I remember the first time I ever observed a coyote in the wild. I was deer hunting on an early November morning from a deer stand that my Dad and I had made from ironwood earlier that fall. The location of the stand was adjacent to a narrow forest wetland choked full of sedge and red willow that abutted a tamarack swamp.
As the sun slowly rose and began to take the chill off the crisp and calm morning, I heard what I thought was an approaching deer - chish-chish-chish-chish, the sound went as the animal walked through the dry leaves as it drew nearer to me with each of its steps. And suddenly, it appeared - a brush wolf!
That's what my father always called them anyway. Never coyotes, always brush wolves. In fact, while growing up on the farm, I came to believe that brush wolves and coyotes were two different animals.
I thought of the brush wolf as the larger, northern relative of the western coyote; the western animal a denizen of open country and cacti, while the Minnesota variety a forest dwelling animal. I imagined, at the time, that brush wolves were not much different than bona fide timber wolves, just smaller.
To my complete surprise and utter enjoyment, I watched the coyote trot past my stand only yards away totally unaware that I was anywhere near. The remarkable animal appeared purposeful in its destination, scarcely deviating from what appeared a straight line of travel. As I observed it hurry past me, it occasionally scented the ground while on the move as if trailing something. A moment later the coyote was gone. I was thrilled.
As I soon learned, brush wolves are indeed coyotes--and they just happen to be the most widespread, most adaptable, and perhaps the most cunning of all North America's wild canids. Coyotes are fascinating animals that are both revered and despised, depending on who you talk to. Regardless, it's a fact that no other large predator in Minnesota, much less North America, is more successful at coping with human beings than the coyote.
Coyotes (pronounced either "ki-yote" or "ki-oh-tee") are found throughout all of Minnesota, but are less abundant in the heavily forested northeast and Arrowhead regions of the state where their larger cousin, the eastern timber wolf, also called gray wolf, are more plentiful.
But in nearly every other conceivable habitat--from farm and lake country to river bottomlands and prairie grasslands--the coyote lives, hunts, breeds, and raises their offspring, often without any of us really knowing there are very many around, if at all. Save for the rare glimpse of a lone coyote in broad daylight, or the cacophony of a howling, yipping, and yapping family packs after the sun has set, coyotes are relatively low-key, shy, and reclusive animals.
Of the four species of Minnesota's wild canids, coyotes are second only to the timber wolf in size. The smaller relatives of the coyote, which includes both the red fox and gray fox, are also numerous in Minnesota (swift fox are smaller still, but are no longer found in Minnesota).
While some exceptional male coyotes can obtain weights of 50 pounds, most male coyotes in Minnesota average around 30 pounds while females average around 25 pounds. The animal is about 20 inches high at the shoulder and averages about three and a half feet in total length, including its long and bushy tail.
The gray pelage coloration of coyotes does not vary much from individual to individual. Whereas the coats of timber wolves range from white to black, in addition to the typical grayish coat of most timber wolves, coyotes tend to look the same throughout their range. Somewhat shaggy in appearance, especially during the winter, coyotes are often thought of as resembling small German shepherd dogs. Coyotes also have white bellies and white throats. Their fur is truly luxuriant, prized by hunters and trappers alike. Coyote fur is frequently used to trim the hoods of some types of coats.
In a few months, usually beginning by January through February, coyotes breed and begin making preparations to raise their young. By April, often inside underground dens, coyote pups are born blind and helpless and are taken care of by mostly the female. Coyote mothers begin teaching their offspring how to hunt by the time the pups reach two to three months of age. And when the youngsters are a little less than a year old, they leave their natal den for good.
Preying on mostly small rodents and rabbits and hares, coyotes are also adept at killing larger prey such as deer. Unfortunately, for both coyotes and people, coyotes sometime kill domestic livestock like sheep, goats, and calves. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, a recent research study showed that coyotes prey on feral cats (all the more reason for people to keep their cats indoors).
Indeed, the coyote or brush wolf, what have you, commonly referred to as "cunning", is nonetheless a highly intelligent predator capable of going virtually undetected practically right under our noses. A true survivor and native wild canid, coyotes are fascinating Minnesota mammals for us to know as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.