One evening as the sun slipped behind the Short Hills in Rockbridge County, Virginia, I had just shut the chicken coop when the evening quiet was broken by a series of barks and high-pitched yips. They were dog-like, yet eerie and wild—the sound of animals on the hunt. Our Lab picked up on the cries immediately, identifying them as a threat by her pricked ears and raised hackles. That was my first of many encounters with coyotes on the homestead.
Coyotes have learned to exploit the food resources of an area on par with any other mammal. Unlike the wolf, whose numbers have plummeted in the wake of human civilization, these highly-adaptable predators have expanded their range. Roaming every state in the continental U.S. from sea level to high mountain ranges, their living spaces run the gamut from desert, swamp, and tundra to grasslands, brush, and dense forests.
Although they prefer fresh-killed meat, coyotes will eat almost anything, including garbage, pet food, eggs, carrion, insects, and fruit. They have adapted to live practically anywhere, and—despite the best efforts of farmers and hunters to cut down their numbers—they are thriving in the city and country, and everywhere in between. Coyotes thrive in habitats where wooded and cleared areas merge, as these areas are usually rife with prey such as deer and small mammals (coyotes are more likely to kill fawns and older or sick individuals rather than healthy, adult deer).
Males here in the Blue Ridge max out at around 40 pounds and females at 31 pounds; farther west, they tend to be smaller. What they lack in size, they make up for in persistence and hunting prowess. Hunting for the most part in the twilight and pre-dawn hours, they move stealthily, blending into the landscape to sneak up on wild prey like rabbits and rodents. These cagey predators tend to steer clear of areas with a lot of human activity, but if an opportunity presents itself, they are tenacious and will wait until when no one is around to go in for the kill.
One spring a few years ago, I saw a coyote in my neighbor’s field nearly every morning hunting mice and voles. It’s not unusual to see a coyote out hunting during the day when they need fresh kills to feed their growing pups. This one probably had hungry mouths to feed back at the den. Rodents and rabbits were plentiful, so it had no reason to bother our chickens and risk a run-in with our dogs or us. It’s only when natural sources become scarce that they are forced to resort to killing new-born goats, sheep, calves, pigs, and chickens, even small household pets.
Deterrence has had little effect.
The trouble with coyotes on the homestead lies when they find easy prey on your land. We had a small flock of chickens that we kept for the eggs. The howls that Dan Flores called America’s “original national anthem” in his book Coyote America were a reminder to make sure the chickens were locked up and our dogs were safe inside the house. To homesteaders, farmers, and ranchers who raise livestock for a living, the howls take on far more urgency. Unattended small animals are easy prey for a lone coyote or a pack of family members intent on taking down a meal.
Some counties have placed a bounty on coyotes, but these programs have not been very successful. Harvesting coyotes, whether for fur pelts or other economic incentives (such as bounty hunting) does not have any significant impact on coyote numbers. Their populations are limited by food availability, which means that if a coyote is killed or dies in an area where prey is available, a vacuum is created and another coyote will move in. Coyotes also have a biological mechanism that triggers larger litters whenever their numbers drop.
When humans eradicated bigger predators like wolves and cougars, coyotes evolved to take over the job of keeping deer, rodent, squirrel, rabbit, raccoon, opossum, and feral cat populations in check. They also raid Canada Goose nests, eating some of the eggs and burying the rest for later. Particularly, in the southern U.S., where deer are smaller, they kill enough deer in suburban neighborhoods to keep their numbers in check. And by eating deer, they play a role in the control of Lyme disease, which is spread by deer ticks.
Defend your living space.
Wildlife managers admit that coyote eradication programs have largely failed and are encouraging livestock producers to focus instead on changing their practices to reduce predations. Coyotes are smart, observant, cautious, and elusive, so keeping them away from your pets and livestock can be a challenge. Simple solutions like keeping expectant animals and newborns in confinement, using electric fencing, keeping chickens in a predator-proof run, improving dead livestock practices so as not to attract predators, and using guard animals such as dogs, llamas, or donkeys will help deter predator attacks.
Livestock guardian dogs such as Great Pyrenees, Anatolian Shepherd, Kuvasz, Komondor, Maremma, and Rottweiler are breeds known to be effective herders and stock protectors. They can protect livestock in flock/pasture operations, on open range, and in feedlots not only from coyotes, but also dogs and black bears. It’s best to start with a young guard animal that will bond with your sheep, goats, poultry, or other stock. Successful guard dogs are trustworthy (will not harm livestock), attentive to the flock or herd, and aggressive toward predators. These traits are instinctive in livestock guard dogs and easily developed with proper handling and training.
Llamas and donkeys can also be useful to ward off predators. Typical responses to intruders include alarm calling; walking to or running toward the predator; chasing, kicking, or pawing the predator; or herding the sheep and positioning themselves between the sheep and predator. Curious and protective, donkeys will investigate disturbances within the herd and will bray, chase, and even attack pasture intruders. Once pursued by a donkey in full chase mode, dogs and coyotes will keep their distance. Just like other mammals, coyotes teach their young which situations to avoid, so taking measures to protect your stock will pay off down the road.
In addition, when working to protect livestock from coyotes, be sure you aren’t inadvertently encouraging them to come onto your property with sloppy habits. For example:
- Keep garbage cans secured in a locked shed until it is almost time for your trash to be picked up.
- If kept outside, make sure that your garbage can is strong and sturdy and has a tightly-fitting lid.
- Clean discarded birdseed around your bird feeders, and keep feeders up high so that coyotes cannot get to them.
- Keep your pets indoors at night, and accompany your small pets when they go out during the day.
- Avoid leaving water dishes out in your yard for your pets.
- Don’t leave dog or cat food out overnight.
- Keep cats indoors.
- Secure your compost by keeping it in locked bins.
- Close all openings under and into buildings to prevent their use as den sites.
- Remove brush or bush-hog to reduce the cover that predators can use to sneak up on domestic livestock.
It’s been said that nature abhors a vacuum. When humans wiped out the apex predators that were essential to maintaining a naturally functioning landscape, we opened the door to another talented hunter. The opportunistic and adaptable coyote moved into the landscape to fill the void. Where there is prey, there will be predators—it’s nature’s system of checks and balances playing out.