming into heat only once a year in late winter, and dogs twice a year, overlapping breeding periods are not common (male coyotes are only able to breed when females are in estrus – males can only produce viable sperm for a period of 3 to 4 months). With male dogs capable of mating year-round, most coydogs are from male dogs and female coyotes. Since male coyotes help in pup-rearing, while male dogs do not, this lessens the likelihood of successful coydog raising. Additionally, estrus in coydogs comes especially early, producing young in January or February; a time unfavorable for survival. For these reasons, the amount of domestic dog genes in coyote bloodline is probably extremely low.
The coyotes are back! Look for them in a neighborhood near you!