by Cynthia (Sid) Taylor
The Latin name for Coyote (pronounced ki-o'ti) is Canis latrans, meaning 'barking dog.' The common name originated from the Aztec word coy oti. A new nickname is 'song dog of the suburbs.'
Coyotes are medium sized slender members of the dog family. They are intelligent and adaptable. For a hundred years they were western desert inhabitants of North America. Today they range from mid-Alaska to Central America and throughout eastern North America. By the 1960's they had expanded into south Florida.
The largest contributing aspect of their range expansion is the loss of the wolf species. This has created a niche that the quick, sleek, and wily coyote has filled. Clearing for agricultural lands has also aided this advancement.
The coyote's fur coloring is quite variable in Florida. It can be sandy, reddish or buff-gray (charcoal) with a black ridge stripe along its spine. It has a bushy tail, a skinny snout, and measures four feet from nose to tail. The coyote is approximately the size of a small German Shepherd, and weighs 10 - 12 pounds.
The majority of their diet is small mammals. They eat rabbits, rodents, opossums, armadillos, invertebrates (i.e. crayfish), snakes, other reptiles, turkeys, other birds (when they are quick enough to catch them) and insects. They are actually omnivorous rather than pure carnivores. A small percentage of their diet is made up of plant material. They consume black berries, blueberries, persimmons, grasses and forbes. This occasionally gets them into trouble with farmers of cantaloupes and watermelons.
Though coyotes do take fawns, they don't appear to be capable of controlling a deer population as did their predecessors - wolves and panthers. Coyotes in Florida are considered pests and are not protected by law. They are legally hunted during all deer and small game seasons on public lands. There is no closed season on them on private lands.
Coyotes provide benefits to ranchers and farmers by controlling various rodent, rabbit, and insect populations. Rodents and rabbits compete with livestock for forage crops and wild grasses. Rodents and pocket gophers (prairie dogs in the west) dig burrows that domestic animals can step into and injure themselves. Insect infestations, such as grasshoppers and locust, can also be held in check by feeding coyotes.
The 'brush wolf' has acute hearing and excellent sight and smell. A coyote's sense of taste is poorly developed, which is an asset for a scavenger that prefers carrion. Carrion provides the best bargain with the least energy spent. A coyote vocalizes primarily at disk and/or dawn. It can start with short yips and strengthen into a lonely mournful howl.
In Florida, the 'prairie jackals' breed once a year. The sperm is active only when the female is in estrus. Estrus is generally January and February. Gestation is approximately sixty three days. The same pair can mate year after year (though not necessarily for life) possibly using the same den year after year. The den is a hole in the ground and may be an abandoned animal den. A litter averages six pups, but can range from four to eight. Both parents raise the pups. The male and the previous year's offspring may hunt for the female and her new pups. First year survival rate of coyote pups is about fifty percent. A coyote's life span is 14 years (18 in captivity).
Collared 'medicine wolves' in research projects have been known to lay down two to three miles apart during the daytime. At dark they vocalize and pack up for hunting into family groups of up to five members. This assemblage is merely for socialization because they are quite efficient as lone hunters.
'Coy dogs' are the result of interbreeding between coyotes and gray wolves, red wolves, or domestic dogs. The coyote's greatest predator in the western United States is the wolf. In the eastern Unites States their greatest enemies are man, distemper, rabies, mange, heartworms, and other parasites.
There exists strong sentiment in the western United States that long after humans and animal life disappears from the face of the Earth coyotes alone will survive. And what of this shy, timid creature in Florida? A better understanding of the coyote's natural history may benefit his prospects and public image. Mark Twain described the coyote as "scraggly, scruffy, and despicable in appearance, and always running away in a deceitful little trot."
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