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Coyote: a dog for all seasons

By Jack Souther,

Whistler Naturalists

Of all the creatures that share our mountain playground at Whistler coyotes get top marks for intelligence and adaptability. Like the cartoon character "Wylie Coyote" who, after being flattened and blackened, miraculously bounces back to outwit his tormentors, canis latrans has survived persecution and radical changes in habitat.

Smaller and more adaptable than a wolf, the sharp-witted coyote has learned to infiltrate and thrive in almost every environment. The little "brush wolf" is equally at home in arctic cold or desert heat - in the remoteness of the tundra or the back roads and vacant lots of urban Vancouver.

Only part of this success is due to the coyote's cunning; they are also swift, tough, and incredibly agile. Able to lope along at 40 km/h, sprint at more than 60 km/h, and turn on a dime, coyotes can outrun, out-distance, and out-manoeuvre most of their predators and prey. Their senses of smell and hearing are so acute that they are almost always alerted to danger or a potential meal in plenty of time to react.

Although primarily carnivorous coyotes are not fussy eaters. Here at Whistler voles and mice are probably dietary staples, with the occasional hare or squirrel bagged on a good day. During the summer, berries, bugs and succulent shoots are added to the menu and, given the opportunity, coyotes will kill and eat domestic cats and small dogs. They are also scavengers and their natural diet is probably augmented with a fair amount of garbage.

Under favourable conditions both sexes can breed at one year of age. They are more or less monogamous and couples remain together for several years. The female excavates a den, usually at the base of a hollow tree or in a stream bank, where she gives birth to an average of three to seven pups in the early spring. The pups are weaned after about three weeks and both parents take part in their care, bringing food to the den and later training the young coyotes to hunt. In the fall the pups may or may not leave the family group. Like everything else about them the coyote's social structure is highly flexible and pragmatic.

If food is sparse and consists mainly of "single serving" small prey the coyotes disperse and hunt as individuals. Where larger prey offer the potential of community feasts the family groups stay together to form packs or clans that hunt co-operatively and team up to bring down larger animals.

Although coyotes have natural enemies, both predators and disease, by far the greatest number of deaths are caused by people. Where eradication programs have been attempted the coyotes have dealt with the increased mortality by breeding younger and having bigger litters - up to 17 pups at a crack.

So love them or hate them the coyotes are here to stay. And for some of us the high-pitched baying of the little "barking dog" is as much a part of the Canadian wilderness scene as the call of the loon.

Upcoming events:

On Feb. 27 at Millennium Place the Whistler Naturalists present Dr. Neville Winchester, a world renowned scientist who specializes in the study of rainforest canopies and the many forms of life that depend on the canopies. Dr. Winchester, who has studied the canopies of the Carmanah and Elaho valleys, among many others, has discovered hundreds of species. Slideshow at 7:30 p.m.

For more information on the Whistler Naturalists, contact Veronica Sommerville at: whistlernaturalists@canada.com

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