What do you really know about coyotes? Maybe you’ve heard the official line about the economic consequences of coyotes killing livestock. Maybe you know of a neighborhood cat that was taken. Maybe you’ve heard conservation groups protesting inhumane treatment of these animals, or recall Mark Twain’s “slim, sick, and sorry-looking skeleton…a living, breathing allegory of Want.” In reality, these animals are neither good nor evil, but are simply trying to survive the best they can in a world that is changing around them.
And as the coyote turns the cat to sweetness
in its mouth, a month-long stint of apricot
pit-, ant-filled scat, a month before of
birdseed, cricket, crappy sandwich; so,
don’t turn your back; befriend them; grab
and wave a stick; the twenty doses meant to still
their little ones were killed inside coyote,
and outcome: snapping infant death: your indoor
dogs, and bitten, squalling children
Karen Leona Anderson’s poem “Coyote” begins with a list of found items a coyote has eaten. Coyotes are omnivores and scavengers, meaning that they can and will eat just about anything. Though they have a bad reputation as killers of sheep, chickens, and deer, coyotes also eat snakes, foxes, rodents, pet cats, sandwiches, and garbage, for a start. This could be the key to the species’s success in a country where the large predators are either killed outright or squeezed out by human population growth.
Which isn’t to say the coyote isn’t targeted. They are one of the most vilified animals in North America. The Wildlife Services division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture specializes in “predator control,” killing thousands of predators to protect livestock and big game. The most common predator killed (at an estimated 512,500 between 2006–2012) is the coyote. Outcry by biologists and the public as well as a series of articles by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Tom Knudson led to ongoing investigations into this organization.
The problem with killing coyotes is that in some systems they act as keystone predators. Remember ecology: everything (plant, herbivore, carnivore) is connected to everything else in the food web. When part of the web is removed, it affects every other organism connected to it. A keystone, literally, is the stone at the top of an arch that holds up the entire structure. A keystone predator, then, is at the top of the food web. When it is removed, the delicate balance among interacting species is destroyed.
Removing coyotes has an effect on smaller predator (mesopredator) populations; in the absence of coyotes, populations of animals such as raccoons and foxes (and housecats!) increase dramatically. These mesopredators then consume far more eggs, birds, mice, voles, and other small animals than they should, and the populations of these prey organisms plummet. (Housecats in particular decimate bird populations.) In a cascade effect, whatever plants or insects the birds or mice feed on are then released from predator pressure, and they, in turn, multiply. Replace the keystone predator in the system, and order is restored. This is called top-down regulation: maintaining the balance of the food web below and around the top predator.
in rainpipes, basements, crawlspace, tenants’ dumpsters:
a fed coyote is a dead — what? Since they ate
even the stinging sugar-eaters, since when
they couldn’t eat they bred into your pets
a coyness, slipped behind the fence, endorphins,
dopamine sweeter than the kibble
— so what’s to want?
Whereas in the west, wolves, bears, and mountain lions act as apex predators, these animals have been almost entirely extirpated from the eastern U.S. In response, the sly coyote, omnivorous and adaptable, has taken the role formerly held by wolves. Genetic studies have shown that quite a few eastern coyotes are, in fact, coyote-wolf hybrids. As a result, they are larger than their western counterparts, and are behaviorally more wolfish. Unlike wolves and other large predators, however, coyotes aren’t picky about forests and open space. They easily adapt to live in suburban and even urban areas where food is abundant. Chicago, for example, has spent over a decade tracking hundreds of coyotes living in the city and thriving off of the rodent population.
Though coyotes were originally pushed out of rural areas by human expansion, biologists say that they are equally at home in the city. They pose no danger to us, so long as we allow them to remain wild. This means not feeding them, being sure to pick up your garbage, and taking pets inside at night. Don’t be so quick to judge an animal that is only surviving. Remember that every species has its part to play, and that designations of good or evil are restricted to those of us with morals and a conscience.
With eyes like lanterns out by the latticed gate,
a future soft-tanned pelt pulls up
and moves to the city, deceitful little trot,
about to whelp and, honey, because the wolves
are shot and wildcats museumed and moth-torn,
the city, hareless, knows it’s gone to them; omnivorous
I tell myself, so make yourself their home.
Special thanks to Karen Leona Anderson for permission to use her work. Please check out her lovely collection of poetry, Punish Honey. More information on Dr. Anderson is available here.
This post originally appeared on the I Spell It Nature blog.