Today I attended a lecture by Dr. Christopher Mowry who teaches at Berry College and founded the Atlanta Coyote project. The presentation opened with an image of a coyote (Canis latrans) standing inside Piedmont Park, which was taken in 2016. Coyotes belong to the Genus Canis, which is also home to the gray wolf (Canis lupus), red wolf (Canis rufus), and domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris). While the gray wolf and coyote are agreed to be clearly separate species by experts, the red wolf has a lot of coyote genes. Both the red wolf and coyote are endemic to North America, meaning they are native and only found in that region. Sadly, the red wolf is now only found in the wild inside Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina.
Historically coyotes were a great plains species. They moved westward for two reasons in particular. The gray wolf is a natural predator of the gray wolf as is the red wolf. Due to the elimination of these predators the coyote was able to expand into new territory. But historically there was a region in which the gray wolf and coyote did live together, known as an admixture zone, where possible hybridization occurred. Urbanization also created an ideal habitat for the coyote, as it creates more edge habitat which increases their food supply of small mammals. For these regions, the coyote can now be found in every state, except for Hawaii.
Coyotes are social animals like all Canis are. They live in territorial packs and have an alpha male and female in the packs. These are the coyotes that breed. Within the territory, there are also subadults. No territory holding coyotes are all transients, and they are unable to breed. The alpha male and female, along with their older offspring help raise the pups which are born in the earlier spring, typically March. This means that the coyotes reproduce during the winter, which is followed by a 63-day gestation period. Once born the pups grow up fast, and are sexually mature within a year but need a territory to reproduce. From aging their teeth, we know that coyotes can live to about 12 years but similar to dogs, the lifespan depends on a variety of factors. One-year-old pups have clean teeth. Young adults (2-4 years) have worn teeth and tartar on their teeth. Old adults (5+ years) have missing teeth and teeth that are worn down to the gums.
Coyotes are omnivores and have a wide-ranging diet, which allows them to thrive in urban environments. They eat everything from small mammals, grass, snakes, eggs, fruits, and insects. They have been documented fans of the persimmon fruit. Dr. Mowry’s students look through coyote scat which has increased the knowledge we have about their diet. When these food sources are reliable, like the food people leave out for cats, the coyotes can live in smaller territories and therefore have a higher density. This is another trait that allows them to thrive in cities.
There are many common misconceptions about coyotes. The 1st is that they are large animals, can weigh over 80 lbs. They are indeed 30-35 lbs in the Southeast. In the Northeast, they can weigh as much as 45 lbs but in the west where they are native 25 lbs. They also are not rabid if seen during the day. In fact of the 300 confirmed rabies cases in Georgia only 4 were coyotes. Normally they are crepuscular, meaning active at dawn and dusk, but if they lose their fear of humans they are active during the day. They also do not actively purpose cats as prey items but they are attracted to cat food left outside which can lead to cat deaths. Coywolves are not founded in this area, as there are no wolfs for the coyotes to hybridize with.
Lastly, killing coyotes can actually increase populations, not decrease them and they can not be relocated by state law. As I mentioned before the alpha male and females breed. If the alpha male or female is killed it can lead to the other adults in the territory breeding, and in the end more pups. The Humane society actually did a study on this. Legally if a coyote is trapped for relocation in Georgia it has to be killed.
Atlanta coyote project as formed in 2015 after a graduate student of Dr. Mowry sent out a survey asking people in Atlanta about their thoughts on coyotes. The results showed that the public wanted more information about them. The mission of the project is two-fold 1. public education 2. provide a place for the public to upload data. Since 2015, there have been over 1,000 sightings reported on the website.