by Whit Gibbons

November 27, 2011

Coyotes occur naturally in all western and midwestern states. But under the section on coyotes in my 1980 copy of the Peterson Field Guide on mammals, a giant question mark covers most southeastern states including all of Alabama, the Carolinas, and Virginia. The question was whether they occurred in the Southeast. But that was over 30 years ago, and regional biodiversity has changed considerably since then. Coyotes have clearly invaded the Southeast and are now ubiquitous throughout most of the country. Here are a few questions I have received from people about these animals.

Q. Coyotes have moved into the woods near our suburban neighborhood in South Carolina. Should we be concerned when our grandchildren come to visit? They also bring their dog, and we have an inside-outside cat.

A. Coyotes I have encountered seem shy around adult humans, so, in general I would not be concerned about the safety of young children as long as a grownup is with them. I would be far more wary of the presence of some people than of most coyotes. Although I am unaware of one attacking a human, I suppose the exceptional case may be out there somewhere, possibly involving a rabid coyote. A certainty is that countless more injuries to people are caused by pet dogs each year than by coyotes, for which the number may be zero. Coyotes will definitely attack cats or dogs on occasion, so letting your pets roam free when coyotes are known to be in the neighborhood could leave you looking for a new pet.

Q. We live in the "country" and at night can hear coyotes howling (especially if there is a full moon). I've heard that they do this only when they're killing or mating. We have a dog, and my husband and I are convinced it hears them before we do. Any information would be appreciated.

A. Howling is indeed something coyotes do, but I'm not aware of its being restricted to certain activities or phases of the moon; more likely, coyotes howl as a territorial statement to other coyotes. Or maybe some do it simply because it is fun. A dog can hear frequencies we cannot. So the dog may well hear the coyotes howling before you do. Dogs also have a remarkably keen sense of smell and may become aware of a coyote in the neighborhood through olfactory cues before any noises are made.

Q. I have heard that some state wildlife departments have programs to eliminate coyotes when they begin to kill deer thus reducing the size of herds on government lands where hunting is allowed. But hunters have been encouraged to hunt on these same lands in order to "keep the deer population under control." This does not make sense to me. If the purpose is to reduce the number of deer, why not let the coyotes help?

A. Your question is a legitimate one that I been asked before, which I have in turn asked wildlife biologists who work with deer. So far, I have not received a convincing answer for why we should not let coyotes operate as predators as part of a natural system that keeps a prey species in check.

A noteworthy point about coyotes is that those in healthy populations can be beautiful animals. The species has clearly been wrongly caricatured in cartoons and by wildlife stories about being relentless marauders of livestock. This is not to say they do not kill a few chickens and small farm animals, but they also probably do much good environmentally by keeping a lot of rodent (and deer?) populations under control.

Not everyone will think that having a large, predatory mammal roaming our wild natural areas and even encroaching on places where people live is a good idea. But when I spot a coyote in the woods or hear the call and response of coyotes howling, I feel a thrill of pleasure at the idea that these animals are part of our natural environment.

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