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The Wily Coyote

coyDespite his best laid plans and most elaborate efforts, well-known Looney Toons cartoon character, Wile E. Coyote, somehow just never manages to catch and eat his unsuspecting prey, the Roadrunner.  In reality, the extremely adaptable and highly intelligent coyote is normally a very successful hunter.  During the last half century, with the movement of coyotes from the Western U. S. to East of the Mississippi, humans have discovered the skillful hunting abilities of coyotes as their increasing numbers have, at times, led them to turn livestock and small pets into prey.

Filling the ecological niche of the native gray wolf and red wolf that disappeared from the East, the coyote (Canis latrans) moved from the West and established itself East of the Mississippi.  It is felt coyotes first began moving into the southeastern United States during the 1950s, and into Kentucky, from northern and southwestern states, during the 1970s when the Mississippi River froze.  Since the coyote is a highly adaptable species, they can now be found in all of Kentucky’s 120 counties.

Coyotes will eat almost anything and hunt for small animals such as rodents, fish, rabbits, frogs, and sometimes deer fawns in the spring.  They also enjoy snakes, grass, berries, fruit, insects, and dead meat.  Sometimes, a problem coyote will develop a non-predatory liking for lamb or newborn calves.  Problems resulting from coyote raids on livestock are most likely to occur in the spring when parent coyotes need extra food for their young, or in the fall, when the young males go out on their own and are looking for food.  Pet owners are cautioned because small dogs and cats can become prey for coyotes, and recent studies indicate that roaming cats are becoming more and more a favored prey for the adaptable coyote.  Attacks on humans are rare, and are more likely to happen if coyotes lose their fear of areas inhabited by people.

Coyotes are cautious, have strong senses of smell, hearing, and vision and can run up to forty miles per hour.  Although coyotes were once active in the daytime, they are now mostly nocturnal as a result of the spread of humans into their natural habitats. Coyotes are known for their night-time howls, particularly during the fall, when the family groups break up, and in late winter when coyotes pair up and mate.

Coyotes have slender, pointed noses, ears that are always erect, and bushy tails that are usually held low with a downward angle.  Most adult coyotes weigh around thirty pounds although they can range from twenty to fifty pounds.  A light gray coat, with lighter underparts and legs, is common; however, Eastern coyotes are usually darker in color, with tan, brown, and black fur.  Guard hairs on the back and tail are usually tipped in black.

Despite their notorious reputation, coyotes are very family oriented.  They are monogamous in having only one mate per year, and the male helps care for the young.  Coyotes are most often solitary creatures; however, they may occasionally hunt together in family groups.  It is not unusual, during the late summer or fall, to see family groups of coyotes traveling together.    According to Mike Strunk, Regional Coordinator for the Southeastern Region KY Fish and Wildlife, landowners may hear multiple nighttime calls coming from family groups of coyotes.  Strunk also commented that multiple coyotes will often congregate to feed on dead carcasses.

With the rapid increase of the coyote population during the last ten years, more and more human complaints have surfaced about the animals.  In an attempt to manage the booming population of coyotes, the Kentucky General Assembly passed a bill making it easier to hunt coyotes.  Today in Kentucky, coyotes may be taken year-round by licensed hunters and trapped by licensed trappers during the winter furbearer season.  Farmers with livestock problems can obtain permission to trap coyotes when problems arise.  There is no daily bag limit, and the use of mechanical or mouth calls are permitted.  Coyotes may be hunted during the day, night, or after daylight hours using lights or night vision equipment from Feb. 1 through May 31.  Shotguns are the only permissible firearm for night coyote hunting; however, archery items and rifles are allowed during the day.  There are specific regulations concerning the type of ammunition used for coyote hunting.  Night hunting of coyotes is prohibited on many public lands in Kentucky including the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area and Daniel Boone National Forest.

Strunk said the liberal statewide coyote season is probably the best and most successful deterrent to the coyote population explosion.  Based on reports he receives, Strunk validated a definitive coyote presence in McCreary County; however, most indications are that Wayne and Pulaski have higher numbers.  According to Strunk, the KY Department of Fish and Wildlife encourages anyone having problems with coyotes to take advantage of the liberal hunting season.

In addition to hunting, there are other ways to help deter coyotes.   Well maintained fences and gates discourage coyotes from gaining access to livestock.  The carcasses of dead livestock must be removed and buried properly instead of being left in pasture as an attractant to coyotes.  Cows ready to birth and young calves should be kept close to human activity instead of being left in large, secluded pastures.  Light and sound devices such as radios, strobes, etc. may also act as deterrents.    Keeping garbage in closed containers and keeping pets and pet food safely inside also discourage roaming coyotes.

Despite the coyote’s label as “nuisance” wildlife, it is important to remember the coyote is a keystone species, playing an important role in keeping proper balance in nature.  The presence or absence of coyotes in an area can have a major impact on the surrounding wildlife.  The absence of coyotes can change the balance in species below them and lead to some small species being at risk.  If the coyote species were to become extinct, the void might well be filled by bobcats and foxes-leading to a whole new set of problems.

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