Our Peach-Eating Coyote

Coyotes eat many different things, including fruit. When our peaches and pears are ripening, they make a practice of picking up the fallen ones or snatching them off low-hanging branches. On a recent morning the lone coyote pictured in this column brazenly sauntered across our back yard headed for the peach trees. He sniffed around and looked up at the tree, but no peaches. Probably mumbling in coyotish, “Dag Nab it!” he wandered back into the woods. Another time when Br’er Coyote strolled onto our property my wife stepped out on the patio. The critter stopped, gazed at her for a few moments, then calmly completed his leisurely stroll across the yard, and disappeared into the forest at the far side of the lawn. His attitude was clear: “This is my place lady. What’re you starin’ at!”

Our homestead seems to be in the middle of Nacogdoches coyote territory. We commonly have them trot through both the back and front yards, and in the evening, they serenade us with a yipping, howling, wailing, yodeling chorus. A few can sound like dozens as they vary their voices almost like a ventriloquist. A passing train’s whistle or emergency vehicle siren can really set them off. Our dog is not thrilled with the performance, preferring to cower in her doghouse when they’re around. That’s probably a good idea since coyotes like dogs for snacks.

Coyotes, which occasionally cross-breed with domestic dogs, becoming “coydogs,” have been known from ancient times and abound in Native American tales where “Coyote” is cast as a philosopher, a mischievous clown, or an evil trickster whose adventures include stealing food from honest folks. The Aztecs called them “coyotl,” meaning “holes” (where they spend the first part of their lives), and whether you call them KI-oats (KAH-oats in East Texan) or ki-OH-tees (my preferred pronunciation), we certainly have plenty of them here in Deep East Texas, where population estimates run as high as 15,000!

Why do coyotes howl? They do it to keep in contact with their group, tell other roving bands where they are, help them estimate the abundance of kin, near and distant, and decide whether the neighborhood is just “gittin’ too crowded.” In spite of the way coyotes sound, a pack usually consists of less than a dozen.

Some people say coyotes are varmints that should be wiped out, swearing that they seriously threaten deer herds and cattle. That’s just not true and anyway, exterminating them isn’t easy, since the number of pups in a litter increases as coyote population densities decrease. Instead of only five or six to a litter, Mom may produce and be able to care for as many as twelve. The surviving animals also get smarter. It has been said by one detractor that coyotes are “like roaches - you ain’t never gonna git 'em all.”

A coyote’s diet consists mainly of small animals like mice, rats, rabbits, fish, frogs, and snakes, but they will eat almost anything that moves (or doesn’t), including insects. They also consume berries as well as corn and fruit from farm fields and orchards. Deer and cattle are usually only consumed after they have died from other causes, although newborn calves, or those weakened by disease may be killed and eaten by coyotes.

Found in virtually every state, even in towns and cities, adult coyotes average around twenty-five to thirty-five pounds, with a black-tipped tail carried low instead of straight or raised as most domestic dogs and wolves do. Coyotes breed during January and February, giving birth about nine weeks later to between two and twelve pups which stay with the mother at least until fall, but some remain as long as two years before relocating five to ten miles away. A few weeks ago, three coyote pups came into our backyard for a game of tag and a wrestling match.

Be aware that coyotes sometimes lure domestic dogs into the woods, where Fido becomes dinner, as a lone decoy is suddenly joined by six or more of his pack mates. Outdoor domestic cats are particularly at risk. Cats are coyote candy!

There is no record of coyote attacks on humans in East Texas. However, in Southern California, where I’ve seen coyotes sit on a city street and howl at a streetlight, and where some misguided people feed them, there have been attacks on joggers and small children. Like many wild animals that become too familiar with humans, they lose their natural fear, and a running person, particularly a small one, may be viewed as food.

In any case, Old Man Coyote’s call of the wild is definitely a part of nature’s symphony in the fields and forests of East Texas and frankly, I kind of enjoy their performances.

Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click paulrisk2@gmail.com to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.