Retzer Retro

A Place for Coyote

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(Excerpts below are from an article on coyotes entitled, “A Place for Coyote” which was authored by Retzer volunteer naturalist Maureen Patton-Gross and first appeared 30 years ago in the Mar/Apr 1987 “Center Line” issue. In the article, she clearly distinguished coyotes from other canids based on their size, color, tail, voice, tracks, and scat.)

Evidence of coyotes living in southeastern Wisconsin has been mounting steadily, which logically leads to the question of why the coyote has returned to this area after an apparent long absence. In order to address this issue, the coyote’s needs must be analyzed.

As with other kinds of wildlife, the coyote depends on three basic requirements from the environment. These requirements are water, shelter, and food. The coyote is often associated with arid regions of the West, and has learned very cunning ways to find water in these marginal areas. However, water sources have never been in short supply here. The glaciers left us many lakes, rivers, springs, kettle ponds, and various kinds of wetlands.

Shelter has been a more pronounced problem for the coyote here. In the past when only Native Americans lived here, southeastern Wisconsin was a region where the tall grass prairie met the hardwood forests. This environment supported much wildlife, including both the coyote and timber wolf. The indigenous people of the past lived side by side with the wild canids without conflict. They were intimately familiar with coyote behavior and habits. The ways of the coyote were often woven into their folklore and mythology. The coyote was well respected by Native Americans for his cunning, speed, and intelligence.

When Europeans arrived on the scene, drastic changes took place. The tall grass prairie was viewed as tillable, fertile farmland, and the hardwood forest was viewed as the enemy to be cleared with much labor and sweat. Eventually the landscape changed into a monotonous repetition of farmsteads all with large fields of similar crops. As a result, there was little shelter left for coyotes or prey species. Not only did the European change the landscape, he also referred to the coyote and the timber wolf as “ravenous beasts” which attacked his livestock. Because of this attitude, bounties were established. “Wolf” hunts became a favorite social sport. Unregulated hunting and trapping were the rule. By the turn of the century, southeastern Wisconsin was devoid of much of its former wildlife.

However, as time went on, the landscape again began to change. Residents began to realize the decline in wildlife and recreational land. This resulted in a demand for public land and hunting regulations. Bounties were slowly abolished. Farming practices changed also. The government encouraged farmers to grow wind breaks, to take some fields out of crop production, and to leave erodible land untilled. In addition, some farms were abandoned due to financial stress. The result of these activities has been the creation of thousands of acres of old field and brush habitat ideally suited to the coyote.

This old field and brush habitat also provided shelter for prey species, which leads to the discussion of coyote food requirements. Because small mammals are the mainstay of the coyote, this canid is a predator. The coyote, though, is also an omnivore (eating both plants and animals). The coyote is an opportunist, and this adaptable canid will eat fallen apples or spilled corn from harvest operations. This animal is not a finicky eater, and will eat anything from leather straps and wool rugs to crayfish, pigeons, and deer. Coyote impact on deer is minimal, however, because the canid is not as powerful or as socially organized as the timber wolf. The coyote has few opportunities to kill large game without risking injury or death. While the timber wolf specializes in large mammals, the coyote specializes in small mammals. High on the list of coyote preferences are woodchucks, rabbits and mice of all kinds. Because of these food preferences, the coyote is very beneficial to the crop farmer.

It is evident that at least some sections of the local environment support the coyote well with the basic requirements of water, shelter, and food. The most ideal situation for a coyote is an area where several different ecosystems merge. For example, looking out over the high hills at Retzer Nature Center, a mosaic of woodlots, old fields, prairies, croplands, wetlands, and streams can be seen. Such diversity provides a habitat rich in large populations of small mammal species. This in turn provides the coyote with a dynamic yet stable food base while also providing the coyote with cover from his primary predator – man.

To the biologist, the coyote is an indicator of a varied and healthy environment. Presently most residents seem to have a curious, neutral, or favorable attitude toward the coyote. It is these very attitudes toward this canid and toward regional land use that will ultimately determine the future status of the coyote.

Elusive Creature Returns

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(Excerpts below are from an article on coyotes entitled, “Elusive Creature Returns” which was authored by Retzer volunteer naturalist Maureen Patton-Gross and first appeared 30 years ago in the Jan/Feb 1987 “Center Line” issue. In the article, she clearly distinguished coyotes from other canids based on their size, color, tail, voice, tracks, and scat.)

“There is an elusive creature living here who is a master at escaping human detection. On moonlit nights his shadow slips silently across the snowy southeastern Wisconsin landscape unnoticed. His nocturnal call is sometimes heard as a distant, mournful requiem causing friends to huddle closer to the campfire. His larger relative – a resident of the Great North Woods – is the majestic timber wolf.  In scientific jargon he is known as Canis latrans but in the vernacular he is known as the coyote.

Though seldom seen, especially during daylight hours, the following description will help identify this animal. The typical adult coyote ranges in weight from 20-35 lbs.  The average height at the shoulders is about 20 inches. The ears are prominent, erect, pointed, and reddish in color. The muzzle is long, narrow and snuff brown to cinnamon brown in color. The forehead and cheeks are paler, mixed with gray and black. The upper parts of the body from the neck to the tail are coarsely mixed with gray and black, with a general tone of gray to cinnamon gray. There is a blackish line down the back. Underparts are buffish.

Often observations of coyotes are brief and the animal can be confused with other canids. However, there are ways to recognize the differences by general size and the tail… A coyote is somewhat larger than a red fox and does not sport a large white tip on the end of the tail. Often the coyote tail has a black tip. Although the gray fox has a black tail tip, it has a noticeable black stripe all the way down the top side of the tail and is considerably smaller than a coyote. Also, red foxes and gray foxes carry their tails straight out while running, as do wolves. The coyote frequently holds its tail down low while running. Because of the great variation in size and color of the domestic dog, it can easily be confused with the coyote. A dog, however, tends to carry its tail curled upward and its tail is much narrower than the bushy tail of a coyote.

Though normally silent, the coyote occasionally communicates audibly. His voice is higher pitched than wolves and many dogs. The characteristic coyote call consists of a vibrant yapping howl that leads into a long, broken, shrill scream. The complete repertoire of coyote vocalization is varied and complex.

Since direct observations of the coyote are infrequent, the best way to detect the presence of a coyote is through certain clues of what might be coyote signs. Coyote tracks are the most common sign found. Typical of canids, the front footprints are larger than the hindprints… Red fox tracks are generally somewhat smaller and, under good tracking conditions, have a ridge impression in the heel of the print. Gray fox tracks are smaller yet and resemble large house cat tracks with claw impressions.

Although some dogs leave prints within the size range of the coyote print, coyote tracks are longer and narrower. For example, a coyote track would typically measure 2 ½ inches long by 1 ¾ inches wide, while a dog track of similar size commonly measures 2 ½ inches by 2 ½ inches. Often the heel pad of a dog is larger and more pronounced.

Scat (droppings) is another kind of wildlife sign that biologists use to confirm an animal’s presence. Coyote scat can be confused with that of a dog. Coyote scat is generally about 4 inches long but size may vary. Dog scat is recognized by the content of dog food, whereas coyote scat often contains fur and bone. At times coyote scat is very dark indicating red meat has been eaten. It may also contain vegetable matter or even insects.”