Coyote Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

I’ve been sharing smaller dossiers in recent weeks. Here is a somewhat longer one. This is a rare instance in which nearly all of my experience with a species came as an adult, in DuPage County.

Coyote

Coyote. The eyes, glowing from the flash, suggest the fearful image many suburbanites have of coyotes. They are actually relatively small animals, usually less than 30 pounds, but look bigger thanks to the long legs.

Coyote. The eyes, glowing from the flash, suggest the fearful image many suburbanites have of coyotes. They are actually relatively small animals, usually less than 30 pounds, but look bigger thanks to the long legs.

When I came to DuPage County in the early 1980’s, coyotes were known to live at Waterfall Glen and the West Chicago Prairie area. My first experiences were footprints at the Tracker Farm in New Jersey, and then a bed at the far end of a private (now destroyed) marsh in Glendale Heights, Illinois. I saw one briefly in the desert at Big Bend National Park, Texas.

30JA88. Hartz Lake area, near Monterey, Indiana. A coyote slow-loped across a dune. Front foot 2×2 inches, hind foot 2 long by 1.5 wide. The coyote loped with its body held at an angle so the front feet were on one side, hind feet on the other.

A computer rendition of the original sketch.

A computer rendition of the original sketch.

29JE89. Coyote at McKee Marsh. It stopped briefly as it came around a bend in the mowed trail and saw me coming toward it. Big ears, light build and size gave it away immediately. It held still only a couple seconds, then turned and ran. After I got around the bend I got a glimpse of movement to the right as it leaped through a tall grass meadow and ran into the forest.

19NO89. Tracking coyotes in the half inch of snow that fell last night on the McKee Marsh area. The coyotes’ activity was mainly on and around the frozen ponds. Frequent rolling, sometimes in urine. Fox tracks were absent from the wide area I walked in north Blackwell. Foxes were common there before; have coyotes driven them off? Trot the most common gait, in the diagonal position. Diagonal walk frequent, lope occasional. Prints’ actual size 2.25 long x 2 wide, 22-24 inches between corresponding track in each pair. A coyote picked up an old, small dead snake and played with it. Rolled in small amount of its urine on ice of marsh. Stopped and removed 2 burdock burs (some hairs still were attached). Coyote diagonal walk on ice 19-21.5 inches between steps. Lots of activity possibly by one individual, with lots of coming and going (small loops out and back), centering on a rotten goose egg, frozen in ice and apparently opened last night.

Diagonal trot gait, the usual pattern used by coyotes. In this case, the front feet made the right-hand tracks, the hind feet the left-hand tracks.

Diagonal trot gait, the usual pattern used by coyotes. In this case, the front feet made the right-hand tracks, the hind feet the left-hand tracks.

13DE89. Probable coyote scat, 3/4 x 3.5 inches, Hartz Lake.

16DE89. Both red foxes and coyotes present, yet, at McDowell Forest Preserve. Former about 12-16 inches between steps in walk, latter 15-20 inches.

20JA91. I saw two coyotes working together at McDowell. When first spotted they were about 20 yards apart, walking single file. I was able to approach within 60 yards on the path, then they detected me and bolted. They had been investigating a brushy area near a bridge over a small stream, they ran back north and east when escaping.

26JA92. Tracks of a coyote in woods at Hidden Lake, in an area also visited some nights by red fox. Strides were 20-inch steps compared to the fox’s 16 inches. Coyote followed deer trails sometimes.

The hind foot of a coyote, left, is smaller and has a rounder heel. The front foot, right, is larger and has a more triangular heel shape.

The hind foot of a coyote, left, is smaller and has a rounder heel. The front foot, right, is larger and has a more triangular heel shape.

28JA99. Cottontails this winter are not visible during the day. Tracks indicate they are hiding in metal drainage culverts. Coyotes occasionally vainly try to dig them out, or perhaps are trying to spook them out.

10FE99. A fresh coyote scat on the Willowbrook Nature Trail near the marsh contained both hairs and feathers, the latter from a bird in the cardinal to mourning dove size range.

Coyote scats, often deposited in the middle of trails, provide a dietary record. Either don’t handle them, or do so with disposable gloves or sticks, as they may contain parasite eggs.

Coyote scats, often deposited in the middle of trails, provide a dietary record. Either don’t handle them, or do so with disposable gloves or sticks, as they may contain parasite eggs.

25FE99. Willowbrook. Fresh snow fell yesterday evening, and reveals that 2 coyotes covered the entire preserve thoroughly last night, and more, going out into surrounding residential areas. Sometimes the coyotes were on the same route, sometimes they separated. Once they bedded down within 2 feet of one another in a dense brushy area roughly equidistant from the nature trail and residences, impossible to see by anyone more than 50 feet away.

Here a pair of coyotes traveled together, then one veered off.

Here a pair of coyotes traveled together, then one veered off.

26FE99. A coyote made a remarkable vertical 4-foot jump out of the creek at Willowbrook, having crossed to the point where the Safari Trail meets the stream at the high bank.

MR99. During the 90’s, coyotes have become much more abundant in the western suburbs. Tracks frequently encountered on the preserves, and in absence usually of fox sign until the past couple of years. One appeared at Willowbrook frequently around 1994-96, after the fox there was gone. Then the coyote vanished, after it was seen several times apparently weakened by mange. A red fox came in that winter, lasted a year, then it left. At that time coyote sign returned and have been frequent for more than two years, now. The common pattern has been for signs to be abundant for several weeks, then absent for several weeks, in alternation through the warm months, with 2 coyotes taking up steady residence on the preserve through the winter. I saw two different individuals one morning in winter of 1997-98, one missing all but a stub of its tail and so easy to recognize. They often deposit feces in the center of the nature trail, occasionally in other clear areas or smaller trails. Hair the most common dominant food remains in the scats, occasionally feathers or skins of fruits dominate. I saw a coyote crossing Kirk Road in Kane County at dusk one summer evening. Their howling, which I have heard at Pratts Wayne Woods, Hidden Lake, Lincoln Marsh and Fermilab, is extremely high-pitched and wailing in quality, and I have heard several animals howling together or howling back and forth in contact call style but not a single individual howling alone. During a night hike in September 1996 at Hidden Lake, a siren set off a probable family group of 4 individuals, and for the rest of the evening the scattered coyotes howled at regular intervals, producing the contact call effect.

Usually coyotes are shy and seldom seen.

Usually coyotes are shy and seldom seen.

14AP99. The goose nest has been destroyed, the eggs preyed upon, at Willowbrook. Tracks in mud show at least 2 coyote round trips wading out to the nest island. No other predator tracks.

25JE99. I heard a coyote barking at a neighbor walking dogs at Willowbrook.

30AU99. Coyote scats at Willowbrook have been rich in fruit. This remained the case for weeks, with fruit appearing to be the dominant food.

5OC99. A heavy red fabric strip, 10 inches long, possibly a collar, in a coyote scat on the Willowbrook Nature Trail. Fruit remains dominant food in scats.

1NO99. Hair becoming more common, fruit less, in scats at Willowbrook.

2NO99. A coyote scat at Willowbrook had a bit of candy wrapper in it (shortly after Halloween).

Half-grown coyote pup, in a meadow at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

Half-grown coyote pup, in a meadow at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

1999-2013. It has become clear that coyotes are everywhere in the Chicago area, with even centers of towns being parts of territories. The coyotes, unless someone feeds them, are very good at staying out of sight. Reports from neighbors suggest that the pair at Willowbrook had a home range that extended from the East Branch of the DuPage River to the Village Links Golf Course, and so they were absent from the preserve for weeks at a time, but in some seasons centered their activity on the preserve (they never denned there, however).

At Fullersburg Woods, the pair was active year-round in the more open northern part of the preserve and presumably extended into adjacent areas off the preserve. In winter, the pair regularly wandered into the forested southern part of the preserve, usually hunting apart but joining up as they returned to their northern center of activity. I never found a den on that preserve.

Former coyote den, Mayslake. The buried concrete had provided a stable roof, but its removal as part of the demolition process ended this den. Coyotes only use dens in late spring and early summer, to shelter their young pups.

Former coyote den, Mayslake. The buried concrete had provided a stable roof, but its removal as part of the demolition process ended this den. Coyotes only use dens in late spring and early summer, to shelter their young pups.

At Mayslake the pair had a den in the former friary garden area, but the den was destroyed as an incidental consequence of the friary demolition. Until then the coyotes were a constant presence on the preserve, but now they are there regularly but somewhat intermittently. They have been healthy and strong when I have seen them, and had pups most years. One odd observation was that one chewed up and swallowed a tennis ball discarded near the off-leash dog area. The fragmented ball passed completely through the coyote. Rabbits and voles are the more typical contents of scats.

Scat composed of tennis ball pieces.

Scat composed of tennis ball pieces.

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West Bluffs Walk: 1

by Carl Strang

Once or twice a winter I like to get into the south part of Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve. Apart from the general attraction of being our most biologically and topographically diverse area, and scenically beautiful, it also is where a bobcat is most likely to show up. I didn’t find any bobcat signs this time, but the warm (40F) conditions made for some interesting tracking.

Footprints were deteriorating rapidly. Here is a comparison of one of my tracks going in against a fresh one as I came out less than 3 hours later.

Most trails were composed of blob tracks.

A typical coyote trail that day.

When I found sharply defined footprints, I knew they had to be fresh.

This coyote trail couldn’t be more than half an hour old.

Another fresh coyote track on deeper snow.

Blob tracking does allow some species identification.

Small round footprints in a diagonal walk, within half a mile of a residential neighborhood, point to domestic cat.

Sheltered from the sun and close to the base of a tree, the next trail had held up better.

The odd, irregular footprints of an opossum.

It wasn’t all tracks, though. Away from the trails I encountered several deer.

This young buck allowed a relatively close approach.

A track of a different sort was this old concrete and rock structure. I don’t remember encountering it before.

It appears to be one of the old Lincoln Park Nursery cribs, but it is away from the main trail, and distant from the others.

I also got some winter plant photos, which I’ll share next time.

Blob Tracking

by Carl Strang

The title for this entry is not a technical term. It simply refers to the interpretation of tracks that are blobs rather than well-defined footprints. The mix of rain and snow we experienced on Monday provided a good opportunity for this practice. Here’s an example from the south savanna at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

What do you make of these blobby footprints?

Here an opossum was walking, left to right in the photo. As usual, the oddly shaped hind foot with its enormous big toe is turned sideways. The more uniform toes of the front foot are widely spread. The left-hand pair of blobs were made by the right feet, the middle pair by the left feet, the right-hand pair by the right feet again. You can see clearer reference examples in my tracking primer here.

I was interested to see that a raccoon had circumnavigated May‘s Lake Monday night, with various side trips into different woodlands, up and down a few trees, etc.

Do you recognize these as raccoon tracks?

The blobs in this case are recognizable as raccoon tracks because of the side-by-side pairs of footprints, indicative of the raccoon’s distinctive pace gait. Their size and spacing are consistent with the raccoon’s body size. Raccoon activity was especially concentrated in the west end of the south savanna, not far from the former friary, and the footprints had merged into the distinctive trails formed by the big flat feet of raccoons when they travel a route frequently.

Raccoon trails are easy to see in winter.

I suspected the raccoon’s den must be in this area, and sure enough, the trail led to a concrete culvert that empties into May’s Lake.

The trail comes to the culvert from the left and enters along the left edge.

In contrast to the blobs that the raccoon made during most of its excursion, it left very clear tracks as it entered the culvert. The animal still was inside, as there were no exiting tracks.

If you look closely you may be able to see a few clear footprints on the trail.

The possibility is open that more than one raccoon is involved, and that the one in the culvert was different from the one that went around the lake. This may seem a strange choice for a den, but it’s secure, and probably dry enough this time of year. I wonder if this might be the raccoon that used to live in the friary. That animal, evicted by the demolition, had grown accustomed to denning in a human structure. The concrete culvert might seem a more comfortable new home than a hollow tree.

Today’s final example had me fooled at first. This animal was doing a lot of its travel with the bound gait, and my interest in the mink had me thinking I had found a mink’s trail.

These sets of four tracks are in a pattern typical of the bound gait.

Again, you can find a description and clear photo of a mink’s bound gait pattern at the post on gaits. Eventually I had to abandon my initial idea. These footprints were too small and narrow, the sets of tracks were too close together for such shallow snow, and this animal was spending a lot of time downshifted into a diagonal walk.

The animal in question was slowing to a diagonal walk gait whenever it entered taller vegetation.

It doesn’t happen that often in mid-January, but a skunk had come out and covered a lot of ground Monday night. The temperature was in the 20’s that night, the warmest of the month, so it was not so far out of the realm of possibility. Still, it merited an entry in my skunk dossier.

Tracking Story: Sawmill Creek Mink

by Carl Strang

 

This snowy winter brings to mind an experience from several years ago. I was at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve, wading through snow to follow the informal trail along lower Sawmill Creek between the railroad tracks and the Des Plaines River.

 

sawmill-creek-winter-b2

 

 

I came across some fresh mink tracks, and they were unusual. Can you see why?

 

 

mink-drag-tracks-b2

 

This mink is in the diagonal walk gait. The normal gait pattern for mink is the bound, as introduced in an earlier post. When an animal is out of its usual gait, something interesting may be happening. Not only has this mink shifted down to the slower gait, there are drag marks. I followed the tracks, and they led me to a hole in the snow.

 

mink-cache-b1

 

Noting the blood drops, I excavated the hole a little, and there was a leopard frog.

 

mink-cache-frog-b1

 

The frog was still wet and soft. It was so freshly killed that I thought it likely the mink had heard me coming and quickly stashed its prey. I backtracked, found where the mink had dug the hibernating frog out of the mud at the edge of the creek, and went on my way so the predator could retrieve its meal.

Words of Tracking: Common Walking Gaits

by Carl Strang

 

In an earlier set of posts (find under Methods category in sidebar to left) I introduced the alphabet of tracking, i.e., identification of the kind of animal that made the track. Today I want to take the next step toward reading the stories that footprints have to tell us. That is, to look at the basic gaits. A gait is a pattern of footprint placement, the building block from which an animal’s trail is built, and it also is the order in which the feet step as the animal moves. You will find the same gaits given different names in different references. I follow the terminology of my teachers at the Tom Brown school (link in left margin of the frame).

 

The pace gait is the usual traveling gait of certain animals, such as raccoons and bears, whose wide-bodied proportions favor swinging their weight from side to side, stepping with both left feet at once, then both right feet. If you try this, in a comfortable rather than lunging effort, you will find that your feet produce side by side pairs of footprints, left front foot beside right hind foot, right front foot beside left hind foot. Here is the pattern in a set of raccoon tracks.

 

Pace gait, raccoon

Pace gait, raccoon

 

 

The opposite of a wide body is a long skinny body, which we find in weasels. If your body is, to exaggerate, something like a rope with two little feet at each end, the easiest way for you to proceed will be to move both your front feet together, then both your hind feet, with the hind feet landing behind the front feet. This gait is called the bound. Often the feet are somewhat offset, an indication that the animal oriented its body axis at an angle rather than in line with its direction of travel.

 

Bound gait, mink

Bound gait, mink

 

 

Another gait in which the front feet move together and the hind feet move together is the gallop. This is common in rodents and rabbits, animals whose hind legs are more powerful than the front, so that the hind feet land in front of the front feet. Cottontails typically place one front foot in front of the other, while rodents such as mice and squirrels, as well as masked shrews, place their front feet side by side (in the photo the shrew is moving left to right).

 

Gallop gait, cottontail

Gallop gait, cottontail

 

Gallop gait, masked shrew

Gallop gait, masked shrew

 

 

There is one circumstance in which cottontails place their front feet side by side, however. I will leave this one for you to puzzle over. Look for examples this winter, see if you can figure it out. Here’s a photo so you know what to look for.

 

Cottontail gait puzzle

Cottontail gait puzzle

 

 

The final common walking gait is typical of hoofed animals (white-tailed deer in NE Illinois), the dog family and the cat family, as well as us (when do we walk on all fours?). This one is called the diagonal walk, and unlike the others the feet move separately in a sequence: left front, right hind, right front, left hind. In this case the left feet come down in close to the same place, and so do the right feet. The overall impression is a zigzag between right foot pairs and left foot pairs, hence the name for this gait.

 

Diagonal walk gait, wolf (Isle Royale)

Diagonal walk gait, wolf (Isle Royale)

 

 

There are other gaits, but they are less common or are special cases and will be reserved for later. Also, the connections I have made between animals and gaits are limited to routine travel. When circumstances require, animals shift out of their normal walking gait. For instance, a raccoon in an extreme hurry does not, cartoon like, do a real fast pace gait. Instead, it shifts into a gallop. Tracks outside the normal pattern are a clue that something unusual, therefore interesting, was happening.

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