The more we try to get rid of coyotes, the more they thrive. Should we learn to love them?
Legal kills of coyotes in Nova Scotia rose from 835 in 2000/2001 to 2,422 three years later; sightings of the brutes have been increasing throughout Atlantic Canada. If you're a deer hunter who has found the carcass of a doe that coyotes have ambushed and gorged on, or a sheep farmer who has lost lambs to them, they are loathsome. If they've gobbled your chihuahua or Siamese cat, they are the most hateful creatures on the face of the Earth.
I have nothing but admiration for them, however. They are so smart, tough, able and adaptable that, despite a century of government efforts to exterminate them, they have spread from their original home in the American Northwest to every state except Hawaii, throughout Canada, and down through Mexico and Central America.
Since the 1880s, the US Department of Agriculture and state agencies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on wiping out coyotes. They have poisoned, trapped and snared them, gunned them down from aircraft and offered bounties on them. According to one estimate, Americans have killed 3.5 million coyotes since 1955.
Yet the carnage has made coyotes ever more crafty and wary. They've recently been known to bury coyote traps, or flip them over and pee on them. Moreover, it turns out that whenever an eradication program does reduce the coyote population, the females start breeding at a younger age. Birth rates rise, litters get larger and, since fewer coyotes are competing for food, more pups survive. In a few years, the coyote gang is bigger than ever.
Long ago, humans did coyotes two big favours. As farmland and settlements expanded, they destroyed the habitat of wolves, the killers of coyotes, and they also created fields among the dwindling forests. Coyotes thrived under such conditions. They loped off in all directions. They reached New Brunswick in the 1960s, Nova Scotia in the '70s and Prince Edward Island in '83. They arrived in Newfoundland on pack ice in '87. Every year during the late '80s and early '90s, their population in these provinces has almost doubled. Now, they're haunting the outskirts of cities and towns, where people leave pet food and uncovered garbage outdoors-or feed them, stupidly.
Coyotes eat everything, from mice to moose, from rats to muskrats, from apples to avocados. They prefer fresh meat, but often feast on carrion. Beavers, raccoons, foxes, porcupines, grouse, poultry, calves, sheep, lizards, frogs, fish, insects, blueberries, strawberries, bayberries, mountain holly, cedar leaves, grass seed...all these have been parts of coyote diets. At the Los Angeles Zoo, coyotes killed scores of flamingos and penguins, and a gigantic condor.
The eastern coyote, which we must stop worrying about and learn to love, usually weighs 13 to 22 kilograms, though 36-kilogram monsters have turned up in New Brunswick. Most eastern coyotes aren't as hefty as a German shepherd, but they're bigger than their western cousins. This is partly because the ancestors of our coyotes bred with Canadian timber wolves.
Coyotes run faster than all other wild dogs. They lope at 50 kilometres per hour; sprint at 65. They can long jump four metres, and high jump clear over 2.5-metre walls. Their sense of smell is 23 times more acute than any human's. Their hearing is phenomenal, and their vision hawk-like. They are superb swimmers. They are perhaps the most intelligent, creative and tricky hunters in the entire animal kingdom.
One US conservation organization calls the coyote not only "the most widely distributed, studied and persecuted species in the world," but also "the most successful medium-size predator on Earth."
I am proud to have seen such an amazing creature in the field behind our home. In a movement both dainty and deadly, he pounced on a mouse. Whenever I hear the eerie yips, yowls and wails of distant coyotes conversing in the blackness of the night, I know I'm a lucky man. I don't think I'll take up sheep farming, however, or buy a toy poodle and let it out to play.