Protecting your pets during coyote mating season

 
By Valerie Blaine
Updated 1/31/2011 5:43 PM
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  • Coyote sightings and even periodic attacks on dogs have become part of the suburban culture. Separating facts from fiction, and learning how to protect your pets during coyote mating season, can help prevent public panic.

      Coyote sightings and even periodic attacks on dogs have become part of the suburban culture. Separating facts from fiction, and learning how to protect your pets during coyote mating season, can help prevent public panic. Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer, 2007

  • A coyote roams the grounds at Fermilab in Batavia. Naturalist Valerie Blaine says coyote sightings should become more common over the next month, as coyotes enter their mating season.

    A coyote roams the grounds at Fermilab in Batavia. Naturalist Valerie Blaine says coyote sightings should become more common over the next month, as coyotes enter their mating season. Courtesy Dennis Walz

It's time for the proverbial Paul Revere to race through town crying, "The coyotes are coming! The coyotes are coming!"

The citizenry of suburbia will soon be up in arms, public officials will be a-tizzy, and the media will have a heyday with news about vicious maulings by these purportedly ruthless varmints.

But I'm going head off Revere at the pass. Coyote's not just coming, he's here. And he has been here since the last public panic a year ago. The much-maligned coyotes are a reality in suburbia and knowing a bit about their behavior and ecology will help dispel unnecessary alarm.

First, let's look at when and why most concerns about coyotes are raised.

Mating season

The coyotes that have been living at the perimeter of your subdivision, at the edge of the cornfield and behind the strip mall are more visible come February because it's courtship and mating season. These wild dogs are searching the canine equivalent of match.com. Coyotes take the dating game very seriously and will cover a lot of territory to find a match. That territory may well include your neighborhood.

As with human dating, coyote courtship is an expensive endeavor. Instead of cash, however, it's calories that coyotes need.

As they pair up, they need calories in order to find and fashion suitable dens. An abandoned badger borrow may be a fixer-upper for a den, or Mr. and Mrs. Coyote may redesign a brush pile out back, or they may remodel the woodchuck hole under your garage.

Newly pregnant females also require extra caloric input. Both males and females hunt, but the males take over most of the grocery shopping when mom is great with pup. She will take whatever form of prenatal vitamins, snacks and sustenance she can get.

It doesn't matter whether the calories come in the form of Pekingese or possum, Maltese or mouse, Bichon or bunny. Coyote is not a respecter of food. Is this malicious maleficence or the ecological reality of the complex food web?

The gestation period for coyotes is roughly 60 days. The female will give birth to four to nine blind and helpless pups in late April or May. As the pups are weaned, hunting is intensified for all the new mouths to feed. It will take five to six weeks for the pups to grow and develop enough to venture outside the den. Here they enter coyote kindergarten, the beginning of a lifetime of survival education.

Adapting to suburbia

Coyotes are quick learners. From Suburban Survival 101 they work their way to earning doctorates in the field. These savvy canids have survived all attempts to wipe them out -- from bounty hunting to poisoning, shooting and trapping. Now they have proved an uncanny ability to adjust to the drastic changes in habitat brought about my humans.

From prairie to farm fields to housing developments, coyotes have altered their lifestyles accordingly. They've shifted their housing needs from tree hollows to porch decks and their menu from deer to Daschunds.

Perhaps you've recently seen a coyote in your neighborhood and are wondering if this one has friends around the corner. Probably. Dr. Stan Gehrt of Ohio State University has directed extensive research on coyotes over the past decade, focusing on the greater Chicago area.

In The Ohio State Research journal Gehrt stated, "We couldn't find an area in Chicago where there weren't coyotes. They've learned to exploit all parts of their landscape."

Coyotes may hunt individually, so you may just see one, but they also form packs for territorial defense. Gehrt's research found that "roughly half of all urban coyotes live in territorial packs that consist of five to six adults and their pups that were born that year. These urban packs establish territories of about five to 10 square miles."

The coyotes that don't belong to a pack roam as loners throughout the 'burbs. A coyote on its own has to cover more territory than a pack, and Gehrt's study found these individuals can range over as much as 50 square miles in one night.

"The first solitary coyote we tracked covered five adjacent cities in a single night," reported Gehrt.

Fears and facts

These wild canines bring out people's fears and fire their imaginations. In the Wheaton coyote panic that occurred a year ago when several pet dogs were killed by coyotes, a Wheatonite was quoted as saying these coyotes were "enormous … possibly 80 pounds." In fact, an exceptionally large male coyote weighs at most 50 pounds. Average coyotes range from 22 to 42 pounds, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources' Furbearer Guide.

Are they dangerous? To small dogs, rabbits and rodents, most definitely. To humans? When habituated to humans, coyotes are emboldened and may be aggressive. There are scattered reports of aggression toward humans. These habituated animals are dangerous, as many wild animals are, when in proximity to people.

There are two key points to bear in mind in the suburban coyote conundrum. Coyotes, at their meager forty pounds, are the largest predator in an ecosystem sorely lacking native predators. (Really large predators, the wolves and cougars, were extirpated from Illinois in the early 1800s.) The die-hard coyotes are a critical strand in the food web, consuming untold numbers of rodents, rabbits and other natural prey each year.

Secondly, it's up to us to prevent coyotes from becoming "nuisance animals." The cardinal rule is to not welcome them into your yard. This translates into keeping all possible food items inside and/or out of reach -- pet food, leftovers on the grill -- and your Shih Tzu.

Protecting your pet

But you have to take Fido out, you say. Yes. If you have a small breed, however, you must take extra precaution when, where and how you let the dog out. A small dog in a yard bordered by an invisible electric fence is a meal waiting to be eaten. An old-fashioned fence is a better choice -- not foolproof, as a coyote can easily climb over a fence, but it is at least a deterrent. There are roll bars that can be added to a fence to prevent unwanted guests from coming in.

"Hazing" has been touted as another preventive measure to make coyotes feel unwelcome. This involves making a big racket when you see a coyote, jumping up and down, waving arms and generally acting weird enough to scare the 'yotes away.

You should also be mindful that clever coyotes learn the daily schedules of people and their pets. If you let your dog out every evening at 9 p.m., chances are that a coyote is well aware of your routine and is waiting in the shadows at 9 p.m. sharp. There's an old Navajo saying, "Coyote is always out there waiting, and Coyote is always hungry." So change your schedule a bit, walk your dog on leash close to you, and keep a close eye on her at all times.

Thus as coyote courtship and mating season is here, you will likely see a coyote or two or three. Remember that they didn't just get here and they're not invading en masse, so there's no need to panic. With knowledge of coyote behavior and ecology, we can take prudent measures to prevent conflicts in the wild kingdom of suburbia.

Valerie Blaine is a naturalist with the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. You may reach her at blainevalerie@kaneforest.com.

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