In the old cartoons, the Road Runner always outwitted the hapless Wile E. Coyote. In reality, though, coyotes are far from hapless. In fact, despite all the efforts to eradicate them, coyotes (Canis latrans) have successfully infiltrated just about every corner of North America.
Prior to the 1900s, coyotes were found primarily in the prairie and desert regions of the western United States and Mexico. Native to North America, they thrived in rugged conditions, including dry grasslands, semiarid sagebrush, and even in the deserts. Now, their range extends from Alaska (near the Arctic Circle), through western and southern Canada, throughout the 48 contiguous states, southward through Mexico, and into Central America, as far south as Panama. This rapid expansion is believed to have been spurred by the decline of larger predator populations (mainly wolves, cougars, and jaguars), which eliminated predation threats and food competition for coyotes; and deforestation efforts, which created suitable habitat in areas previously unoccupied by the species.
As coyotes settled into new areas, it became apparent how adaptable the animals are, and it’s amazing how many different climates and habitats they now occupy. The species can be found in the tundra and boreal forests of the subarctic regions and areas of high elevations, as well as deciduous forests and grasslands, including chaparral. They’re also in desert and semiarid regions, and even in temperate rain forests. And coyotes don’t just live in the wilderness; they’ve infiltrated farmlands, suburbs, and even urban areas as well. Many major cities have thriving coyote populations, including Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and New York City. At least one coyote has even been spotted in Central Park!
Coyotes are members of the Canidae family, which includes wolves, dogs, foxes, and jackals. They weigh between 20 and 50 pounds (about the same as a medium-sized dog), and measure about 3 feet long (not counting their tails). They’re bigger than foxes, but smaller than wolves. Their coat color varies, and can be gray, white, tan, brown, or reddish. Coyotes have heightened senses of hearing, sight, and smell, and are very intelligent. Their most distinctive feature, however, is their howl, which can be quite unnerving to those unfamiliar with the sound.
In captivity, coyotes can live 13 to 15 years, but in the wild, their average life expectancy is less than 5 years. They breed in spring, and a litter typically contains between four and seven pups. Coyotes are monogamous, and both the male and female will take care of their young. Currently, 19 known coyote subspecies exist, which is a key factor in the species’ ability to adapt to different environments. In addition, coyotes have also interbred with gray and red wolves, and even domesticated dogs on occasion.
Like most canines, coyotes are territorial and will mark their territory with urine. Their home territories can vary greatly in size, although rural packs typically have larger stomping grounds than urban coyotes do. Territories may be occupied by single coyotes, mated pairs, or packs. Coyotes forage for food primarily at night, especially in developed areas, but they’re not fully nocturnal, and they may be spotted during the daytime.
Another factor that’s contributed to the species’ resilience is that they’re omnivorous and can adapt their diet to the food sources available. Coyotes primarily eat meat, but will also eat many other things, including grass, fruit, and insects. Their primary prey consists of small mammals, such as rodents. In areas where coyotes hunt in packs, they may attack larger prey, including deer and elk.
Rural coyote populations have gained a bad reputation (especially in the West, where they’re known to prey on livestock herds), but urban coyotes receive the most attention, because it’s unexpected to see larger predators in heavily humanized settings. In fact, there are a number of research groups that monitor urban coyotes, including the Atlanta Coyote Project and the Urban Coyote Research Project.
In urban environments, emboldened coyotes may go through trash to find food, or chow down on pet food left outdoors. Even in urban areas, though, their primary food source is still small mammals. In many cases, coyotes are suspected to be a driving force behind rodent population control. Coyotes can also significantly slow the growth of urban geese and deer populations.
Low Coyote-Human Interactions
Despite coyotes’ urban invasion, the number of human-coyote encounters is actually quite low. Coyotes are adept at staying away from people, and they’re much more nocturnal in urban settings than they are in rural areas. If a coyote does threaten a human (which is rare), they may be sick, or they may have been fed by people in the past. In fact, North America has only two fatal coyote attacks on record: one in California in 1981, and one in Nova Scotia in 2009. That being said, coyotes are predators and are always looking for food. If they see a dog, or even a small child, they may consider them prey. If you encounter an aggressive coyote, stand your ground – never run away. Running displays fear, which encourages a coyote’s predatory instincts. (Coyotes can run at speeds up to 40 mph, so there’s no chance you’d outrun one.) Instead of running, try to scare a coyote off by making a lot of noise and doing what you can to appear large and formidable. Most predators won’t waste time and energy on something big enough to put up a fight.
Even though coyotes don’t pose much of a threat to humans, they can be a nuisance and a threat to pets. If coyotes are an issue in your area, practice responsible coexistence and don’t leave open trash or pet food outside, and never feed a coyote. Don’t walk your pet without a short leash, and keep pets inside if you don’t have a fence that’s at least 8 feet tall.
Authorities have worked aggressively to eliminate problematic coyote populations throughout the country, but the efforts have largely been unsuccessful. Following eradication, remaining coyotes either increased the size of each litter, thus replenishing the existing population, or coyotes from neighboring lands migrated in. Live capture and relocation methods are also ineffective, as coyotes typically don’t resettle, and will instead try to get back to their home territory, which often results in them being hit by cars or killed by hunters.
Given coyotes’ knack for survival, it’s no surprise that their population numbers have skyrocketed, although no one knows exactly how many of them are alive today. Wildlife Services (a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) kills approximately 80,000 coyotes a year, mostly in the western states to protect livestock. Additionally, hundreds of thousands are killed annually for their pelts or by private individuals and not reported. In fact, it’s estimated that more than 400,000 coyotes are killed by humans every year. This staggering number hasn’t slowed the species down, however, and it’s generally believed that the coyote population is at an all-time high. In fact, research indicates that properly executed coexistence might be more successful than lethal control methods for managing coyote populations.
Dr. Stanley D. Gehrt, professor and wildlife extension specialist at The Ohio State University and principle investigator of the Cook County Coyote Project, sums the situation up this way: “Coyotes are unique in that they thrive in the face of extreme persecution, to the point that they have set up residence in the backyards of the most dangerous animal to them: us. Not many wildlife species have this track record, if any.”
For more than 30 years, Ed Brotak taught thousands of college students about weather, and he’s helped many of them pursue careers in meteorology. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina, with his wife, Liz.
Keep Up with Coyotes
Search for “Coyotes and People: What to Know if You See or Encounter a Coyote” and “Coyote Management Plan.”