Coyotes are explorers, opportunists, and one of the most successful carnivores in North America because of their ability to cope, if not thrive, after decades of persecution at the hands of ranchers, landowners, farmers and government agents. Learning more about the natural history of coyotes can help people understand their ecological role and how to successfully coexist with them.
EASTERN COYOTE DESCRIPTION:
Eastern Coyotes are about the size of a Border Collie, with males generally larger than females.
» Scientific Name: Canis latrans
» Length: 4-5 feet (nose to tail)
» Weight: 20-45 pounds
» Color/Appearance: Fur is thick and can be variations of brown, black, grey. A Coyote's tail is fluffy and is usually carried pointing straight down. When observed from behind a black spot (precaudal gland) can be seen just below the base of the tail. Coyote ears are large and pointy.
While coyotes are classified as carnivores, they actually eat omnivorous diets including a wide variety of animal and plant materials. They are also opportunistic, feeding on whatever food sources are abundant and easily consumed. The diverse diets of coyotes also vary throughout the year. Annually, their diet includes white-tailed deer, rabbits, small mammals such as mice and voles, raccoons, groundhogs, birds, insects and plant materials. Their diet shifts with seasonal availability of foods. For example, during the summer, coyotes feed upon berries and insects. During early fall they eat more insects and small mammals. Small mammals remain an important prey of choice during late fall and winter. As winter becomes harder and small mammal populations decline, coyotes turn toward their largest prey - white-tailed deer. Deer killed by vehicles and other causes (carrion) can be an important food source for coyotes. Coyotes infrequently kill healthy adult deer. In late spring, coyotes switch to fawns, as it is common to find evidence of fawn hair and bones in scats (fecal material).
Like wolves, coyotes communicate by scent-marking, body language and vocalization. Scat (feces) and urine are deposited in prominent spots along trails to mark territories. When coyotes howl, it often sounds like many individuals, but it is really just a few. Perhaps this is due to echoes off hillsides or the reverberation of the resonant voices through the woods, or simply the hyperactive chorus of yips, yip-howls and yee-haws. It is not uncommon for residents in suburban neighborhoods to awaken to the sound of coyotes howling in a nearby woodlot-a sound formerly associated only with faraway wilderness. For some, this sound is invigorating and a pleasant reminder of nearby wildlife, while others find it eerie and nerve-wracking.
Eastern coyote habitat includes a variety of natural and human-altered environments, including forests and fields, wetlands, suburban areas, and even cities. Commonly believed to live only in the more rural or wild landscapes, coyotes have readily adapted to living close to people.
Coyotes are not strictly nocturnal. They may be observed moving about during the day, yet tend to be more active after sunset and at night.
Eastern coyotes mate for life. While they do not form highly organized packs like wolves, adult coyotes display similar behavior by forming family units of closely related individuals. Adult males and females are the core of the family group. Often, the family group will include young of the year, and may occasionally include yearling coyotes from previous litters. Other coyotes live outside of packs as solitary transients and float between resident coyote families, biding their time until a vacant territory opens.
A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF EASTERN COYOTES:
The priorities and behavior for a coyote family vary depending on the time of year. Below is an overview of the major events that drive coyote behavior.
» January - February: Courtship and mating occurs between the pack's breeding pair (the coyote mother and father)
» January - April: Generally it's the breeding female who begins to prepare for potential coyote pups by digging a den or locating a pre-existing one: sometimes that of smaller borrowing animal like a badger or groundhog, dowened trees, brush piles, or abandoned structures. Dens are usually well camouflaged and generally used for pup-rearing only.
» March - April: A coyote's gestation period, or length of pregnancy, is 62 days, and usually pups are born between March and April. Typical litter sizes are approximately 4-6 pups.
» May - August: This is the pup rearing period. The pups remain with their mother in the den for the first 4-5 weeks. During this period the breeding male is responsible for provisioning food for the entire family. Coyote pups grow rapidly and are weaned at 5 to 7 weeks of age and abandon den sites around this time as well. >As pups continue to mature they become more independent of their parents, and are occasionally observed moving together in mid to late summer.
» October - December: Dispersal occurs in late October-January, prior to breeding season. These young coyotes that disperse often travel 50 to 100 miles in search of a vacant territory or a mate.
Excerpted with permission from Bogan, D. A. 2014. Rise of the Eastern Coyote. New York State Conservationist. 68(6): 20–23 (article link) and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
Historically, wolves inhabited the heavily forested lands of New York. However, as increased logging and farming claimed more habitat, and unregulated hunting and trapping took more wolves (bounties were paid for wolves into the early 1800s), wolf numbers dropped until they were no longer found in the Northeast. Such drastic changes to the state's habitat and wildlife community primed the stage for an unexpected animal-the coyote-to fill the niche left vacant by wolves.
Coyotes were once limited to Midwestern prairies and the arid southwest. However, today, they can be found from the boreal forests of North America to nearly the Panama Canal and from coast to coast. Throughout their range, they inhabit numerous biomes (or ecological communities), including deserts, grasslands and forests-no small feat for any animal. This remarkable range expansion is an increase of 40% from their historic range, and is primarily in response to anthropogenic (manmade) changes. No other carnivore has experienced as large a range expansion.
While coyotes are now widespread in New York, they only recently became established here. Interestingly, they did not enter from the west as one might expect, but instead passed through Canada north of the Great Lakes before turning south into northern New York. By the late 1930s and '40s, coyotes were established in Franklin County, and by the 1980s, coyotes were found throughout the state except in New York City and on Long Island.
In the 1990s, coyotes continued spreading, quietly backfilling suburban areas passed over during their initial surge. Today, sightings of coyotes make headlines in many cities and suburbs. Coyotes even inhabit the Bronx; the only New York City borough attached to upstate and the mainland. On occasion, these stealthy explorers permeate other island boroughs, and when detected in places such as Central Park or the campus of Columbia University, their presence garners a hail of media and police attention. In 2011, someone photographed a coyote in Queens, and in 2013, black-and-white photographic evidence showed a solitary coyote as far east as Bridgehampton, Long Island. Hustling to keep pace with this elusive canid, biologists are preparing to study the implications of a new carnivore on Long Island: the last frontier for coyotes in New York, and the last large landmass unoccupied by coyotes in the east.
Excerpted with permission from Bogan, D. A. 2014. Rise of the Eastern Coyote. New York State Conservationist. 68(6): 20–23 (link to aricle). Dan Bogan, Ph.D. studied eastern coyote ecology and management at Cornell University. He is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Sciences at Siena College.
There is a wild hybrid canid living in the eastern United States, and it is the result of evolution occurring right under our noses!
Over the years these dynamic canids have acquired a number of nicknames. Both "Coywolf" and “Coydog” have been growing in popularity; however, the majority of the scientific community prefer the less flashy moniker: “Eastern Coyote.” It's no surprise that "wolf" and "dog" have been woven into the identity of wild canids in the region, as current science indicates a number of species are represented within the genome of the eastern coyote. Ecologist and evolutionary biologist Javier Monzón, previously at Stony Brook University in New York, now at Pepperdine University in California, analyzed the DNA of 437 eastern coyotes and found the genes contain all three canids -- dog, wolf and coyote. According to Monzón's research, about 64% of the eastern coyote's genome is coyote (Canis latrans), 13% gray wolf (Canis lupus), 13% Eastern wolf (Canis lycaon), and 10% dog (Canis familiaris). Sounds like a recipe for canis soup!
Monzón, J., Kays, R., Dykhuizen, D.E., 2014. Assessment of coyote-wolf-dog admixture using ancestry-informative diagnosticSNPs. Molecular Ecology vol 23: 182–197.
- Translating the Song Dog: What coyotes are saying when they howl, (Jaymi Heimbuch, The Natural History of the Urban Coyote), 2016
- Stop Killing Coyotes, (Dan Flores, The New York Times), 2016
- Yes, eastern coyotes are hybrids, but the ‘coywolf’ is not a thing, (Roland Kays), 2015
- Home range size, vegetation density, and season influences prey use by coyotes (Canis latrans) (Hinton and Ward, PLOS One) 2018
- Mapping the expansion of coyotes (Canis latrans) across North and Central America (Hody and Kays, ZooKeys) 2018
- Initial colonization of Long Island, New York by the eastern coyote, Canis latrans (Carnivora, Canidae), including first record of breeding (Nagy et al, Check List Journal) 2017
- Ungulate predation and ecological roles of wolves and coyotes in eastern North America (Benson et al, Ecological Applications) 2017
- Response: Comment on “northeastern coyote/coywolf” taxonomy and admixture: a response to Way and Lynn. (Wheeldon, Patterson) 2017
- Response: Northeastern coyote cannot be a distinct species without isolation: a response to Way and Lynn. (Kays, Monzón) 2017
- Northeastern coyote/coywolf taxonomy and admixture: A meta-analysis (Way and Lynn), 2016
- SUNY ESF prof: Coyotes everywhere in NYS, but impact on deer numbers is 'minimal', 2015
- When shooting a coyote kills a wolf: Mistaken identity or misguided management? (Newsome, Bruskotter, and Ripple), 2015
- Population Status and Foraging Ecology of Eastern Coyotes in New York State (Frair and Gibbs); This research was initiated to assess the abundance of coyote populations in New York State and evaluate potential impacts of coyote predation on deer populations; 2014
- Perspectives on the conservation of wild hybrids (Stronen and Paquet); 2013
- The Rise of the Mesopredator (Prugh et al); 2009
No wild animal in our community inspires such a wide range of human emotions as the Eastern coyote. Feared, cursed, and admired too, coyotes are among the most controversial critters in the northeastern United States.
Americans are fortunate to have an enormous diversity of wildlife sharing the landscape with us. However, as human populations continue to encroach into natural habitats, contact between humans and wildlife is on the rise and sometimes conflicts can occur. Promoting positive attitudes of tolerance toward wildlife and modifying our own behavior is essential to peaceful coexistence.
No doubt feelings about coyotes will remain contentious and undecided for some time, but with continued education and efforts to coexist, also full of promise.
Here are some helpful resources to help foster peaceful coexistence with our wild neighbors.