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Coyotes caught in the spotlight With coyotes making headlines in recent days, a look at some of the myths and facts concerning the wild animals

After the SPCA rescued a coyote found in a trap in the Town of Tonawanda and then released it in the same area, wildlife administrator Joel Thomas started getting phone calls.

They fell into two categories: He was a hero or he was a jerk.

"People love to get excited about stuff like this," he said.

Lately, there has been more to get excited about. Just this week, a wandering coyote was caught in New York's Central Park and became a staple of newscasts across the country. There are persistent rumors and legends about coyotes, mixed in with true stories of the animals snatching small pets.

That might help explain why 75 people turned out at an information meeting on coyotes this week in the Town of Tonawanda.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation estimates there are 20,000 to 30,000 coyotes throughout New York State. They can be found in rural and suburban towns, but it's not known how many coyotes live in Western New York.

"If it can make it to Central Park, it can make it to Ohio Street [in Buffalo]," said Russ Biss, regional natural resources supervisor for the DEC.

Conflicts between dogs and coyotes often occur in April and May, as the coyotes become territorial around their dens. Coyote pups usually are born in late April. The male cares for the female by bringing her food after she gives birth.

Experts say coyotes are not out to attack people and large house pets. But small dogs and cats that are left outside near areas where coyotes roam can become dinner for coyotes.

Coyotes are opportunistic hunters and will go after animals if they come across them, said wildlife rehabilitator Elise Able. But so will foxes and hawks. Coyotes eat rodents, rabbits, berries, insects and carrion. They also will go after turkeys, pheasants, fox and deer.

"If you've got rats, you want coyotes in your area because they eat primarily rodents," Able said.

While coyotes are a common animal, they are not commonly seen.

Andy Smith, president of the Cattaraugus County Trappers Association, has come across coyotes in the wild.

"I walked up on one of them," he said. "They're as surprised as you are when you see them."

Able and the DEC's Biss discount some common rumors about coyotes, such as the one about the DEC bringing the animals in to control the deer population. Coyotes migrated east, expanding their range and replacing exterminated wolf populations through Canada and into New York in the 1920s, Able said. They became firmly established in New York in the 1970s.

Coyotes are smaller than some expect. While stories tell of coyotes weighing between 70 and 120 pounds, the average female is between 33 and 40 pounds, and the average male weighs 34 to 47 pounds. The Eastern coyote generally is larger than its Western cousin, and the theory is they mixed with red and timber wolves and perhaps some dogs during their migration, Able said.

Adding to the mystique surrounding the often unseen predator is its loud, whiny, almost human sounding howl.

"It's such a strange noise at first," Able said.

While it may sound like 20 or 30 coyotes are getting together to celebrate a major kill, usually it's a handful or less. They constantly change their pitch, so it sounds like a larger number.

"Coyotes don't howl because they made a kill," Able said. "They howl strictly for communication with each other and with another group."

Able is recognized as an expert in coyotes throughout the state and she even fielded phone calls on the one found in Central Park. She runs Fox Wood Wildlife Rescue in East Concord and among her full-time residents are five coyotes that cannot be released into the wild.

She maintains efforts by man to control the coyote population are fruitless.

"It is the prey that limits the predators," she said.

That's contrary to the thinking that coyotes are varmints that need to be destroyed. Trappers and hunters don't want to eliminate the population but they believe their efforts are necessary.

"Trapping keeps the coyote population down," said Smith. "If it wasn't for us, they would be overpopulated."

Coyote pelts from Western New York bring the trapper $15 to $25 apiece before they are shipped to China, Russia or Greece to become trim on a collar or a hat, Smith said.

Able said researchers have discovered that when coyotes live in a pack, the alpha female is the only female to mate and produce puppies. There usually are four to five puppies in a litter, and only two may eventually survive. If the alpha female is killed, the other females will begin to mate, and will produce larger litters, she said.

"Trying to control their population is like trying to put out a fire with kerosene," she said.

Able said coyotes limit their numbers, and there won't be as many litters born when food is scarce. Thomas said a healthy coyote population is a sign of a good ecosystem, because there is plenty for them to eat.

Experts agree it is wise to have a healthy respect for coyotes. There could be cause for concern if the coyote, or any wild animal, doesn't show fear for people; that can come when they start associating people with food, Biss said.

The DEC says "suburban" coyote food like garbage, pet food and pets is saturated with human odor. Also, a person acts like prey if he or she runs into the house after seeing a coyote. So if food smells like people, and people behave like prey, a curious coyote might want to get a closer look. That's why experts advise people to make loud noises and wave their arms to discourage the animal from coming closer.

"This animal is not interested in having lots of close contact with people. It has a tendency to ignore us and hope we ignore it," Thomas said.

e-mail: bobrien@buffnews.com

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