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Living Sanibel: The coyote is here to stay

By Staff | Aug 18, 2011

Photo by Judd Peterson Coyote

The name coyote is one of very few words that have come to us from the Aztec language. The Aztec name for this adaptive and intelligent member of the Canidae family was coyotl, meaning God’s dog. Prior to the 1930s the coyote was almost never seen east of the Mississippi River. Anyone familiar with old Western movies should appreciate the fact that the native habitat for this small canid was the open ranges and grasslands of the Western plains, where its familiar pose, howling at the night sky, is embedded in our collective psyche. Today the coyote has made it all the way to Cape Cod, and one was actually observed in New York’s Central Park. The eastern population tends to be larger than the western.

The coyote is a recent arrival to the South Florida landscape. There is no indication that it was ever here before now, but one thing is for certain: the coyote is in Southwest Florida and is here to stay.

While there is some debate over why the coyote so dramatically expanded its range and did it so rapidly, several factors come into play. One of these was the bounty hunting and trapping of both red and gray wolves. The wolf is a natural enemy of the coyote and will hunt and kill one when discovered within its range. Another factor appears to be the coyote’s propensity to hybridize with other canines, both wolves and domesticated dogs. Indeed, DNA evidence indicates that today’s coyotes are more of a genetic soup than a pure breed. The coyote may have gained additional intelligence by interbreeding with domestic dogs such as the German shepherd.

The coyote’s ability to adapt and survive in agricultural, exurban, and suburban environments has also contributed to its expansion. If ever there was an animal that survived the rise of human dominance in the past 10,000 years, it is Wile E. Coyote, who in the popular cartoon not only catches the Roadrunner, but also has him for dinner with a fine bottle of wine.

Urban sprawl has provided the coyote with ample cover, along with additional food sources such as garbage, roadkill, rabbits, and rodents. Small dogs and cats are favorite prey items for the coyote.

This article is an excerpt from “The Living Gulf Coast – A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida,” which is available in bookstores and gift shops throughout the area.

The coyote takes advantage of its nearly invisible profile. It tends to feed at dawn, dusk, and throughout the night. Because its footprints and scat are virtually identical to those of any small dog, it is impossible to identify a coyote by its tracks. The most likely time to see one is on a rural highway late at night when it is out foraging. The coyote is primarily carnivorous but is known to feed on berries, vegetables, and insects. Out West the coyote can be a real problem for sheep ranchers where up to two-thirds of lambs may be taken in a single year. The coyote also preys in packs upon white-tailed deer and young calves.

The only animal capable of preying upon an adult coyote in Southwest Florida is the panther. Bears are simply not quick enough to catch one, and the only other native canid, the red wolf, has long since vanished from our landscape. Coyote pups might fall prey to great horned owls and rattlesnakes. Aside from human trapping or poisoning, the coyote has few natural predators to keep its population in check. In Southwest Florida, if you live along the fringes of wooded areas or in subdivisions with large lot sizes, it’s probably a good idea to take your pets in at night and be on the lookout for this newcomer.