It was a relatively warm day in the middle of an Edmonton winter when a coyote burst out of its den as Sage Raymond approached. A master’s student in ecology at the University of Alberta, Raymond tracked coyotes to their dens by following the tracks they left in the snow. She was only about a meter from this den when the animal jumped up and surprised her. The day was warm enough that she expected her to be lounging rather than cowering in the dark.
Raymond had been studying coyotes for months now and knew that coyotes generally didn’t use their dens much until spring, when the mothers give birth to cubs, at least according to the literature.
Even though Raymond felt bad for disturbing the animal she hadn’t expected to encounter, the coyote was baffled. After the first escape, he walked in a circle for a while before stretching his legs and lying down to take a nap a few feet away. Raymond took the opportunity to leave the scene, but once far enough away, she watched through a pair of binoculars as the coyote got up, sniffed its den, and headed back inside.
“It appears that coyotes use dens to some extent in the winter,” said Wildlife Society member Raymond. She realized that she still had a lot to learn about these coyotes.
His curiosity for the urban coyote (Canis latrans) began when she began tracking footprints in the snow in Edmonton as a new master’s student in the Edmonton Urban Coyote Project. While following these tracks, she encountered coyote dens – as often as one every few miles.
“It didn’t take me long to get a pretty good sample,” Raymond said.
A review of the scientific literature revealed that there wasn’t much on coyote dens, so she began to focus her tracking on that. For a study recently published in the Wildlife Management Journalshe tracked dozens of dens between January and March 2021.
She and her colleagues then returned to 120 dens in Edmonton in late summer when they were idle, including many in the North Saskatchewan River Valley, pictured above, and other ravines around the city. Later that fall, researchers set up trail cameras in several of these dens that Raymond studied to obtain the photos for this article. She and Colleen Cassady St. Clair, a biology professor at the University of Alberta, examined the characteristics of dens located on public lands in natural areas surrounded mostly by native vegetation. They examined the adjacent and surrounding land cover using GIS.
“On a large scale, coyotes aren’t too picky about where they hide,” Raymond found. But finer-scale analysis revealed some coyotes’ denning preferences in urban areas.
Coyotes typically lived at least 75 meters from the larger North Saskatchewan River, for example, but they liked dens closer to smaller water sources. They also generally avoided making their dens in areas near mowed grass and avoided roads.
As researchers have noted with other wildlife that use dens, these coyotes also generally prefer the east-facing den. This is likely in order to capture more sunlight in early spring, Raymond said. They also tended to hide on slopes, which also prevents flooding and is more difficult for people and dogs to access. These areas also generally offered a good view.
“It’s definitely better than your average basement suite in Edmonton,” Raymond said.
Coyotes also prefer areas with lots of hiding cover for their dens. But the urban environment brought some unnatural twists to this in a few cases – Raymond found dens under shopping carts, shipping containers and in one case even an abandoned, flattened car. Some of these dens were in areas that had been used for decades as dumps. “There’s some really old trash there,” Raymond said.
Coyotes may be taking advantage of some of this garbage. Raymond said a lot of dens had chewed up garbage around them. “This suggests that coyotes, and especially baby coyotes, chew garbage and use it as playthings,” she said.
St. Clair said it found a surprising number of golf balls and children’s toys at the den sites.
The analysis showed that coyotes did not necessarily avoid areas with human structures if other factors were appropriate. “What this suggests is that they’re very selective at this fine scale to be hard to detect, but they don’t necessarily avoid humans in the vicinity when they’re in dens,” Raymond said. .
Comparison with a database of reported human-coyote conflicts also revealed some trends. “We had a higher rate of confrontational encounters during the puppy rearing phase,” Raymond said. “It makes sense because the adult couple are feeling a bit more defensive about their puppies.”
These conflicts also occurred more often around dens that were in more human-modified areas such as mowed lawns or residential areas. Raymond speculated that this could be because in more natural environments, coyotes have more opportunities to flee from humans.
Conversely, “if he’s on a football pitch and put in a fight-or-flight situation, he doesn’t have very good options to flee,” she said. . “So fighting might be more likely in those less naturalized areas.”
Raymond said this discovery reveals opportunities for public education that could reduce conflict with coyotes.
“This study confirms that the puppy rearing period is a time when there is more conflict between humans and coyotes, which means that basic coyote safety precautions, such as keeping dogs on a leash, are very important between April and July,” she said. “Where denning is likely to be problematic, such as near schoolyards, managers could proactively thin vegetation to reduce hidden cover and prevent denning.”
A curious thing they discovered was that coyote dens often received thorny intruders during the winter months. Raymond found the porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) quills or droppings in 32% of the dens they analyzed. Since the evidence in the tracks did not reveal signs of predation such as blood in these cases, she thinks the porcupines simply borrow these dens for shelter during the colder months when the coyotes are not on them. not use as much, although they may occasionally come across as Raymond did. This may be because porcupines do not have access to caves, rocks and tree hollows they normally prefer for shelter within city limits, she said.
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