A furtive motion caught my eye while I was looking down from a second-story window. Across the street, at the edge of the forest, a coyote was cautiously exploring.
Coyote -- not dog, not fox, not wolf.
More lightly built than a dog, such as a German shepherd, and with a narrower muzzle than a dog, this animal was about 2 feet tall at the shoulder. Its upright, “capital A”-shaped ears were nearly a tall as its muzzle was long; its coat was a peppered, grizzled mix of tans and browns, with a reddish tinge. It carried its tail below the line of the back. (A fox would’ve been significantly smaller and more delicately-built -- with a very narrow, pointed face -- and a fluffier tail; a wolf would’ve been much taller and heavier, with a wider muzzle and shorter, rounder ears -- and would have been an impossibly rare sighting.)
With its head down, sniffing, but eyes up and watching, and by frequently jerking his head up for a better view of something or other, the coyote seemed on high alert — not the more casual “reading the paper” approach familiar neighborhood dogs have when sniffing about.
Although it’s not all that common to see coyotes in Coos County, they are certainly here. In fact, one of our neighbors told me she had heard coyotes barking this summer in the woods beyond our small neighborhood, in the hills west of Coos Bay and distant from houses.
Open spaces and edge environments, such as the edge between woods and meadows (and lawns), are favored habitat for coyotes. Coyotes are generalists that eat a wide variety of food, from insects and reptiles to rabbits and ground birds, but they specialize in hunting small mammals, such as squirrels and mice. Coyotes will also eat vegetables, fruit, and carrion.
Their size and diet variety make coyotes a versatile and valuable predator, controlling populations of many animals we consider pests. However, “small mammals” can include lambs, house cats, and small dogs, and “ground birds” can include chickens, geese, and turkeys.
Coyotes explore and hunt mostly at dusk and dawn, but are flexible and can be seen (or heard) most anytime of the day/night. The barking and howling is a social communication behavior, but coyotes usually travel and hunt solo or in pairs.
Coyotes are prey, too: most pups don’t make it through their first year, being eaten by eagles or owls, or succumbing to parasites or porcupine quills. Although coyotes have been known to live up to 18 years in captivity, most make it only 4 years after reaching maturity.
Since I saw this coyote in late October, it’s possible that it was a youngster setting out, seeking its own territory.
Coyotes are sexually mature as early as the end of their first year, with each female bearing a litter of 4-7 pups, sometimes more. One of the secrets of coyotes’ success is that stress, such as death of other coyotes, causes the reproduction rate to go up: killing individual coyotes can ultimately increase the number of coyotes.
An iconic mammal of the American West, coyotes are now found across North America, their range likely expanding as wolves were exterminated.
Coyotes (Canis latrans) are intelligent and opportunistic — a trickster in many stories of the First People. Though wary of people, coyotes are also very adaptable and can easily habituate to humans and human environments, including cities.
Coyotes get in trouble when they get used to people: They can be hurt or get sick, and they can be killed for attacking pets or livestock. Too, while coyotes don’t readily spread disease to humans, they can spread disease to domestic dogs.
Don’t tempt them with by leaving out food or garbage, and bring dogs in at night and keep cats indoors (for benefit of the birds and other animals, as well as the safety of the cats). Do not feed coyotes or encourage them to hang around: the very rare instances of coyotes biting or attacking people were animals that had become habituated to people.
While I let my neighbors know I saw this coyote so they would keep their eyes on their pets, I’m hoping an occasional visit from a coyote will help keep the troublesome rats and raccoons at bay.