Coyotes, Coydogs and Coywolves?

By Ryan Trapani

It is not uncommon to hear someone remark in our region that they thought they saw a wolf. Although what they saw probably was mostly a coyote. According to Roland Kays of the New York State Museum and researchers at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science & Forestry (SUNY ESF) eastern coyotes do have some wolf DNA.

According to Kays the eastern coyote is a newcomer in the northeast. Previously our region was inhabited with the coyote’s larger competitor: the wolf. Wolves had been extirpated by land clearing for agriculture and bounty hunting to reduce predation on farmers’ livestock. Shortly after, coyotes began migrating eastward reclaiming territory previously dominated by wolves.

Farm abandonment that has resulted in early successional forest habitat in the last 50 or so years has created conditions conducive to many small mammals such as mice, rabbits, weasels and deer. As many of these prey species became abundant, the opportunity of a predator to occupy this predator-vacant habitat became more feasible. The eastern coyote has adapted to these conditions with shining colors. But is it all coyote?

Some refer to the coyotes as a coy-dog. Researchers conducting DNA and radio collar studies throughout New York State and Mississippi have found that this is not true. In New York State, they did find that eastern coyotes do have some wolf DNA. As the coyote migrated eastward, those coyotes that followed a northern route around the Great Lakes had interbred with wolves in Ontario. The coyotes then preceded south and crossed the St. Lawrence River into New York State and New England. The few female coyotes that crossed the river are responsible for coyotes now abundant from Maine to Long Island. Although this new type of eastern coyote has some wolf DNA, it only accounts for less than 3% of its total genetic make-up. It is still mostly coyote. Wolves are larger animals weighing over 100 lbs with larger mouths and skulls for hunting predominantly large herbivores. These genes account for the slightly larger eastern coyote. Western coyotes normally weigh between 20 – 30 lbs, while eastern coyotes normally weigh between 35 – 45 lbs. Eastern coyotes also have wider mouths and skulls than western ones. Being mostly coyote they weigh ½ as much as a wolf. They can be distinguished from wolves by their pointier nose as well.

The birthing season for eastern coyotes is from January to June. Breeding occurs mostly during the month of February and young are born 60 – 63 days later. A female coyote will give birth to a litter containing anywhere from 2 – 10 coyotes, but 5 – 6 on average. Litters containing more pups become common after coyote numbers have been reduced which is why it can be extremely difficult to reduce their general numbers. Young coyotes can disperse over 100 miles from their place of birth surviving off of a wide variety of food sources adding to its extremely adaptable nature and overall success.

The infamous reputation coyotes often have is due to the food sources they are believed to prey upon, namely deer. Coyotes are random, opportunistic omnivores. Extensive research has been conducted by SUNY ESF and Mississippi State University using radio telemetry (collars) on coyotes in order to track their patterns and eating habitats. What they found has surprised many, especially deer hunters who oftentimes blame coyotes for reducing their numbers. Although deer dominate the coyote’s spring and winter diets, most of the feeding occurs during time periods when deer carrion is readily available. Hunter-killed deer and automobile-killed deer especially during the rut provide coyotes with plenty of carcasses to feed upon. In the spring, coyotes prey upon new born fawns. Fawns that are eaten are quickly replaced as deer numbers can fill population voids quickly. Although some coyotes have learned to take down adult deer, their impact on deer numbers is currently insignificant.

Still, the perception that coyotes are reducing deer is alive and strong. According to the Quality Deer Management Association, if you want to see more deer, don’t shoot coyotes! You may actually make the problem worse. Remember, coyote litter sizes will significantly increase in average number after population declines, and quickly restore the overall population. Unlike deer, coyotes regulate their population in-house since dominant males will kill unrelated pups on sight. Impacts from coyotes can best be buffered by practicing good forest management and quality deer management. Practicing good silvicultural treatments (clear cuts, thinning cuts, shelterwood cuts etc.) will enhance diversity in woodland habitats. By providing diversity in forest age, size and species composition found in young, mid and late successional growth, shade-tolerant and shade-intolerant plants can provide valuable food and cover sources for a variety of wildlife. Think blackberry, tea-berry, white oak, chestnut oak, cherry, elderberry, raspberry, chestnut, blueberry, huckleberry, nannyberry, laurel, honeysuckle and more. Coyotes are opportunistic and eat both meat and plants. By providing good habitat for squirrels, rabbits, mice and voles to live in, pressure will be reduced upon deer when they can feed on a variety of berries and small mammals. Also, early successional growth provides great cover for does to drop and hide their fawns in further reducing fawn predation from both coyotes and bears. This is the positive outcome humans can provide for wildlife by surgically implementing disturbances in the forest where vegetation immediately returns. Beavers do it too, but we have more toys to perform the process and do not have to live in water-confined homes.

The other tool humans can use is a rifle, bow or shotgun. Sex-ratios in our New York deer herds are extremely unbalanced. Does outnumber bucks by 3 – 1 or greater. What does this mean? It means that during the breeding season when a doe goes into estrous, the bucks will literally run themselves ragged trying to service each and every doe. When there is too many does per buck, some does do not get serviced or bred until a 2nd or 3rd estrous cycle which translates into a late fawn drop in the spring and a tired, worn out buck. When does are bred on time, fawns are dropped during a short period of time in the spring overwhelming predators such as bear and coyotes. Also, fawns born on time are given plenty of time to fatten up for the upcoming winter. Therefore, more does must be harvested, while younger bucks passed up in order to reach sexual maturity. And by reducing the deer population, other wildlife will have more food and cover in the forest understory to share and perpetuate the forest’s bounty.

Coyotes are beautiful animals and extremely adaptable. Eastern coyotes are wolf enough to take down an occasional deer, but coyote enough to adapt to human pressures and fragmented woodland habitats. Coyotes are abundant throughout New York State and still they manage to evade our sight most of the time. For more information visit www.catskillforest.org

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