Curious Nature: Spring fever means coyote love
The sun is shining. The patios are overflowing. The neon one-sies are making their appearance. It must be springtime!
Here in the valley, we all know what March brings … spring fever! We are all getting geared up for spring skiing and summer activities, and love is in the air. Believe it or not, coyotes also get spring fever as the females are in breeding condition for five days per year between January and March. Coyotes generally court for two to three months before mating for life. When they are expecting, pairs will dig a natal den in a sheltered area, much like a human couple painting the nursery. Both parents, and many times pups from previous litters, help care for the young. Pups may emerge from the den when they are as young as two weeks old and are weaned at about six weeks of age. During these first weeks, important developmental interactions occur during play with littermates. Coyotes are social animals and these play fights, with aggression, submission, and posturing, establish the groundwork for future dominance relationships. Not only is the coyote social structure similar to that of humans, but coyotes are one of the few animals whose distribution increases in conjunction with humans.
Coyotes are similar to humans in that they don’t walk very well in snow, but they have learned to use human impacts such as snowmobile and ski tracks to access higher elevations to find food in the winter. These wily creatures are extremely adaptable and live throughout the continental United States. They live in all of Colorado’s ecosystems. The distribution of coyotes in Colorado was impacted by the extirpation of the gray wolf in the 1940s by federally funded bounty hunters. The removal of this specialist hunter has allowed the generalist coyote to expand in abundance and distribution. Controversy and emotions run high on the subject of coyote control. The fact remains that coyotes react to stress by having more pups each year and breeding at a younger age. No matter how much hunting and poisoning occurs on behalf of the livestock industry, the coyote population remains stable. In our efforts to control coyote populations, it is helpful to take a step back and see what we can learn from the coyotes.
The coyote’s role in ecosystems is to control populations of rodents and partially restrict populations of other small carnivores such as foxes, bobcats and possibly badgers by competition or direct predation. In turn, coyote populations are successfully controlled by food availability and larger predators such as the gray wolf. Coyotes have also learned to cooperate with other species, such as vultures, badgers and humans. As humans, we can follow this example and learn to cooperate with other species. We have learned that ecosystems are very complex and have many complicated relationships. When the delicate balance is interrupted, effects can be far-reaching. The removal of one species from an ecosystem can have ripple effects that we have no way of anticipating. With whispers and rumors of the controversial and endangered gray wolf making a return to Colorado, this may be a chance to embrace a return to the natural order. While we are beginning to feel the effects of spring fever and love is in the air, perhaps we can share a little bit of this love with the wild members of the canine family that call Colorado their home.
Jessica Foulis is a naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center. She enjoys teaching people about the tracks under the ski lifts and fostering love and appreciation for all of the plants and animals with whom we share our forest. You can usually find her outside doing something fun and smiling. Please come visit us at our campus in Avon or the Nature Discovery Center at the top of the gondola in Vail to learn more about Colorado’s wildlife.