Massachusetts is one of the most densely populated states in the country. Is it any wonder then, that wildlife visits and occasionally inhabits our backyards? Many of the open spaces that wildlife previously had all to themselves are now filled with human structures.
Coyotes are resourceful creatures who have successfully adapted to areas altered by humans. They are able to survive in the forests and fields of rural Massachusetts, as well as the suburbs of Boston.
Coyotes are wary animals who will avoid people at all costs. The increased coyote sightings in suburbia have created unfounded concerns about peoples' safety in their backyards.
Since the 1920s when the first eastern coyotes, Canis latrans, appeared in forests in New York, there has been confusion about their ancestry. In 1957 and 1958 coyote specimens were taken in Otis (Berkshire County) and New Salem (Franklin County) confirming that coyotes were present in the state. Since that time they have been confirmed in every county in the state, including Cuttyhunk Island and Martha’s Vineyard in Dukes County.
Because it is 20 to 30 percent larger than the western coyote, people believed it to be a cross between a coyote and a dog, giving it the name "coydog." Even though coyotes and dogs have been known to interbreed both in the wild and in captivity, mortality in the offspring is high and they likely could not evolve into the resilient canids now known as the eastern coyote.
Researchers now believe that the eastern coyote is a hybridization between the western coyote and red wolves many generations ago in the upper Great Lakes region of the United States. It is theorized that as populations of the western coyote increased, they were forced to move east and north in search of food. As they moved into Minnesota they crossbred with eastern/red wolves and produced a genetically hardy animal able to sustain itself through New England winters.
The eastern coyote stands 23 to 26 inches tall with a body length of 42 to 52 inches, including a 12 to 15 inch bushy tail. Males are slightly larger than the females. In Massachusetts, females average thirty pounds and males average thirty-five pounds.
Except for their size, male and female coyotes look alike; both have long, dense fur which varies in color from grizzled gray to yellowish gray. The hair on the back is a mixture of gray, black and buff, with more black on the tail and less on the under parts and head. They resemble a German shepherd in appearance, but have pointed ears that stand erect, a more pointed muzzle and a very bushy tail which hangs down in a vertical position rather than horizontally as with the tail of a wolf or fox.
HABITAT AND DEN
Coyotes are an adaptable species, at home in a variety of habitats: open fields, thickets, marshes and woodlands. Their dens, which are occupied for the purpose of giving birth are located on slopes, banks, or rocky ledges and are often hidden under downed trees, stumps, or in culverts. Although capable of digging their own den, they frequently enlarge abandoned burrows of woodchucks, foxes, or skunks.
Even though coyotes and dogs are both canines, their behavior is very different when it relates to their family life. For one thing, the male coyote remains with the female after mating and provides food for her, as well as the pups while they occupy the den. The male is also completely involved in the rearing of the young. After mating, the domestic dog does not remain with the female or their pups.
Coyotes are mainly nocturnal animals, but can be active at anytime during the day or night. They are observed most often at dawn and dusk. Their home territory encompasses 5 to 30 acres depending on the location. The smaller territories are those in suburbia, which are often adjacent to open space where there is abundant food. Larger territories are found in non-fragmented forests.
Eastern coyotes do not mate until their second year and most are monogamous, remaining paired for several seasons. In Massachusetts breeding takes place in February and during March coyotes seek out and excavate their den sites.
In April, after a 60 to 65 day gestation period, the female gives birth to four to seven pups. They weight about a half a pound at birth and are nursed for about two weeks. When their eyes open, at 10 to 14 days, they also begin eating regurgitated food provided by the father. As the young grow and become more mobile the female also leaves the den to hunt. There are even reports of offspring from the previous litter bringing food to the pups. The pups are weaned at nine weeks and are hunting on their own by mid-summer.
When the pups are very young, traits emerge which identify one male and one female pup as being dominate over the others in the litter. In the fall, the dominant pups remain in the parents' territory, while the others disperse. These young, inexperienced coyotes, now on their own, have less than a 50% survival rate, cars, hunters, and trappers account for most of the deaths.
Many factors can affect the coyotes' diet: the season, competition with other animals, weather, and abundance of prey. In Massachusetts the bulk of their diet consists of deer, mice, woodchucks, voles, shrews, rabbits, beaver, muskrat, weasels, squirrels, and carrion. They eat ground-nesting birds and their eggs, as well as, reptiles and amphibians. When other prey is scarce they will eat a variety of insects including: grasshoppers, beetles and cicadas. When animal matter is scarce, they will eat available fruits including: apples, cherries, grapes, and strawberries.
COYOTES AND PUBLIC HEALTH
As with dogs, coyotes are susceptible to rabies. In Massachusetts from September, 1992, to the present, there have only been 3 confirmed cases of rabies in coyotes. To put the numbers in perspective, during the same time period, there have been over 1,800 raccoons and 75 house cats infected with the rabies virus.
Raccoons infected with the rabies virus were confirmed in Massachusetts in September of 1992 and since that time it has spread to nearly every community in the Commonwealth. The virus, communicable to all mammals including humans, had been working its way northward from West Virginia since the late 1970s.
Rabies is a viral disease that attacks the central nervous system, and without preventive treatment, is almost invariably fatal to wildlife. The virus, found in the saliva of an infected animal and transmitted through a bite or scratch, manifests itself in two forms, "furious" rabies and "dumb" rabies.
The local animal control officer or police department should be contacted if a coyote is displaying odd behavior, for instance, if it appears disoriented or unafraid of humans. <
The symptoms, which appear anytime from two weeks to three months after exposure and vary in each species, cause marked changes in behavior. An animal with the "furious" form can become aggressive, disoriented, and snap or bite at anything in its way; whereas, an animal with the "dumb" form is unnaturally tame or friendly.
- Good judgment and common sense will eliminate the chances of rabies posing a threat to people and their pets.
- Dogs and cats should be vaccinated against rabies.
- Obey state laws, which make it illegal to possess, or relocate wildlife.
- Avoid contact with wild animals and unfamiliar domestic animals, and be sensitive to unusual behavior patterns in your own pets. Do not pick-up injured or orphaned raccoons. Wild animals are unpredictable and, when stressed, can become aggressive. It is best to do nothing or let professionals handle the situation.
Exposure to rabies
If you suspect that you have been exposed to rabies, immediately wash the area with soap and water and call your doctor, local hospital, and board of health. The treatment of rabies no longer requires the series of shots in the stomach and is now quite simple.
Notify the animal-control officer in your community so the animal can be captured
For more information on the prevention and treatment of rabies, contact the Massachusetts Department of Public Health at 617-983-6800.
SITUATIONS AND SOLUTIONS
COYOTES IN YARDS
The prospect of an easy meal can bring coyotes into yards and close to homes. Coyotes have no understanding of "property lines." Pet food left outdoors, trash cans that are not secured, fruit fallen from trees and left on the ground to rot, even a grill smelling of steak can bring wildlife close to homes. Coyotes are also drawn to an area by the availability of small mammals, which are attracted to the same food sources.
The following steps, offered by MassWildlife (Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife), will make your property less attractive to coyotes:
Don't feed coyotes. Feeding ultimately alters the animals' behavior. They become dependent upon and less wary of humans. This can lead to potential problems (bites, scratches, and encounters with pets).
Don't leave pet food outdoors! If you must feed pets outdoors, provide only the amount your pet will consume in one feeding.
Do secure your garbage! Coyotes are capable of knocking over trash cans and tearing open trash bags left in the open.
Don't approach or try to pet a coyote! Don't provoke an encounter with a coyote by coming to close or restricting its free movement.
Do not approach a coyote den or coyote pups! Both the male and female coyotes raise the young. So, even if it appears that the pups are alone, it is very likely that there’s an adult nearby watching them.
Automobiles are by far the number one killer of house cats, but a roaming cat or small dog can also be perceived as prey by coyotes, Great Horned Owls, fishers, and, on rare occasions, a female fox feeding young. Coyotes are opportunists and there have been rare cases of an unattended small dog being taken by a coyote.
ATTACKS ON PEOPLE
There have only been 4 coyote attacks on humans in Massachusetts since they were first confirmed in the state in the 1950s. Dogs, on the other hand, have attacked and killed 43 humans in the United States between January, 2010 and September, 2011. Coyotes have a healthy fear of humans and just want to be left alone.
COYOTES AND THE LAW
Re-locating wildlife is illegal in Massachusetts. It is detrimental to the well-being of wildlife as well as the public. Unknowingly, sick animals may be transported and released in other locations, causing the spread of disease. Animals released in unfamiliar territory have a hard time surviving. They must compete with resident animals, and they have difficulty finding food and shelter. Furthermore, relocation is ineffective: each time a territory opens; there is always another animal "waiting in the wings."
It is also against state law to possess wild birds and mammals. Wildlife rehabilitators are trained and licensed by the state to care for injured and orphaned wildlife. If you need the services of a wildlife rehabilitator, please go to: MassWildlife for an up-to- date list. MassWildlife (Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife ) can also be contacted at at 508-389-6300 or Mass Audubon's Wildlife Information Line can be reached M,W, F, from 9am to 4pm at 781-259-2150..
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