2004-10-22 / Beauty in the Backyard

Stories of the Trail

A coyote could be in your backyard
By Jim Welch

Editor’s note: Jim Welch was the host of SCETV’s NatureScene for 20 years. In Stories of the Trail, Welch shares his knowledge of some of the animals he studied and encountered while filming NatureScene . Working with him was Allen Sharpe, producer, director, video–grapher, and editor; and Rudy Mancke, naturalist.

Coyotes have always been considered one of the most hated animals. Families, farmers, and ranchers, especially in the West, have always accepted as truth the coyote’s reputation as predator of domestic livestock and family pets. Although a coyote would probably not turn down a taste of newborn calf or toy poodle, the animal’s criminal reputation is greatly exaggerated. Actually, studies show the coyote feeds mainly on rabbits, ground squirrels, small rodents, carrion, and even a few vegetables.

The coyote (Canis latrans) looks like a medium–sized dog, is about four feet long from head to tail, and weighs from 20–50 pounds. The color is gray or reddish–gray with rust–colored legs, feet, and ears. The nose is more pointed, and the tail is bushier than most dogs.

Because the coyote is nocturnal, his infamy is made even more sinister, and many states still offer bounty for his head. However, in spite of hundreds of years of trapping, poison baits, government hunters, and a contraption called a coyote–getter, coyotes have continued to multiply and spread out.

Coyotes can be found in all of SC counties today although a mere 20 years ago one would be hard pressed to find any. The Peterson Field Guide to Mammals , written in 1952 and revised in 1976, shows the geographic range of the coyote stopping short of the eastern states. Today, they have expanded their range across the Palmetto state all the way east to Maine.

When the crew of NatureScene visited the Cape Breton Island area of Nova Scotia, we spotted a coyote walking through a coastal park near the Cabot Trail. I approached the animal and was surprised when it lay down in some dense brush not far from me. Allen Sharpe, cameraman for NatureScene , brought the video camera to the site and set up to get pictures to use in the program. The coyote got up and walked within a few feet of us before disappearing into the woods.

Several of our NatureScene programs featured coyotes. The first one we ever saw in the wild was on the road into Lake Tahoe, Nevada. We stopped the truck and got several shots of it. A few years later, shooting a program at Yellowstone National Park we spotted a coyote mother and her two cubs. I wanted to get some close–ups and hiked through the brush toward them. The two pups crossed the road and bounded off toward their den. The female had stayed behind and shortly I found myself between the mother and her offspring. Most coyotes are shy and stay away from people, but in this case I was considered a danger. The female started toward me in a menacing manner. I quickly retreated without my close–ups.

On another occasion when we were shooting buffalo and elk herds in the Hayden Valley of Yellowstone, a coyote crossed the road quite close to where we were parked and loped up the hillside. We watched as it started jumping at something in the grass, and after several jumps it came up with a mouse and settled down to enjoy a meal.

To discover a coyote lurking in one’s own backyard can be unnerving to say the least. He may be the very one who ignores the recent studies about a coyote’s innocent food source. Discourage him, by all means. Bang some pots and pans together. Let him know he’s not a welcome dinner guest.

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