by Jan Olson
Louis Cardinal once put in my ear that the Cree in the Edmonton area referred to 99th Street as part of the wolf-coyote trail. The name coyote originates from coyotl, a word for the same animal in the Nahuatl language of the Aztec civilization. In Central Mexico, the coyote plays many roles in their mythology particularly as a trickster character, similar to many northern nations. There are coyote in the Mill Creek ravine and dog owners have warned each other about how a coyote will play lame to lure a dog into the bushes where the hungry pack awaits. While this sounds quite scary for anyone with a pet, it really is an urban legend.
The Coyote (Canis latrans)
The coyote is the most wide-ranging wild canine in North America. Coyotes can live in so many areas because they are generalists. They change what they eat and where they live more easily than other species. This versatility allows them to move into urban areas to benefit from the dense sources of food and lack of predators.
Coyotes are the top predators in cities. This means that they play an important role in maintaining healthy urban ecosystems by reducing the abundance of “pest” species such as mice, rabbits and grasshoppers. Unfortunately, coyotes that get too comfortable around people can become serious and problematic nuisances. Learning more about the ecology of coyotes can help prevent coyote-human conflict and promote coexistence.
Coyotes are medium-sized canines, weighing 9-16 kg and standing 120-150 cm tall. Their colouration can vary from gray-brown to yellow-gray, with a white/cream coloured belly and throat, and often a dark stripe on their back. Its bushy tail which is held low behind the legs has a distinctive black tip with a scent gland located at its base. This trait distinguishes coyotes from wolves, which normally hold their tails straight out from the body or slightly higher.
Coyote tracks look similar to those of comparable-sized dogs but they differ in shape. Domestic dog tracks are round, while coyote tracks are more oval in shape with a distinctive X between the paw pads. When walking, coyotes leave tracks that tend to fall more closely in line whereas dog tracks zig-zag.
The ears are proportionately large in relation to the head, while the feet are relatively small in relation to the rest of the body. Certain experts have noted the shape of a domestic dog’s brain case is closer to the coyote’s in shape than that of the wolf.
Behaviour and Reproduction
Coyotes are flexible in their social structure and can live as individuals, monogamous pairs, or in packs. Mated pairs of coyotes are typically monogamous over several seasons, but not necessarily for life. Pair formation occurs in the winter and pups are born in the spring. The pups grow over the summer and may leave their parents come fall. Spring and early summer is the most active time for coyotes because they need to hunt more to feed their pups. An average litter is 6 pups, but can vary from 1 to 15.
Coyote packs are typically smaller than wolf packs and are made up of 4-6 individuals, including a mated pair and their offspring. A coyote pack will defend a territory and its resources, whereas individuals and pairs are less likely to do so. In cities, where food is abundant, territoriality can break down and home ranges often overlap.
In the plains, coyotes historically inhabited a grassland environment. However, the generalist nature of coyotes allowed them to exploit many other kinds of habitats ranging, which extends from hot, dry plains in Southern California, to cold, snowy boreal forests in Northern Alberta.
The calls a coyote makes are high-pitched and variously described as howls, yips, yelps, and barks. These calls may be a long rising and falling note (a howl) or a series of short notes (yips). These calls are most often heard at dusk or night, but may, on occasion, be heard during the day. Although these calls are made throughout the year, they are most common during the spring mating season and in the fall when the pups leave their families to establish new territories. When a coyote calls its pack together, it howls at one high note. When the pack is together, it howls higher and higher, and then it will yip and yelp and also do a yi-yi sound, very shrill, with the howl.
Coyotes are opportunistic, versatile carnivores that primarily eat small mammals, such as voles, prairie dogs, jackrabbits, and mice; though they will eat birds, snakes, lizards, deer, as well as large insects and other large invertebrates. Fruits and vegetables are a significant part of the coyote’s diet in the autumn and winter months. Though they will consume large amounts of carrion, they tend to prefer fresh meat. Part of the coyote’s success as a species is its dietary adaptability. As such, coyotes have been known to eat human rubbish and domestic pets. Urban populations of coyotes have been known to actively hunt cats, and small dogs. In particularly bold urban packs, coyotes have been reported to shadow human joggers or larger dogs.
This behavior is often reported when normal urban prey, such as rodents and rabbits, become scarce. Several studies suggest that coyotes in cities eat mostly natural foods such as small mammals and fruit, while supplementing their diet with human food, outdoor pets, and garbage. An analysis of 375 coyote scat samples from Edmonton, yielded 40% rodent reamains, 30% rabbit and hares and 10% domestic cats, 10% garbage and 10% miscellaneous material.
Coyotes shift their hunting techniques in accordance to their prey. When hunting small animals such as mice, they slowly stalk through the grass, and use their acute sense of smell to track down the prey. When the small prey is located, the coyotes stiffen and pounce on the prey in a cat-like manner. They will commonly work in teams when hunting large ungulates such as deer. This happens more often in the winter when large prey is weak and more vulnerable. Coyotes may take turns in baiting and pursuing a deer to exhaustion, or they may drive it towards a hidden member of the pack. When attacking large prey, coyotes attack from the rear and bite the flanks of their prey. Occasionally, they also grab the neck and head, pulling the animal down to the ground. Coyotes are persistent hunters, with successful attacks sometimes lasting as long as 21 hours; even unsuccessful ones can continue more than eight hours before coyotes stop.
Interview with Dr. Colleen Cassidy, Biological Sciences, University of Alberta, expert on urban coyotes in Edmonton
There are one or two pairs of breeding coyotes in the [Mill] Creek each year between Whyte Ave and the river. When they have pups their family size could be 6-8 individuals. In addition to the [local] residents, we know that non-breeding transient animals also travel through the creek and that these animals are likely to be more visible during the day.
First Nations people seem to have had a long relationship with coyotes all over North America. Their reference to coyotes as ‘the trickster’ probably sums up the give and take nature of that relationship. Beyond First Nations peoples, I think the camps and small industries (like coal mining) in the creek would have made for lots of interactions between people and coyotes through the recorded history of the area. In fact, we’ve found some human camps in the creek while looking for good spots to trap coyotes and one resident fellow, Dean, even kept an eye on our trap site for us. I suspect that garbage from homeless folks, partying teenagers, and anyone else that leaves human food in the valley all contribute to the attraction of coyotes. Beyond all that, there are lots of natural foods down there. The city kept a compost facility at the north end of the creek for years, which would have attracted tons of mice and voles and coyotes themselves (they love rotting compost).
I once noticed that a crabapple tree at the bottom of Vogel Road had no apples below the height a coyote could reach, though of course it could have been kids doing the harvesting. And I’ve tracked a collared coyote to a den site under some deadfall in a densely wooded part of the creek I’d never been to before. Yet, a small teepee and some mountain biking installations showed me that others had visited. I think a magical part of Mill Creek is that it retains these kinds of secret places despite the thousands of people that frequent it.
Quick Facts About Coyote latrans incolatus
1) Coyotes in colder areas of Canada have become larger and have adapted a heavier winter coat.
2) Coyotes can sprint at 65 kilometres an hour, and trot comfortably at speeds of 20 to 30 kilometres an hour.
3) Coyotes can make a 5-metre long horizontal jump, and jump vertically over a 2-metre-high fence.
4) Coyote dens often have an entrance, an exit, and a second smaller chamber to help drain water.
5) Coyotes are wild ventriloquists: they can throw and scatter their voices with ease.
6) A tagged Coyote was monitored as travelling 400 miles (640 km).
7) Coyotes have flexible social behaviour and adjust their hunting methods to the prey size and food sources available. Coyotes often hunt small prey animals singly, whereas they hunt large prey and defend large carcasses in groups.
8) Where coyotes are present, one adult coyote per 1 to 2 square miles is an average population density over a large area.
9) Coyotes have been known to live a maximum of ten years in the wild and 18 years in captivity.
10) Coyotes can live in a variety of areas since they will eat almost anything, including human trash and household pets.
11) The Coyote runs with its tail down, unlike the domestic dog (tail up) or wolves (tail straight).
The coyote often appears as a trickster or a prophet culture hero in native creation stories. Although coyote is often represented as male, they can be female, or gender changers. To the Plains Cree people ‘Trickster’ (wîsahkêcâhk) embodies the coyote. Alternatively, the Ojibway, identify the rabbit as the trickster. While the humorous can happen with the trickster, he is not a clown figure who will make a joke at your expense.
With the trickster one is brought to a point of deep personal reflection where an awakening happens through a great lesson of recovery. Thus, giving one knowledge to face the ultimate challenges to deal with one’s choices. In many cases this reflection is very painful. You may be forced to change your behaviour and related actions. The trickster/prophet brought much into being because of his antics. The trickster was often seen as the root of it all as in the following Creation story. He’s also the ‘First Human’ or the ‘Elder Brother’. He’s an example (both good and bad) for the proper way to live, and is often appealed to when people are seeking guidance. He’s very highly regarded.
Plains Cree Creation Story
Long ago there was no earth, only water. Coyote was floating around on a small raft when he met ducks. They were the only other creatures. “My brothers,” he said, “there is no one else around. It is no good to be alone like this. You must get me some earth so I can make things right.”
He turned to the red-headed mallard. “Dive beneath this water and bring up some earth. We’ll use it as a means of living.”
The red-headed mallard dived. He remained down for a long time but came up without bringing any earth.
Coyote turned to the pinto duck, “I sent the older one, but he was not able to get any earth. Now I will let you try.” The pinto duck came up after a long time and said, “My brother, I was not able to get any.”
Then Coyote asked a smaller, blue-feathered duck to dive. “If you do not bring up any, we will have no land to live on.” He dived down, but he came up with no earth.
Coyote did not know what to do.
Then the grebe spoke up. “My older brother, you should have asked me to go before you asked these others. They are my superiors, but they are helpless.” He took his turn diving and stayed down a long time. When he came up Coyote said, “What sort of luck did you have?”
“I have brought some.” He had a little dirt between his webbed feet.
Then Coyote took the mud and said, “I will make this into the earth. You will live in the ponds and streams and multiply there where you can build your nests. Now, I am going to make this earth.”
Coyote took the mud in his hand and he started to make the earth from east to west. “I will make it large so we have plenty of room.”
They heard a wolf howling.
“Already there is one howling,” said Coyote.
He pointed toward the Sun, which was going down, and said, “Listen, there is another one out there now.” It was a coyote. “That coyote has attained life by his own powers,” said Coyote. “He is great.”
Then they all went for a walk. Out on the plains they saw some shining objects. When they got up close they saw that these were medicine stones.
“This is part of the earth,” said Coyote, picking up one of the stones which looked like a buffalo, “the oldest part. There shall be stones like this everywhere. They are separate beings.”
When they had gone on some ways they saw a person standing near a hill.
“Look.” said Coyote, “there is a human being. He is one of the Stars, but now he is down here standing on the ground. Let’s go look at him.”
When they got up close, the star-person changed himself into a plant. It was the tobacco plant. There were no other plants around at the time. It was the first. Coyote said, “From now on all people will have this plant, take it in the spring and raise it. It is the Stars up above that have come down like this. They will take care of the people. Take care of this plant. It will be the means of your living. Use it in dancing. When you plant it in the spring, sing this song: Female comrade, the earth, where shall I plant it?”
After that, Coyote found there was no grass. “This is no good.” He made grass. “Let us make some mountains, hills and trees.” He made them all.
He saw there were no fish in the creeks, so he put some there. This is the way he started the whole thing.
When you hear the howl, or yip, of a coyote at dawn or dusk, or see tracks in the mud or snow think not only about the animal itself, but also about the creation story. Appreciate the idea that the legendary Coyote was able to make all the things on earth, such as our ravine and river valley and beautiful neighbourhood and neighbours.
1) Interview with Dr. Colleen Cassidy 2013
2) Don Pattie and Chris Fisher Mammals of Alberta. Lone Pine Publishing. 1999
3) Carl Cartaino. Myths and Truths About Coyotes: What You Need to Know About America’s Most Misunderstood Predator. Menasha Ridge Press. 2010
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