A few nights ago at 9 p.m., the thermometer on the back porch read a springlike 60 degrees as I stepped out to listen for a few minutes. No owls on this night, but soon I heard a "yip." And then another. The local family group of coyotes was passing thorough the valley below.
For several years, I've been hearing coyotes occasionally, but I've still never seen one. And that's a big reason they have become so increasingly common and widespread. They are shy and ever alert.
Some people attribute the coyote's success to intelligence. I think it's natural selection at work.
I often hear readers blame state wildlife agencies for increasing coyote populations. They insist that biologists "release coyotes to control deer populations." It's a classic rural legend, and it is not true.
Coyotes are native to Western prairie states. They began expanding their range eastward at least 80 years ago. In "The Clever Coyote," first published in 1951, authors Stanley Young and Hartley Jackson list West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and Michigan among 21 Eastern states where coyotes had been living for at least 20 years. Today they live in every state east of the Mississippi River.
It's easy to attribute the coyote's success to innate intelligence and guile. Certainly coyotes are smart, but more important they are adaptable opportunists. Individuals that survive and breed are the ones that avoid traps and stay just out of rifle range. And most important, when poisoned, trapped, and hunted mercilessly by predator control agents out west, they responded by making more coyotes.
When coyote populations decline, more females breed and they produce larger litters. So when Western sheep ranchers persecuted coyotes back in the 1950s and 1960s, coyote reproductive rates increased. Females in controlled populations averaged seven pups per litter compared to four in uncontrolled populations. The result is that intense efforts to kill coyotes rarely result in long-term control. That remains true today, and it has just as much to do with fertility as intelligence.
Consider Pennsylvania, where there is no closed season and no bag limit on coyotes. The coyote harvest jumped from fewer than 2,000 in 1990 to more than 20,000 in 2006. And still they thrive in every county.