A coyote howling in the night is a true desert song. This creature is the clever trickster in Native American storytelling. These tales have been carried throughout the generations in the Native American traditions and culture. Today, more humans have seen and heard coyotes as we move into their territories and they become more adaptable in exploring ours.
Like all animals, coyotes need proper habitat for feeding, hiding, bedding, traveling, denning, and raising their pups. These free-roaming animals have proven to be adaptable to many types of habitat. Still, they too need open space that provides shelter, fresh water, food and social tolerances.
Coyotes are incredibly intelligent, adaptable, and opportunistic animals, which has allowed them to expand their range significantly across North America. The coyote's habitat can be anywhere, in forests, grasslands, on the plains, in deserts, and increasingly in urban and suburban areas. Once limited to the central United States and Mexico, coyotes can now be found throughout the entire lower 48 states, Canada, and Mexico. With a high tolerance of humans and the willingness to eat a wide variety of foods, coyotes are increasingly calling our suburban areas home. In some areas, this has led to aggressive hunting and trapping campaigns meant to exterminate them. Better options for solving conflicts with coyotes, however, include educating the public about how to live with coyotes and using a technique called ‘hazing’ to change problematic coyote behavior.
Coyotes live in family groups consisting of a mated pair, their offspring, and other family members. Coyote family groups are territorial and together defend their home range, which typically ranges from 2-5 square miles. Yearlings become transient coyotes as the go looking for a new territory to call their own. Coyotes mark the boundaries of their territory with urine and will aggressively defend their space against intrusion by other coyotes. If prey animals are scarce, coyotes will remove other competing predators, such as fox and raccoon, from their territory.
The average coyote, at 25-35 pounds, is smaller than a wolf and similar in size to a small German Shepherd. Like dogs, the coyote has a highly developed sense of smell and sight. One of their more interesting behaviors includes digit-grading, meaning to tip-toe or walk around only touching the ground with their toes. They are excellent swimmers, jumpers and can even climb fences. Coyotes can be distinguished from dogs by their long legs, large ears, elongated snout, striking yellow eyes, and black tipped tail. Coyotes in the northeastern U.S. may be larger and have thicker fur. Coyotes are hunted and trapped for their long silky fur that they acquire in the winter season.
Although technically classified as carnivores, coyotes actually eat a wide variety of items including fruit, insects, and even grass. Small rodents such as mice, rats, and voles are the main staple in their diet, but they also prey on Canada goose eggs and white-tailed deer fawn. In this way, coyotes are beneficial in our suburban environments. Coyotes are ambush predators, meaning that they sneak up on their prey and pounce. If using stealth is not an option, a coyote can run up to 40 miles per hour (they are the third fastest land mammal in North America!). Coyotes use dens only during the spring and summer while raising their pups, either digging their own den or usually one abandoned by a groundhog or badger.
Coyotes mate for life and the males take an active role in raising and protecting their pups. Typically, only the alpha female in a family group will breed, producing three to nine pups per year. The pups are curious, playful animals, just like dogs, and are often seen wrestling and following each other around. In the spring, when coyotes give birth and begin to raise young, they may become highly defensive and territorial toward anything that comes near the den or their pups.
The gray wolf and cougars have been known to attack or kill a coyote wherever their ranges overlap. Coyotes are naturally fearful of humans and even those living in urban and suburban habitats are usually never noticed by their human neighbors. If you do encounter a coyote, you should help to reinstill this natural fear of humans by scaring the coyote by making loud noises or spraying him with a hose. They may be in your neighborhood but they are still wild animals, not to be mistaken for friendly canines.