Understanding Ecology and Behavior

It is important to understand that a stable social structure is vital in a Coyote’s life, and thus it can affect the safety of your domestic animals.

If your farm is part of a stable Coyote family’s territory, they will defend their territory, and not allow any other coyotes to enter. So you will continue to have the same stable coyote family who will know you, and you will know them.

In this situation mature coyote mates will have the opportunity to teach their pups effective hunting skills of their wild prey. In addition, they know the land (their territory) very well, and know where all their wild prey are, and are therefore not hungry.

Dayton Hyde, a successful rancher in Oregon, in his book Don Coyote, says of the coyotes that live on his ranch,

By protecting our coyotes, we were insuring that each coyote on the ranch lived to a ripe old age.  As a resident of a territory he would keep strays from coming in, and by virtue of knowing every mouse run in his fiefdom and every squirrel town, he could make a comfortable living without getting into mischief.”

And in reference to well fed coyotes who have not learned a taste for domestic livestock he writes,

Since our coyotes were cherished, they could feel comfortable hunting their wild prey on our ranch even in broad daylight. They could hunt without being shot at and could concentrate not on staying alive, but on taking prey.”

If you do not have a stable Coyote Family …

What happens?

Human exploitation of Coyotes, by unrestricted killing of them, creates chaos in the lives of these socially complex carnivores.  And this can be a serious threat to our farmers and their livestock.

Why? It all goes back to understanding Coyote ecology. So what does happen when coyote family members are killed, and how does this affect you and your livestock? This is what happens…

Immediate Immigration: Although widespread killing of coyotes may reduce their numbers in a particular area, research has shown repeatedly that dispersing or lone animals will immigrate into that area almost immediately, or there will be shifts in the territories of the surrounding social groups of coyotes to fill that empty area.

Higher Litter Sizes and Survival Rates: When coyote packs are stable and members of the pack are not killed, there will be a limited amount of food for each member. This will control the number and size of pups that the alpha female will give birth to. Research has shown that in stable conditions, only 1/3 of the pups will survive to their first year.

However, when members of a coyote pack are killed, this will result in increased food available to those who survive. This will allow the alpha female to have an improved nutritional condition, and as a result she will have higher litter sizes with newborn pups weighing more, and thus a chance for higher litter survival rates. This will result in the tripling of hungry pups that need to be fed. 

Coyote and Prey by Ed Friedman

Forced to Seek Larger Prey: So in this situation, the adult coyotes need to be more efficient in the use of their energy, and thus will tend to seek larger prey like sheep, instead of voles and rabbits. We are talking survival here.

In addition, when members of the pack that are 6 months or older are killed, this will leave fewer adults to help feed the pups. It is important to understand that the parents of the pups depend on the help of pack members to feed the pups. So with reduced pack members, the remaining adults are under pressure to kill larger and more vulnerable prey like livestock and deer fawns. Without this pressure the pups can easily be fed with smaller wild prey.

Because predators like coyotes also learn what is appropriate food when they are pups, and are reluctant to try ‘new’ food sources unless under great stress (such as having to feed a large litter of pups) killing of coyotes, in effect, may be seen as forcing coyotes to try new behaviors (eating domestic livestock) which they would otherwise avoid.

 Coyote’s Regulation of their own Populations: Killing the alpha female does nothing to control coyote populations. If she is killed, another subordinate female in the pack or a new female from outside the pack will quickly take her place. Coyotes have been practicing this for centuries, and they know what they are doing.

Widespread killing of coyotes causes their population structure to be maintained in a colonizing state.  What does that mean? To understand this concept, just take a look at European colonization of our American continent. The more true historical accounts you read, the more you are aware of the chaos and disruption of lives that took place during that time…including both our Native Americans and the Europeans. Life was not being lived according to the norms of either society.

Photo: Tim Springer

So widespread killing which causes coyotes to live in a colonizing state immensely disrupts their ordered life, and disintegrates their complex social structure. For example, the average age of a breeding adult in an unexploited population is 4 years old. By age 6 reproduction declines, whereby older, alpha pairs maintain territories but fail to reproduce. These elder coyote mates have no need to feed hungry pups, and so any potential for them to kill livestock is greatly diminished.

However, consistently killing coyotes keeps their age structure skewed to the young, (average age of an alpha is 1 to 2 years) who are far more reproductively active, and for a longer time in their lives. So the natural limitations coyotes have established in older-aged, unexploited populations are absent, and the coyotes live in a constant state of social and spatial flux.

So it is important for a farmer to know that when someone kills members of the coyote pack that lives on their farm, their livestock can almost immediately be at higher risk of predation. Understanding Coyote ecology then helps the farmer make decisions about how the coyotes on his farm are treated.

So be Vigilant …

Of any signs of baiting on your farm or near your farm. When an individual is seeking to kill coyotes by baiting them with the flesh of domestic animals like cows, sheep and chickens, for example, they are introducing wild coyotes who have never tasted domestic livestock, to the taste of them. And once they have tasted domestic livestock, that is when the conflict can begin.  Worse still, if parents feed their pups with domestic livestock vs their wild prey, the pups from early on have acquired that taste, and will continue to pass it on to their future pups.

A new 2011 Law is in place in Maine that requires written permission from the landowner when anyone wants to bait on their property, in order to kill coyotes.  Prior to this law, no permission was required, placing farmers at great risk.