I stepped outside on an evening not long ago. The house was closed up because we still had the AC going due to August heat that didn’t arrive until September. I wanted to see if it was a little cooler outside after dark. I’m glad I stepped out or I’d have missed the concert. A local choir was warming up just south of town and soon reached full voice. My brothers, Dad and I sang together once in awhile over the years and it was often said that voices from the same family blended better. I’m pretty sure that that choir I heard was all from the same family because they seemed to blend quite naturally. The evening concert was being performed by the local family of coyotes and they seemed to be enjoying themselves.
I suppose coyotes have a right to enjoy themselves. They’re still around and singing in spite of all that humans, and even their larger cousins, gray wolves, have done over the years to exterminate them. Native Americans recognized their cunning and intelligence. They often included coyotes in their creation stories and just as often referred to them as tricksters who pulled pranks on people. Although, and possibly because they have been persecuted from all sides, they have become perhaps the most adaptable members of North America’s dog family. They can thrive in almost any habitat, including cities, towns, open farmland and woodland. They eat a far more varied diet than their more carnivorous canine cousins. It includes everything from carrion, to fruit and human food leftovers (including vegetables). Their favorite animal prey includes rabbits and the occasional opossum or coon. They’ll sometimes take birds and their eggs. A few take some livestock as well.
Iowa was once home to five kinds of dogs, including the semi-domesticated dogs that lived with most Indian tribes and may well have come across the Alaskan land bridge during the glacial ages with the first Native Americans. The others included the gray wolf, coyote, red fox and gray fox. Gray, or timber, wolves were never much of a threat to humans, but they did develop a taste for their livestock. That became especially true when their native prey, like deer, became scarce. Wolves were exterpated (driven away) from Iowa more than 100 years ago, but a few wandering individuals have begun making random visits back to Iowa in recent years from Minnesota and possibly Wisconsin, where a few are again established. Where established, they are the undisputed “top dog.” Their closest competition, coyotes, have to work out a living on the fringes of wolf territory. They must be on constant alert lest they become a meal for the local wolf pack.
Coyotes’ lives became somewhat easier with wolves gone, and their range expanded into areas they couldn’t live safely before. The red fox, in turn, benefited by attempts to eradicate coyotes. Coyotes dominate foxes just as they are dominated by wolves. The red fox is adaptable, too, and they rapidly moved into any habitat that coyotes were pushed out of. Foxes focus on smaller prey like mice, and thus weren’t in direct competition with wolves like their coyote cousins. Foxes will catch an occasional rabbit, and are more skilled at catching birds than their larger cousins. Free range poultry can be threatened, particularly when a fox pair is trying to feed a growing family. The smallest and least adaptable native dog is the little gray fox. These beautiful gray-and-tan strictly forest dwellers are the only member of the dog family that routinely climbs trees. They’ll often den in hollow trees well above the ground. There’s barely enough woodland in central Iowa to offer gray foxes a home, but I’ve come across a couple here in Story County over the years.
It’s unlikely that wolves will ever establish in Iowa as breeding animals again, but occasional visits from the north are likely to continue. Although there are more deer here today than their were 200 years ago, wolves don’t get along very well so close to large numbers of people. Their packs defend large territories and are led by an alpha male and female that are the only animals that breed. Their young may stay with the home pack for several years. Coyotes and foxes don’t live in packs. Their young disperse each year as they mature. I’m glad the nearby coyote family has stayed together long enough to offer an occasional concert for anyone that wants to listen.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.