The coyote is a member of the Canidae (dog) family and a close relative of the domestic dog. Coyotes are native to North America and are only found from Canada south to Costa Rica. European explorers first encountered these canines during their travels in the American Southwest. They may occasionally assemble in small packs, but naturally hunt alone. Coyotes live an average of about 6 to 10 years.
The coyote looks very similar to the endangered “red wolf” in profile. They have similar size, color and head shape. Coyotes live in the northwest United States unlike the red wolves.
Despite being extensively hunted, the coyote is one of the few medium-to-large-sized animals that have enlarged its range since human encroachment began. Coyotes have moved into most of the areas of North America formerly occupied by wolves and so the “dog” observed foraging in a suburban trashcan might in fact be a coyote.
The coyote stands less than 2ft (0.6 m) tall and varies in color from white-gray to tan with sometimes a reddish tint to its coat. A coyote’s ears and nose appear long and pointed, especially in relation to the size of its head. It weighs between 20 and 50 lb (9 and 22 kg), averaging 31 lb (14 kg). The coyote can be identified by its thick bushy tail, which it often holds low to the ground. It can be distinguished from its much larger relative, the gray wolf, by its overall slight appearance compared to the massive size and stockiness. The coyote is an extremely lean animal and may appear underfed even if healthy.
The northeast coyote and the Cape Cod coyote are thought to be a 50% mix with the red wolf. Coyotes can also hybridize and produce fertile offspring with gray wolves and domestic dogs Hybrids between coyotes and domestic dogs are known as “Coydogs”
Coyotes are essentially nocturnal, but they will occasionally hunt during the day unless threatened by predators or humans.
They are highly adaptable and live in a variety of different niches. Their behavior can vary widely depending on where they live, but in general they live and hunt singly or in monogamous pairs in search of small mammals. These mammals include rabbits, mice, shrews, voles, foxes, squirrels, grouse, and even small insects, sheep, and fish. They commonly eat deer excrement during winter months in northern climates. The coyote is an omnivore and adapts its diet to the available food sources including fruits, grasses, and vegetables along with small mammals. In Yellowstone National Park, before the reintroduction of the wolf, coyotes began to fill the wolf’s ecological niche. They hunted in packs to bring down large prey.
Coyotes mate for life. They breed around the month of February and four to six pups are born in late April or early May. Both parents (and sometimes indisposed young from the previous year) help to feed the pups. At three weeks old the pups leave the den under close watch of their parents. Once the pups are eight to twelve weeks old they are taught to hunt. Families stay together through the summer but the young break apart to find their own territories by fall. They usually relocate within ten miles. The young are sexually mature at 1 year of age.
Hearing a coyote is much more common than seeing one. The calls a coyote makes are high-pitched and variously described as howls, yips, yelps and barks. These calls may be a long rising and falling note (a howl) or a series of short notes (yips). These calls are most often heard at dusk or night, less often during the day. Although these calls are made throughout the year, they are most common during the spring mating season and in the fall when the pups leave their families to establish new territories. Many people find these calls eerie or disturbing while others find them to be quite beautiful. Additionally, the coyote’s howl can be very deceiving. Due to the way the sound carries, it can seem as though it is in one place, when it is really elsewhere.
In rural areas, coyotes will respond to human calls. This is most often after the coyotes have started a howling session. They will also respond to recorded howls. In some of these areas, the coyotes will stop and wait for the humans to stop before resuming their howling session. Once they’ve figured out that it isn’t another coyote that has been calling to them. In areas where the coyotes have grown accustomed to humans calling back to them, they tend to continue with simpler calls back to the humans and return to more complex calls when the humans get tired of calling to them. Playing a recorded wolf howl will make them stop for up to an hour before they start in again, probably because wolves prey upon coyotes. Coyotes also thrive in suburban settings and even some urban ones.
Relationship with humans
In the 1800s, at least 29,485 coyotes were captured. The coyote is blamed for killing livestock and in 1991, 900,000 coyotes were killed. In twelve states the coyote is protected and it is hunted elsewhere.
Coyote predation on pets (especially cats and small dogs) in suburban areas has become common in recent decades. Also attacks on children and adults, once rare, appear to be on the increase