The Aztecs worshipped the coyote (coyotl) as a hunting god, a mischief-maker, and a moon goddess for its baying at the moon. Native American legends portrayed it as a trickster: part god, part animal and part human. Americans are most familiar with its famous howl, which reminds us of the old west.
Today the coyote (Canis latrans i.e. dog barking) is as much a part of the east as the west and can be found in every county in Virginia and in every state except Hawaii.
The coyote resembles a small German Shepherd. It has erect, pointed ears; a long snout and yellowish, wolf-like eyes. Adults weigh between 20 and 40 pounds and are four to five feet long from the tip of their nose to the tip of their tail. The color of their fur can vary greatly from reddish blond to brown to light gray.
Coyotes reproduce once a year, breeding in mid winter. A den is usually dug under a tree, stump or rock pile. Following a two-month gestation period, females bear from two to 12 pups that are born blind and fully furred. Both parents help raise the young until autumn when the pups, weighing about 20 pounds, are on their own. Coyotes normally mate for life.
These carnivores are extremely adaptive and are now found in every state except Hawaii. Coyotes probably moved into Virginia in the early 1980s. They thrive in both natural habitats and areas that have been disturbed by humans. Open grasslands along interstate highways, open farmlands, fields and wooded areas provide ideal habitat for these cunning predators and have made their eastern trek less difficult. They can survive in urban areas as long as food and shelter can be found. They often use ravines and other natural corridors to travel between developed areas. Man’s elimination of competitive large predators, such as wolves, has also made the coyotes’ expansion much easier.
Coyotes are most active at night when they feed on a variety of prey. They can reach speeds of more than 40 m.p.h. when running down fast animals such as rabbits. They also eat rodents, birds, insects, carrion and even garbage. Fruits and vegetables are also part of their diet. Melon growers are not fond of the coyotes’ habit of biting several melons in the field until they find a ripe one. Their rare attacks on livestock also make them a nuisance to farmers and ranchers.
They have been shot, trapped and poisoned for over 200 years in North America and are considered a nuisance species in our state. However, coyotes are now the only natural predator of the over abundant white-tailed deer in Virginia. This amazing animal has not only survived, but has thrived despite man’s persecution and dramatic changes in its natural habitat, becoming one of the few large predators to expand their range in the last 100 years!
In a Sierra Club book, Wayne Grady says the coyote “combine[s] the sleekness of the cat, the quick intelligence of the fox and the brute wildness of the wolf. They also seem to survive, against all odds, with the tenacity of life itself.”
The Virginia Living Museum has a male and a female coyote. They are exhibited on alternate days.
Often when sirens go off at the neighboring fire station, the coyote and red wolf respond with audible howling. Listen to a coyote howling.
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