by Hannah Schardt
MEET NORTH AMERICA'S TRICKY, NOT-SO-PICKY WILD DOGS
If you’ve ever watched a certain famous cartoon, you might think coyotes (kye-OH-teez) are speedy, clever—and easily defeated. (Meep, meep!)
The truth is, coyotes ARE speedy and clever. But they are also pretty unbeatable! Wolves, bears, and cougars have disappeared from many of the places they used to live. But coyotes are doing just fine: They now live in more parts of North America than ever before. So what’s their trick? Read on to find out.
Three hundred years ago, coyotes lived only in North America’s western plains. The expert hunters filled their bellies with birds and small mammals such as rabbits.
Today, coyotes are found almost everywhere on the continent—including inside the city limits of Chicago and Washington, D.C.! And they eat just about anything they can find—even dog food and leftovers found in trash cans.
It all started to change for coyotes in the 1800s. More and more people moved westward into the plains to start farms. The new farms didn’t have as many wild birds or small mammals as the prairies did. But they did have chickens and other livestock. Coyotes quickly realized that chickens tasted just as good as wild birds—and were much easier to catch!
ON THE MOVE
Of course, settlers hated losing their livestock to coyotes. So they killed as many of the predators as they could. For many years, the government even paid a reward to anyone who killed a coyote.
But at the same time, people were killing wolves, too. As the bigger, stronger wolves vanished, coyotes moved into wolf territory.
Coyotes aren't as picky as wolves about what they eat or how close they live to humans. They also have a lot more babies—especially when their numbers are low. So even if many coyotes die in a short time, the ones that survive can usually raise enough pups to replace them.
AT HOME EVERYWHERE
These days, coyotes live throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, and into Central America. They make their homes in prairies, forests, deserts—and, of course, cities. Two thousand coyotes live in the Chicago area alone. And these city coyotes aren’t just scraping by. Scientists found that coyotes near cities live longer than their country cousins. They are rarely trapped or hunted, and they have a steady supply of people food all year long.
On the prairie or in the city, coyotes live in packs. A pack is usually made up of a mother, a father, and their pups. Unlike wolves, coyotes hunt mostly alone. But raising babies is a group effort.
During the winter, a coyote pair works together to dig a cozy den under rocks or in a hillside. In spring, Mom settles in and gives birth to her pups—usually around six, but sometimes as many as ten! Mom nurses the pups. But Dad helps out, too. He brings food to his mate. And once the pups are a little older, he brings back "baby food": chewed up bits of meat.
By summer, the family members leave the den. But they will often stay together much longer. If a youngster grows up and doesn’t find a mate right away, it may even help its parents take care of their new pups. All that loving care gives the pups a better shot at making it to adulthood. And that may be clever coyotes’ best trick of all: working together to survive.
"Wily Coyotes" originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Ranger Rick magazine. Click here for a close-up view of the photos.