By Nicole Gerber, Ph.D.
NYS Master Naturalist
Residents in the region are fortunate to share their environment with many species of wildlife, from birds to butterflies to mammals.
Coyote sightings often occur at this time of year, from March through April, as coyotes are selecting dens and having pups. Once the pups are born in the spring, the parents take care of them into the summer and work to protect and educate them. This rearing and education time can make coyote parents extra protective – in addition to being more active and visible – and prepared to defend their pups and den areas. People should be aware and take measures to peacefully coexist with this ecologically important wildlife neighbor.
Coyotes are an important predator in the environmental food chain, with their diet consisting of voles, mice, shrews, squirrels, rabbits, other small mammals, as well as fruits, berries, roadkill and even beaver and deer. Coyotes typically look for food from dusk through dawn, but will be out hunting during the day when feeding their pups. They are normally afraid of people and typically avoid interactions. Factors such as the timing of their natural life cycle, the species behavioral traits, and changes that occur to their habitats and surroundings may bring coyotes into sight and contact with people more often.
Understanding how they live and how we can live with them is important due to the many benefits the species provides to the environment.
The mating period for coyotes is January through February. Coyotes typically mate for life and control reproduction rates and litter sizes when the pack structure remains stable. They are attentive parents and teach their children natural boundaries (including the importance of avoiding humans) and food sources, which is why disruption of coyote pack structure can change their biology and behaviors.
As coyote sightings may increase January through May with the mating and pup-raising cycles, so might coyote-human interactions. Coyotes looking for mates may travel more often through neighborhoods, and the coyote parents taking care of their families will be more protective when coming across people or pets that are near their homes.
There are a few specific steps you can take to minimize unwanted contact:
•Remove potential food sources from your yards (unsecured trash or compost, pet/livestock food left outside or unsecured, bird seed fallen from feeders, fallen fruit) – not only are they potential coyote food sources but they also attract the wildlife, such as the rodents, that are natural prey for coyotes.
•Pick up dog feces, as this can attract coyotes to your yard or areas.
•Do not feed coyotes – anywhere or at any time!
•Check your yard, outdoor buildings and porches for openings that wildlife may want to enter to make a den or nest – repair broken boards to eliminate openings.
•Never allow a coyote to linger or bed down near your home – scare it away!
How to Scare Away Coyotes You Encounter Outside
Coyotes are very curious and visual animals, and they will observe you just as you observe them. If you are walking and you stop, they will also stop to see what you are doing – this does not mean they are stalking you. Applying simple, low-intensity scare techniques, or hazing, will tell the coyotes that they are not welcome near you or in your yard:
•If you see a coyote when out walking, pick up small pets and small children, and calmly walk in the other direction while keeping an eye on the coyote.
•Do not turn your back or run from a coyote, and do not allow your pet to chase or harass a coyote.
•If you encounter a coyote that is close or in your yard, in a very firm and loud voice, yell, “Go away coyote!” Wave your arms above your head. Make yourself big and loud!
•To be even louder to scare away a coyote, you can also use a shaker can (coins/pebbles placed in a metal can), whistles, air horns, bang metal pots together, or pop open an umbrella.
•To deter them from entering your yard, you can use flashlights, motion-operated lights, tape-recorded human noises, and ammonia-soaked rags.
Coyotes are not the only animals most active between the hours of dusk and dawn. Owls, hawks and eagles can prey on pets such as cats and small dogs. Coyotes also may see small pets as food, especially with habitat and environmental changes, and may see them as a threat to their territory or their pups.
•Keep pets under your watch and control – accompany your pets on a leash outdoors after dusk, especially in backyards (unfenced and fenced). Keep pets indoors at night or enclosed in kennels.
•Obey local leash laws when walking dogs in yards, neighborhoods and parks.
•Keep cats indoors to protect them – letting cats roam can actually draw coyotes into the area.
•Keep chickens, rabbits and other small animals in covered enclosures, constructed with heavy mesh wire. Coyotes, raccoons and weasels can break through chicken coop wire.
•Neuter pets to reduce interested coyotes coming into your yard.
•Coyote howling does not mean they are celebrating a kill – their vocalizations are greetings between family members or messages about their territories. They do not travel in packs, so the howling that may sound like a dozen or more coyotes is typically only a couple of coyotes!
Learning how to coexist with coyotes can be beneficial to our health, because they reduce the number of rodents and reduce the numbers of mice carrying Lyme disease-infected ticks! The mice carrying ticks spread more tick-related disease than the deer to which people often blame for Lyme disease. Results from a recent research study demonstrates how predators such as coyotes, foxes and hawks limit the number of mice carrying Lyme disease-infected ticks by not only eating the mice that carry the ticks but especially by changing the behavior of the mice. When there are such predators in their foraging area, mice become more nervous and tend not to roam as far, decreasing the likelihood they will carry ticks into populated areas. Mice can carry up to 100 ticks on their bodies, and they drop those ticks wherever they go, so the presence of the coyotes and hawks can actually function as a natural benefit to our health.
Coyotes are generally reclusive animals who avoid human contact. The best approach, for their benefit and ours, is to not habituate them. Do not feed them – keep them wild and wary of people. Do not approach them, and teach children that all wildlife should be admired from a safe distance far away and not approached. By promoting respect, compassion and education, the community can safely coexist with coyotes and all wildlife.
If you have questions or concerns about coyotes in your backyard, contact the Erie County SPCA to speak to wildlife experts at 716-629-3528, or email [email protected]. (After hours 716-712-0251). For more coyote education, visit the following websites: Coyote Watch Canada: http://coyotewatchcanada.com/ and Project Coyote: http://www.projectcoyote.org/.
Coyote educational information courtesy of Coyote Watch Canada and the Humane Society of the United States.