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The conquering coyotes of Mission Trails

By Audrey F. Baker

Coyotes are an infusion of color — buff against gray, tawny chestnut-red beside blond, swatches of brown, balanced against light-whitish underparts. They are readily recognized by their delicate facial features and a gray patch between the eyes that complements the fox-like rufous muzzle.

This medium-sized wild dog displays the contour of a young German shepherd, and bears a regal deportment. Touched by humility when traveling, the black-tipped bottlebrush tail is carried low.

Coyotes communicate with yips, whines, barks and howls. Their daily sounds add to the chorus of life at Mission Trails Regional Park. Atop a ridge and silhouetted against the night sky with extended chest, head thrown back and howling at the moon, coyotes present a signature image of life in nature.

Their clear, penetrating yellow eyes flash intelligence. Oversized erect ears are not only keen, but convey social rank, and indicate the animal’s disposition.

Canis latrans’ greatest claim to fame is its remarkable adaptability to modern life. First encountered by Lewis and Clark in 1804, the “Prairie Woolf” of the Great Plains is now “America’s Top Dog” — found in every state, except Hawaii. All this accomplished in the last 75–100 years!

The grassland animal found a welcoming niche as populations of its chief predator, the wolf, were eradicated and the forests they inhabited were transformed into agricultural and lumber enterprises. Many attributes contribute to its successful adaptation.

Coyotes are monogamous with long-term bonding. Their strong family relationships revolve around a mated pair and its offspring and can embrace extended family relationships with sub-adults (non-disbursed individuals under one year old), transients and non-breeders.

Intensified whines and yaps of late winter and spring signify courtship time. Love blossoms in February and lead to births of five to seven in mid-April to early May, however their mortality rate is high. Born blind, coyote pups’ eyes open in 10 days. They see the world at three weeks and soon are rough-housing to establish their social position.

Coyotes are frequently spotted in Mission Trials Park. (Photo by David D. Cooksy)

Coyotes teach their children well, honing senses of smell and hearing and applicable hunting techniques. Keenly alert, they are more omnivorous (generalized diet) than carnivorous and specialize in small/medium size prizes.

Their menu includes birds and eggs, amphibians and reptiles. They chomp year-round plant material and gorge melons, cactus fruits, berries of late summer and fall, and snack on insects. Then there’s those tasty rodents! Ah, there’s work to be done here.

Coyotes are part of the rhythm of life at Mission Trails Regional Park. Though principally nocturnal, they are often diurnal. From grassy to dry slopes, to moist areas and open woodlands, they sniff and examine the ground to follow the “bobsled routes” (run-ways established in debris) of the California Vole.

They espy the earthen mounds of the larger Townsend Vole dotting grassland vegetation. In open drier habitats of sage and chaparral, they cruise among Yucca and sandy soil for the San Diego Pocket Mouse.

Their due diligence aids in “park maintenance” and in preserving a healthy ecosystem for man and animal. Without them, quick and prolific breeders can easily upset the balance of nature.

Coyotes lead focused lives. Territorial, they are keenly aware of their surroundings. Under the watchful eyes of ravens positioned in sycamores and hawks camouflaged in oaks, they easily clock in 20 miles a day traversing park corridors and narrow byways.

They generally hunt solo or as a pair. One may act as a decoy, or wait in ambush. Their quickness and agility affords feasts of rabbits, hares, and ground squirrels. Raccoons and skunks watch out! They don’t shun carrion, either!

Cruising at 25 to 30 mph, and achieving speeds over 40 mph, they easily run relays to tire quarry. Western Coyotes weigh 20 to 30 lbs. Add another 10 lbs. for their eastern counterparts.

Affectionately described in Kumeyaay tales as a great trickster who is often outwitted, coyote’s encounters with Southwester Pond Turtle and Sink Bug Eleodes are the stuff of legends!

A sighting is a lucky event. When frightened, these timid critters run with tail between hind legs. Their stealth allows them to co-exist with us. The key is to “keep it wild.” The “Good Neighbor Policy” depends on their remaining wild and maintaining a natural fear of us.

—Audrey F. Baker is trail guide at Mission Trails Regional Park. Reach her at aud1baker@gmail.com. For more information on events at the park, visit www.mtrp.org or call 619-668-328. Special walks can be arranged for any club, group, business or school by contacting Ranger Chris Axtmann at 619-668-2746 or at caxtmann@mtrp.org.

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