ASK MY CAT ABOUT COYOTE BREATH

But then, I agree with Shaw that the coyotes' "biggest benefit is that many people enjoy hearing them and seeing them. They are a symbol of wildness to us."

The ease with which wild coyotes have adapted to Phoenix never ceases to fascinate me. For instance, a Phoenix coyote has its own freeway system--the Salt River, Indian Bend Wash and all of the flood-control ditches created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

A Phoenix coyote can live up to ten years, and may weigh as much as 30 pounds. It may live in one territory its entire life, and may invite a female to join it.

Coyotes do not mate for life, however. And they do not run in "packs." Instead, they group together in family units that break up at the earliest convenience.

When the female coyote is ready to give birth, she digs a den wherever it is quiet and safe. She might find an abandoned stable in Moon Valley, a culvert in west Phoenix, a vacant lot in Maryvale. She might give birth to two or three pups. By the time the pups are one month old, the male coyote hunts for them. Regardless of whether the food is road kill or a Taco Bell leftover, the parents eat it first, then regurgitate it so the hungry pups can more easily digest it.

Sometimes, the mother moves her children to a different den, which is when she can run into trouble if someone finds her "abandoned" pup.

If the pups aren't snatched up by well-intentioned city dwellers, their mother will teach them to hunt. They must learn the neck-snapping technique of the quick kill, how to turn over garbage cans in alleys behind restaurants, how to pluck melons from gardens. The father might tire of the lessons and take off because he is no longer useful. But he still keeps in touch. When coyotes howl at night in my neighborhood, it is likely that they are members of a family apprising each other of their whereabouts.

A coyote family doesn't last forever. Once the pups are independent hunters, the family breaks up.

The adolescents take to the ditches and riverbeds, looking for unclaimed territory.

What they are finding, more and more, are crusts of stale bread, pork chops, dry dog food, table scraps and apples left out for them by the humans they are learning not to fear.

Curious urban coyotes have been known to follow walkers and joggers, and are unafraid of their scents. A safe distance between a coyote and a human is considered to be 50 yards, biologist Frederick tells me. But some urban coyotes can get as close as 15 feet.

The problem is, city dwellers don't often shoo the coyotes off. "People are usually not assertive with coyotes," Frederick says. "If they were assertive with them, and didn't feed them, they would remain a good, safe distance from us. And we could have a situation where coyotes and people can live together in a city."

Me, I just keep Duke in at night and listen to the coyotes sing.

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