Tim Lockley: Don't offer coyotes a buffet, or even a snack

This is my second article on coyotes this year, but there's been an uptick in the number of coyote sightings as of late. Just last week, a neighbor of mine spotted two of them trotting down the railroad carrying a small dead dog. There may be more sightings, but it is unlikely that the coyote population has suddenly bloomed.

This time of year, the young males leave their family unit and begin looking for their own territory to claim. The males are especially territorial and will drive off competitors. Unfortunately for us, they consider dogs to be competitors.

Coyotes can be found from southern Canada to Central America. Our modern highways have paved the way for these expansions, bridging barriers such as the Mississippi River. Humans have eliminated most major predators such as wolves and mountain lions that otherwise would control coyotes. We've expanded into their natural territory and now, due to population pressures, coyotes are returning the favor by adapting to our manmade habitats.

Coyotes are predators. They prefer to feed on rodents and rabbits, but they also will consume just about anything organic. If they can digest it, it's food. Come the end of the world, and cockroaches, rats and coyotes will be the only ones left to take over from us.

In the fall of the year, a coyote will gorge on large quantities of fruit. They also will munch down on large insects such as cicadas and grasshoppers. A hungry coyote won't pass up a meal of road kill even if it's a fellow coyote, especially in winter when other food sources are limited. If they can reach them, they will kill small pets, livestock or poultry.

Up North, coyotes have mated with wolves, creating a viable hybrid that is somewhat bigger than coyotes themselves. They are big enough to can take down a deer, something even the hungriest coyote would have difficulty doing. These hybrids are primarily in the northeastern U.S. and Canada, but they have begun to move south and are found as far down as Washington D.C.

Of course, I could be wrong about D.C. It could just be some congressmen wandering around in the dark.

Controlling coyotes should be done by professionals, especially in urban areas. However, there are things you can do to ameliorate their effects. Number one: Never feed a coyote. In recent years, a majority of the attacks on humans involved an attempt to hand feed a wild coyote. If a coyote finds you to be an easy mark, they not only will hang around, they'll tell their entire family about you.

Next, never leave small pets outside unattended where they can be attacked. Third, put your trash in tightly sealed containers and don't leave any pet food out overnight. Even your bird feeders can attract a hungry coyote through their attraction for rodents. If you have any fruit trees, pick up any fallen fruit and dispose of it.

Most human/coyote interactions occur during the spring and summer when coyotes are trying to feed their pups, but encounters can happen any time. If you run across a coyote, don't go anywhere near it. If they're too close when you come upon them, make loud noises. Coyotes are naturally fearful of us. However, constant association with people in urban and suburban sites can cause coyotes to lose that fear. If shouting doesn't work, try throwing something at them. If you are attacked by a coyote (and this does happen on very rare occasions), contact your local law enforcement agency.

For the most part, coyotes are our allies. In town or out of town, they help to manage rats and mice. It's our fault that they're here. We've created a coyote-friendly environment -- we may just have to learn to live with them.

Tim Lockley, a specialist in entomology, is retired from a 30-year career as a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For answers to individual questions, please send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Tim Lockley, c/o Sun Herald, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi, MS 39535.