Song Dogs of the Prairie

Song Dogs of the Prairie

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The songs of the coyote filter through the Nature Center at certain times of the day and year. Can you tell what song they are singing?
A coyote in the brush at the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge
An adult coyote observed moving through the Refuge in February 2021. Photo by FWNC&R Staff.

Have you ever heard a solitary howl when you are visiting the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge? The iconic sound could have come from one of the wild canids that calls the Refuge home — the coyote (Canis latrans).

The common name “coyote” is Mexican Spanish and comes from the Aztec word “cóyotl” or “trickster.” The scientific name Canis latrans translates to “barking dog” in Latin. Coyotes belong to the family Canidae, which includes dogs, foxes, and wolves. Historically, seven species of this family were known to occur in Texas — the coyote, gray fox, kit fox, swift fox, red fox, red wolf, and gray wolf. Of these, you might see a coyote, gray fox, or red fox on the Refuge if you are lucky. The kit fox and swift fox occur in the West Texas and Panhandle regions of Texas, respectively; two species, the red wolf and gray wolf, have been extirpated from the state.

Coyotes are highly adaptable and can commonly be found throughout the entire state of Texas, from wild and remote areas uninhabited by people to agricultural lands, densely populated urban areas, and everywhere in between. Coyotes are abundant and have a wide distribution range throughout North America. They also occur as far south as Panama in Central America, as far north as Alaska, and all but the most-northeastern parts of Canada. Historically, coyotes are thought to have been restricted to the southwest and plains regions of the United States and Canada and northern and central parts of Mexico before European settlement. However, with human expansion, land conversion, and removal of wolves across much of North America in the 19th century, coyotes began expanding their range, which continues to this day.

Coyotes are opportunistic and generalist predators and eat a wide variety of food items. This has helped them expand their range across much of North America and beyond — adapting, surviving, and even thriving in many areas where conditions may seem unfavorable (such as large cities). Generally, coyotes have considerable seasonal variation in their diet. During winter, carrion of larger animals such as deer, feral pig, and livestock are important food items. During spring, summer, and fall, food items such as rodents, rabbits, birds, and fruits become increasingly more important. In urban environments, even trash and rubbish can be an important food source. Coyotes will prey on large ungulates, livestock, and these species’ young, but being opportunistic, they generally take prey that is easiest to secure.

Coyotes may be active throughout the day but are generally more active during the early morning hours, in the evening, and at night. Home range size varies geographically, seasonally, and individually within populations but typically ranges from four to eight square miles.

Coyotes are highly social animals that form family units or packs. A male and female typically form a pair in mid-winter once the female comes into heat (estrous) and attracts a male counterpart. Breeding usually takes place from January through March. After a successful breeding, the pair will establish a territory and prepare a den site, usually excavated along brush-covered slopes, steep banks, thickets, hollow logs, or rock ledges. A female will produce a single litter per year, and litter size can range from two to 12 pups. Pups grow quickly and will reach adult size by early fall. Dens are typically abandoned by late June or early July when the family group starts traveling over a larger area in search of food. The young generally disperse from the family group in the months of November and December.

Non-family coyotes include bachelor males, non-reproductive females, and near-mature young. These coyotes may live alone or form loose, temporary associations for social contact and hunting. These groups will consist of two to six individuals, with one being more dominant. Most coyotes do not live longer than six to eight years in the wild.

Coyotes communicate by vocalization and scent marking and are among the most vocal of all North American wild mammals. They have three primary and distinct types of calls: squeaks or yips, howls, and distress calls. However, adults are known to make at least 11 different types of vocalizations. Coyotes call primarily to announce their location to others and to broadcast their hunting success. These unmistakable “songs” are most frequent during the breeding season (January through March) and early summer months.

If you are at the Nature Center (or practically anywhere) in the early morning hours, at dusk, or at night, you might just hear a coyote (or a few) singing their songs.

By Dustin McBride, Natural Resource Specialist, Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge

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