Weekly Gardening Tips: Wily coyotes


By Bob Beyfuss

For Capital Region Independent Media

Headshot of a man named Bob Beyfuss.

I suspect that every single town in almost all of New York state has a resident population of animals that RE called the “eastern coyotes.” Indeed, these crafty creatures have even been reported in New York City and are well established on Long Island.

The reason they are called the eastern coyote, instead of just plain coyote, is because this animal is quite different than its western cousins. Western coyotes are quite a bit smaller and skinnier than our local animal, looking more like the cartoon character “Wile E. Coyote.”

Some of you may remember the cartoon series in which “Wile E.” was forever in unsuccessful pursuit of the Roadrunner. Anyone who has seen a western coyote and our Eastern coyote up close will readily confirm they are very, very different in appearance. I have seen both animals up close and to my eye, western coyotes look more like foxes in size and stature, and eastern coyotes look more like large dogs.

Although there is some documentation that coyotes existed in the east in prehistoric times, there is no record of them from colonial days. They appear to have populated our area within the past 30 to 40 years.

Some recent genetic studies seem to link the eastern coyote with red wolves, which would help to explain their larger size. They differ from wolves in their social structure, being much less likely to form large “packs.”

A typical group of eastern coyotes is usually just a single family unit with perhaps four or five animals. Of course, many of us have heard these critters howl and it sounds like there are a dozen or more of them. Howling can be triggered by a whistle or a fire siren going off, or after a successful hunt, as if they are celebrating a kill. 

One reason they have become so prolific is that they will eat virtually anything, including carrion (dead animals). In fact, these scavengers are responsible for dragging off most of our road-killed deer and other animals that get run over. They also eat deer (mostly fawns), fish, frogs, turtles, snails, birds, eggs, berries, insects and other plant material. In New York state, extensive studies show they mostly eat mice, voles and other animals we consider as pests.

As a ginseng grower, I consider coyotes to be extremely beneficial members of the forest ecosystem since they preferentially eat mice and voles that feast on ginseng roots.

Many deer hunters shoot coyotes because they consider them threats to the deer herd, although the scientific evidence does not support that hypothesis.

I am not a fan of deer in general (except as food), since they tend to overpopulate their range and are capable of destroying entire populations of ginseng as well as other native herbaceous plants. I allow some people to hunt deer on my property, but no one is allowed to hunt coyotes. Unlike deer populations, which can quickly expand to such levels as to create ecological and economic havoc, coyote populations tend to be self-limiting at levels that do not threaten other wildlife species or plants.

Yes, they may also kill small domestic or farm animals such as lambs, dogs, chickens, ducks and cats. Some folks claim that our coyotes are actually coydogs, which are the result of a cross between a dog and coyote. This is very unlikely since coyotes are more inclined to kill dogs than breed with them. I have heard from some local folks who have lost pet dogs and cats to these canines.

I can remember quite clearly back in the late 1950s and early 1960s when we had packs of feral dogs roaming the area around Durham. It appears this smarter and more sophisticated predator has now replaced these dog packs.

I cannot definitively answer the question “will coyotes hurt humans?” I do know there have been a few reports of western coyotes attacking babies in California, but to my knowledge there has never been a report of eastern coyotes attacking humans in New York state or elsewhere in the East. It seems like they are co-existing quite comfortably with us and are only spotted infrequently despite the fact that there are lots of them. 

Right now is the time of year when New York’s resident coyotes breed and set up dens for pups that will arrive in the spring, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. While conflicts with people and pets are rare, New Yorkers should remain alert and follow DEC’s common-sense guidelines to minimize the risk for potential conflicts with coyotes.

If coyotes exhibit bold behaviors and fail to exhibit fear of people, or if seen repeatedly during the day near residences, the public is advised to contact their Regional DEC Wildlife Office at https://www.dec.ny.gov/about/558.html.

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