FAUNA: Wile E.

by Mary Parker Sonis
In 2007, a young male coyote named Adrian entered a Quiznos in Chicago’s Loop district and settled down for a rest by the beverage containers. It happened when the lunch rush was just over and the restaurant had opened its door to let in a bit of fresh air. He was not rabid or starving; he was simply looking for a quiet hiding place and found himself a comfortable spot nestled next to the Gatorade. Without a great deal of fuss, animal-control officers apprehended Adrian and relocated him to a wooded, fenced refuge on the outskirts of the city. Adrian was a coyote who was habituated to human beings.

The coyote is one of the most adaptable creatures on Earth. Since the 1800s, Canis latrans has been expanding its original range in the northwest United States to it present range, which includes the lower 48 states and Alaska. Millions of dollars have been spent to eradicate the friendless coyote; they have been poisoned, trapped and hunted, but coyotes thrive in every environment.

The male coyote does the hunting for his mate and pups in denning season. While the pups are young, the female remains in the den with her offspring. Photo by Mary Parker Sonis

How has the coyote managed to outsmart every effort to remove it? Wolves have been driven to near extinction, but the clever coyote has flourished. The varied diet of the coyote has proved advantageous. The ever-hungry coyote will eat almost anything, from rodents to rubbish. Fawns, insects, ground-nesting birds, berries, dog food and pets are all regular food sources. In addition, the clever coyote insinuates itself into any environment. City-dwelling coyotes are usually bolder than their rural cousins because they have learned the ways of our society.

Our everyday habits have extended an open invitation to this highly intelligent canid. The bird feeder in your yard draws rodents, and rodents are an easy food source for the coyote. A dish of kibble on a back deck will provide two meals for the coyote. Urban coyotes frequently prey upon feral cats, and when the supply of cats is exhausted, the coyote will return to these city locations to feast on the cat food that has been left out for the felines. What is most noticeable about the coyote when interacting with humans is that a coyote has his nose in everyone else’s business. Most animals observe us in the woods in order to avoid human contact. A deer that sees a human will simply flee to another wooded location, but the coyote has other plans.

I spent the past month visiting a pair of local coyotes that have a den with pups in the Carrboro area. Summer is a great time to observe coyotes because they den in summer. They have a reliable home base, and if you find a den you will eventually see the male coyote hunting or returning from a hunt in the vicinity. The female remains with her pups, but when the pups are young she will not allow her mate to enter her den. He may be a reliable provider, but still a predator. Does no one trust this creature?

The male coyote races across the field with long low strides. He will hide in the brush but continue to observe any intruders. Photo by Mary Parker Sonis

The male coyote in question has caused quite the disturbance in the neighborhood. Dog walkers have been followed closely by this rangy fellow, as he wants to know everything anyone is doing near his den. This is fairly typical of coyotes. Domestic dogs often kill coyote pups and, in turn, small domestic dogs are seen as food to the coyote. Either way, the coyote will pay close attention to any person walking a dog. The boldness comes from the habituation that any urban coyote experiences when in contact with humans. Our local “prairie ghost” is curious, but he has not attacked any pets or livestock.

One rainy morning shortly after dawn, I was in my usual waiting place. An hour passed with only the occasional yips and barks from the growing pups and no sign of Wile E. I kept my camera ready, resting (and towel wrapped) on the windowsill of my car. I sipped on a Coca-Cola and waited. An hour later, the low, trotting form of the male appeared at the edge of the woods. He paused and looked directly at me. He did not retreat, but ran quickly across his field, head turned to keep me in his sight. The run was not a dog’s run. The tail was low and straight, and the stride had none of the bounding joy of a domestic dog. A coyote may look like a slim dog, but the gait reveals him as a wild animal.

I took a few frames, and Wile E. had disappeared. I knew this was not the end of the encounter, because the coyote is a very nosy creature. I drew the camera inside the car and waited. This time I kept my eyes on the rearview mirror – no sense in letting him know that I was watching him too. A few minutes passed, and I saw his head peek out from behind the car. He waited, and retreated. I drank my Coca-Cola. After a few minutes, he walked directly into the path behind the car and stared at me. He stood motionless, thinking he was unobserved. The prairie ghost thought I was occupied. I had not turned my head in his direction.

It is the coyote’s way to sneak up close behind. They usually hunt in pairs, and often, when you are keeping your eyes trained on one coyote, the mate is quietly approaching you from the rear flank. Such clever creatures! I leaned out the car window and craned around to line up my shot. For a moment, we stared at one another. His eyes were a luminous shade of amber. The stare was not predatory, but curious – and very intelligent. The coyote has survived by being smart and hitching his star to the most intelligent of all predators. Dogs have survived by using their intelligence to ingratiate themselves to humans, but the coyote has studied mankind in order to raid the larder.

Even in encounters with wolves, the coyote has survived. To this date, only the presence of wolves has made any dent in coyote numbers. Wolves will kill coyote pups and adults, and coyotes will kill wolf pups. The two species are mortal enemies. Large packs of wolves will often kill coyotes that have the audacity to attempt to steal from a wolf kill. In response, the coyote has had to use its cunning to outrun the heavier, faster wolf. When being pursued by wolves, the coyote has learned to lead the wolf downhill. On a downhill slope, the coyote will sharply change direction and charge uphill. The heavier wolf cannot stop its own momentum and is unable to negotiate the sudden reverse in direction.

Humans have entirely failed to curb the coyote population. In areas where coyotes are vigorously hunted, the female coyote produces larger litters that are able to reproduce at younger ages. Even if a particular coyote is killed, the area still remains a coyote territory, and another coyote will quickly fill the void. The fight to rid the land of coyotes is doomed to fail.

The female coyote remains close to her den but keeps an eye out for possible danger. She is smaller in height than her mate and has more delicate features. Photo by Mary Parker Sonis

The coyote is a native species that can benefit us by controlling rodent populations. We have driven the wolves off our ranges, and only the wolf holds any sway over the coyote. Our wildlife-management techniques are no match for this shrewd canid. Our only viable choice is to learn to live with the coyote. We can lock up our food, keep our pets in at night and keep our eyes open when walking dogs near known den locations. For those neo-urbanists who believe that the answer is in cutting down our forests, remember that the coyote can adapt to a paved driveway if a pasture or forest is unavailable. If a coyote approaches you, a bit of loud noise will usually drive him off. Hold your ground and do not run away. Border collies chase – and so do coyotes.

Whenever I hear long chilling howls in the night, I am reminded that we still have a bit of the wild left in Carrboro. There is a forlorn elegance to Wile E. that makes me wish him luck. I see his ribs beneath his rough coat, and hope that he finds an easy day to provide for his family. His delicately featured mate peers out expectantly from the tall stalks in the field, waiting for his return – and I can only wish them well.

2 replies on “FAUNA: Wile E.”

I don’t know if it was the same Wile E. that nabbed one of my chickens the other day. I have since put in a higher fence in hopes that will deter future raids. I live near Rogers Rd. It was about 8 am and raining when I heard my chickens making a noise like I’d never heard before. When I went to the window I saw the coyote from about 20 feet away. He or she jumped over the back fence with one of our favorite hens. The one I saw looked lighter in color than the one shown alongside the road in the photograph near the top of the article.

What a shame. Coyotes can climb most fences in an instant. You need not only a high fence, but a coyote roller on top…really, even an eight foot fence won’t protect your chickens because they scrabble up fences easily. They dig well too, so go down with that fence under the soil a few inches. All your chickens are in danger now..and I think you need an enclosure. The coyote will be back. I am so sorry that you lost your favorite hen.

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