Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Coyote attacks

Coyotes used to be a symbol of the American West--the stuff of folklore and cowboy song. Throughout the 1900s, they were spreading to the East. Now they are common throughout the country, often living right under the nose of urban residents. For example, wildlife experts estimate there are over 2,000 living in Chicago, even downtown, where one walked into a Quiznos store.

I live in Madison, Wisconsin. If you walk on our lakes in winter, after fresh snow has fallen, you will see a myriad of coyote tracks, along with those of other mammals like fox, beaver, mink, deer, raccoon, rabbit, and squirrel.

Coyote tracks look like those of a medium-sized dog, except that they typically trend straight as an arrow. In contrast, dog tracks are nearly always found looping out and back to human tracks, or zig-zagging.

Fox tracks also head in a beeline, but are a good deal smaller than coyote tracks.

Although there are doubtless many coyotes living in your area, it's rare to hear them howl. That's because they are extremely wary of humans.

Coyote attacks

In March of this year, coyotes attacked dogs several times in Cape Cod. These attacks may have involved rabid coyotes, since coyotes usually avoid dogs as large as the ones attacked.

But there are other reasons why coyotes attack dogs: It may be for food (in the case of small dogs), or because coyotes see dogs as a threat to their territory or to their young.

Healthy coyotes are extremely wary of humans--but attacks on humans have occurred in Cape Cod, and recently in a suburb of New York. There was a fatal attack last year on a woman in Canada.

Don't worry--attacks on humans are extremely rare. The few that do occur are the inevitable result of large numbers of people and coyotes living close to one another. Your chances of you or your pet being injured by a dog are far greater.

The Coywolf

Now that I've put your mind at rest--here's some unexpected news. The coyotes in Massachusetts are actually wolf-coyote hybrids. That explains why coyotes there are larger than the coyotes out West, where they originated. The adults on Cape Cod weigh 30-40 pounds.

Jonathan Way and three other wildlife biologists studied coyotes caught in traps on Cape Cod and near Boston. Their conclusions about wolf-coyote hybrids are based on studies of DNA from the animals. They think that as the coyotes spread eastward through Canada, they interbred with the Eastern Wolves found there.

Other conclusions from the study

  • Although coyotes do interbreed with dogs in the western US, they don't in the Northeastern states.
  • "Coyote social groups...are made up of family groups.... Offspring typically remain with their parents anywhere from 6 months to about 2 years of age before dispersing to new areas.... "
  • "Typically 3–5 adults live together in a territorial pack...." The advantages of living in packs are better success in hunting large prey (like deer), better defense of the territory, improved survivability of pups, and preventing theft of prey already killed. The packs typically consist of a breeding pair, plus a few related animals.
  • These "coywolves" seem to prefer prey more typical of coyotes than wolves. Wolves prey almost entirely on deer, whereas the hybrids eat anything from deer to rabbits to small rodents, not to mention pets, pet food left outside, and garbage.
  • They travel long distances (10-15 miles a day).
  • If you live near woods, don't leave small children or small pets outdoors alone.
  • Don't leave pet food outdoors; keep garbage cans covered.
  • Cats are especially vulnerable--some coyotes appear to specialize in eating cats. 
More links

New York Times review article on coyotes
More advice about living with coyotes
Coyotes--Never out of sight, or mind (excellent essay)
Eastern coyote/coywolf web page by Jonathan Way
The coyote wars on Cape Cod
Animal attack files
Purchase Suburban Howls--a book by Jonathan Way
New book on Coyotes with good reviews
Coyote Attack.  Book for children

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