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The sound was like 100 teakettles shrieking in hell. The high-pitched yips, howls and screams bounced off the Ozark mountaintops and rattled the windows. It was wild and mad, and it had a dangerous edge. That made our dog growl deep in his throat and the hair stand up on our necks.

It turned out that this cacophony of sound was just two members of the local coyote pack inviting the rest of the family to a free venison dinner. Evidently the rest of the extended family took them up on it, because the next morning only a few big bones were left on the carcass.

Coyotes

Coyotes. Are they vicious killers of domestic cattle, chickens and goats? Do they eat pets and valued game species like turkeys and quail? Are they partners in controlling pests like rats and rabbits? Or are they the ultimate survivor, a useful omnivore that fills an important niche in the natural landscape across the continent? The correct answer is, all of the above.

The next important question. How many coyotes are too many? Because the only way to totally wipe coyotes off your property is to fence the perimeter 1 foot down into the ground and 8 feet high.

“A coyote isn’t good, neutral or evil; he just doesn’t view the world that way,” said Dr. Phil Gipson, chairman of the Natural Resources department at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, and formerly a research biologist with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Dr. Gipson spent thousands of hours studying coyotes and learning their behaviors. If coyotes needed a cheerleader, Gipson would be the guy in front waving the pom-pons.

“Coyotes have an amazing ability to adapt to a changing world,” Gipson said. “But making a living often puts them in conflict with human needs.”

Pest Control

 

If it weren’t for coyotes, we would probably be up to our ears in rabbits, mice and rats. This is one of the reasons coyotes are often found on working farms and ranches. Coyotes can also be spotted along roads at night, cleaning up road-killed carcasses. They even eat carrion when nothing else is available.

“Coyotes help keep nature’s fruit basket stocked,” said Gipson. “Overlooked as vegetarians, they do a wonderful job spreading the seeds of plums, persimmons, blackberries. They also help spread soft mast crops and nuts.”

Another important part of the coyote’s summer diet is insects, which help farmers growing hay or row crops. They relish grasshoppers, for example. Coyotes doing strange jumping dances in brushy fields are chasing the big bugs around, and 80 to 90 percent of their scat in high ‘hopper areas can consist of grasshopper bits. They also eat walking sticks and any other good-sized insects that are available in quantity.

Constant Predators

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Save turkeys by controlling song dogs. Coyotes not only broke and ate all of the turkey eggs, but also killed and ate the hen.

The problem with coyotes is that they don’t just eat bugs and seeds. Although these canines are classified as predators, they eat almost anything, plant or animal. Stone County Arkansas resident Elmer Staggs had five calves killed by coyotes in one season on his mountainside pasture. In only a few days, Danny Beebee lost more than 30 prized free-range chickens. Even after he shut the birds in a barn each night, the coyotes managed to pick them off. Goats and young hogs that aren’t put up at night also suffer from coyote predation.

Coyotes also feed on other highly valued wild animals. Eggs of ground-nesting birds like turkey and quail are an important part of their spring diet. Young fawns are another favorite meal.

Anything a coyote can put in its mouth that is vaguely edible will become part of its scat. Corn from food plots or row crops, peanuts, blackberries and watermelon are all relished. They strip grapes off low vines and eat persimmons, blueberries and any other sweet fruit that is available. Many a gardener has lost a cantaloupe crop to a hungry coyote pack.

’Yote Habitat & Facts

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Originally these canines lived only in the northern and western United States. As the Plains were settled and farmed, they gradually moved across the country, following civilization, but it was not until the 1940s that coyotes were regularly spotted in the south.

Today the coyote, Canis latrans, is found across America. They prefer brushy or wooded areas close to farming or livestock operations, but many live in and around our largest cities, like Chicago where more than 100 coyotes are radio collared within the city limits. Often, they will set up housekeeping and raise their pups in abandoned buildings.

Colors vary, but coyotes are generally reddish gray with a buff belly; at a distance, some people mistake a coyote for a big fox. They have cold, gray-green eyes that don’t seem to reflect light in the daytime, and appear to glow yellow at night. Coyotes can crossbreed with domestic dogs, and the resulting offspring are frequently fertile.

Coyotes hunt in male-female pairs that bond for life. They can run faster than 30 miles per hour. Two to 10 pups, which are raised by both parents, are born in April or May. Coyotes have excellent vision, smell and hearing, and are one of the most adaptable animals on the planet.

Packs are made up of the alpha pair, their young of the year and sometimes a few offspring from the previous year’s litter. A successful foraging song dog contacts pack members when food is located; on a windless night, howls can be heard for several miles. It takes 4 to 8 square miles to support each coyote pair.

Pacing The Pack

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The trap shown here is one of the author’s Blake & Lamb 1 3/4 coil spring traps.

Whether you love them or hate them, coyotes are not going away. Only a disease epidemic or mass poisonings could decimate their numbers. However, when they become a problem, they can be controlled.

“Prey controls the predator, and man can manipulate the system,” said Thurman Booth, Arkansas director of wildlife services for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). “The natural environment will fill a niche, but management can reduce the numbers.”

Controlling Coyotes

Some of the ways to control coyotes when populations get out of balance include hunting (either with dogs or by calling) and trapping. When coyotes overpopulate an area, they sometimes lose their fear of people and can eventually become dangerous to pets and even people. Going back to the problems with coyotes killing calves in the Ozarks mentioned before, those coyotes became so fearless they stopped running from people.

The author’s husband, Jim Spencer. Setting two traps in a high-traffic area often means having a double coyote catch.
The author’s husband, Jim Spencer. Setting two traps in a high-traffic area often means having a double coyote catch.

“Several summers ago, I heard the most awful squalling from down the road,” said Alma Staggs. “A cow and calf had gotten on opposite sides of the fence, and when I came up several coyotes were close by just watching the calf. I yelled, but the coyotes didn’t run. I got help real quick and we got the calf back on the right side of the fence. Those coyotes had bad intentions. We needed to act.

“First, we stopped burying dead cows in the pasture,” said Alma’s son, Ron Staggs, who raises cattle. “We started putting them in a remote part of the farm that was well away from the pasture. Then we started killing coyotes as we saw them.”

Conclusion

The Staggs’ efforts were aided by local trappers. In total, they trapped 35 coyotes on their land and on the adjoining national forest. The next year, the coyotes that were trapped were healthier and didn’t have the mange that plagued many of the animals during the first trapping year. Since then, the Staggs’ have had no problems with coyote predation on cattle. But each year trappers continue to take out a dozen or more coyotes, and each year the coyotes look better and weigh more.

In many areas, lower fur prices mean coyote trapping is no longer an important control. Fox and coyote hunting with dogs and with calling devices removes a certain number of animals, but it is far from being able to control their numbers.

 

This article originally published in AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN. Print and Digital Subscriptions to AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN magazine are available here    

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