Living with Coyotes: Myths & Realities of North America’s Song Dogs

[Article by contributing writer Melissa Grant, North Bend resident, wildlife enthusiast and owner of Miss Lola’s Academy for Wayward Dogs]

When the America’s were colonized, Canis Latrans – more commonly known as coyotes – were mostly confined to the western plains and arid parts of the country. Wolves typically occupied the forested and mountainous areas. Since then coyotes have taken advantage of the lower number of wolves and our growing population to now occupy every state in the nation except for Hawaii. Highly adaptable, they live in every habitat that we do, from our forests to downtown waterfronts.

In Washington coyotes look like a sort of small shepherd mix with a thick bushy coat in shades of brown, yellow, gray and rust. They average anywhere from 20 to 50 pounds with the males being slightly larger than the females. They live in the wild about as long as a domestic dog, 14 years. They live as solitary animals, in monogamous pairs or in small family groups with territories as small as 2 miles or as large as 40 miles. They are called “song dogs” for their wide variety of yips, growls, whines and howls. 

Myth– Coyotes vocalize to organize hunts or celebrate their kills. Fact-Studies show that vocalizing is mostly done by the Alpha males and females and is a form of communication between animals. 

Coyotes are opportunistic scavengers and hunters, meaning they will eat anything they can capture or find. They prefer to eat wild but will eat garbage, poultry, pet food and pets (mostly cats). They will occasionally kill domestic dogs (and foxes) if they view them as a territorial invader. They hunt mostly at night but will hunt during the day if undisturbed. 

Myth-Coyotes are vicious predators who routinely harass humans and their companion animals. Fact-While attacks do occur, in reality, they’re quite rare, considering all of the opportunities coyotes actually have to interact with humans and domestic animals.

I had little contact with these small native canids until about three years ago. I was out walking two large dogs on a trail on Cougar Mountain and a coyote pup happened along the trail in front of us. I saw him a couple of seconds before the dogs did, thought he would quickly run back into the thick woods like most of the wildlife I see and I would continue along my way. Imagine my shock when he just kept coming! He was a cute little thing, cocking his head back and forth as the two dogs snarled and lunged. Any second he’ll run I thought as I struggled to maintain my balance and hang on to the dogs. Nope, he kept coming. Eventually I lost my balance and slipped on the trail in what I think was an extreme ballerina pointe, breaking my leg. I guess that was finally enough to scare him away.

Photo: WDFW

Myth-Coyotes lure dogs to their death. Fact– Loose dogs often chase coyotes and those coyotes frequently have family members in the area. For a dog its all fun and games. For coyotes, who may have pups, its life or death. 

It was some time before I was back to walking dogs on mountain trails so I had time to mull that experience over. It was unlike any wildlife encounter I had ever had before. I found that they are typically curious but timid animals who will run away if challenged. My guess is that one was either too young to know better or so habituated to humans (Habituation occurs when animals are exposed to the same stimuli repeatedly, and eventually stop responding to that stimulus) that he stopped fearing humans. When animals stop seeing humans as threats they can unintentionally be hurt by humans. They can also be a danger to us (boy did I find that out) by allowing us to get too close. When startled an animal can feel threatened and bite, claw, kick or charge humans. Naturally an animal would never allow a human to come close enough to feel threatened. 

These animals are frequently seen in the valley. There has been considerable concern for the safety of our pets and children. Many pictures of these animals have been shown on social media and calls for something to be done because the animals seem very bold.

I’m afraid that’s our fault. 

First off, seeing a coyote in daylight hours is not a cause for alarm. They are probably looking to feed their families just like we do. A coyote who displays no fear of humans has likely been fed by humans. Probably not intentionally (although I did know a waitress at Denny’s years ago who would feed them milk bones) but we all need to be responsible with our attractants. Pet food should never be outside and garbage should be secured. It’s that simple. Tell your neighbors, tell your friends. Help our wildlife stay wild. 

Myth-Coyotes shouldn’t be seen in the day time and if they are, the animal may be rabid. Fact– Coyotes are rarely reported as rabid wildlife species.

So, what do we do about the coyotes that are already habituated like my little friend on Cougar Mountain? There has been talk of killing it which is legal but ONLY if it is threatening you, your family or your pets within city limits. But understand attempts to eradicate the coyote have happened for centuries and they respond by breeding MORE. Under normal circumstances only the alpha pair breeds but if something happens the pack responds by forming more pair bonds and in a year or two you have more coyotes. 

The seemingly kinder approach of relocation has also been tossed about but in the end, it is not a more humane approach. Relocated animals, not knowing the area, are often killed by cars, in territorial disputes with other animals or just in an attempt to get back home. 

So, what can we do? Trust me, I know how tempting it is to see an animal, want to drink in the experience and take pictures. I saw a long line of cars snapping away at a Momma bear and her cub last spring. Unfortunately for us that’s the wrong thing to do. That long line of cars should have been honking and flashing their brights at mom and baby making her understand that the parkway on a sunny spring day is the last place she wants to be. We need to haze the coyotes and convince them that our neighborhoods are a bad place for them.

I personally now carry a small stun gun when I’m out in the woods. It was not intended for use on an animal but to scare off an animal and keep my bones intact. It makes a funny noise and has a scary strobe that, so far, has made everything run away. Including my dog. You can buy air horns on Amazon or fill soda cans with pennies.  If you’re at home bang pots and pans together, spray them with a hose. Yell and wave your arms, stomp your feet make yourself look large and scary. Spray them with bear or pepper spray. If it doesn’t work the first time, keep it up convince them to leave

Please, help our wildlife stay wild. We moved here, we have a responsibility to peacefully coexist with the creatures who were here before us. They will always be here but they don’t have to be a problem. 

Coyote spotted recently near Jeanne Hansen Park on Snoqualmie Ridge in 2018. Photo: Facebook

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  • Coyotes and Dogs –
    Southwest of Spokane we farmed alfalfa and leased land for growing wheat or barley. There the coyotes frequently yodeled long into the starry nights. It would sound like there were a choir of 15 or 20 while it really was two or three. In the Snoqualmie valley their silence would make you think that music instruction was missing in coyote school altogether.
    The menu in southwest Spokane County definitely included Griffins,Jack Russells,Collies, and mixed breed dogs. Our long term friendship with my wife’s hairdresser was strained for a time after they entrusted the care of their small but expensive terrier to us while they took a week’s vacation.
    Letting the dog out for a potty break must have coincided with coyote dinner time. Neighbors watched, from their kitchen window, their small dog get carried away while they washed dinner dishes. We found dog carcasses in the field where a coyotes pair had been visiting. And yes, as my wife and I were taking an evening walk to a pond on our property a coyote ran from the brusy fence line out to a rocky island in the wheat field with our collie right on its heals. Once to the island of rocks and tall grasses the coyote slowed allowing our dog to get very close. We were frantically calling! In an instant one coyote became two and they were on the attack. No more being chased .The collie was ill equipped to handle two coyotes. Human intervention saved the domesticated animal’s life.
    We caught a baby coyote in a culvert and handling it with heavy welding gloves let our young children experience touching its soft fur under the course outer guard hairs. From then on that year we would claim a sighting of an immature coyote as our “Clarence”.
    So our experience in SW Spokane County said dogs were definitely on the menu, but 99% of the time we would observe coyotes in fields pouncing on rodents or raiding ground nesting sites. After we moved into this area of dense forests we see coyotes, but not often. We hear coyotes, but it is rare. After a significant snow it is easy to observe that the unseen “singing dog” continues to share our forests and is comfortable in our neighborhoods.

    1. We are told they kill off over 50% of the fawns in the spring. That’s enough for me to consider them a nuisance.
      Farmers are not fond of them either.
      Here in Ohio we just had one that attacked and bit a State patrolman in the leg he had stopped to help a car. It didn’t appear to be sick he said.

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