Nov/Dec 2008For Wildlife Watchers: Coyoteby Rob Simbeck, photography by Phillip Jones

In one of the best-ever episodes of The Simpsons, Homer eats hot chili peppers that trigger a series of hallucinations. In a bizarre desert world, he arrives at a pyramid where he meets his spirit guide in the form of a coyote voiced by Johnny Cash. The notion that a coyote could bridge the temporal and spirit worlds would not have seemed outlandish to any number of Native American peoples. Coyotes - cunning, intelligent, indefatigable - play major roles in the belief systems of many of the tribes of the Plains and the Southwest. In Navajo tales the coyote is a trickster, a wise counselor, even a deity.

"The coyote is one of the major players in creation, in the making of the constellations," says Delores Noble, a senior education specialist with The Navajo Office of Diné (Navajo) Culture and Language. "In fact, we have a series of coyote stories told through the winter to our students. They are moral stories that help them to become thinkers and help instill in them wisdom."

European settlers had their own tales and imbued the coyote with similar mystical powers. One legend held that the coyote could hypnotize a chicken on a roost and get it to fall, mesmerized, into its gaping jaws.

We have a primal connection to the handful of canid species in the world - wolves, jackals, foxes, dingos - recognizing in them some of our own best and worst attributes. They stimulate deep emotions in us. In their cleverness, their playfulness, in both their solitary and communal guises, we see ourselves. Of all the relationships we have with the animals we have domesticated, our link with dogs is perhaps the most intimate and the most mystical.

Canis latrans - barking dog

Description: General appearance of small German shepherd with erect ears, slim muzzle, grizzled fur and bushy tail held downward. Two feet tall at shoulder, averaging 35 to 40 pounds.

Range and Habitat: Versatile; can adapt to many climates. Found through much of North and Central America, and in every county in South Carolina.

Reproduction: Breed January through March. After gestation of 63 days, give birth to an average of 5 to 7 pups, although much larger litters are possible.

Viewing Tips: Generally nocturnal. Late evenings and early mornings are good viewing times.

Coyotes are wily opportunists, and it is when they compete with us or steal from us that we most loathe them and are the most brutal in our reprisals. Known to poach our livestock, they have been killed by the tens of thousands, and there are still open hunting seasons on them in the East and bounties in the West. In the eastern United States, coyotes are newcomers, moving into an ecological niche once occupied by wolves. Native to the western United States, they moved eastward in two waves - across southern Canada and through Louisiana and Arkansas. In South Carolina, as in some other states, those waves were supplemented by coyotes' initial introduction by groups of hunters.

"It was suspected that some of the early ones may not have had to walk as far as some of the ones naturally immigrating to South Carolina," says Jay Butfiloski, Furbearer Project supervisor with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. "They were the ones translocated by houndsmen. However, coyotes were coming whether they caught the 'express' route or not."

He is quick to dispel the unfortunately common rumor that the DNR has stocked coyotes to help control the deer population. It's simply not the case, he says.

These are adaptable animals, and they are found in every county, in every type of South Carolina habitat, from the mountains to the coastal swamps. After years of expanding numbers, though, their population may be starting to level off, Butfiloski says.

Like many animals, coyotes vary in size by latitude. In South Carolina, they are a little smaller than German shepherds, which they resemble to some degree, with pointed, erect ears, a long, thin muzzle and a drooping tail. They can weigh anywhere from 25 to 75 pounds across their total range, although in South Carolina they generally range from 35 to 45 pounds.

They are fast, capable of hitting 40 miles per hour, and have great stamina, stalking or traveling over long distances. Their primary food source seems to be rabbits, although they will eat rodents, insects, carrion, berries and fruits - they've been known to tear up watermelon patches. They are basically solitary hunters but will occasionally hunt in packs to bring down fawns or even adult deer. They will kill livestock and are thought to take up to 1 percent of the nation's domestic sheep. They have also been known to kill dogs and cats, although such reports in the state are not numerous.

Coyotes breed from January through March in South Carolina, forming monogamous pairs. Though they generally bed down in tall grass and brush, they will dig new burrows or expand those of other animals to raise their young, and they may use abandoned barns or outbuildings. Gestation lasts just over two months, and a litter can contain well over a dozen pups, although five to seven is average. There have been reports of coy-dogs, cross-breeds between dogs and coyotes, but there is, says Butfiloski, "nothing confirmed in South Carolina." Both adults hunt and regurgitate food for the young, which stay in the den for most of the first month and are weaned at about two months. Young males leave the family group late in the fall, while females may remain into the next spring. As with most animals, survival rates are low, and sometimes only one or two of a litter will make it to adulthood.

Diseases are often a problem with coyotes, who are susceptible to distemper, parvo, rabies, mange and hepatitis. They are also subject to fleas, ticks, worms and other parasites.

"We don't get a lot of reports about rabies, and very few coyotes are submitted for testing," says Butfiloski, "probably because there is less interaction around people than with raccoons and, to a lesser degree, foxes."

There are no confirmed cases of canine distemper in free-ranging coyotes in the state, he adds, despite a recent outbreak among foxes and raccoons in the Columbia area. It, too, is because few, if any, coyotes have been tested.

Although they are a relatively new addition to the South Carolina landscape, coyotes hearken back to a time when wolves populated the state, renewing our often ambivalent relationship with the family of wild creatures whose descendants are now with us as pets. The sense that the kinship is more than physical is still with us.

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