“Coyote” was how the Spanish pronounced the Nahuatl (Aztec) Indian word “coyotl” which then was used in English as well. The “coyotl” appears in folk tales of American Indian tribes as a playful trickster and cunning survivalist. This intelligent, highly adaptable animal was once restricted to western North America, but is now present across the entire continent and is the top wild predator in urban landscapes. As central Ohioans, or any urban/suburban community member, it is critical to understand basic truths about these animals.
How can you tell a coyote from other members of the dog family? Coyotes are about the size of a medium domestic dog. They are larger than a fox, but smaller than a wolf. They have pointed, erect ears, yellow eyes, and a greyish and/or tawny coat, though the color of their fur can vary. Some have more black or reddish tints than grey. Also, look at their tails: coyotes tend to keep tails at a 45-degree angle instead of up and/or wagging like domestic dogs.
As with others in the dog family, coyotes are social animals. Many people ask if coyotes are solitary or live in packs, but they can lead both lifestyles. Members of a pack are usually a mated adult pair, their young, and perhaps one or two single coyotes that also help care for the pups. The single coyote could be a female from last year’s litter, or an unrelated adult the alpha pair have accepted. Solitary coyotes are usually unmated adults, or newly raised animals in search of their own territory.
Have you ever heard high-pitched howling during the weekly tornado siren tests? You may have heard coyotes! They communicate in many ways, from varied vocalizations, to body language and scent markings. Urban coyotes are highly nocturnal, so it’s unlikely you will see them, but you might hear or see signs of their presence. They tend to leave feces in obvious places throughout their territories. You can distinguish between coyote and dog feces by the presence of fur in coyote feces.
If you were a coyote, would you want to live in a city or the country? You might be surprised to learn that Stanley D. Gehrt, who has been researching coyotes in Chicago since 2000, found urban coyote survival rates range from 62-72%. That is significantly higher than the 20% survival rate found in a study of rural coyotes in upstate New York. But out of those lucky coyotes that survive the puppy stage, most die before they reach their third year.
Despite some urban comforts, city coyotes face many challenges. Coyotes are exposed to diseases such as rabies and mange (which comes from a mite that lays eggs in their skin, causing severe itching and hair loss). They are also frequently exposed to roundworm parasites due to the fact that rabbits can be hosts to the larval stage of roundworms and rabbits are a significant portion of a coyote’s diet. Despite these natural challenges, the most common cause of death for urban coyotes is collisions with cars.
Speaking of food…It is estimated that rabbits make up about 18% of a coyote’s diet. What prey do coyotes choose even more than rabbits? The next article in the series will cover urban coyote’s diet & behavior as well as benefits to their presence in our cities. Be sure to check back next month and thank you for enriching your understanding of Ohio wildlife! — Colleen Sharkey
If you can’t wait that long, check out Stanley Gehrt’s research on urban coyotes in Chicago.
Colleen Sharkey has been an informal educator and nature enthusiast for 10+ years. She lives in Columbus, near a couple of beautiful ravines that offer habitat to everything from nesting barred owls and red foxes to hemlock trees and migrating warblers. Colleen is currently an environmental educator for BrightPath Active Learning in Westerville and a Naturalist with Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks.