Coyotes, the “Barking Dogs” of North America
Updated: Jan 8
I spent the last two weeks of October visiting family in the high desert of Southern California. That particular part of SoCal is not as glamorous as some mid-westerners assume all of California to be. It’s made of dusty mountains, scrub brush, strong afternoon winds, dry air, and autumn temperatures nearing the 90s. Even so, that particular area has its local wild charms like every other place. One of those charms is shared with Minnesota’s local wild. Which one? The wandering coyote!
Many may argue that coyotes can hardly be considered local wild “charms”. These predators are commonly labeled as pests; dangers to small children and pets; carriers of disease; and damagers of property (for instance, they are known to chew off sprinkler heads in search of water). Coyotes do offer some good, though unfortunately the benefits they provide often get ignored in the shadow of their bothersome antics.
But how did coyotes become so numerous and pesky to begin with? Sadly, us humans are to blame. Before strong hunting regulations were in place hunters freely took out larger predators like bear, mountain lion (aka puma), and wolf that kept the coyote population in check. With those big animals out of the picture, coyotes—which were primarily limited to the Great Plains—were able to easily spread. They’re now a common, and still spreading, predator in North America (yes, even on up in Canada, the Arctic, and down into Mexico!).
In a previous Local Wild where I discussed the famed (or infamous?) Asian Beetle, I explained basic taxonomy using dogs as an example. In that article we learned that coyotes’ scientific (taxonomic) name is canis latrans. The Latin name translates to “barking dog” and is an ode to the sounds coyotes make. But how many different sounds do coyotes make, and why do they make them?
Coyote language is an impressive blend of howls, yelps, barks, yips, whimpers, and calls, all with specific meanings and applications. As far as “how many”, that’s complicated. It’s not so much the number sounds themselves, but the combinations of the sounds that makes coyote communication—otherwise known as “song”—so fascinating. A small trio of coyotes can sing together and make themselves sound like a whole choir is singing together! Some believe coyotes imitate other animals in an effort to lure prey to their location, though that is largely disputed.
Like other scavengers—opossum, turkey vultures, and even bald eagles—coyotes eat carrion, helping to clean dead animal carcasses from the wilderness, an essential but yucky task. But because they’re also skilled hunters of live prey coyotes help keep populations of rabbit, squirrel, gopher, vole, raccoon, opossum, and even woodchuck in check. What would happen if the number of coyotes were to retreat back down to near zero? Well, those smaller populations would boom, creating a whole new local wild problem!
Coyotes are mostly solitary hunters but they’ve been known to hunt in groups when times get tough, like when food becomes scarce deep into a Minnesota winter. They are social animals, though, and live together in packs ranging from 3 to 30 strong. Hunt solo, live together: That’s the coyote way!
All this isn’t to say that coyotes shouldn’t have their limits. I keep poultry and wouldn’t want a “Barking Dog” barking up any of my trees! You can deter coyote from your property by keeping pet food locked up or inside at night, or by installing motion activated lighting or putting out deterrent sprays or alarms. If nothing is working, know that its always open season for coyotes and in many areas property owners are permitted to take coyote by certain means if the animal is damaging property or poses a danger.
Readers are urged to contact the MN Department of Natural Resources (www.dnr.state.mn.us) for laws and details about handling troublesome coyote.
Discover more about the beneficial coyote at Project Coyote.