As I walked down my front steps one night last week, I noticed the freshness of the cool, night air and listened for the first sounds of spring peepers in the pond across the woods. No frogs croaking yet. I was getting impatient to take in those first songs of spring. It was about 9:30 at night, and I'd forgotten something in the car. Shutting the door and turning around, I was halted in my tracks by the loudest high-pitched yips and howls I'd ever heard. I knew immediately what they were, having heard these wild cries before every so often at night, always faint and in the distance. What was so eery and unsettling this time was that they were so loud and piercing and seemed very close. I truly felt as if I was being converged upon by an elusive and dangerous group of natural predators – coyotes! And they were in the field just a short distance from where I stood!
As recently as thirty years ago, coyote numbers were low in Illinois. Eradication programs meant to reduce their populations were highly successful, and controversy raged over what should be done about them. Livestock farmers and sheep ranchers felt they should be exterminated, while conservationists defended their right to live as important predators of rodents and other pests. When the extermination programs were halted, the coyotes survived and repopulated. They now live all across the U.S. in almost any habitat, from deserts to forests to suburbs. In Illinois today, they are more abundant in the southern and west central areas.
Canis latrans – "barking dog". Grizzled gray or reddish brown, the coyote is smaller than a wolf, with a narrow pointed snout, smaller feet, and shorter legs. Its habit of carrying its round, bushy tail straight out below the level of its back or between its legs differs from the domestic dog, which runs with its tail up; wolves run with tails straight out. It weighs between 15 and 50 pounds, depending on the season and habitat. The coyote may range in appearance from scrawny to full-bodied. It has a black nose and its eyes are an arresting yellow.
Mating season is from January through March, with male and female usually remaining monogamous. Both parents share in raising the young. Gestation period is around 63 days (similar to dogs) with 3 to 9 pups being born in April or May. The mother nurses them for the first two months, but the pups begin to eat regurgitated food from both parents at about three weeks of age. At five to six weeks they are allowed outside the den to learn to hunt for small animals. In late summer or early fall, the family moves out of the den for good and the family gradually breaks up.
Coyotes are very cunning and are great opportunists, hunting and scavenging whatever food they can find. Unlike wolves which tend to be strictly predators, coyotes are omnivorous, feeding on both plants and animals. They run swiftly and catch prey easily, feeding on insects, birds, eggs, fruits, berries, and small mammals when they come upon them. Rabbits and mice comprise their main diet here in Illinois. They will hunt alone or in pairs or can run in packs, but that behavior is less common in this area. While they usually hunt at night, they may come out in daylight to track squirrels and other diurnal creatures when necessary. Their senses are very acute, and when coupled with elusiveness, they survive quite well in both rural and urban areas. While they are common, their secretive nature means that few are actually seen. In fact, the majority of coyotes will never see a human.
Why do coyotes howl? A coyote will communicate by high-pitched yipping, whining, howling, and barking. It uses a long howl to let others know where it is, and short barks to warn of danger. When a pack welcomes a new member, the animals yip, bark, and howl together sometimes for several minutes. They are one of the few wild animals whose vocalizations are actually heard. These cries at night are used to keep tabs on each other in an area. To those who hear them, the howls are truly the primitive "call of the wild".
What can we do to discourage contact with coyotes? To keep them at a distance, there are steps we can take. Be sure that garbage is secured, fallen fruit is picked up, compost is covered, pet food is brought inside, bird feeders are not overfilled, and small pets are supervised and not left alone outside, especially at night. ( Yes, domestic pets may be snatched if given the chance.)
Coyotes are usually quite fearful of humans and will try very hard to avoid contact. It will help us to understand and respect their place in the ecosystem. Pest populations would quickly become too numerous without these natural predators to help contain them.
I survived my recent close encounter with my coyote neighbors. As long as I remember to bring the cats in at night and remove the easy food sources, our home shouldn't be a target. I just hope that the next time I listen for the sounds of spring, all I hear is the spring peepers.
If you have any horticulture questions, call the local U of I Extension office Monday through Friday at 345-7034. Volunteer Master Gardeners are not in the office this time of year—they will return your call.
This column is based on information and materials available through the University of Illinois Extension, Master Naturalist program in Coles County. Contact information is 707 Windsor Road, Suite A., Charleston, 61920; phone 345-7034; or web site: www.extension.uiuc.edu/coles/