Coyotes (Canis latrans) are members of the dog family, long treated as either a dangerous nuisance by society or overlooked in popular culture in favor of the more ferocious wolf or the lovable pet dog. But their adaptability and cunning ways have kept coyotes alive for millennia, making them some of the keenest survivors around.
"Coyotes are generally smaller than most people believe," says National Park Services biologist Justin Brown, who conducted a two-year study for the National Park Service, released in 2019,on coyote scat (poop) in southern California. According to Brown, coyotes typically weigh around 25-35 pounds (10-15 kilograms) when they are fully grown, though he says coyotes in the northeastern U.S. are usually on the heavier side.
Coyotes have long, rough fur that is a mix of reddish-brown and white and they sport a tail with a black tip. If they're not exactly known for their looks, they're mostly definitely recognized by the unique sounds they use to communicate with each other. These sounds "alternate between yipping, barks and howls," says Stanley D. Gehrt, Professor of Wildlife Ecology at The Ohio State University and Principal Investigator of the Cook County Coyote Project in the Chicago metropolitan area.
Adaptability and Migration
Coyotes are remarkably unremarkable in terms of their physical characteristics, which they use to their advantage. "This actually works in their favor, as it fits their role as a generalist that is able to adjust and exploit highly variable environments," says Gehrt.
In other words: These mammals are known for their adaptability, which allows them to thrive in a variety of natural (and unnatural) environments and expand their reach across North America. Even if that adaptability means scrounging through your trash can for their next meal.
Gehrt says that coyotes "probably prefer open areas, especially grasslands and desert (their original habitats), but they have learned to be successful in all types" of habitats. Including urban environments. "We have radio collared animals right next to downtown [Los Angeles] in places with very little green space," says Brown.
Coyotes have spread far and wide across North America, including Canada, the U.S., Mexico and Central America. "Coyotes are getting close to their maximum range expansion in North America, as they have made it nearly everywhere with the exception of the high Arctic regions, which they are likely not suited for," says Brown. Though even those high Arctic areas could become accessible as climate change occurs. Brown notes that the coyote population has ventured far south through most of Central America and says that the "the new frontier for coyotes" is South America. "We will see if the Panama Canal is enough to stop them — I doubt it will be."
In fact, author Dan Flores writes in his book, Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History, that the only other mammal to march as far across North America — and as rapidly — is the human. But for all this adaptability, coyotes still have fairly short lives. "The average age is between 2 and 3 years of age (many coyotes die before turning 2), but they can live as long as 13-14 years," says Gehrt.
Coyotes, the 'Song Dogs'
If there's a pack of coyotes in the vicinity, you might just be lucky enough to hear their piercing howls, which can reach high volumes and vary in intensity as different group members, both young and old, join to form a sort of creepy canine chorus. "We know that there are regional dialects in a coyote's howl, kind of like accents," says Gehrt. These bone-chilling sounds have earned the coyote a reputation as the "song dog" of North America.
Behavior and Breeding
Due to their history of being hunted and trapped by humans over generations, coyotes are pretty mild-tempered and even shy, says Gehrt. That history also makes them extra cautious, and coyote packs can be territorial, defending their living area from other coyotes. "Packs are usually much smaller than wolf packs, often between 3-6 individuals," says Gehrt. "There is a hierarchy, with the alpha pair dominant over the pups and subordinates."
According to Gehrt, female coyotes typically give birth once a year to a litter of six pups, but a litter can reach up to 12-13 pups. Coyote dads also help out with child-rearing — unlike dogs — which accounts for the survival of these larger litter sizes. Coyotes mate at the end of winter and give birth two months afterward. Brown says that coyotes typically use dens or underground cavities to raise their pups.
Coyotes also have the ability to breed with domesticated dogs, leading to hybrid "coydogs" in captivity. But it's pretty rare to see coydogs in cities because of different breeding seasons between dogs and coyotes and the possibility of lower fertility among coydogs.
Diet and Predation
True to their adaptable form, the coyote's diet "usually fluctuates during the year" depending on the food source that's available in their current location, says Gehrt. Coyotes aren't exactly picky, says Brown: "I always like to say with coyotes — if it is edible they will eat it." Brown, in his study of coyote scat, found that coyotes consume a lot of fruit — primarily from trees planted by humans in their yards — and scavenge trash, pet food and compost piles. Unfortunately, they also sometimes kill and eat the odd house cat as well. But coyotes also hunt and scavenge a number of natural food sources, like rabbits, gophers, squirrels, birds and reptiles.
Gehrt also mentions that coyotes consume mice and other small rodents, as well as eggs, fish and birds. "Occasionally coyotes may attack a larger animal like a deer, but more often they scavenge those types of animals," says Gehrt.
Coyotes have few natural predators, but one threat is the wolf, says Brown. And of course, the biggest threat to coyotes is likely people. Brown points out that coyotes often live longer in areas where hunting and trapping is not commonplace.
Attacks on Humans and Pets
"Coyotes — friend or foe?" Headlines like these are common across North America, where coyotes often get a bad rap for being a public nuisance or even a threat to humans' way of life. Flores notes that between 1998 and 2010, there were "1,214 newspaper and magazine articles dedicated to human-coyote encounters in the United States."
But are coyotes really the bad guy that the headlines often make them out to be? Not quite, says Gehrt. "Coyotes very infrequently attack dogs, and even more rarely attack people." Though the rate of attacks on dogs can vary by season, as coyotes may be more hostile during mating season and just after their pups are born.
But, attacks do occur from time to time. So should local authorities try to remove coyotes from areas with significant human populations? If an individual coyote poses a significant threat to humans, Gehrt says it may need to be "lethally removed" or killed. But Gehrt also says, "We don't recommend trying a general removal to reduce the coyote population because coyotes replace themselves very quickly." Instead Gehrt suggests conflict prevention methods, "such as removing sources of food (which attract coyotes to yards and neighborhoods) and keeping dogs on leashes in parks or greenspaces, especially during the mating season."
Coyotes had a powerful reputation in the Americas long before European colonizers landed on these shores. The coyote has functioned as a mythological figure and "the chief animal of the age before humans" among Native American tribes of California, the Southwest and the North American Plains. Oral history often regales Coyote as 'creator, lover, magician, glutton, and trickster.'
This trickster reputation probably ties back to the coyote's cleverness in adapting and surviving in a variety of harsh terrains. Case in point, Looney Tunes' "Wile E. Coyote" who, as far as we know, never did catch the Road Runner. And good luck getting the theme song outta your head for the rest of the day. You're welcome.