Coyotes are not as large as they appear, weighing only 20 to 40 pounds (9.1-18.1 kg). Their total length is 41 to 52 inches (105-132 cm), tail length is 11 ¾ to 15 ½ inches (30-39 cm). Their hair is long and a grizzled gray to brownish gray on top and a buff color underneath. They have somewhat long ears compared to a wolf or many dogs, and the ears are somewhat reddish on the back. They have a long, bushy tail that is black tipped, which helps make them look larger than they are. Coyotes consistently run with their tail between their legs, which helps distinguish them from wolves and most dogs. They also are known as the fastest canids as they can reach a speed close to 40 mph for short distances.
Coyotes are widespread and locally abundant in a diversity of localities throughout North America, with only widely scattered populations in southeastern United States. They are found from southern Alaska through most of southern Canada south throughout the U. S. and well into Mexico. Their range expanded into the eastern U.S. with opening of forests and extermination of the wolf as agriculture developed and expanded in the east.
They are found in a wide range of habitats, from open prairies of the West to heavily forested regions of the Northeast. They are even present in many urban areas, especially in western States.
They are opportunistic feeders, feeding on carrion, small vertebrates, and invertebrates. They do occasionally feed on vegetation. Their diet has been studied extensively in southeastern Idaho, and study findings indicated cottontails, jackrabbits, pocket mice, voles, ground squirrels, and kangaroo rats dominated their diet. They are capable of preying on larger animals such as pronghorn fawns, elk calves, mule deer, and some will kill domestic livestock (especially sheep) as well. In urban areas they often prey on pet cats and smaller dogs.
Coyotes are known by most residents of the western U. S. because they are so common. Additionally, they have been the primary subject of much of our Native American folklore, and stories of the “old West”. Millions of dollars have been spent on eradicating them in order to prevent livestock losses, but most attempts have been unsuccessful. The conclusion that can be drawn from this is that coyotes are tremendously adaptable canids. Coyotes are active year-round; they are mainly crepuscular and nocturnal, though commonly observed during daylight hours in some areas. Their home range may reach 80 km2 or more in some areas, and may be larger in winter than in summer. Home range increases greatly after the pups are reared. An Idaho study noted 3 kinds of behavioral use of home range, resting, hunting, and traveling. Traveling behavior was observed in those parts of their home range that were little used. Typical population density is about 0.2-1.0/km2, although seasonally higher densities have been recorded in Texas. Most of a population is usually less than 3 years old. Coyotes are preyed on by wolves and cougars. Research in Yellowstone National Park has shown that wolves displace coyotes when the two species are in the same area. Since wolves were introduced to the Park in 1995, much of the coyote population has been reduced by as much as 50% by the wolves. In the Park, wolves have actually been observed running down coyotes and killing them. Coyotes are known to interbreed freely with domestic dogs, especially in the east, and they can breed with wolves. Coyotes are not considered to be as social as wolves, but in protected areas, definite packs have been observed. In the packs there is an alpha (dominant) male and female, and they are the ones that breed. Pack members do cooperate on hunts of larger prey such as sick or wounded deer, pronghorn and even elk that are near death. Their howling, important for their social structure, is used as a means of advertising their presence and location and typically occurs as a greeting when members of a pack return to a den site. They also vocalize with yips which may serve as a threat. Postures are also important in communication. Dominance is signaled by a stiff-legged gait, ears forward and erect and hair on the back erected and with the tail at about a 45 degree angle. Submissiveness can be rolling on their back, retracting their lips in a “submissive grin”, urinating, or an approach in a crouch-walk with their tail tucked or held low and face licking of the dominant individual by the submissive. Pups establish a dominance hierarchy early. Often, highest ranking and lowest ranking pups may be the first to disperse from a family group.
Mating occurs in late winter and Gestation lasts 60-65 days. Litter size averages 4 to 7 young, depending on area. Young are born from March to May, and are tended by both parents. The family leaves the den when the young are 8 to 10 weeks old. Young become independent by late fall and reach sexual maturity in 1 to 2 years. Some research evidence suggests that litter size varies according to the food supply of the parents, or population density. It appears that if food is in short supply, litter size is reduced, while if food supply is plentiful, litter size is larger.
Important State References:
Laundré, J.W. and B.L. Keller. 1981. Home-range use by coyotes in Idaho. Anim. Behav. 29:449-461.