Spotted! Coyotes

There’s nothing more quintessentially “American West” than the high lonesome sound of a coyote yipping across the sagebrush hills at dusk. Coyotes are plentiful here in the Valley and are seen often, roaming fields and forests. Although coyotes are at home in the remotest areas of the Mountain West, few wild creatures have adapted as handily to human presence and coyotes have been spotted in areas as highly populated as New York’s Central Park.

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The scientific name of coyote (canis latrans) means “barking dog”, and anyone who lives near them knows they are rather chatty, yelping, yipping, and howling often to communicate with other coyotes. A highly intelligent animal and canny predator, the bulk of their diet consists of rodents and rabbits. Watching a coyote hunt mice beneath the snow is always entertaining as they sit and listen carefully to the movement of the rodent to try to pinpoint its location before pouncing like a cat into the snow only to appear a few seconds later with a small meal in their jaws.

Interestingly, coyotes have been known for centuries to form friendships with badgers to help with hunting rodents, and depictions of this unusual relationship have been found on jars in Mexico dated from 1250-1300 AD. Coyotes have even been observed licking their badger ‘friends’ with no protest from the badger (renowned for their bad tempers). I haven’t witnessed this peculiar friendship yet, but since we have both badgers and coyotes here in the Valley, I keep my eyes open.

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February and March are breeding time for coyotes and we often see a coyote couple playing together in the fields. One gives chase before the tables turn at some unknown signal and both will spin around for the chaser to become the chasee. Puppies will be born in dens in April and May, to be raised by their parents and other related adults in a social structure similar to wolves, although not as tightly knit.

Research has found that coyotes have a unique survival mechanism among most wildlife - the ability to regulate their litter sizes. Probably because less coyotes equal more food, litter sizes increase when there are fewer coyotes, and litter sizes decrease when there are more coyotes.

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We see coyotes here at the ranch often. On the occasion one wanders a bit too close we’ll haze it, keeping it from becoming habituated to human presence. At dawn on a recent morning I heard the distinctive yipping of a pack of coyotes closer than usual. As I scanned the nearby hay fields, I saw maybe 6 or 8 standing in a rough circle, yipping and howling before the greeting ceased abruptly. The pack broke up just as the sun crested the Wet Mountains, going their separate ways across the hay fields and disappearing into the willow thickets like ghosts.

About the author: Patty Reagin is a freelance writer and volunteer for San Isabel Land Protection Trust. Her monthly blog for San Isabel titled "Spotted" features the beauty of the flora and fauna in our region. When Patty's not behind a computer working she can be found outside, taking in the beauty of the Wet Mountain Valley with her dogs and horses.

 

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