by Amy Hughes
This month, I’ve enjoyed seeing more animal signs thanks to spring’s imminence. I was so awestruck by the red-tailed hawk nest above the trail near Springbrook Apartments last week, I didn’t even realize the stinky sign that had smeared across the bottom of my shoe. This particular scat pile was tubular form, rounded at both ends, and about an inch in diameter. The pile was really furry, too.
As I continued on my walk, I grossly marveled at our Outer Loop trails and boardwalks scattered (pun intended) with many piles of hairy scat. The culprit? One of our resident wild canines, the coyote.
Coyotes are well-adapted to many habitats and climates in North America — prairies, forests, wetlands, even suburbs and cities. Minnesota, then, has made a great home for them. So great in fact, they are our most abundant predator in the state! Small and lean, coyotes measure one to two feet at the shoulder and weigh 25-40 pounds as adults. Being crepuscular, they’re most active at dawn and dusk, sometimes nocturnal, usually depending on food availability. As opportunistic eaters, coyotes eat whatever is available. Whether rabbits, mice, carrion (dead animal), birds, berries, deer, porcupines, or garbage, coyotes aren’t picky or timid when conditions get tough.
Though typically solitary and nomadic as young males, coyotes do live in family packs. Male and female pairs are usually monogamous for several years, and their pack is comprised of younger offspring or other individuals that have been accepted into the pack. The size of the pack, like any animal group, depends on resource availability. Coyotes, however, rarely hunt in packs unless the prey is larger, such as a deer. Fawns, older deer, and injured deer especially make an easier target for any hungry coyote.
At dawn and dusk when you visit Springbrook, listen for the train whistle that sparks long howls of coyotes across the park and surrounding neighborhoods. Coyotes, like Wolves, are vocal and use a varied collection of calls to report locations, warn of danger, establish dominance, and to bond. And when it comes to coyote communication on the trail, it’s easy to identify “who dung-it.” Coyotes use their scat like graffiti. Leaving droppings in conspicuous places is common among canines (and bobcats and lynx). It can be a strong message of warning—“Keep Out”, a status update—“Wiley was here,” or simply unintentional artwork (when you’ve got to go you’ve got to go). With so much scat along the Outer Loop Trail, I imagine are territory lines between coyotes, either individuals or packs.
As much as I love coyotes (and dogs in general), I wholly admit I have not had a single coyote sighting during my time as a Springbrook Naturalist. Instead of harboring feelings of disappointment, what this deficit tells me is that we (and you, our visitor!) successfully keep our coyotes wild.
That is, our coyotes maintain (and hopefully pass to their offspring) a natural fear of humans, which keeps both parties healthy and safe, all while keeping our ecosystem in balance. So while you’re on our trails this month, be sure to watch your step, because even if you don’t see a coyote, there are plenty of signs that they are thriving here at Springbrook Nature Center.
Amy Hughes is an interpretive naturalist at Springbrook Nature Center, 100 85th Ave. NW in Fridley. Director Mike Maher welcomes comments at [email protected] or 763-572-3589. Go to springbrooknaturecenter.org for more information