Getting to Know the Coyote: Habitat and Diet
With the increasing spread of the coyote, it has become critical for all of us to gain better understanding of everything about the coyote - habitat, diet, hunting behavior and group dynamics.
Earlier it was the ranchers and the farmers who complained about the destruction caused by coyotes. Now even some gardeners complain about these animals and there have sightings of coyotes in places with great residential density. What this implies is a growing coyote population that is increasing less nervous about human interaction. Given this development, it is worth it to educate ourselves about this interesting animal that looks like a dog or wolf but is distinct from them.
The coyote does not have a great image in popular culture – it is often portrayed as ‘sly’ and ‘crafty’ rather than ‘noble’ or ‘wild’ which are associations built around the wolf. While it is not clear how such portrayals emerged, the truth is that there is great distrust of this animal. Given the fairly strong physical resemblance of the wolf and the coyote this is interesting. The coyote tends to be white, gray, rust or brown in color and the male is usually a little larger than the female. Interestingly the coyotes on the Eastern part of the US are said to be marginally larger than there brethren in the Western part of the continent.
Originally coyotes were found mainly in the prairies and hence their name, prairie wolves. In fact, there natural hunting instincts are built around the reality of the prairie landscape where they can hunt in packs. But as of today, coyotes are spread all over the North American continent and can be found in the woods, farmlands and the prairies. One of the important reasons for this is that the natural enemy of the coyote, the wolf, has disappeared over time. The wolf and the coyote competed for the same resources in the same habitat and this served to contain the coyote population. Over time, with the reducing number of wolves, the coyote have grown in numbers and they have spread to access more and more resources and have increased the range of the coyote habitat. It is interesting to note that where there has been successful re-introduction of wolves into the wild, there has been a noticeable decline in coyote population.
The coyote diet is varied and this has also prompted the animal to seek new territories without concern about finding any one kind of prey. Coyotes have been described as opportunistic is their diet. Coyote habitat determines what they eat and so the coyotes that live in the prairies eat the small mammals, the snakes and such creatures while the ones in the farmlands do tend to poach on poultry and consume fruits and vegetables also. This adaptability, which makes a coyote an omnivore on occasion, is seen in other aspects of the animal’s diet also. While coyote prefers freshly killed meat, the animals are known to scavenge from carcasses in winter because they know it is difficult to stalk and kill prey in the colder months.
Coyotes tend to hunt in packs and as mated pairs. This gives them the ability to go after animals larger than themselves such as a deer. A coyote which hunts alone is not likely to be able to do this and such as animal will not have deer in its diet. The coyote hunting strategy is built around the large open spaces of the prairie where keeping the prey in sight is easier and where the challenge is to outlast the prey as much as anything else. Coyotes achieve this often by working in shifts. So, a deer or moose that has been tracked by two or three groups of coyotes is likely to fall prey eventually even if it manages to out-run the first group.
The coyote is a fascinating creature and its very spread across the continent means that there is a possibility of randomly spotting a coyote. A useful tip for distinguishing the coyote from a dog or a wolf is to watch its tail - the coyote runs with its tail down, while the wolf has it straight out and the dog has it pointing upwards!