Coyote at Play

Buckeye Farm Beat

Farmers all know how common place coyotes are becoming but when they start playing with the family dog you wonder if this has gone too far.

Published on: November 4, 2010

We hear coyotes around the farm on a regular basis -- as in at least once a week. In fact if the local emergency sirens went off at noon, like they do in many places, I’m sure we would hear them yelping and yapping every day.

When a cat moved into our barn several years ago, the coyotes could be heard right behind the corral on a nightly basis. One day the cat disappeared and the coyotes were gone too. We don’t have many ground hogs anymore either -- plenty of squirrels and the deer are still abundant.

Its one thing to hear the nightly howls, which my wife says sound like witches, gathered around a cauldron, but it is another thing to see the critters themselves. I have only spotted coyotes on three occasions as I was walking around the farm with our dogs. They are both yellow labs thanks to my brother-in-law Mike who trains Labrador retrievers in Georgia for field trials. Occasionally Mike will raise a litter and being the softie he is, our kids have talked him out of some very nice dogs over the years.

Once several years ago the dogs and I came over the hill to see the afternoon sun shining on what at first resembled a wolf sitting on the hillside. As soon as he saw me, he got up to run away and as he did it seemed like the whole hillside was moving when four or five of his friends likewise sprinted for the woods. Despite my commands to attack, our dogs never even saw the wild pack.

Another time I was walking on a wooded path when our 7-year-old dog Flash sniffed the air and started sprinting ahead. I looked up in time to see a pair of coyotes dart into the thick underbrush as soon as our eyes meet. While they silently weaved their way through the thicket, Flash crashed into rose bushes and honeysuckle bushes and soon was too entangled to get any further.

The other time was just this fall when I was walking the dogs near the same spot and again Flash picked up a scent and charged into the heavy brush. Out the other end popped a single coyote. It was distinctive because it had a reddish head and black tail. In between was brown colored fur like a German shepherd. He looked my way as he headed down the trail the opposite direction from where the dog was going.

So, yesterday my wife left for work early to attend a meeting. Around 7:45 a.m. I was putting on my boots and getting ready to leave when I heard the dogs --  Flash and his 14-year-old companion Tizzy barking in the front yard. I looked out and saw Flash about 40 yards away chasing what I assumed was a stray dog. They were running in circles like dogs do when they play. After a second look I saw the pointed fox-like face and the bushy tail hanging straight down – not wagging and realized this was coyote. Seeing the red face and the black tail I recognized it was the same one I had seen on the trial.

Of course my camera gear was in the car and when I tried to get my new Android phone working for some video, I found the battery had died. So I just watched for about 10 or 15 minutes as Flash tried to back the coyote off – barking and charging only to be circled as the coyote darted in and dashed away as if it was trying to encourage a game of tag. The animal was no where near as big as Flash who weighs about 85 pounds. However, he did look to be about the same height as Tizzy, who weighs about 50 pounds, but the coyote was probably less stout.

At times the coyote would lie down and rest on its stomach before getting up and charging around not unlike a border does when it is herding sheep. Then the coyote picked up what I thought might be a dead skin from an animal, but turned out to be a tent caterpillar nest that had fallen out of a tree. The coyote tossed it up in the air several times and pawed it and tried to get the dog to chase after it. The game came as close as 50 feet from the side door of our house. The coyote clearly was not concerned that anyone was home.

All the while our old dog Tizzy barked steadily from a safe location in the front yard. Flash barked pretty constantly too, but the coyote never uttered a sound. Finally Flash chased the coyote down the hill in our front yard and the animal trotted away towards woods that run along the west side of the farm. The dogs came back up to the porch and calmly laid down – kind of giving me the impression this has happened before.

When I got to the office, I called Dr. Stan Gerht, OSU Extension wildlife biologist and coyote expert. He told me it was not unusual for coyotes to come into backyards this time of year and play with the family dogs. He said it was likely the coyote was a pup born last April and for the first time was trying to figure out what to do now that it was no longer part of the family.

“We see this quite often in urban areas and along golf courses or parks,” he told me. “It usually looks like they are playing tag. Labs are usually more friendly about it than some other dogs. The coyote pup can be close to full grown by this age.”

I asked if it could be trying to lure our dogs away from home into the pack either to be attacked or to join the group. Gerht said there was no record of coyotes enticing pets away to be attacked. “That’s just a myth coming from someone’s imagination. I have never observed that.” He did say there were cases where coyotes had become aggressive. “Watch to make sure there isn’t more than one coming to visit. And don’t let any of them get too comfortable with this behavior.”

Don’t worry, I won’t. Although when I hear the dogs barking at night, I will wonder if they are protecting the farm or just saying hello to a buddy.