All about Coyotes

It is my personal belief that when the last human has fallen, and the last skull lies on the irradiated earth, a coyote will come trotting out of some safe place. Don’t ask me where he’ll come from; but I believe that he will survive as he has always survived. The coyote will trot in his furtive, skulking manner, to the skull. He will approach it carefully with the caution borne of millenia of avoiding steel traps and snares and pitfall. He will cautiously sniff it. His educated nose will tell him that he no longer has anything to fear from the bleached remnant of a once great civilization. Taking a few short steps to get in the exact position, he will lift his leg.
-Charles L. Cadieux
Coyotes: Predators and Survivors

The coyote (Canis latrans) received its name from the ancient Aztec word coyotl, meaning “barking dog”. Revered by many Native American tribes, the coyote has always held an important role in oral stories passed down the generations to teach children of the importance of survival, life lessons of understanding right and wrong, and how to adapt to their surroundings.

Often mistaken for a wolf or feral dog, the coyote is a medium sized canid averaging only 28-35 pounds in the Western, Midwestern, and Southern United States. In the Northeastern section of the U.S., Coyotes, commonly called coy-wolves, can range in the higher 40s and possibly low 50s depending on the percentage of wolf DNA content they possess. Commonly agouti colored, meaning their visible guard hairs contain 4 separate bands of color (brown, tan, white, and black), they will normally exhibit a mixture of blacks, browns, and golden coloration patterns. While agouti is the typical coloration, coyotes can range from pure black (which is very rare) or rusty red, to completely blonde. Smaller by a third to their wolf counterparts, their ears are larger and pointed relative to their heads as well as possessing a narrow and more “pointed” muzzle. The brain case is also larger relative to their body and head compared to wolves.

Historical distribution patterns of the coyote is often a source of debate among wildlife biologists/enthusiasts. While commonly stated that coyotes, until wolf eradication, existed only west of the Mississippi, skeletal remains of the most ancient coyotes, had been discovered in the Eastern United States prior to the Gray Wolf disappearance. However, in more recent history, as in the settlement of America by Europeans, coyotes did only inhabit territories West of the Mississippi until wolves were hunted to extinction, opening up the available niche in the ecosystem for opportunistic coyotes to flourish.

Currently, coyotes inhabit every state with the exception of Hawaii as well inhabiting Canada and down to certain areas in Central America. Their territories can range anywhere from one to over 25 square miles depending on rural or urban habitation. They have adapted to many environments including deserts, mountains, forests, tundra, and even urban developments. Because of this high level of adaptability, the coyote has thrived where the wolf could not.

Coyotes have frequently been forced into the role of scapegoats. Often falsely blamed for missing cats, dogs, and livestock, coyotes generally thrive on a diet of mice, rats, voles, rabbits, and similar prey. Livestock and pets are not, nor have they ever been, the primary diet of coyotes. Usually solitary hunters, they do not normally hunt large ungulates such as deer or elk since their lack of size and the high amount of energy it would take to bring one down deter them. Coyotes do, however, have the ability to bring down larger animals as documented by Dr. Robert Crabtree in Yellowstone National Park. During his studies, there was a very large pack, prior to wolf reintroduction to the park, that were known to bring down elk. Even then, this was a rarity among the coyotes. The coy-wolves of the Northeastern United States provide a rare exception, as they do hunt deer on a more regular basis. Coyotes will, and do, frequently eat carrion left by other carnivores, as well as roadkill. They are opportunistic and will feed on what is most readily available to save energy.

Male and female coyotes are only fertile once a year, breeding in late January to early February. Mate selection is primarily female dominant and highly selective. Usually monogamous, coyotes in the wild frequently mate for life or for many consecutive years. They are very dedicated parents, both taking an active role in the rearing of young, and usually staying together as companions throughout the year, even after dispersal of puppies in the fall. Coyote puppies have a gestation period of approximately 65 days, where an average litter of 2-6 puppies are born. Only half of these puppies will survive their first winter. Depending on food availability and compensatory rebound, litters can be noticeably smaller or larger than average. When large numbers of coyotes disappear (due to factors such as hunting or predator control), puppy litters will tend to be much larger, with a higher survival rate, effectively increasing the area’s population. After approximately ten months, in mid to late October, coyote puppies will disperse to acquire their own territories, becoming more visible and “worrisome” to humans, even though they are likely just “passing through”.

Behaviorally, coyotes are exceedingly complex animals due to their protean nature. To place a stereotype on a given behavior and name it fact, only leads one to reevaluate that fact in the near future. Their adaptable nature changes a stereotype depending on circumstance. Truly fascinating creatures, coyote behavior, while studied by a few scientists, has been largely under appreciated by the scientific community as well as the general public. While certain generalizations such as mate selection and raising of young are fairly certain, pack dynamics, pack size, dispersal, and hunting behaviors can vary greatly.

Generally speaking, coyotes do not normally live in large cohesive packs like gray wolves. Usually, pack size averages between three to five animals, five being on the larger scale. In Indiana, pack size doesn’t typically exceed 3 animals unless it is puppy season. Packs are made up of small family units where the hunting is done primarily by a solitary coyote, unlike the wolves that hunt in larger packs to bring down large prey. However, depending on geographical location and food availability, coyotes will form larger packs temporarily to bring down larger prey should their primary food source of rodents and smaller mammals be limited. Yet this is not typical. These larger packs do not usually hold together for more than a season or two before “downsizing” substantially. However, coyotes can form cohesive packs similar to those found among wolves… They are thought to have originally evolved as pack animals, but changing conditions and human intervention “forced” them to adapt to those changes for continued survival. These cohesive packs are not as commonly observed, especially in areas where wolf populations continue to thrive.

There are several claims each year by citizens that have “20 coyotes” at the edge of their properties, the population being out of control, and massive packs of coyotes terrorizing the neighborhood and deer populations. These claims are unfounded. Due to unique vocal abilities, the howling of two coyotes can and will sound like five to seven. Their ability to hit many different pitches and bounce the sound off of objects in the surrounding area, allows for an extra territorial defense against others of their kind looking to cross territorial boundaries. Because of this, many people have the misconception that there are many more coyotes nearby than there actually are.