‘Robust’ population of coyotes in North Country may be part wolf
Sunday, November 21, 2010 - 7:13 am

By CRAIG FREILICH

Wildlife experts say that the “robust” population of coyotes in the Greater Canton-Potsdam Area is at least part wolf and larger than their Western counterparts, probably because of the wolf genes.

“We certainly have a robust coyote population including in the Canton and Potsdam area – just no specific numbers,” says state Department of Environmental Conservation biologist Andrew MacDuff. However, a good count of the Eastern coyotes is elusive, he says.

Adults, at 35 to 45 pounds, are five to 10 pounds heavier than the average Western coyote, probably because they picked up some wolf genes during their migration eastward, researchers believe.

They say it’s clear that Eastern coyotes are not so much a crossbreed of “coy-dogs,” although coyote-dog mixes are possible. But if there is a cross-bred factor to consider, recent research has bolstered earlier research that we might just as well call them “coy-wolves.”

Dr. Jacqueline L. Frair, a professor of wildlife ecology at SUNY’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry who is studying coyote population and behavior in New York with a few graduate students, says it makes sense that coyotes picked up some wolf genes as they migrated from the west of the continent arriving in the east early last century “because at the leading edge of population expansions, a given species is likely to be quite rare and have a hard time finding mates, so they might look for surrogates like dogs or wolves.”

Frair says a study out of the New York State Museum published last year “indicated that the early New York population of coyotes in the Adirondacks was founded by very few females that emerged out of the Ontario wolf range to the north and crossed the Saint Lawrence River bringing wolf genetic material with them -- albeit only a small amount of wolf genes. Ultimately, coyotes much prefer to breed with coyotes and now that they are numerous they have no problem finding mates, and even where they do overlap wolves -- in Ontario, Michigan, Wisconsin -- interbreeding would be a very rare event.”

Many people believe that the larger Eastern coyote is capable of hunting and killing white-tail deer, pitting the largest predator in the east against its largest prey, but Frair says the observations of her teams show their reputation as deer killers is overblown.

“It remains speculation because while coyotes may be capable of killing adult deer, our own research shows them not to have to, because there is a tremendous amount of dead deer out there to scavenge,” says Frair.

Frair also says the impression that coyotes hunt in big packs like wolves and wild dogs is wrong. Many people say that when they start their howling, it sounds like more than just a few, but Frair says they generally live in relatively small family groups of three to seven animals.

“Recently at a zoo I provoked two coyotes to howl and stood there amazed that in no possible way could I discern that what I was hearing came from only two animals,” Frair said. “Once more than one individual gets full on howling you cannot discern one individual from another and also cannot determine how many you hear. Indeed, it sounds like a hundred and like you are virtually surrounded by them once they set off a group call.”

According to the DEC, the Eastern coyote looks like a medium-sized German shepherd dog, with long thick fur. The tail is full and bushy, usually carried pointing down. Ears are erect and pointed. Adults are four to five feet long including the tail, and weigh 35 to 45 pounds. Males are usually larger than females. Their color varies from blonde or reddish blonde to dark tan washed with black. Legs, ears and cheeks are usually reddish.

Frair says coyotes’ preferred habitat is wherever the food is, and that coyotes “have about the most plasticity in their habitat requirements as any species I've seen.”

In New York, they are mainly where the deer are, “because that is the most abundant and readily acquired” food source, “from scavenging, mostly.” But she says they will also eat crickets, apples and other fruit, and garbage. “In the southern tier where our two diet studies were just completed, deer and rodents like mice, voles and squirrels were the dominant dietary staples year-round.”

“Also woodchuck, Eastern cottontail, turkey,” says Robin Holevinski, one of Frair’s researchers.

“They’re fascinating animals,” MacDuff said. “They’ve filled a niche that was probably vacant for a while. There were no large canid predators after wolves were extirpated” in the East.

“They draw a lot of interest. They’re known to be fairly cunning.”