All about the Coyote


You may be wondering what Coyotes have to do with a backyard wildlife habitat. So, here it is: If your home is on an urban hillside with good coverage or even near a city park, you might have a Coyote visiting your yard. It may nightly drink from your dog’s water dish, pounce on mice as they nibble spilled birdseed, go fishing in your pond, and search your compost pile for your dinner leftovers.

Most city dwellers will never need to consider the impact of having a Coyote visiting their yard. But, if you have one, it’s hyper-alert and very secretive, so you’ll probably never see it.

Coyotes originally inhabited the grasslands of the northwestern U.S. As humans encroached, these clever, quick-learning and adaptable animals were forced to extend their range. One hundred years ago they received a boost from the ill-conceived, government-sponsored extermination of their most dangerous natural predator, the wolf. Declining numbers of grizzly bears, black bears, and mountain lions also have been a boon to Coyote populations.

Coyotes now live about everywhere, including mountains, forests, and deserts. They’re in every state but Hawaii and extend up into Canada and down into Mexico and Central America. At least twice a Coyote has been found living in New York City’s Central Park. Your state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife will be able to tell you if Coyotes are known to be in your area.

Coyotes, Canis latrans, are in the order Carnivora and family Canidae, along with wolves, foxes, jackals, dingoes, dogs and other dog-like animals. Fossil evidence shows that Coyotes have existed since the Late Miocene and Early Pliocene Epochs, 10,300,000 to 4,900,000 years ago.

Physical description
Adult Coyotes are generally 30 to 40 inches long (76 to 101 cm) and stand 15 to 20 inches tall (38 to 50.8 cm) at the shoulder. They weigh about 45 pounds (20.4 mg). Coyotes living in desert and prairie environments are smaller than their mountain-range kin. Males are a little larger than females.

They have a thin face with yellow eyes and a black nose. Their ears are large, yellowish, triangular and held upright. Their body is lanky, with a black-tipped, bushy tail which they carry down, even when running. When making a show of aggression, however, they raise it to a horizontal position.

Drawing of a Red Fox, Coyote, Red Wolf and Gray Wolf comparing them side by side.

Size comparison, top to bottom: Gray Wolf, 80-120 lbs.; Red Wolf, 50-80 lbs.; Coyote, 20-45 lbs.; Red Fox, 10-15 lbs (USFWS; PD)

Warm-climate Coyotes are grayish-brown, yellowish-gray or tawny in color, while colder climates produce darker fur. A dark stripe runs down their back. They have five toes on their front feet. The back feet have four toes and a dewclaw, which is a rudimentary fifth toe.

Coyotes are nocturnal but might come out in the daytime. Shy and very wary of people, they’ll usually run away if they think they’ve been seen. Some of those living in urban areas, however, have grown less shy. For instance, the urban Coyote in the image at the top of this page allowed itself to be photographed while relaxing on a lawn. Authorities consider this a bad sign, believing that Coyotes need to stay afraid, for the safety of humans.

Most Coyotes live in social packs of three or more, with an alpha male and an alpha female. A pack usually consists of a mated pair and their offspring, but there may also be unrelated members. Coyotes live alone if forced out of a pack. That can happen if they’re diseased, injured, old or food is scarce. Living singly may doom these animals, as they lack the pack’s protection. They also lose an advantage in bringing down prey.

Healthy offspring voluntarily leave at a year old to establish a pack and territories of their own. Territories, which they mark with their urine, may be several square miles and don’t typically overlap. When they do, packs in overlapping territories generally try to avoid each other. If they do get into a confrontation, it’s usually limited to a show of aggression through body language — a flash of teeth, arched back, raised tail — and then the intruder is chased away. Fighting usually doesn’t occur, and when it does, seldom leads to death. How to coexist with wildlife

Coyotes are very vocal. As a matter of fact, their Latin name, Canis latrans, translates to “barking dog.” They howl, yelp, bark, growl and huff. In fact, Canis latrans, their scientific name, means “barking dog.” Each type of vocalization has a particular purpose. For example, their howl, well-known to viewers of old Western movies and farmers, is to let other Coyotes know where they are. Coyote calls are usually heard at dusk and nighttime. Listen to Coyotes   

Coyotes are resourceful, clever, cunning and adaptable. How else could they have survived centuries of constant conflict with humans? They now even live in urban areas, where they often outsmart human efforts to drive them away.

Food sources
Coyotes are beneficial predators that help keep prey species in balance. Fast runners — up to 40 miles per hour — they hunt by day or night and usually alone. Sometimes, though, an entire family group will take down an animal. Groups have been known to split up, with two or three chasing a large animal, such as a deer, toward two or three other Coyotes waiting ahead. (They target old, young and weak prey.)

#Coyote in snowy field pouncing to catch prey.

Coyote pouncing to catch prey. (© James Mattil / 123RF)

Their main diet in urban areas is rodents, ground squirrels, rabbits and other small mammals, fish, fruit, vegetables, insects, and carrion. A thirsty urban Coyote will take its drink wherever it may find it — swimming pools, water sprinklers, fountains, dog water dishes, birdbaths or even leaking hoses.

Rural Coyotes have a bad reputation among farmers and ranchers who occasionally lose young, old or ill livestock to them. There are exceptions: There’s a rancher in Arizona who, however, tolerates two Coyotes who arrive every day to play with his ranch dogs, then they go on their way.

Dens and cover 
Coyotes live in dens, but seldom dig their own. They look for a suitable space in rock crevices, caves, hollow logs, another animal’s abandoned den, or even thickets. In urban areas, they may den in old sheds or large drain pipes. Coyotes use dens for sleeping and raising their young. They don’t hibernate.

Mating season is between January and March. Many males court a female and she chooses just one. Pairs are monogamous and remain together year-round for life. (Coyotes are capable of mating with dogs and wolves, too, producing “coydogs” and “coywolves.”)

(© Gerald and Buff Corsi / California Academy of Sciences; cc by-nc-sa 3.0)

(© Gerald and Buff Corsi / California Academy of Sciences; cc by-nc-sa 3.0)

Gestation is about 63 days. Three to nine pups are born (usually six) in a den the mother has prepared for them. The newborns are fuzzy and helpless. Their eyes are closed for about the first 14 days. Once they can see, the pups begin to venture outside of their den, but stay in a group. Their father helps a helpful role by bringing food to the female while she’s nursing, as well as regurgitated food for the pups. Pups start eating meat at about three weeks. At six to eight weeks they stop nursing. If the mother dies before the pups are able to eat meat, they’ll perish from starvation. If they can eat meat, the father will feed and raise them. A mother, on the other hand, can raise them alone if she must, but her job is harder. If there are other pack members (usually older offspring), they’ll also help raise the pups. 

At six to 10 weeks the mother begins to take her pups out hunting. It’s at this time that Coyotes are most visible to humans. By fall the pups are hunting on their own, and within a year (sometimes two) they leave to claim a territory, find a mate and begin a pack of their own.

Only 5 to 15 percent of juveniles live to adulthood. If they can survive that long, they might live up to 10 to 15 years, although six to eight years is typical. Coyotes in captivity can live up to 18 years.

Coyotes and rabies
Coyotes are susceptible to rabies, but it’s uncommon.

Life is tough for young Coyotes. Their rates of distemper, roundworm and human predation take a heavy toll. Pups are prey for hawks, owls, occasionally even neighboring Coyote packs. Adults are preyed on by Black Bears, Mountain Lions, and wolves, but they now have only one predator of real consequence: humans. Hunting, traps, poison, and automobiles take a significant toll. 

*Top photo: Dru Bloomfield / Flickr; cc by 2.0

More reading about coyotes and wildlife:

Coyote: frequent questions  
Wildlife’s good mothers