Harold Goldberg sent me these great photos of coyotes taken from his house in Sewanee. You can also see the photos in this week’s Messenger (I’ve held off on posting until the latest edition of the Messenger went live — no natural history scoops from me! :) )
At this time of year, coyotes are pairing up and breeding. Unlike many mammals, the male sticks around to help raise the young, as do some non-breeding pups from previous years. These family groups get very vocal when they reunite after hunting forays. I’ve heard their crazy yips and howls near our house for the last several nights – an acoustic dose of the wild. The goats and Junebug the Hound are not amused.
Coyotes have invaded our region from the Western states, partly replacing the ecological role of the wolves that used to roam here. But wolves sat atop the food chain, specializing in group hunts of large animals. As deer and forests were decimated in the wake of European arrival, the wolves disappeared, helped along by vigorous persecution. Coyotes are more flexible, eating small mammals, berries, insects, and whatever else is available and nutritious. This flexibility allows them to thrive in the fragmented, unpredictable world that we have created.
For those concerned about the abundance of deer in Sewanee, the arrival of coyotes is good news. Although they seldom take adults, coyotes do prey on fawns. For cat-lovers with outdoor pets, coyotes are cause for concern. Cats are a delicacy for most canids, including coyotes. This has some interesting ecological consequences. In California, areas with coyotes have thriving native bird populations, the result of predation by coyotes on cats (and behavioral changes in pet-owners – people are more likely to keep kitty indoors if they know that coyotes are on the prowl). This is a classic example of a “trophic cascade” in ecology – the effects of a top predator “cascade” down through the “trophic” (feeding) levels in the system. My enemy’s predator is my friend.
Coyotes and wolves occupy interestingly different places in our cultural imagination. The wolf lives in that tense place between fear and desire (the Big Bad Wolf…ends up in bed…then slain…). Coyotes are more ambiguous. Most tales of coyotes regard them as playful, devious tricksters. These imaginings are fair reflections of ecology: the focused predator versus the jack-of-all-trades opportunist.
Listen for the trickster’s yodel…