Coyotes prove near invincible

Adaptable animals found throughout the United States, not just in West

Finding a buffet on forest's edge

August 27, 1999|By William K. Stevens | William K. Stevens,New York Times News Service

By American Indian tradition, he is the Trickster, the most cunning but also the most flawed and human of animal spirits. Noble and godlike in some ways, he is also perverse, vain, deceitful, larcenous, obsessed with sex, and a lover of pranks who repeatedly blunders into trouble and gets his comeuppance, but always bounces back.

To ranchers in the West, he is nothing more than a despised varmint to be hunted down and killed.

To generations of movie and television viewers who have watched the "Roadrunner" cartoons, he is Wile E. Coyote, the sneaky but hapless hunter blown up, squashed or zapped in midair, only to show up in the next frame, whole and ready to go again.

Today, to paraphrase William Faulkner, the coyote has not just survived it has prevailed. It has defied every effort to defeat it -- hundreds of thousands of coyotes are deliberately and legally killed every year -- and has literally taken over North America.

In an unsurpassed display of adaptability in the face of human dominance of the landscape, it has spread far beyond its original range on the Western plains and northern Mexico, and now inhabits wild lands, suburbs and cities from the Panama Canal to the edge of the Canadian tundra and from New York City to Los Angeles.

No one knows how many coyotes exist; educated guesses range from a million to tens of millions. But for sure, there are "more now than there have ever been, anywhere," said Dr. Russell Mason, a federal wildlife expert in Utah whose task has been to help control coyotes. The Trickster has not made it an easy job.

Yip and howl

In the eastern United States, where coyotes did not live until the 20th century, their trademark yip and howl have become familiar. In the absence of wolves, they may have become the top predator in the region including suburbs, where they think nothing of having a cat for lunch or killing any dog they can; they probably see it as a competitor.

In short, the coyote is an ecological success story. Along with the white-tailed deer, the moose and the red fox, it has established itself as a champion adapter in an era when the ability to adjust to changes brought about by humans has created a whole new class of dominant large mammals.

So what accounts for the coyote's extraordinary success? That is one of the main questions pondered by scientists who are paying new attention to what they see as a fascinating character. "It's by far the neatest animal I've ever worked with," Mason said.

One part of the answer may lie in the coyote's evolutionary position among wild canids, or doglike predators. Roughly the size and shape of a German shepherd, the coyote (the name comes from the Aztec word "coyotl") fills an ecological niche between that of the wolf and that of the fox. In fact, its very appearance and behavior seem to combine features of both.

Though smaller, more pointed of snout and more delicate of build and features, it looks markedly like a wolf. And contrary to earlier belief, it organizes itself in family-based packs dominated by an alpha male and an alpha female, again like wolves. Field researchers now know that coyotes hunting in concert can and often do bring down animals as large as adult deer.

But coyotes also have the beautiful bushy tail of the fox, and their preferred prey and individual style of hunting are foxlike. Both species dote on small mammals like mice, and both sneak up on the prey like cats and strike with a cat's pounce.

With the wolf's ability to attack and kill big prey and the fox's feline stalk for small animals, the coyote is almost always assured of finding something to eat. Its willingness to eat almost anything gives it a further advantage. Analysis of coyote waste has identified up to 100 different kinds of food. They gobble crickets, apples, grass, even shoe leather, and they love to forage in landfills. They also love watermelon; in Texas, they have become a serious problem for watermelon growers.

Another factor in the coyote's hardiness is that it evolved originally in a harsh, arid climate where summer days are blazing and nights are freezing. This enables it to adapt to a wide variety of conditions, said Dr. Robert Crabtree, an independent Montana ecologist, who with his wife, Jennifer Sheldon, has long studied the species.

But if nature equipped the coyote to survive, people have opened the door for it to prevail. They have played to the coyote's strength, for example, by chopping the forests of the eastern United States into isolated fragments. The edges of the forest fragments provide ideal habitat for small mammals, and their populations have exploded, providing a coyote buffet.

Unlike many other types of animals, such as turtles and frogs, coyotes are mobile enough to cross forest clearings, roads and other barriers in search of food and breeding territory, and they consequently thrive in human-altered environments.

'Look like dogs'

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