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Common Myths About Coyotes

Coyote 1 2 Butler Wide Credit

Coyotes are a deeply misunderstood species, the subject of many myths and a persistent stream of misinformation. Many of these misconceptions lead to coyotes being unfairly persecuted by hunters, ranchers, landowners, and government agencies. These practices completely disregard how vital and valuable coyotes are to the ecosystem at large.

Unfortunately, the misinformation surrounding this resilient species contributes to an enormous stigma against them. Many people find them frightening and actively call for their removal. However, coyotes are vital and valuable members of the ecosystem. They provide many ecosystem services, such as rodent control, reducing the spread of Lyme disease, carrion clean-up, and encouraging biodiversity.

Not only that, but they are animals who are simply trying to survive. Not unlike us.

Below are five major myths influencing people’s perceptions of coyotes:

MYTH: Coyotes howl and shriek when they’ve made a kill. Hearing their howls is a sure signal that they are celebrating a successful kill nearby.

REALITY: Contrary to popular belief, coyotes are not often very capable of taking down large animals such as healthy adult deer. Instead, they primarily consume small mammals such as mice and rabbits. These prey species typically equate to a small meal or a light snack – certainly not enough to share with a family group. Coyotes mostly hunt alone or perhaps in pairs, but they very rarely break into raucous song when they’ve made a kill. There’s simply not enough to share! Not only that, but howling alerts other potential prey that they’re near, which would be somewhat unwise if they’re hoping to successfully catch more food. While coyotes howl for a number of reasons (locating family members, advertising their presence to other coyote packs, rejoicing at reunions with their pack), it is highly unlikely that the cacophony of yips and howls you hear through your neighborhood is indicating a coyote hunt. They are much more likely communicating boisterous joy among family members!

MYTH: A coyote will try to lure your dog away from your home where the rest of the pack is awaiting to kill it.

REALITY: Coyotes and dogs, in many ways, speak the same language. While some of their vocalizations of course vary, much of their body language communicates the same thing. Dogs are naturally very curious, and often approach wild animals in an effort to figure them out. Some coyotes might respond with equal interest (note: it is crucial that you do not let your pets interact with wildlife even if their body language appears “positive”). Imagine however that this coyote becomes alarmed, uncomfortable, or simply finished with the interaction. The coyote may make attempts to retreat somewhere they feel more secure. But dogs often don’t understand that cue, and will follow. If that coyote or their nearby family begin to feel threatened or like they’re being pursued, they may react defensively – as any of us might! While coyotes are quite clever, they are certainly not plotting to send one of their own into a vulnerable position in attempts to lure a dog toward them for the slim chance of a meal. However, allowing our pets to interact with or antagonize wildlife places them into a perilous situation and puts wildlife at great risk as well. In order to protect our pets from harm, it is crucial we supervise them and keep them away from wildlife for everyone’s safety and happiness.

MYTH: Certain coyotes in the northeast are half-wolf – you can tell by their size or coloring!

REALITY: Unfortunately, due to mass eradication of the gray wolf throughout its historic range, there is no population of wolves in the northeast any longer. Thus, eastern coyotes are not immediate hybrids of the two species. However, in a 2013 study performed by ecologist and evolutionary biologist Javier Monzón, he found that eastern coyotes have a “hybrid swarm” of DNA, with all 427 coyotes he tested bearing varying admixtures of coyote, wolf, and dog ancestry. These traits are not identifiable to the naked eye and are confirmed only through genotyping. Coyotes can vary quite a bit in both their size and coat variations. Though they do have a mixture of ancestry, they are simply considered coyotes!

MYTH: If you see a coyote out during the day, they are likely rabid.

REALITY: Coyotes are crepuscular, which means they’re generally most active during dawn and dusk. However, coyotes are also opportunistic, which means they eat pretty much anything that is easily accessible. Their diets are primarily comprised of rodents, rabbits, fruit, and carrion (dead animals), but the availability of these food sources varies drastically in different seasons and locations. Seasonally, as with any species, there will be changes in activity level. For coyotes, much of their success is due to how adaptable they are to these changes! Though sickly or rabid animals will often behave abnormally, simply being out during the day is not confirmation enough that there is something wrong. Rabid animals will present as sickly, disoriented, stumbling, and unnaturally bold, among other obvious symptoms, and sadly do not survive for long once they are symptomatic.

MYTH: Coyotes are a major danger to humans.

REALITY: Coyotes are naturally quite wary of people, though over time can unlearn that fear if they are being fed or their fear isn’t being reinforced. They are quick learners, so they respond well to hazing (efforts to frighten them away). Though there are some instances where coyotes have approached or even bitten humans, these encounters are largely preventable and are statistically unlikely. In fact, according to the Humane Society of the U.S., you are far more likely to be killed by an errant golf ball than you are to even be bitten by a coyote. The fear and stigma coyotes are saddled with is unearned and quite unfortunate, and has major impacts on people’s perception of the species.