Monday, March 24, 2008

The Generalists

It seems a couple of coyotes are killing small dogs and cats in my neighborhood. You can't blame the coyotes; they're simply doing what coyotes do—trying to find a meal. Of course I understand the sadness of the pet owners too. You would think letting your pet out into the backyard would be a safe thing. After all, we don't live in a wild or remote place even though we do have a park and an area of reserved open space adjoining the neighborhood. More often you hear of wild animals adapting to, even thriving with, a nearby human presence. These animals are usually generalists. That means they have an extensive and varied diet, adaptability to habitat and a clever, resourceful mind. In other words, they have all the qualities that have made us humans so successful.

Coyotes tend to hunt in pairs although small fluid packs of 5 – 6 related adults may join forces for a time. When hunting as a larger group, they will hunt larger prey and do so with coordinated effort, much like a wolf pack. Usually, coyotes prefer smaller game and so have been less of a threat to livestock, and less noticed by humans. Coyotes are opportunistic. As wolf packs are driven out of habitat, or killed off, the coyote has slipped in to fill the predatory niche. Although once a diurnal animal, continued contact with human populations has made them nocturnal. Coyotes can survive on almost anything and include rodents, rabbits, carrion, fruit, insects, vegetables and human garbage in their diet. There's been at least one coyote caught in New York City's Central Park, and a den of coyotes live in Washington D.C.'s Rock Creek Park, keeping down the vermin population and eating nearby road kill. A recent census discovered that close to 2,000 coyotes live in and around the city of Chicago. Although most humans don't realize it, it is generally coyotes that keep neighborhood rabbit populations under control. I know last year our block was, literally, hopping with rabbits. Maybe that's what brought the coyotes. Unfortunately they've turned to easier prey and the rising outrage may prove their undoing. I truly hope that doesn't happen.

Photo courtesy of Justin Johnsen.

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