Sunday, October 23, 2011

Coyote by the side of the road

The coyote is a close relative to the domesticated dog but relies on its own wits and hunting skills to find food.

Simply Living
October 23, 2011

On my way to town, I saw a dead coyote. A wave of sadness washed over me as I drove by. I wondered if the animal was male or female. If it was a female, did she leave a litter of pups? If the animal I saw had pups, would they be old enough to survive on their own?

Coyotes give birth to an average of six babies, though depending on conditions, a litter can be as small as one or as large as 19. The pups are blind for their first two weeks and don't accompany their mother on hunts until they are 6 to 10 weeks old. After a year, coyotes become sexually mature, and they mate for life. If the coyote I saw had a partner, its mate was suddenly alone.

I realize that many people don't share my empathy for these wild members of the dog family. To them, large predatory animals such as coyotes pose a threat to the safety of humans and their pets, and that perceived danger justifies the animals' eradication. In their minds, the only good coyote (or alligator, bobcat or bear) is a dead one.

I feel differently. My heart goes out to all unfairly maligned critters — spiders and snakes included — struggling to survive in a human-dominated world.

Most wild creatures have it tough. People are constantly modifying animal habitat in the name of progress, often eliminating nesting grounds and natural food sources. Then, when the same animals whose homes and hunting grounds we've destroyed seek out alternative sources of food and shelter to survive, we victimize them for their efforts. We label them "dangerous" without bothering to understand who they are, what they are all about or how we may have contributed to the problem.

The coyote is a close relative of the domesticated dog. However, unlike pampered house pets whose human handlers present them with a daily diet, these 17- to 46-pound wild mammals must rely entirely on their own wits and hunting skills to find food for themselves and their offspring.

Mice, rats, squirrels and rabbits make up most of a coyote's diet, supplemented by fruits, insects, frogs and, at times, carrion. Occasionally coyotes — especially those with compromised hunting grounds — seek food in areas where farm animals or pets live. That's usually when problems arise.

Pet owners get scared if coyotes wander through a neighborhood, and ranchers feel threatened. That fear turns into rage if wild animals capture and eat livestock or attack a free-roaming house cat or small, unleashed dog. However, when a cat captures a songbird (often killing but not eating the bird), the typical pet-owner response is a resigned shrug, as if to say, "Ah, well, that's what cats do."

Pets receive a generous amount of leeway denied to wild animals such as coyotes.

I understand the sadness felt when a beloved pet dies unexpectedly. Years ago, an alligator ate our 13-year-old terrier, but the loss of the family pet to a hungry reptile didn't make me hate alligators. I knew that the 6-foot-long predator was only doing what alligators do: hunting for easy prey. We were aware at the time that an unusually aggressive gator was present in our lake, yet we thoughtlessly let our unleashed dog outside. It was our responsibility as pet owners to have better monitored his whereabouts.

In the wild, a coyote has a life span of 10 to 14 years, but just over 20 percent make it to adulthood. October or November is when most pups are mature enough to forage on their own, but those young, inexperienced animals are especially vulnerable. A car apparently hit the coyote I saw. I'll never know if it was a young adult just starting or a mature animal that left behind a mate and family.

Although the sight of the dead coyote by the roadside saddened me, in general, I'm encouraged by the species' success rate. Rather than decreasing amid the loss of wilderness area, populations have grown. Like their domesticated canine cousins, coyotes are adaptable animals. They have learned to forage for food and find shelter in suburban and even urban settings. Unfortunately, not all have learned to avoid cars.

It's hard enough for people to survive in the complicated world we've created, but it's more difficult for wild animals that must adapt. I passed a coyote the other day that didn't make it, but I'm hoping its family will survive.

For more information about coyotes, check out this Project Coyote, which, according to their website, "creates innovative solutions that foster peaceful coexistence between people and coyotes. We champion progressive management policies that reduce the number of human-coyote conflicts and the number of coyotes destroyed. We believe that, as North America’s native wild "song dog", coyotes are a vital component of our rural and urban communities, deserving respect for their adaptability, resilience, and intelligence."

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