Thursday, January 10, 2013

Appreciating Illinois Coyotes [from the archive]

Appreciating Illinois Coyotes

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Do you think you can name the largest native predator that currently lives and breeds in Illinois? I bet you can. It’s a member of the dog family, larger than a fox, but smaller than a wolf—that’s right, the coyote.

As you spot a coyote trotting away through a field of corn stubble you may feel like you’re looking at somebody’s dog heading home, and indeed coyotes are related to domestic dogs closely enough to interbreed with them. But unlike a dog, the coyote points its bushy tail to the ground as it runs. When it casts a wary look back to gauge your intentions, you see a wild predator that inhabited central Illinois long before cornfields came to dominate the landscape.

The lines of the coyote’s face and head further distinguish it from a domestic dog. They curve and taper into a long, narrow snout, which forms the bottom point of a triangle that’s completed by its tall, alert ears. [Photos by author.]The coyote’s fur—a mix of cream, yellow, tan, brown and gray, tipped with black—helps it remain unnoticed in the many varied habitats it occupies. And it occupies just about every habitat available in Illinois, from the streets of Chicago in the north to the Shawnee National Forest in the south. Standing at about two feet tall and weighing around 30 pounds, the coyote is just small enough to get away with living among humans.

The coyote’s success is also attributable to its flexible eating habits. Rabbits, mice, and other small mammals make up the bulk of the diet for coyotes in the Midwest. But coyotes are opportunistic. Depending on circumstances, they will eat road-killed deer or deer fawns, insects, reptiles and amphibians, grass, fruits and berries, rats, or unlucky house pets. One key to coexisting with coyotes is keeping small pets and pet food indoors overnight, when coyotes are most active.

A coyote on the move may cruise along at speeds of 20 to 30 miles an hour, which is why one that seems to be just trotting away from you is out of sight so fast. And for short bursts coyotes can hit 40 miles an hour or more. If need be they can also leap a distance of 14 feet, and they’re capable swimmers, as well.

Coyotes mate in late winter or early spring, so the weeks to come afford better-than-usual opportunities for seeing them out and about. Coyote pups are born in litters of four to nine sometime in April or May, and both mother and father care for them. The pups remain with their parents learning the skills they need to survive until late summer or fall, when they disperse to begin life on their own. The bonds between coyote pairs are strong, and they may mate together over many years.

As social animals, coyotes are great communicators, expressing themselves through the sorts of facial movements and body positions that are familiar to dog owners. They also keep track of one another by means of howls, yips, and barks—at least 11distinct vocalizations. The coyote’s latin name, Canis latrans, translates as “barking dog.”

For some people, the coyote’s howl will always be an emblem of nighttime in the desert west. But you need not travel far from an urban center to hear that howl as an Illinois sound, too.

Click to listen to IDNR's recording of a coyote howl.