Critters in the Garden

Carol Lerew
RSABG Volunteer

Dusk folds into night. An animal slips under the fence from the Bernard Field Station (read more about Bernard Field Station) and silently pads across the road toward Indian Hill Mesa. She trots steadily, ears perked, alert and wary. She is beginning an evening of hunting in Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden.

Canis latrans (barking dog) is the scientific term for the coyote found from northern Mexico throughout the United States and into central Canada. The rangy western species weighs anywhere from 20 to 25 pounds, is about two feet high at the shoulder, and can be 40 to 60 inches long. Masters of camouflage, desert inhabitants’ coloring tend to be tan and grey, whereas coyotes living near open forest sport more black, grey and reddish coloration.

The coyote’s sense of smell is its strongest suit—exquisitely tuned to odors in the air and on the ground. Carol Cartaino, in her excellent book, "Myths and Truths about Coyotes," tells us that if the wind is right, they can smell a human a mile away. Urban coyotes use their noses to find garbage cans full of goodies, sort of their version of a visit to McDonalds.

Their extremely sharp hearing can detect sounds far beyond human hearing range, and some researchers say they can hear higher frequencies than dogs. Their acute hearing combined with their sense of smell makes them hard to hunt, capture or even observe.

The coyote song is the stuff of Western stories. Sometimes it resembles an eerie howl, other times a yodel or short yips. If you’ve heard that cry on a summer night while camping, you’ll probably remember the chill that raced down your spine.

Coyotes dine on vegetable matter, such as berries, along with a variety of rodents. They will eat carrion as well as kill domestic fowl and young livestock.

Coyote pups are born in a den in early spring, with two to five in a litter. The male helps raise the family by bringing in food and baby sitting but will leave when the pups are older. The pups will remain with the female for up to a year.

The coyote was hunted mercilessly when pioneers moved west bringing their livestock with them. Ranchers believed the animals preyed on lambs, calves and even adult stock. Bounties on pelts were ongoing programs until recently. But efforts to eradicate the coyote were only partially successful.

The coyote is VERY smart and learns quickly. In fact, an old Mexican saying insists it is “the smartest person next to God”. The battle is ongoing because the fact is coyotes do take their share of livestock.

The coyote figures as one of the most popular in the myth lore of many Native American tribes. He can appear as the creator himself or he may be the messenger of the creator, the trickster, the fool. More often than not, he is the trickster. In one story “Coyote takes some water away from the Frog people because it is not right that one people have all the water.”

The urban coyote has adapted easily to human population. It lives at the edges of towns and cities, even within cities themselves like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. Availability of food draws the animal to garbage cans, well-meant handouts, pet dishes, even to the pets themselves. The close proximity to humans has caused the coyote to lose its fear of people, with some disastrous results. Coyotes attack young children because they are the same size as prey and are vulnerable. People are warned to not feed coyotes, keep their pets indoors and never leave a young child unsupervised where coyotes are present. This warning will continue while we share our world with this intelligent animal.

Light streaks the eastern sky. Coyote descends from Indian Hill Mesa, a fat ground squirrel clamped in her jaws. She cautiously crosses the road, always alert for danger, and crawls under the fence into Bernard Field Station. She is headed for her den and two hungry pups awaiting breakfast.