Coyote: Canis latrans
The coyote is a member of the dog family, similar in appearance to a medium size shepherd. They weigh between 20 and 30 pounds, have pointed ears, a narrow muzzle, and bushy tail. Males tend to be larger than females. Pelts are usually grayish-brown, but occasionally black, often with a patch of white chest hair. When running, coyotes usually hold their tails at "half mast." Coyote tracks are narrower and more elongated than dog tracks.
The scientific name of the coyote, Canis latrans, literally means "barking dog." Coyotes exhibit a variety of vocalizations. They can bark like dogs, though the sounds most often heard are shrill yips and howls. Howling is often a group effort, perhaps beginning as a simple howl, but quickly increasing in intensity to a series of group howls and high-pitched barks. Howling may function as a greeting between coyotes or as a territorial claim between groups.
The coyote (Canis latrans), once strictly a western species, now occurs throughout the eastern United States. Coyotes began expanding their range into the Southeast in the 1960s, reaching northwestern Florida in the 1970s. In a 1981 survey, coyotes were reported in 18 of Florida's 67 counties. A similar survey in 1988 reported coyotes in 48 counties. They are most numerous in northern Florida, but their numbers appear to be increasing state- wide. The eventual occupation of the entire state is likely.
In addition to their natural range expansion, coyotes have been illegally trucked in from western states and released. Documented releases of coyotes have occurred in Gadsden, Liberty, Columbia and Polk counties. In Polk County, coyotes were released by a local fox hunter who believed he was stocking a depleted fox population with animals sold to him as "black fox." Coyotes are extremely adaptable; just about any type of forest or farmland is suitable habitat. Most of Florida, with the possible exception of the densely populated cities and the expansive saw grass marshes of the Everglades, is suitable coyote habitat.
Coyotes usually hunt alone, sometimes as a pair, but rarely, as a pack. The most important foods are rats and mice, rabbits, wild fruits, insects, birds and virtually any type of carrion.
Coyotes have one breeding cycle per year. The male, unlike the domestic dog, has active sperm only in late winter when females are in heat. Coyotes can first breed when they are 10 months old. The proportion of the yearling females that breed varies as a function of food supply: in good years, a higher proportion breed than in years when food is scarce. Coyotes can breed with domestic dogs and produce fertile offspring. Hybridization (The mating of two individuals of different species) occurs infrequently in the wild. Coyotes breed in late winter; following a 63-day gestation period (the period in which offspring are carried in the uterus), an average of 6 pups are born. Both parents, and occasionally nonbreeding offspring from previous years, help rear the young.
Coyotes den in hollow logs, brush piles and burrows. They will dig their own dens, but more commonly they enlarge burrows made by other animals, such as an armadillo or gopher tortoise. Pups emerge from dens when they are about 3 weeks old. Dens, used only when the pups are small, are abandoned when the young are 8-10 weeks old. Coyotes may re-use dens in subsequent years.
Parental care lasts until the pups are about 9 months old. The young usually then disperse to a new area, where they establish their own breeding territories. Some pups, however, may stay in their parents' territory and assist with rearing the next year's litter.
The basic coyote social unit is a breeding pair and their offspring. The strongest bonds between the group occur during the breeding season and when the pups are young. Coyotes, however, are not nearly as social as wolves.
An established coyote population has resident and transient animals. The residents have established territories shared by a family. Transients are generally younger animals which live on the edges of the territories of the residents.
Coyotes are active day or night, but usually most active at sunset and sunrise. Coyote home range sizes vary greatly between individuals. In a southeastern study, home ranges of adult coyotes ranged from 1,500 to 12,000 acres.
In the western United States, coyotes are the main predator of domestic sheep, causing significant losses in select areas. They can also prey upon goats, calves, hogs, poultry and watermelons. Coyotes will also kill domestic dogs and house cats. The type of damage attributed to coyotes in Florida is similar to that in the western states, but so far, the damage has been infrequent and restricted to small areas. Coyotes are not a threat to human safety. There are a few reports from the western United States of coyotes biting humans, but this behavior is very unusual. Coyotes are normally timid towards people.
Coyotes are rarely observed in the act of destroying property. Careful observation is usually necessary to determine if coyotes are responsible for the damage. The presence of coyotes does not necessarily mean that they are responsible for the damage or even that damage will occur.
Watermelon damage by coyotes can be recognized by observing tracks near the destroyed melons. Also measure the bite marks in the rind -- coyote canines are approximately 1.25 inches apart.
Predation on livestock occurs most frequently in late spring and early summer when adults are feeding pups. The need for food is great at that time and domestic animals are generally easy prey.
Because coyotes readily feed on carrion, the presence of coyote tracks around a carcass does not necessarily indicate predation. To verify livestock predation, look for trampled vegetation or other signs of a struggle. Bite marks and bleeding, particularly on the head and neck should also be evident but may require skinning the animal. Coyote bites may penetrate the rear of the jaw bone, leaving tooth marks that can be observed even on badly decomposed carcasses.
Coyotes may carry off small animals, such as chickens or new- born goats, leaving only tracks. They most often kill larger prey by biting the throat, causing death by suffocation. Coyotes frequently adjust their grip on the prey's neck, leaving multiple bite marks.
Coyotes may attack fleeing animals from the rear, biting the legs or tail to slow them down. Coyotes typically begin feeding behind the ribs, often eating the stomach of nursing animals. The nose and hindquarters are typically eaten on calves. Coyotes have been known to attack cows in labor, feeding on both the emerging calf and mother.
Distinguishing coyote predation from dog predation can some-times be difficult. Typically, free-running dogs leave their victims mutilated because they lack the experience to kill efficiently, and dogs generally do not feed on the carcass. Feral dogs (dogs living entirely in the wild and independent of human care) may be more efficient at killing for food, leaving sign similar to coyote sign. Also, while coyotes usually hunt alone or as a pair, dogs often hunt in packs of various sized members, so various sized tracks around a killed animal may help to indicate dog predation.
Coyote tracks (left) are narrower and more elongated than dog tracks (right)
If you have experienced coyote damage, or anticipate damage, several prevention options are available. The most effective approach is to use a combination of lethal and non-lethal methods.
Non-lethal methods to protect livestock include exclusion fencing, corralling animals at night and using trained guard dogs. Fencing is possibly the most effective. To exclude coyotes, woven or welded wire fences should be at least 4 feet high with barbed wire above for a total minimum height of 5 feet. Adding height to the fence will increase its effectiveness. Mesh sizes should not exceed 4 x 6 inches (coyotes can squeeze through fences with larger mesh). An outward overhang of fence wire will help prevent coyotes from jumping over. Electrifying the fence may also help to deter coyotes from crossing.
Though fences probably will not offer complete protection, they will keep most coyotes from crossing. Minimally, fences will guide coyotes to specific crossings, most likely a crawl space under the fence, where they can be trapped or snared more easily.
If lethal control measures are necessary, they should be directed at specific coyotes or toward coyotes in a specific area. Indiscriminate killing of coyotes is unlikely to reduce coyote populations, which can withstand 70 percent annual kill. Some evidence suggests that light, indiscriminant harvesting of Coyotes may actually stimulate production and further increase numbers.
There is no closed season on coyotes in Florida. Legal methods of take are by gun, bow or snare. Steel traps and can be used only by special permit issued by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, and use of poisons to kill coyotes is illegal. A permit is not required to take coyote with a gun and light at night on private property with landowner permission.
Coyotes are more difficult to trap than most other furbearers, but snares and foot-hold traps, when used correctly, can be effective capture techniques. Number 3 traps, either long or coil- spring, are the most commonly used. Padded jaw traps will reduce foot injury to coyotes as well as to other animals captured unintentionally. The proper size snare for coyotes is 3/16-inch cable, equipped with a locking slide and swivel. If you are not experienced at trapping, find a skilled local trapper to help.
Shooting requires little specialized skills, but is laborious. Predator calling, using either a mouth call or tape player, can be used to lure coyotes within shooting range. Calling coyotes is allowed during legal daylight shooting hours, or at night.
The coyote's potential impact on wildlife, livestock and melon crops can be cause for concern under certain local conditions. However, like it or not, coyotes are probably here to stay. They are not particular about what they eat, or where they live - coyotes are generalists in an evolved world of specialists. Some people like and admire the animal, others vehemently curse everything about it. Treat them as you will, coyotes are survivors. The coyote is also subject to rabies.
You can receive technical assistance for coyote problems by contacting the FWC regional office nearest you.
Image Credit: USFWS