Coyotes

 Coyotes

©Darlene B. Durham 2014

 

Coyote Photo Courtesy of UF/IFAS

Coyote
Photo Courtesy of UF/IFAS

 

On August 29 and 31, 2014, Karl & Elaine Gerwe on Harmony Lane captured a video of a coyote on their wildlife camera each night.  Three of us viewed the videos of the two nights and agreed that it looked like two different coyotes.  So let’s explore the world of coyotes as it appears we have at least a couple of them as neighbors at TGO.

Coyotes are mammals and members of the Canidae species which is the same family as dogs, foxes and wolves.  Coyotes are medium sized and even though there are physical variations based on sex, size, pelage (coat) and geographic range and subspecies, the adult coyote will generally have a body length between 39 and 60 inches long making them larger than foxes and smaller than wolves.  The adult coyote in Florida has an average weight of between 20 and 35 pounds with males usually being heavier and larger than females. They have salt and pepper fur coloration with brown or tan patches. The coyotes’ nose is long and pointy and its ears are also pointy.  Coyotes’ tails are thick and bushy usually measuring approximately 15.7 inches.  When coyotes run, they generally hold their tails at a position that is referred to as “half mast”.

The coyote’s scientific name is “Canis Latrans” which means “barking dog. Coyotes’ vocalizations vary from barking like dogs to the more common howls and yips.  Often howling is produced by a group perhaps starting as an individual howl but increasing in intensity as others join in to engage in the group howls and high-pitched barks.  This howling may be a territorial signal between different coyote groups or as a greeting between individual coyotes.  These vocalizations of just two or three animals can give the impression that there are many more coyotes present.

Coyotes are shy and elusive and fortunately they have a natural fear of humans.  Coyotes will be seen more often at dawn and dusk since this is the period of time they are most active; however, they can be seen almost anytime during the day or night.  Coyotes usually travel alone or in pairs or small family groups.

Coyotes are not native to Florida but they have been seen in all 67 Florida counties.  It is reported that as early as the 1920’s coyotes were brought into Florida to be used as prey to hone the skills of hunting dogs.  Years later, coyotes were brought into Florida by a fox hunter in Polk County who had been duped into believing the animals he purchased to re-stock the depleted fox population in his area were “black fox”.  It is no longer legal to bring coyotes into Florida.

The majority of the coyotes’ range was primarily the western United States.  In the 1960’s, the coyotes began expanding their range towards the Southeast. By the 1970’s this range expansion of the coyotes reached the northwestern part of Florida.  The coyotes’ Florida range expansion appears to have occurred from west to east Florida across the panhandle and then towards the south.

There are a number of factors which is attributed to the coyotes’ successful range expansion in Florida.  These factors include the coyotes’ diverse diet; the lack of competition from red wolves, which are no longer present; the coyotes’ large litters and habitat changes.  We usually read that habitat changes have an adverse effect on wildlife; however, with the coyotes, habitat changes have opened up more places for the coyotes to live.

Coyotes are very adaptable and are common in rural and suburban areas and have been seen in some urban areas.  In Florida, almost any habitat is acceptable to them except for possibly the saw grass marshes of the Everglades and cities with dense populations.

Coyotes are omnivores.  The term omnivore means all-eater.  Basically coyotes eat just about anything which is one reason they can easily adapt to different habitats.   Coyotes have been known to eat rats, mice, rabbits, birds, lizards, snakes, white-tailed deer fawns, small wild pigs, insects and fish.  They will eat fruit such as watermelon, persimmons and wild berries.  They also prey on livestock such as calves and sheep.  Coyotes will also kill domestic dogs and house cats.  Like vultures, they will eat carrion.

When coyotes hunt, they usually hunt alone.  At times a pair will hunt together; however, coyotes rarely hunt as a pack.  Coyotes possess keen hearing, excellent eyesight and a very sensitive sense of smell which helps it to find its prey.

As was mentioned earlier, coyotes have a natural fear of humans.  But like other wildlife, if coyotes are fed, they will lose this fear of humans. Never feed coyotes and in areas that are known to have coyotes, secure all garbage and never leave pet food outdoors.  Not only will pet food or edible garbage left outdoors possibly attract coyotes, it will attract mice which is also a food source for coyotes.

Unfortunately, since coyotes are indiscriminate feeders, they can prey on threatened and endangered species such as sea turtle eggs which has happened in northern Florida.  This has required localized control of the coyote population.

Coyotes have one breeding cycle per year.  The male only has active sperm production during the late winter when the female coyote comes into heat.  A coyote pair may not stay together for life but they may breed from year to year.  An important factor in the number of female coyotes breeding and litter size is the availability of food.

The coyotes’ den sites can be found in hollow logs, abandoned burrows, dense vegetation such as thickets and saw palmetto cover and brush piles.  Even though they can dig their own dens, it is more common for them to use an existing burrow.  They will enlarge existing armadillo or gopher tortoise burrows for their dens.

The gestation period of coyotes is approximately two months which means the young will be born in the spring.  Litter size will range from 2 to 12 pups but the average size litter is six pups.  Both coyote parents will care for the young pups.  If there are yearlings present, the parents may receive help from these older siblings.  Occasionally, a den will hold two litters of pups from two different females.

The baby coyotes will emerge from their dens at approximately three weeks old.  When the pups are between eight and ten weeks old, the coyote den will be abandoned.  They may return in later years to re-use the same dens.

The parents will care for the new pups until they are approximately nine months old.  At that time, the juvenile coyotes will move on to a new area and establish their own breeding grounds.  Some of these young pups may decide to remain with their parents to assist in the rearing of next year’s pups.

Coyotes can usually begin breeding when they are approximately 10 months old.  However, as mentioned earlier, food supply plays a major part in on the number of females who will breed.  In years when food is plentiful, more females breed.

Coyotes have an average life span in the wild of approximately five to six years.  Their mortality rate is greatest during their first year of life.

The coyotes’ ability to have large litters along with the short period of time for the young pups to reach “adulthood” or breeding age are reasons the coyote population can expand so quickly.  Coyotes are here to stay in Florida.

There are benefits to having coyotes.  Coyotes prey on rodents and rabbits which is a benefit to farmers whose crops are eaten by these small animals. Many smaller mammal and bird species benefit by the presence of coyotes because the coyote preys on their predators such as foxes, feral cats and raccoons. Since the red wolf is no longer found in Florida, some scientists believe the coyote has partially filled that void because the coyote preys on the same species as the red wolf.

We are accustomed to living with all types of wildlife at TGO and the coyote is no exception.  Education is key to learning to live within the same space as the coyote.  We have already explored ways to not attract coyotes by securing garbage and not leaving pet food outdoors.

Remember that coyotes are not extremely large animals and generally they have a natural fear of humans. If you are approached by a coyote the following actions have been recommended:

  • Wave your arms,
  • Make loud noises,
  • Throw rocks,
  • A walking stick or golf club can be a deterrent if a coyote gets too close,
  • Use pepper spray,
  • Shoot the coyote with a strong spray from a water hose.

To protect your pets, use the same common sense you use with our other wildlife.  Keep them inside and do not let them roam outside.  Always keep your pet on a leash and do not take them onto any of the trails. As with any time you walk your pets, be alert of your surroundings especially during daylight, dusk and after dark.

 

TGO Nature Center – “Living in Harmony with Nature

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