One of the most adaptable animals in the world, the coyote can change its breeding habits, diet and social dynamics to survive in a wide variety of habitats.
The coyote is one of eight species of the genus Canis. Four of these are the jackals of Europe, Africa and Asia. Other members of the genus include the gray wolf (C. lupus), the red wolf (C. rufus) and all breeds of the domestic dog (C. familiaris).
A coyote looks a little like a collie dog, and indeed, coyotes are members of the dog family, Canidae. Their rounded, bristly tails are usually held straight and aligned slightly below the plane of their backs. Low desert and valley coyotes weigh much less than mountain ones, only about 20 pounds, compared to the latter, which can reach up to a 50 pound weight.
Coyotes found in mountainous regions have a coat that is bushier than their desert cousins, and have longer, darker hair. Some have white-tipped tails. Trappers hunt them in winter as their fur becomes more full, longer and silkier as temperatures drop. The desert coyote in contrast, has a tan or light grey coat, with a black-tipped tail.
Coyote Geography - Range
The ubiquitous coyote is found throughout North America from eastern Alaska to New England and south through Mexico to Panama. It originally ranged primarily in the northwest corner of the US, but it has adapted readily to the changes caused by human occupation and, in the past 200 years, has been steadily extending its range. Sightings now commonly occur in Florida, New England and Canada.
The coyote is one of the few wild animals whose vocalizations are commonly heard. At night coyotes both howl (a high quavering cry) and emit a series of short, high-pitched yips. Howls are used to keep in touch with other coyotes in the area. Sometimes, when it is first heard, the listener may experience a tingling fear of primitive danger, but to the seasoned outdoors man, the howl of the coyote is truly a song of the west.
- Howling - communication with others in the area. Also, an announcement that “I am here and this is my area. Other males are invited to stay away but females are welcome to follow the sound of my voice. Please answer and let me know where you are so we don't have any unwanted conflicts.”
- Yelping - a celebration or criticism within a small group of coyotes. Often heard during play among pups or young animals.
- Bark - The scientific name for coyotes means "Barking dog," Canis latrans. The bark is thought to be a threat display when a coyote is protecting a den or a kill.
- Huffing - is usually used for calling pups without making a great deal of noise.
The coyote's tail is used in threat displays. It becomes bushy and is held horizontally when the coyote displays aggression.
The coyote's hearing is very acute and is used for detecting prey and avoiding danger. Movement and position of the ears are used to communicate mood and rank.
The coyote's sense of smell is highly developed and is used to detect prey and carrion. It's also used to detect the scent left by other coyotes as territorial markers.
The coyote has five digits on the forefeet, including the dewclaw (remnants of a fifth digit) and four digits on the hind feet. The coyote is digitigrade meaning it walks with only its toes touching the ground.
Common Coyote Related Questions
Alone, in pairs or in packs, coyotes maintain their territories by marking them with urine. They also use calls to defend this territory, as well as for strengthening social bonds and general communication. Coyotes can easily leap an eight foot fence or wall. They have been spotted climbing over a 14 foot cyclone fence.
Although the coyote usually digs its own den, it will sometimes enlarge an old badger hole or perhaps fix up a natural hole in a rocky ledge to suit its own needs. Dens are usually hidden from view, but they're fairly easy to locate because of the trails that lead away from the den. The coyote uses the den to birth its young and to sleep. The coyote does not hibernate.
Coyotes have a good sense of smell, vision and hearing which, coupled with evasiveness, enables them to survive both in the wild and in the suburban areas of large cities. They are common in most rural areas, but because of their secretive nature, few are seen. Efforts to control or exterminate the coyote by predator control agents seem to have produced an animal that is extremely alert and wary and well able to maintain itself.
Coyotes inhabit all life zones of the desert southwest from low valley floors to the crest of the highest mountains, but especially open plains, grasslands and high mesas. Their natural habitat is open grassland, but they will move to wherever food is available.
Some studies indicate that in the desert, valleys and low foothills, coyotes occupy a range of no more than 10 or 12 square miles. In mountainous areas they probably have both a summer and winter range, as heavy snows drive them to lower elevations.
Food & Hunting
A coyote travels over its range and hunts both day and night, running swiftly and catching prey easily. It has a varied diet and seems able to exist on whatever the area offers in the way of food. Coyotes eat meat and fish, either fresh or spoiled, and at times eat fruit and vegetable matter and have even been known to raid melon patches.
Although the coyote has been observed killing sheep, poultry and other livestock, it doesn't subsist on domestic animals. Food habit studies reveal that its principle diet is composed of mice, rabbits, ground squirrels, other small rodents, insects, even reptiles, and the fruits and berries of wild plants.
The coyote is an opportunistic predator that uses a variety of hunting techniques to catch small mammals likes rabbits and squirrels, which comprise the bulk of its diet. Although it hunts alone to catch small prey, it may join with others in hunting larger mammals like young deer or a pony.
The coyote tracks its prey using its excellent sense of smell, then stalks it for 20-30 minutes before pouncing. It may also take advantage of its stamina to chase its prey over long distances, and then strike when the quarry is exhausted.
In the dry season they may try to dig for water or find a cattle tank to have a drink. They also derive moisture from their diet. Everything they eat has some moisture in it. There are also the coyote melons which grow in the desert. To humans, they taste terrible but they provide moisture; coyotes and javelinas are about the only animals that eat them.
Urban coyotes take advantage of swimming pools, dog water dishes, ponds and water hazards at golf courses and other water bearing human artifacts as a source of moisture. However, the majority of coyotes never see people.
At the beginning of the mating season in January, several lone male coyotes may gather around a female to court her, but she will form a relationship with only one of them. The male and female desert coyote may travel together before mating in January or February.
The female bears one litter of three to nine puppies a year, usually in April or May when food is abundant. The gestation period is from 63 to 65 days.
The pups are born blind in a natal den. Their eyes open after about 14 days and they emerge from the den a few days later. They suckle for five to seven weeks, and start eating semi-solid food after three weeks. While the male helps support the family with regurgitated food, the mother does not allow him to come all the way into the den.
The pups live and play in the den until they are six to ten weeks old, when the mother starts taking them out hunting in a group. The family gradually disbands, and by fall the pups are usually hunting alone. Within a year, they go their own way, staking out their own territory, marked with the scent of their urine.
Coyotes have long been one of the most controversial of all non-game animals. Agricultural interests have urged their control by whatever means necessary so that actual and potential livestock losses may be eliminated. Since 1891, when the first programs aimed at control were begun in California, nearly 500,000 coyotes have been reported destroyed at a cost of an estimated $30 million of the taxpayers' money.
Environmentalists firmly believe that the coyotes are necessary to preserve the balance of nature. Some sportsmen feel the coyote is responsible for the declines in game species. Biologists agree that individual animals preying on livestock and poultry should be destroyed but that the species as a whole is not necessarily harmful, because much of its diet is made up of destructive rodents. Biologists also agree that coyote populations have no lasting effects on other wildlife populations. So the controversy rages on.
Coyotes have recently been classified as non-game animals in California and may be taken throughout the year under the authority of a hunting license. Meanwhile, despite the constant hunting and intensive efforts to reduce the coyote population, on a quiet night the song of the "Little Wolf" may still be heard throughout the desert southwest.
Curious Coyote Facts
- Only 5-20% of coyote pups survive their first year.
- Coyotes can run at almost 40 mph and can get over an 8 foot fence.
- Coyotes can breed with both domestic dogs and wolves. A dog-coyote mix is called a "coydog."
- The coyote is more likely afraid of you than vice-versa.
- Coyotes maintain their territory by marking it with urine.
By Jim Bremner - DesertUSA
The Coyote: An Icon of American Mythology and Folklore
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