Recognizing and Interpreting Coyote Sign

Figure 3. Coyote tracks are similar in size to a medium-sized dog's, but are usually more narrow with only the two inside claw marks visible.

Figure 4. This is a "slide" used by coyotes to crawl under a netwire fence.

Figure 5. The typical attack behavior of adult coyotes is to grab the animal at the throat behind the jaw (photograph courtesy of Guy Connolly, Denver Wildlife Research Center). Recognizing and Interpreting Coyote Sign The ability to read the landscape and interpret sign is essential in assessing coyote presence and population trends. You should be able to identify coyotes by their tracks, droppings (scats), howls, and "slides" where they pass under fences. Coyote howls are easily identified, but in areas of heavy control pressure, coyotes rarely howl. Next to seeing the animal, identifying tracks is the best way to determine a coyote's presence. Coyote tracks usually can be distinguished from those of a dog by the shape and impressions of claws (Figure 3). Coyotes tracks are usually longer than they are wide, while dog tracks are usually as wide are they are long. In most situations only the front two claw marks are visible on coyote tracks, as opposed to all four claw marks on dog tracks. Good areas in which to search for tracks include stock trails, ranch roads, sandy draws, and watering points. Another sign is the presence of scats. Coyote scats are typically about the diameter of a cigar and will vary in appearance depending on the animal's diet. The scat may contain hair, wool, feathers, bones, or other animal parts, as well as plant material. The color of the scat varies from black to gray, or even pink when watermelon is the main component of the diet. Scats are often deposited along ranch and country roads or near trap sights. While coyotes have been known to climb or jump fences, they tend to use slides to crawl under netwire fencing (Figure 4). Note any slides under or through fencing and check for the presence of coyote hairs that may be caught in the wire above the slide. Other animals such as deer, javelina, raccoons, and rabbits also use slides, but a close inspection of hair and other signs (like tracks) may identify the animal.

Recognizing and Interpreting Coyote Sign

The ability to read the landscape and interpret sign is essential in assessing coyote presence and population trends. You should be able to identify coyotes by their tracks, droppings (scats), howls, and “slides” where they pass under fences. Coyote howls are easily identified, but in areas of heavy control pressure, coyotes rarely howl.

Next to seeing the animal, identifying tracks is the best way to determine a coyote’s presence. Coyote tracks usually can be distinguished from those of a dog by the shape and impressions of claws (Figure 3).

Coyotes tracks are usually longer than they are wide, while dog tracks are usually as wide are they are long. In most situations only the front two claw marks are visible on coyote tracks, as opposed to all four claw marks on dog tracks. Good areas in which to search for tracks include stock trails, ranch roads, sandy draws, and watering points.

Another sign is the presence of scats. Coyote scats are typically about the diameter of a cigar and will vary in appearance depending on the animal’s diet. The scat may contain hair, wool, feathers, bones, or other animal parts, as well as plant material. The color of the scat varies from black to gray, or even pink when watermelon is the main component of the diet. Scats are often deposited along ranch and country roads or near trap sights.

While coyotes have been known to climb or jump fences, they tend to use slides to crawl under netwire fencing (Figure 4).

Note any slides under or through fencing and check for the presence of coyote hairs that may be caught in the wire above the slide.

The manner in which a predator kills its prey is often characteristic for that particular species. The publication B-1492, “Procedures for Evaluating Predation on Livestock and Wildlife,” available for $10 from the Texas Agricultural Extension Service, is an excellent field guide for determining what type of predator (if any) was responsible for an animal’s death. Only some general comments on interpreting kill signs are presented here.

Coyotes usually kill adult sheep or goats by biting the throat just behind the lower jaw, which kills the victim by suffocation and shock (Figure 5).

Smaller prey such as kid goats, lambs, or rabbits are killed by biting through the head or neck. The victim usually displays puncture wounds in the throat region. Upon skinning, the throat area may exhibit considerable bleeding below the skin. In contrast to coyotes, dogs usually kill sheep or goats by attacking the hindquarters, flanks, and head, and rarely kill as cleanly as coyotes. However, inexperienced coyotes may kill in a manner more typical to dogs, and some dog kills can be mistaken for coyote kills. For this reason, it is important to look for additional evidence such as tracks to confirm your identification of the predator.

Animals killed by bobcats often have claw marks on the carcass and subcutaneous hemorrhaging. Kills made by mountain lions will have tooth punctures about 2 inches apart and will usually have claw marks on the neck and/or shoulders. Also, lion kills (and sometimes bobcat kills) may be dragged some distance from the point of attack and partially or entirely covered by dirt, leaves, and twigs.

The appearance of the prey animal is not always an adequate means of determining which predator species is responsible for the kill. As mentioned before, inexperienced coyotes may behave atypically when making a kill. Also, don’t assume that every dead animal you find is a result of a predator, as livestock die for a variety of reasons. Carcasses are often fed upon by coyotes or other scavenging animals. As a rule, animals dying from “natural” causes do not show signs of bleeding and will not have external wounds

Observing vultures will help you find livestock carcasses. Make it a point to investigate all livestock deaths and gather as much information from each one as possible. Just as a coroner looks at a body for clues as to cause of death, so should the livestock producer observe and assemble information. The basic information that should be noted includes the kind (species) and class (age, sex, breed) of livestock. Try to determine first if the animal was killed or if it died from natural causes. Then, for predatory kills, try to identify the predator responsible. Kid goats and lambs are usually most susceptible to coyotes, bobcats, and other small predators. By contrast, mountain lions can handle much larger animals such as yearling cattle and colts. Knowing whether livestock have been harassed, attacked, and injured or killed outright also may help to identify the predator species. Dogs are among the least efficient (in terms of killing) of the predators.

Make note of when and where kills are occurring to determine whether there is a pattern. Coyotes kill more livestock during the early summer because the demands of rearing pups increase the parents’ food needs and because more lambs and kids are available during this season. Discuss predator problems with your neighbors to find out if they are also suffering losses. Exchange information about predation on herds, sightings of coyotes or their sign, and the direction of predator travel.

Coyote control falls into one of two categories: (a) livestock husbandry and management; and (b) manipulation of the coyote population, either by lethal or nonlethal methods. Each situation is unique and may call for a combination of methods. Some practices may not be suitable in certain situations, while others may not be practical or economical. It is important to evaluate all available information and options carefully before choosing control methods.