As we entered the thick of the coyote mating season, it was fitting that a recent Thursday night – February 14, Valentine’s Day – saw a packed Lecture Center on the SUNY New Paltz campus for a presentation titled “Coexisting with Coyotes,” with Melissa Gillmer, head zookeeper of the Trailside Museums and Zoo at Bear Mountain State Park.
Due to its ingenuity and resilience, the Eastern coyote has successfully expanded its range to every corner of New York State. Gillmer pointed out that during their mating season, which typically begins in mid-January and runs through the end of March, these furry mammals become more vocal, yipping and howling, sometimes into what seems to be an orchestrated frenzy, late into the winter night. This cacophony of sounds is due to several things, she said. “It’s breeding season! And we aren’t the only ones celebrating Valentine’s Day.”
The Eastern coyote is generally monogamous, sometimes mating for life until one of the pair dies. As they search for one another to mate, the call-and-response becomes critical. And once a litter arrives (on average, four to six pups), the pair will howl and yip to let other coyotes know that they have established a specific territory for themselves and their young and not to intrude.
Gillmer noted that “Coyotes have different personalities, and some are more vocal than others. But once a coyote starts howling, it typically leads to others joining in.” This, she said, can sound like a cascade of howls across a landscape, when it may really only be a few coyotes calling and responding to one another. The zoologist even imitated the various yips and howls and barks, noting how different and unique each one is to the individual coyote. “They also have very keen hearing and can discern another coyote howl from as far as three miles away,” she noted.
Someone in the audience asked if the howling ever signified a fresh kill or dinner of some sort, and Gillmer said that “It very well could,” noting that, like all languages, the complexities of the coyote call are the subject of much research. It could be used for family bonding, mating, territorial disputes, hunting, to signal danger or for sheer amusement and everything in between.
There are various types of coyotes, but the one that is found in this region is the Eastern coyote, which ranges in weight from 25 to 45 pounds, with a 55-pound specimen found in Pennsylvania holding the record as the largest ever documented. They are approximately four to five feet in length, nose to tail, with large, pointed snouts. They have thick fur that can range, based on season and temperature, from blonde and brown striations to black and grey. She showed a slide of a black coyote feasting on a deer leg in Bear Mountain State Park. “If you saw that picture, you may very well assume that it’s a dog,” she said. “It looks like a German shepherd, which many people confuse coyotes with.” But, she said, while there are visual similarities, the coyote is really half the size of a German shepherd, which is a much larger, heavier mammal weighing closer to 60 pounds or more.
The coyote expert also noted that this urban myth that coyotes and dogs or even wolves interbreed is much less likely than people imagine, as female coyotes only have their estrus once a year for a few days and attract male coyotes. The pups are born in late March and April with their eyes closed, and are housed in groundhog dens that the parents have excavated. “They have a social structure that includes tight pairing and family bonds, but then there are loners.”
While they are classified as carnivores and subsist primarily on a diet of woodchucks, beaver, turkey, rabbit, birds, rodents and white-tailed deer, she said that coyotes are somewhat agnostic when it comes to their diet and do eat plants, fruit and whatever human food waste they might find in an urban or suburban area. Coyotes are so adaptable that they can be found living in forests, wetlands, suburban and even urban areas.
One of the big questions that citizens have (as do researchers) is whether or not the increase of the Eastern coyote population is having an impact on the ever-increasing deer population. “Are they deer specialists?” Gillmer asked, pointing to various studies that had been conducted in regions throughout New York State, including suburban areas like Westchester and heavily forested areas like the northern Adirondacks. While the answer is somewhat inconclusive, the studies that Gillmer referenced showed that, though coyotes are capable of taking down a live adult deer, they’re more likely to feed upon already wounded, injured or dead deer, rather than go for the full kill themselves. “In this study [done in Central and Western New York with coyote that had been tagged by researchers], there were 86 deer carcasses; but out of that number, 92 percent had been scavenged by and only eight percent killed by the coyotes.”
Because of the vast number of fawns that are being dropped throughout New York State during the white-tailed deer breeding season in summer, many of the deer eaten by coyote are not only scavenged from roadkill, hunting or injury, but also by taking easy fawn prey. “Their diet is evolving, and changes based on the area they’re living in, as well as the season,” Gillmer said, noting one baseline study dating back to the 1940s that shows a recent surge in the amount of beavers that coyote are consuming, pointing more toward the increase of the state’s beaver population than anything else.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) considers coyote to be a legal game species that can be hunted from October through the end of March, with no bag (count) limit. The agency has established four categories of “conflict” that could happen between the human population and coyote population, ranging from Category 1, defined as coyotes being reported to be near people, to Category 3, where they’ve actually threatened or killed a person’s pet, and Category 4 (which has almost zero incidents): a coyote threatening or attacking a person.
The New Paltz Times reported last spring on some incidents west of the Wallkill where one resident had two small Maltese dogs taken by coyote. This began reports on social media by some other residents who reported “aggressive” behavior by coyotes and were backed by the New Paltz town supervisor in requesting that the DEC use non-lethal means to relocate coyote that were perceived to be threatening.
The DEC recommends several ways to curb any potential conflict with coyotes, the first being to remove any garbage, pet food, waste or birdseed from the outside of the home, particularly during mating/breeding season. The agency also strongly suggests that any pets be leashed and not left unattended outside where coyotes may roam. “Do not let pets run loose!” said Gillmer, who also noted that, if one does find oneself approached by a coyote when outside or walking a dog, the best approach may be just trying “hazing activities. Throw a rock or a stick. Wave your arms. Make some noise. But do not run! Usually loud noises and some arm-waving is enough to send the coyote running,” she said. If that does not work, and someone witnesses coyotes stalking pets or exhibiting no wariness of humans, they are encouraged to report those incidents to the DEC at (845) 256-3000.
Wrapping up the talk with various questions and answers, Gillmer noted that there are many “positive values” of having the Eastern coyote in our midst. These included the “evening serenades” that the coyotes give and “free concerts,” as well as “farmers enjoying” coyotes feeding off harvest and livestock pests like groundhogs, rabbits and rodents. “Sportsmen enjoy them for hunting, and they might be fostering a healthier deer population, as well as encouraging more fox, fishers and ravens,” which appear in greater numbers wherever Eastern coyote are found.
If you’re able to sit on a porch or step outside on a brisk winter’s night, maybe you’ll be able to hear and enjoy the cacophony of the coyote chorus as it lulls the moon into bed and reminds us that there is still a wildness in us all.