Coyotes, those dog-like carnivores, are known for many things. To some, they are the wise counselors or crafty tricksters based on Native American tales. To others, they are a threat to the metropolitan areas of today. To a few, they are truly understood as intelligent and respectful animals.
Coyotes can be found in 49 U.S. states and frequently occur in Texas. Nineteen subspecies exist, and they’ve taken over much of what historically was the range of gray wolves and red wolves.
For thousands of years, coyotes have become interwoven throughout Native American lore, often depicted as savvy and clever, trickster shapeshifters or even wise deities with supernatural powers. In 1804, the Lewis and Clark expedition encountered coyotes in what is now South Dakota and called them “prairie wolves.” The name “coyote” derived from the Aztec word , which Spanish settlers in North America used.
Coyotes have continually adapted to human communities as cities and towns spread into undeveloped areas. Urban coyotes have even resorted to hunting during the night to avoid humans, which is why many people consider coyotes nocturnal. However, in areas of little or no human activity, they will hunt during all hours of the day.
Coyotes are extremely intelligent and adaptable, and they have great senses of smell, vision and hearing.
Coyotes stir strong reactions in people, including dislike and fear. In a Yale University study in 1985, coyotes were ranked below rats, skunks, vultures, rattlesnakes, mosquitos and cockroaches in popularity. Dogs were ranked as the most popular, though coyotes and dogs are closely related.
Much of this fear is based on irrational myths and negative associations with the species. Many people fear coyotes because they believe they will attack humans. However, coyotes rarely act violently toward people. There has been only one recorded fatality in the U.S. by a coyote.
Coyotes are actually quite wary of humans. One of the only reasons they may bite is that they have been fed in the past by humans, thus breaking the fear barrier between humans and the animal. Anytime an animal loses its fear of humans it poses more of a threat to both the human and the species.
Another reason people have negative opinions of coyotes is that they think coyotes eat house pets. While that does happen occasionally — coyotes will eat almost anything — pets are not their primary prey. In an Urban Coyote Research Center study, the most common food items found in coyote scat were small rodents, fruit, deer and rabbits. Cats made up only 1.3 percent of the food consumed.
Many people also associate coyotes with their night howls. Coyotes have a wide repertoire of yips, growls, barks and howls, depending on what they want to communicate. A group yip-howl is what coyotes are most known for, and coyotes do it when they reunite, or just before they separate to go off hunting. These howls strengthen social bonds and send turf signals to other coyotes in the area.
Coyotes are a critical component to maintaining the biodiversity of an ecosystem. They help control rabbit and rodent populations and can eat up to 1,500 rodents per year. Despite the negative beliefs surrounding coyotes, they are shy and resilient animals that have been surviving on their own for years — we can trust and respect them from a distance!
Read more about coyotes in Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine: