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Fauna Series No. 4






Population and Mortality







Other Larger Mammals

Small Mammals


Misc. Diet



Fauna of the National Parks — No. 4
Ecology of the Coyote in the Yellowstone
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ON NOVEMBER 13, 1937, on upper Oxbow Creek, a number of soaring ravens attracted my attention to a dead cow elk lying on an open slope. From a prominence I could see some coyotes as well as several magpies, at the carcass. Lying contentedly on a knoll 150 yards away was a coyote which had apparently had its fill, for it was relaxed on its side and showed no interest in its surroundings. One coyote was at the elk and chased away another which approached to feed. Soon a fourth came to the place on the run. As it approached it put its head down and arched its back. The coyote at the carcass fled; it seemed to recognize the newcomer as its superior. Two coyotes trotted over a rise out of sight.

Although it was a dull, grey day I moved up nearer in order to try for some pictures. As I was approaching the carrion a coyote appeared on the skyline about one-third of a mile behind me. It trotted briskly toward the carcass, passing about 60 yards to one side of where I was crouched. I circled the dead elk and came up to within 75 yards of it, shielded from the coyotes by a few fir trees. There were now five coyotes, standing shoulder to shoulder, tugging at the meat. The ravens had seen me from afar and had left, but eight or nine magpies were there. Magpies on the carcass were sometimes thrown off balance by the tugging of the coyotes. One by one, four of the coyotes left the carrion and trotted away. Each of the four, upon leaving the carcass, vigorously rubbed its throat and muzzle, and sometimes its chest, on the grass to clean the fur. In this way, the blood and dirt were thoroughly wiped off. The fifth coyote remained several minutes after the others had left. When finishing, it also wiped its muzzle and then howled half-heartedly.

When all the coyotes had gone, I hunched up against a niche in some bare rocks 50 yards from the carcass. There was no cover near at hand. In a few minutes a coyote came over the slope behind, and, upon sighting me from a distance of 15 yards, galloped out in the flat. It made a large half circle around the carcass, moved back to a knoll 100 yards away, and lay down. The magpies in the meantime were busy gorging themselves and carrying away quantities of scraps to cache in the scattered neighboring groves.

In a few minutes another coyote appeared and approached the carcass, weaving back and forth several times before coming to it. This coyote seemed hungry, feeding rapidly and jerking at the carcass vigorously. The magpies were perched all about it, only 2 or 3 feet away. Once the coyote made a dash at the magpies, apparently to chase them away. Sometimes it received a start when a magpie alighted only a couple of feet from its head. It was finally attracted by the noise of my camera shutter and trotted up to within 10 yards of me before it recognized what I was and galloped away.

I walked nearer the carcass to photograph the magpies and crouched about 20 yards from it to wait for the magpies to reassemble. I had barely taken a position when another coyote came into the area and trotted directly to the carrion without noticing me. However, it apparently got my scent for it dashed away. I had been at the carcass for 3 hours and estimated that during this time it had been visited by 10 different coyotes.

On November 13, 1938, at 8 a. m., I found a dead bull elk in the sage about 75 yards from the road near Blacktail Creek. I later learned that the elk had been killed by a truck on the evening of November 11. At the carcass were 5 coyotes, 12 ravens, and 10 magpies. At 4 p. m. there were 6 coyotes, who, with one exception, left shortly after. This one tugged at the flesh in the usual manner, sometimes bracing all four legs, but more often only the front legs. It occurred to me that the hyena, which feeds chiefly on carrion, may have developed its fore legs and shoulders at the expense of the hind quarters by a feeding habit at carrion in which it used mainly the front legs.

On the morning of November 14, there were 3 coyotes at the dead elk, 3 others within 50 yards of it, and 6 more scattered out over the sagebrush either going or coming. No doubt the presence of a carcass becomes widely known, causing more and more coyotes to assemble. One of the three at the carcass seemed especially pugnacious, at intervals driving off the other two animals, and dashing after the magpies, of which there were a dozen hopping and flitting over the body. After being driven away several times one of the coyotes moved off, but the other was finally tolerated and wedged itself between the hip bones in its efforts to get at some uncleaned portion of the skeleton, which was fast becoming bare of flesh. Later another coyote approached in the characteristic challenging attitude with back arched and jaws wide open. It galloped and trotted in this attitude for about one-quarter of a mile. Without hesitation it attacked the first coyote it encountered, which was the pugnacious one. There was a momentary sparring with jaws as both humped up, but the newcomer bumped his shoulder against the other and forced it to retreat, then dashed after some magpies, and, after strutting once around the elk remains, began to feed. Soon a light-colored coyote boldly approached and attacked. There was resistance, but after some snarling and scuffling the one at the carcass moved off a few feet. His back remained arched and he returned to feed undisturbed. The third coyote was still feeding between the hip bones. Some ribs and leg bones had been carried off 50 or 60 yards to a spot where several minor quarrels and some bluffing took place, similar to that occurring at the carcass. Ravens sat in the snow at varying distances from the carrion, which they had left on my approach. Once a raven tried to fly off with a rib in its bill. Three or four times a coyote approached a raven that was feeding and, when the raven flew, examined the spot where it had been.

Four coyotes ran off together across the sage and over the ice of a small pond. The large one in the lead was attacked several times by the one behind it so that it had to stop and face about to protect itself. This nipping seemed to be done in play.

Some of the coyotes rested in the sagebrush between 50 and 400 yards from the carrion. Once eight coyotes trotted off, three of them bunched in the lead, the others straggling behind at various intervals. Some of them spent a little time hunting mice. During the morning there were several brief fights, one in which a coyote rolled over on its back and was bitten somewhat around the throat.

In the afternoon I approached within 35 yards of three coyotes at the carcass in order to take pictures. They were so occupied that I was able to move gradually into full view and take a number of pictures. They paid little attention to the noisy camera shutter. One of the coyotes saw me, but after running off a short distance and seeing the others remaining, it returned and lay down 60 yards away. The coyotes were active through the day, coming and going to the carcass continually.

Where the coyotes are depending mainly on carrion for food and there is not sufficient to go around, it is very probable that there is an elimination of the weak and a survival of the fittest. The weak can only eat after the strong have feasted, and if the strong devour what there is, the weak would of course go hungry and become weaker.

coyotes and magpies and elk carcass
Figure 4— The coyote in the center is trying to bluff the newcomer at the right, but without much success. This challenging attitude is frequently assumed by coyotes while at a carcass.
Blacktail Deer Creek, November 14, 1938.


THE coyote often caches surplus food. This may vary in amount from a whole deer quarter to a piece of deer meat an inch or two in diameter such as was found cached one-third of a mile from a carcass on lower Blacktail Deer Creek on November 20, 1937. On February 15, 1937, coyotes were observed hiding large pieces of a deer, and once a coyote was observed moving away from an elk carcass with a leg bone. Often it has been observed that deer have been "cleaned up" in a single night. Although much of a deer may be eaten on the spot, it is likely that a large part has usually been carried away. In northern Minnesota I have frequently found snowshoe hares stored under the snow by coyotes.

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