The coyote made a beeline for me at a steady, floating trot, then stopped a scant thirty feet away. We both stood still and carefully watched each other.
Coyotes (Canis latrans) are clever, opportunistic and polarizing: humans seem to either love or hate them. Most of North America and all of New Mexico is home to coyotes. And making any general statements about them or their behavior is almost impossible because they are masters of flexibility. I’ve read a lot of Ph.D. theses about measuring home ranges, cataloging diets, documenting social behavior and other facets of coyote life, but they vary wildly from place to place. So here are merely a few broad outlines:
Coyotes weigh between 15 – 30 pounds, with the coyotes of the northeastern part of North America being significantly toward the larger end of the scale. DNA studies have shown that there is an inter-mixture of wolf (Canis lupus) genes among the general coyote population there, probably dating from around the turn of the 1900’s. Interbreeding with wolves is not typical, but has occurred where there are fewer wolves than coyotes and suitable wolf mates are in short supply.
Coyotes eat what’s available. I’ve found lots of scat full of prickly pear, juniper berries, and other plant matter. At other times, lots of grasshopper legs and insect parts (summer). I once found a scat that contained the whole skeleton of a small snake. Also lizards and birds. Roaming house cats and unwise small dogs will also find themselves part of the coyotes’ menu. But coyotes in most of New Mexico eat lots and lots of rabbits and mice. Among the pinon-juniper hills, it is a rare scat that doesn’t seem to have some rabbit fur or tiny mouse bones.
Yet where there is larger prey, coyotes will catch what they can or eat other kills as carrion and this is where they get their reputation as bad news for ranchers. During the spring when native and domestic stock are giving birth or have young only a couple of weeks old, coyotes will stalk and harass the mother animals until they can get at the calves/fawns/lambs. Folks at the Valles Caldera National Preserve in the Jemez Mts west of Santa Fe estimate that only 20% of elk calves make it to a year old largely because of predation in the first few weeks of their lives, much of which is by coyotes. Ranchers use a variety of methods to try to protect their domestic stock including guard animals (dogs, donkeys or llamas all chase off coyotes), fenced lambing/calving sheds, and aversion training using booby-traps. But the cost of seeing a doomed, struggling, hamstrung calf can go beyond the dollar value and incites many practical ranchers to simply break out the rifle and shoot coyotes on sight during calving season.
In places where the prey is mostly large animals, coyotes will form into packs with a dominant (alpha) breeding pair. Packs will claim and defend a territory from 10-20 square miles, and should one of the alpha animals be killed at breeding time the biological response is sometimes that multiple previously-subordinate females will breed and bear litters so the result of killing one animal is a boom in the next season. In contrast, where prey is predominantly rodents, coyotes are solitary most of the year with small home ranges (as little as 2 square miles) which are not defended. Home ranges between animals may overlap, and removing one coyote simply shifts the remaining population around a bit. At least one study showed that removing a significant number of coyotes resulted in an increase of “mid-size” predators–skunks, foxes and bobcats–largely because of the immediate boom in the rodent populations. Coyote population “control” is a more complex and emotionally-charged affair than most people will admit.
In many different Native American cultures, coyotes are alternately heros, villains and clever tricksters–never pinned with just one nature.
As the healthy coyote watched me, her long fur ruffling in the breeze, I realized that I’d simply gotten between her and an arroyo (gully) which was her true destination. It held a covey of Scaled quail I could hear clucking as they worked among the weeds. After a few moments of mutual examination, we both turned slightly aside to pass, neither of us worse for the encounter.