As winter descends upon Madison, the natural world undergoes a transformative shift. Birds fly to warmer climates, trees shed their leaves and creatures hibernate to escape the cold.
It can feel like our local wildlife is vanishing, but there's an exception to this trend, a creature that defies the seasonal norm: the coyote.
When the days get shorter and the sun becomes scarce, Madison's coyotes become increasingly active. Winter brings the beginning of coyotes' search for mates as they breed in the spring. Additionally, as the abundance of rodents and plants grows scarce, these furry mammals must expend extra energy to locate alternative sources of food.
The lack of vegetation during this time of year also offers residents an increased chance to see these elusive animals. Coyote sightings always increase in the winter, so if you want to spot one of Madison’s most secretive animals, now is the time to start looking.
Coyotes have impressively adapted their behavior in order to coexist in urban places, where they are often seen crossing roads or scavenging for food. Although coyotes are naturally diurnal, they’ve adapted to be more nocturnal in most urban areas to avoid humans during the day. That’s why the best time to see them is at dawn or dusk.
Coyotes have also learned how to find shelter in city settings. Dens have been recorded in culverts under heavily trafficked roads, basements of abandoned houses and directly behind drive-in movie screens. As a result, coyotes successfully live in every major city in America.
However, their story was not always so triumphant. Coyotes evolved in Mexico and the central United States 2 million years ago but didn’t expand that range until Europeans reached America. As part of mass predator extermination efforts between 1915 and 1947, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service killed nearly 2 million coyotes.
This is the same effort that resulted in the extermination of gray wolves from the American west, but the campaign shockingly had the opposite effect for coyotes.
Gray wolves tend to stay close when a family member is killed, but coyotes disperse. As a result, eliminating an entire pack of wolves is easier than dealing with more than one or two coyotes at a time. This scattering of coyotes is what spread them around the country.
Coyotes were able to adapt and fill the ecological niche left open by the absence of wolves. They were first seen in Wisconsin in the 1800s and were found in 49 states by 1950.
Despite their abundance, scientists still don’t know exactly what coyotes are. Because they interbreed with wolves so often, a majority of coyotes are actually considered “coywolves.” The genetics are so mixed that an average coyote is about 25% wolf and at least 10% domesticated dog.
Coyotes weigh 30-40 pounds on average and can display a variety of unique patterns on their fur. They are often a mixture of tan, black and gray but can range from black to strawberry blonde. They have pointed muzzles, long, brushy tails and slender legs to help them survive in the wild.
The journey of the American coyote is a testament to their resilience, so next time you spot one in an unexpected place, appreciate them for helping Madison's winter feel a little bit more alive.