By Jonathan Funk
When you think about coyotes, the first thought that might come to mind could be cartoon artist Chuck Jones’ beloved Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoon character Wile E. Coyote from the ’40s and ’50s. All these decades later, “The Coyote” can still be seen on TV, as determined as ever to catch the elusive Road Runner—who continues to leave the bedraggled Wile E. Coyote in the dust with the infamous “Beep! Beep!” I often stop to watch them when channel surfing—just to see Wiley E. Coyote get thumped over and over. Poor old Wile E. … he never catches a break.
In real life, we hear their howls and often see coyotes strolling our Arizona neighborhoods. But what do we know about the coyote—Canis latrans in Latin, which means barking dog, also known as the American jackal, brush wolf or prairie wolf? In the past, people encountered coyotes only in Canada and the American West, but this canine is now found throughout North and Central America. Experts believe the spread of coyotes stemmed from Canada, rather than from the West. Several factors have drawn them to these regions: an absence of natural predators, more living space, a larger variety of prey, and wildlife regulations that are generally more favorable to the animal’s survival.
While smaller than wolves, coyotes can grow to 35 inches in length (the tail is another 12-15 inches). They weigh between 15 and 45 pounds and stand roughly two feet tall. Their ears are proportionately large in comparison with the size of their head, yet their feet and paws are quite small relative to their body size. Coyotes communicate among themselves with high-pitched yips, yelps, howls and barks.
Dens and burrows are their preferred living spaces—which they dig for themselves or inherit from other creatures. It’s documented that coyotes adapt quite well to people, as our increasing populations encroach into their space. Wildlife experts agree that coyotes can survive in urban and suburban settings. Coyotes living in the wild have a lifespan of eight to 10 years, whereas those in captivity or urban environments can extend that lifespan to 16 or 18 years or so.
Coyotes travel in packs, also called bands or routs. They mate for life (sometime after the age of two), and each year the female gives birth to 8 to 10 pups, which are born blind and limp-eared. The pups remain that way for the first two to three weeks, after which time their eyes open and their ears become erect. When they are two or three months old, the pups leave the den; sadly, only about 10 percent to 20 percent survive.
Keen hunters, coyotes often hunt in pairs. Although they can travel 80 to 100 miles, they prefer staying closer to their homes. Even though the coyote’s diet has adapted to include just about anything, including fruits and vegetables, these nocturnal hunters prefer snakes, lizards, rabbits, squirrels, mice and even small deer. Predators of the coyote (other than man) include bears, wolves and mountain lions. Their most common enemy, though, is disease.
Coyotes are clever and opportunistic predators. They have a rapid growth cycle—becoming full-grown in their first year. They have heightened hearing, excellent vision (better than dogs) and a superior sense of smell. They are also superb swimmers. You won’t outrun a coyote, as they can reach speeds exceeding 40 mph. And those six-foot backyard walls are not nearly high enough to keep a coyote out, as they have the ability to jump more than 12 feet.
Coyotes will kill and eat cats and smaller dogs, although some people believe that coyotes confuse smaller dogs with other forms of prey. Therefore, owners of cats and small dogs would be wise not to leave them unattended in backyards, especially in the early morning or evening times, when coyotes are on the prowl—unless your fence or wall is at least 15 feet high. Even if you are out with your small pet, be wary, as coyotes can be quite bold, and they are very quick. Dogs that are larger than a coyote will protect their territory and have been known to kill coyotes when challenged.
If you confront a coyote and are in fear, the Arizona Fish and Game Department suggests taking the following actions: make loud noises; shout or wave your hands or objects such as a broom or stick; throw small stones in the direction of the coyote (remember, there’s no need to injure it—you only want to scare it away); or, if you’re close to a garden hose, spray the coyote.
For the record, coyotes rarely bite people, and they’re not seen as a danger to humans. Over the last 30 years there have been fewer than 200 reported attacks on humans across the United States. Coyotes are likely to be part of our local landscape forever, so if you keep to your space, chances are Wile E. Coyote will also keep to his.