In body form and size, the coyote (Canis latrans) resembles a small collie dog, with erect pointed ears, slender muzzle, and a bushy tail (Fig. 1). Coyotes are predominantly brownish gray with a light gray to cream-colored belly. Color varies greatly, however, from nearly black to red or nearly white in some individuals and local populations. Most have dark or black guard hairs over their back and tail. In western states, typical adult males weigh from 25 to 45 pounds (11 to 16 kg) and females from 22 to 35 pounds (10 to 14 kg). In the East, many coyotes are larger than their western counterparts, with males averaging about 45 pounds (14 kg) and females about 30 pounds (13 kg).
Coyote-dog and coyote-wolf hybrids exist in some areas and may vary greatly from typical coyotes in size, color, and appearance. Also, coyotes in the New England states may differ in color from typical western coyotes. Many are black, and some are reddish. These colorations may partially be due to past hybridization with dogs and wolves. True wolves are also present in some areas of coyote range, particularly in Canada, Alaska, Montana, northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Relatively few wolves remain in the southern United States and Mexico.
Figure 1. Coyote, Canis latrans
Coyotes are most active at night and during early morning hours (especially where human activity occurs), and during hot summer weather. Where there is minimal human interference and during cool weather, they may be active throughout the day.
Coyotes bed in sheltered areas but do not generally use dens except when raising young. They may seek shelter underground during severe weather or when closely pursued. Their physical abilities include good eyesight and hearing and a keen sense of smell. Documented recoveries from severe injuries are indicative of coyotes’ physical endurance. Although not as fleet as greyhound dogs, coyotes have been measured at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour (64 km/hr) and can sustain slower speeds for several miles (km).
Distemper, hepatitis, parvo virus, and mange (caused by parasitic mites) are among the most common coyote diseases. Rabies and tularemia also occur and may be transmitted to other animals and humans. Coyotes harbor numerous parasites including mites, ticks, fleas, worms, and flukes. Mortality is highest during the first year of life, and few survive for more than 10 to 12 years in the wild. Human activity is often the greatest single cause of coyote mortality.
Coyotes usually breed in February and March, producing litters about 9 weeks (60 to 63 days) later in April and May. Females sometimes breed during the winter following their birth, particularly if food is plentiful. Average litter size is 5 to 7 pups, although up to 13 in a litter has been reported. More than one litter may be found in a single den; at times these may be from females mated to a single male. As noted earlier, coyotes are capable of hybridizing with dogs and wolves, but reproductive dysynchrony and behaviors generally make it unlikely. Hybrids are fertile, although their breeding seasons do not usually correspond to those of coyotes.
Coyote dens are found in steep banks, rock crevices, sinkholes, and underbrush, as well as in open areas. Usually their dens are in areas selected for protective concealment. Den sites are typically located less than a mile (km) from water, but may occasionally be much farther away. Coyotes will often dig out and enlarge holes dug by smaller burrowing animals. Dens vary from a few feet (1 m) to 50 feet (15 m) and may have several openings.
Both adult male and female coyotes hunt and bring food to their young for several weeks. Other adults associated with the denning pair may also help in feeding and caring for the young. Coyotes commonly hunt as singles or pairs; extensive travel is common in their hunting forays. They will hunt in the same area regularly, however, if food is plentiful. They occasionally bury food remains for later use.
Pups begin emerging from their den by 3 weeks of age, and within 2 months they follow adults to large prey or carrion. Pups normally are weaned by 6 weeks of age and frequently are moved to larger quarters such as dense brush patches and/or sinkholes along water courses. The adults and pups usually remain together until late summer or fall when pups become independent. Occasionally pups are found in groups until the breeding season begins.
Coyotes are successful at surviving and even flourishing in the presence of people because of their adaptable behavior and social system. They typically display increased reproduction and immigration in response to human-induced population reduction.
Historically, coyotes were most common on the Great Plains of North America. They have since extended their range from Central America to the Arctic, including all of the United States (except Hawaii), Canada, and Mexico.
Many references indicate that coyotes were originally found in relatively open habitats, particularly the grasslands and sparsely wooded areas of the western United States. Whether or not this was true, coyotes have adapted to and now exist in virtually every type of habitat, arctic to tropic, in North America. Coyotes live in deserts, swamps, tundra, grasslands, brush, dense forests, from below sea level to high mountain ranges, and at all intermediate altitudes. High densities of coyotes also appear in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Pasadena, Phoenix, and other western cities.
Coyotes often include many items in their diet. Rabbits top the list of their dietary components. Carrion, rodents, ungulates (usually fawns), insects (such as grasshoppers), as well as livestock and poultry, are also consumed. Coyotes readily eat fruits such as watermelons, berries, and other vegetative matter when they are available. In some areas coyotes feed on human refuse at dump sites and take pets (cats and small dogs).
Coyotes are opportunistic and generally take prey that is the easiest to secure. Among larger wild animals, coyotes tend to kill young, inexperienced animals, as well as old, sick, or weakened individuals. With domestic animals, coyotes are capable of catching and killing healthy, young, and in some instances, adult prey. Prey selection is based on opportunity and a myriad of behavioral cues. Strong, healthy lambs are often taken from a flock by a coyote even though smaller, weaker lambs are also present. Usually, the stronger lamb is on the periphery and is more active, making it more prone to attack than a weaker lamb that is at the center of the flock and relatively immobile.
Coyote predation on livestock is generally more severe during early spring and summer than in winter for two reasons. First, sheep and cows are usually under more intensive management during winter, either in feedlots or in pastures that are close to human activity, thus reducing the opportunity for coyotes to take livestock. Second, predators bear young in the spring and raise them through the summer, a process that demands increased nutritional input, for both the whelping and nursing mother and the growing young. This increased demand corresponds to the time when young sheep or beef calves are on pastures or rangeland and are most vulnerable to attack. Coyote predation also may increase during fall when young coyotes disperse from their home ranges and establish new territories.
Jeffrey S. Green. Assistant Regional Director. USDA-APHIS-Wildlife Services Lakewood, Colorado 80228
F. Robert Henderson. Extension Specialist Animal Damage Control Kansas State University Manhattan, Kansas 66506-1600
Mark D. Collinge. State Director USDA-APHIS-Wildlife Services Boise, Idaho 83705