“Hey John, several people saw coyotes in the neighborhood, you think people with pets have anything to worry about?” my longtime friend Pat Underwood asked.
He lives in a nice subdivision on the outskirts of Kokomo with his wife, Debbie. The couple have three smaller dogs that are part of their family. So naturally he was curious, especially with stories running rampant on the news and social media about isolated incidents with coyotes.
Kokomo is no different than any other town in Indiana, or across the United States for that matter. Once considered the “song dog of the west,” the coyote’s hair-raising wail has also become the song of the north, south and east. They have become part of life in urban America and have carved out a healthy existence in many metropolitan areas. They howl in subdivisions, trot across busy intersections and dig dens close to shopping centers.
These predators are by far the human hunter’s closest occupational relative. Our obsession with them stems from their obvious parallels and their reputed lust for “our” game animals. But what makes them truly fascinating is their adaptability and opportunism.
Coyotes affect our world with relentless precision, which I know firsthand. With that comes controversy. Are they Mother Nature’s way of maintaining the balance of small game animals or are they wanton killers? The answer becomes less clear as their range has grown to include many urban areas.
While our four-footed neighbors are bound to make some people nervous, for most there is little need to feel threatened. Coyotes thrive because of their ability to avoid contact with people. Learning to be wary is a primary part of a pup’s upbringing.
But tell that to a farmer who raises small livestock. Tell that to someone who has lost a family pet. You could also mention that to my itchy trigger finger when three coyotes were thankfully caught in the nick-of-time when attacking one of our English pointer pups.
For the most part, these cousins of the canine manage to operate unobserved due to their normally nocturnal instincts; although there are times they are seen in daylight hours. They may be frequent visitors to your own backyard, but not while you’re awake.
Many who cross paths with these animals easily mistake them for an unleashed dog. Sporting large ears and bushy tail they do resemble a small German shepherd. In this area adult coyotes typically weigh-in between 25-35 pounds but their thick coat can make them look much bigger. One distinct difference is their tail, which they never carry above the level of their back, instead of curved upwards like domestic dogs.
The month of February is one of the best times to see coyotes. One reason is because our second month is the coyote mating season. They are known to cover vast areas of land while searching for a suitable mate. Because of their increased mobility during this time of year, they are more likely to be seen during daylight.
Another reason sightings increase during February is due to snow cover. The brown, black and buff coat of a coyote in motion makes them easily seen against a white background.
In late April they normally bear a litter of five to 10 pups. Their den openings are about the size of a pie pan and are often located in a bank or hillside or may even be an enlarged groundhog burrow.
Coyotes are opportunistic feeders and are highly adaptive to their surroundings. One reason they have continued to persist in large numbers is because of their varied diet. They are attracted to readily available food sources. Small woodlots, open fields and riparian corridors bordering small creeks and ditches provide perfect habitat.
Their preferred foods are small mammals, such as mice, moles, rabbits, and fawns, which make up the bulk of their smorgasbord. But, in rare instances, they have also been known to take small, unattended pets and livestock which have saddled them with the ire of some homeowners, this one included.
The Indiana Department of Natural Resources does not track population numbers on coyotes, but they do conduct an annual survey where selected deer hunters in each of Indiana’s 92 counties log all wildlife sightings. This provided some insight. In 1992, the first year the survey was introduced, sportsmen reported seeing 10 coyotes per one thousand hours of hunting. By 1995 the index doubled, reaching 20 sightings and that number continues to grow.
Coyote populations are kept at respectable levels through regulated hunting and trapping seasons which has become more liberal over the past several years. Currently the season runs from mid-October to mid-March. A hunting or trapping license is required, unless an Indiana resident is hunting or trapping on land they own. In addition, Indiana law allows landowners or a person with written permission from a landowner, to take coyotes year-round on private property.
Before thinking our state’s largest carnivore poses a serious problem, understand that these animals are an important part of our natural landscape and deserve their place, just like you and I.