AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is the third installment in a series on varmint hunting.
"A coyote's breakfast is a drink of water and a look around." — Old proverb
It's tough to be a coyote. Similar to the crow, which I addressed last time, not many people are big fans of the coyote. For this reason, the coyote usually gets put in the "varmint" class of animals, which for us hunters means they can be hunted almost all year long.
The coyote is a very adaptable and intelligent predator. To me, he fits in the middle of the canine predator scheme because he is smaller than the gray or timber wolf, but larger than his little cousins the red and gray foxes. Many years ago, the coyote was found almost exclusively in the western states, but he is now present in every state east of the Big Muddy.
Now every time we talk about the coyote here, it seems I have to address the well-known myth that the coyote was restocked in the eastern states, with the story usually that it was done by one of the state natural resources agencies. I am just going to say that if you truly believe the coyote was brought into your state by a government agency in a secret manner and the whole thing has been kept secret for so many years, then adjust the tinfoil hat you are wearing and keep on truckin'.
The coyote enjoys a lot of attention in Native American lore and the mythology realm. In various stories from various tribes, he is often depicted as a wily trickster; often, he is seen as having the power to change shapes and have the form of the coyote or a man. In his role as a trickster in these stories, the coyote would use his intelligence to deceive and tease other animals and rebel against various social conventions. In other cultures, he was a symbol of military might or depicted as the creator.
The coyote is carnivorous but will eat such a wide variety of things that you wonder if he should be listed as an omnivore. Any small mammal or bird the coyote can catch is on the menu, including rabbits, mice, squirrels, grouse, groundhogs, turkeys and songbirds.
Deer are definitely a food item, and exactly how many of them are eaten by coyotes is always a topic of discussion for hunters. Some studies seem to indicate that fawn deer in the spring are especially susceptible to coyote predation. How many adult deer are taken seems less clear. A group or pack of coyotes working together is certainly capable of taking down a full-grown deer; how much they actually do that, though, is always a topic of discussion.
One of the bad habits that keeps the coyote on the varmint list is his affinity for mutton. The domestic sheep seems to be especially hard for the coyote to turn down, and there are no doubt farms in the eastern United States that have been put out of the sheep business by the coyote. A more recent discovery about coyote eating habits is that they certainly like our pets, both house cats and small dogs. Coyotes are now found around some large cites and suburbs, and it is no secret they will often prey on pets, so be advised if you think there might be some coyotes in the neighborhood.
Coyotes will eat a lot of other items, including plant and vegetable material when it is available. Peaches, apples, pears, watermelons and other fruits and vegetables may all sometimes appear on the coyote menu. Various insects may also be used for food in times of great abundance, such as a 17-year locust event.
There are at least 19 subspecies of coyotes recognized by scientists. The familiar slim build of the western coyote gives way to a larger version in the Canadian plains, where their light buff-colored thick pelts make them the most desirable for the fur trade. The eastern coyote has long been considered a different animal than his western cousin. The eastern coyote is usually larger and may exhibit some color variations not seen in his western counterpart. The dark brown or almost black color phase sometimes seen in eastern coyotes is a result of a color mutation similar to what occurs in domestic dogs, scientists tell us, but not from a hybridization of crossing with dogs. The eastern coyote reportedly has a higher instance of some DNA linked to wolves, both timber and red, than the western coyote.
The coyote's taste for everything from deer and turkeys to sheep and cats and dogs keeps him on the varmint list and allows for year-round (or at least long) seasons in most states. Predator calling — that is, imitating the call of a small prey animal such as a rabbit or the distress cry of a fawn deer — is big business; dozens of hand-blown and electronic calls are available. Some states now allow night hunting for coyotes with the use of artificial lights, and many coyote hunters will tell you that is when they are most successful. Some coyote hunters now go to the level of night vision telescopic sights on a rifle to give them even more advantage.
Any ardent coyote hunter will tell you he needs every edge he can get, and he needs to be constantly aware of wind direction and concealment while being equipped with an accurate, flat-shooting rifle. Usually one shot at a wary coyote is all you may get.
Although the coyote is still kind of a novelty to some of us here in the eastern states, the fact is he is here to stay. We may not like it because he preys on the deer and turkeys we want for our own use, but Mr. Coyote is now part of the landscape. We can hunt him all we like and have a lot of fun doing it, but we are still going to have coyotes around.
The coyote is a worthy adversary for the varmint hunter in the late summer and early fall leading into the regular hunting season. Go out and give him a try — just remember that many of the Indian stories tell you what a trickster he is.
"The Trail Less Traveled" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.