Coyotes in Sewanee

For many, our first interaction with a coyote (Canis latrans) was Mr. Wile E. Coyote, the devious and hapless arch villain of the Looney Tunes roadrunner. Though never quite successful, his actions earned him a spot on TV Guide's list of Nastiest Villains of All Time in 2013.

Lately many in Sewanee have interacted with or seen real live Canis latrans, a relative wildlife newcomer to the plateau. While sharing few characteristics with its animated cousin, it seems to be at risk of gaining an unearned spot on Sewanee’s villain list. The purpose of this article is to provide background on coyote ecology, hopefully assuage some community fears about the animals, and provide helpful tools for residents to minimize unwanted interactions with these fascinating animals.

Coyotes are known as opportunistic omnivores, they hunt prey (primarily mice, chipmunks, rabbits, and squirrels) and will eat just about anything they can find including small mammals, fruits, nuts, and insects. During the summer, grasshoppers and beetles can make up the majority of their diet. In urban and suburban areas, they have learned to exploit the resources left out by humans, eating pet food, household garbage, birdseed, and ornamental fruits. In one study urban coyotes were found to have derived 60-75%  percent of their diets from human sources.

Socially, coyotes live in family groups that are controlled by an alpha male and female. In most instances, only the alpha pair are breeding while other members of the group assist with pup rearing and food gathering. Coyotes are thought to be unique among mammals in that they can also alter their litter size based on their population size and social structure. A stable family group may only net 3 to 5 new pups a year, whereas a hunted family group will allow additional females in the group to breed, and individual litter sizes of each female can double. For this reason, hunting and removal of coyotes is often counterproductive. Removing a few individuals will often cause the population to grow faster.

So, what about children and pets?

Coyote attacks on humans are extremely rare. According to the Humane Society of the United States, more humans are killed by flying champagne corks each year than are bitten by coyotes. Negative human-coyote interactions are always the result of animals that have become habituated to humans through feeding. Coyotes simply do not see humans as prey. The same can be said for pets, and though coyotes have learned to take an occasional cat or very small dog, it only happens when pets are left unattended and urban coyotes learn to hunt them.

So why are we seeing coyotes around Sewanee?

This time of year young male coyotes are dispersing from their family units to establish new territories. That may explain why there have been so many sightings lately in Sewanee. In order to keep these animals from becoming habituated to humans, it's important that community members take active steps to keep coyotes wild. These steps include:

  • Never feed coyotes intentionally.
  • Never leave pet food outside unattended.
  • Take steps to secure compost bins so that animals cannot access them.
  • Keep trash secured. Trash attracts coyotes and their prey.
  • Do not leave cats or small dogs outdoors unattended.

The Looney Tunes roadrunner was known to antagonize Wile E.Coyote and encourage him to put himself in unfortunate positions. We don’t have to follow the roadrunner’s lead. If we can avoid habituating them to humans, coyotes can play a positive role in controlling rodents in our community and simply be another wild animal that we are fortunate to observe from a distance.

If you are interested in more information on coyote biology, the Humane Society has published a Coyote Management and Coexistence Plan. If you live on the Domain and have specific concerns related to a coyote near your leasehold, please email to discuss options. If you live off the Domain, the United States Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services Division may be able to offer assistance.

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