Updated: Oct 14, 2022
A long, drawn out howl. High-pitched, and sometimes two or three in harmony. Whether you live in the open countryside, the quiet suburbs of Orange County, or the freezing cold of Alaska, it is possible to hear this signature vocalization of Canis latrans, the coyote.
Surprisingly, this common canid was not always so widespread. When modern coyotes evolved 10,000 years ago, they were restricted to the prairies and deserts of Mexico and central North America. By the early 1900s, their range extended to the western United States, Alaska, and the Midwest. Today, coyotes can be found all across Mexico, the U.S., and southern Canada.
There are nineteen subspecies of coyote, twelve of which can be found in the U.S: six in the West, two in the East, and four in the Central U.S. Each subspecies varies slightly by size and coloration, but they are difficult to tell apart. In Orange County, we see the California valley coyote (Canis latrans ochropus) and San Pedro Martir coyote (Canis latrans clepticus).
Coyotes perplexed European explorers that arrived in the New World. The first printed description of a coyote was by Francisco Harnandez, who noted that coyotes looked like wolves, acted like foxes, and seemed similar to jackals. In 1804, Lewis and Clark described the coyote as a pack hunter that barked like a small dog when approached. Confused if the animal was a fox or wolf, they named it the “prairie wolff.” Francisco Hernandez used the ancient Aztec word for the unusual creature: coyotl. For the Aztecs and other Native American tribes, however, coyotes were anything but new.
Coyotes have both been worshiped as gods and vilified with the goal of driving them to extinction. When natives first traveled to North America from Siberia 15,000 years ago, they began to encounter coyotes. By 8,000 B.C. they wove together stories of a deity named Coyote, now the oldest god of North America. He was an anthropomorphic animal that was self-absorbed and prideful, but also imaginative and artistic. Coyote took the initial structure of the world set by the Creator and added upon it: he killed monsters on the behalf of humans, added animals to the landscape, placed fish in rivers, created fire, and, without remorse, introduced death. Despite their deity’s flaws, natives still saw coyotes as intriguing animals worthy of respect and veneration.
In sharp contrast, Americans on the western frontier saw coyotes as pests that required complete extermination. In the mid-1800s, cattle ranchers and livestock farmers were frustrated with coyotes for killing their sheep, deeming them a “parasite on civilization.” By the late-1800s, state governments put coyotes on their bounty lists, and people began placing poisoned bait all across the country. The desire to wipe out coyotes went so far that in 1931, the Animal Damage Control Act gave the Bureau of Biological Survey $1 million per year for 10 years for the eradication of coyotes. Luckily, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 gave coyotes some protection from deliberate killings: since poisoned baits can unintentionally harm endangered species that stumble upon them, courts ruled that these baits should be illegal. Today, people can hunt coyotes in California if they have a license, but hunters are not allowed to use poisoned baits.
Coyotes have flourished against all odds as a result of their behavioral plasticity. Such behavioral plasticity, or changes in behavior due to internal or external experiences, is very high in coyotes and is demonstrated by changes in their mood, social behavior, reproduction, and diet.
First, each coyote's personality is not fixed. Individuals can be bold and exploratory or shy and avoidant depending on the situation, which increases their odds of survival.
Second, coyotes can either be solitary or pack animals. If a male is low-ranking within his pack, he will leave to be solitary or start his own pack to have a better chance of becoming the alpha male. These migrating males supported the population when coyotes were under attack in the 19th and 20th centuries. When one coyote was killed, a traveling male coyote moved in and took over the empty territory.
Third, coyotes can change their reproduction rates in response to external pressures. When the local population of coyotes is relatively low, females can sense this and will give birth to up to nineteen pups. When the local population is high, they will have as few as two pups. This ability to detect the amount of nearby coyotes played a large role in the species’ population explosion in the face of immense extermination efforts.
Last, their plasticity is evident in their varied diet. Depending on what is available, coyotes will eat rodents, rabbits, bison, deer, sheep, frogs, small reptiles, fish, seals, fruit, carrots, wheat, peanuts, corn, and beans (not to mention small dogs and cats). Their willingness to eat almost anything enables coyotes to thrive in a variety of habitats and conditions.
The coyote’s behavioral plasticity allows the species to live in a wide range of habitats. This adaptability helped them survive the pressure from hunters and government officials attempting to eradicate them, and it helped facilitate their spread from their natural habitat to urban areas.
As coyotes spread, populations of urban coyotes increase. This coexistence inevitably results in coyote-human conflicts. Within cities, coyotes like wooded areas, parks, cemeteries, and golf courses, and they typically avoid residential, commercial, and industrial areas. However, not all cities have forested and agricultural spaces that coyotes can utilize, and coyote-human conflicts are more common in such areas. A major source of conflicts are roads—getting hit by cars is a main cause of death for urban coyotes. Another sad consequence of these conflicts is coyote predation on pets, particularly cats and small dogs. To keep your pets safe, avoid letting cats outside and letting dogs off-leash in the evening and at night, when coyotes are hunting. Additionally, do not leave accessible garbage outside. The trash will attract rodents, which attract coyotes. It is possible for humans and coyotes to continue living together, but we must understand their behavior and purposefully use that knowledge to avoid conflict and create solutions.
In Orange County, wildlife corridors are one possible long-term solution to mitigating coyote-human conflicts. Wildlife corridors are fragments of vegetation that connect one patch of habitat to another, allowing animals to move between patches without interacting with humans. The Irvine-Laguna Wildlife Corridor is a proposed corridor that will connect Laguna Coast Wilderness Park to the Santa Ana mountains. When the corridor is completed, coyotes from Laguna Beach will be able to travel all the way to Cleveland National Forest in San Diego! Finishing the 6-mile corridor is a huge endeavor, but its completion will divert coyotes away from roads and neighborhoods. This project will keep people and pets safe, and it could mean the difference between life and death for countless coyotes.
Across North America, you can hear the lone howl. The signal to help coyotes reunify with their kin. The cry that native people and settlers heard for centuries on the Great Plains. When it breaks the night's silence, remember the long history of battles that coyotes have endured to survive in a changing world.
If you are interested in learning more about the coyote’s natural history, check out Coyote America by Dan Flores here!