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Coyote (Canis latrans)

by Lezle Williams

Coyotes are almost always monogamous and pair bonds between a male and female can last more than four years. In packs usually only one pair mates per season. Both males and females are able to breed during their first year of life, usually when they are about 9-10 months old. Females show one oestrous cycle per annum, and males also appear to go through an annual cycle of spermatogenesis. Oestrus lasts about 2-5 days and ovulation occurs about 2-3 days before the end of female receptivity. Coyotes typically breed once a year, in early-to mid-winter, depending on location. Courtship can last for as long as 2-3 months before mating takes place, and during copulation the male and female become tied to one another. The gestation period averages 63 days (58-65) and mean litter size is about six pups with an even sex ratio at birth; litter size can vary with population and prey density. Pups are born blind and helpless, usually in an excavated den. They emerge from the den at about 2-3 weeks of age, and are weaned at about 5-7 weeks of age. Mortality is typically highest during the first year, and greatest life expectancy seems to be between about 2-8 years of age. Mortality depends greatly on the level of exploitation to which populations are exposed. Coyotes can live as long as 18 years in captivity, but in the wild few live longer than 6-10 years.

By Marc Bekoff, from Canid News No. 3. August 1995

Coyotes (Canis latrans) are sometimes known as prairie wolves, though they are smaller than wolves and smaller than most people think. Their name comes from the Aztec word for the species, coyotl. They vary in size depending on location, but generally are 4 to 41/2 feet long, including the tail, stand 18 to 25 inches tall at the shoulder, and weigh 20 to 50 pounds; males are typically heavier than females. Their coloration is gray, brown, or tan above, whitish underneath. (Some coyotes are black with a white chest patch. Desert-living coyotes have yellowish red fur; northern coyotes tend to be more gray.) The reddish, bushy tail, tipped in black, is usually carried low, held straight out behind or between the legs. The muzzle is long, slender, and pointed, the eyes yellow with round pupils, the ears large and erect; like wolves and foxes, coyotes have black-pigmented lips. Eastern coyotes tend to be larger than their western cousins, probably due to cross-breeding with the now-endangered red wolf. The distinctive coyote call consists of long howls and yapping barks. Females bear an average of five to ten pups annually.

Range and Habitat

Coyotes are adaptable; they can live in a wide variety of climates and conditions. Coyote habitat ranges throughout the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, in suburbia and wilderness, from sea level to over 10,000 feet. Once found only west of the Mississippi River, they now are found in all states except Hawaii, although they are still most abundant in the West. They live in deserts, lush waterway areas, rolling grasslands, high forests, cities, suburbs, rural towns, and agricultural lands. They favor brushy habitat, including sagebrush, chaparral, oak woodland, blackberry thickets, tall grasses, and the edges of fields near forests.

Other Characteristics

Coyotes are omnivorous and eat whatever is handy, including meat garbage, insects, rodents, rabbits, birds, deer, pronghorn, and carrion. In late summer and early fall, fruits and berries can make up a large portion of their diet. Coyotes are important in controlling rodents; 80 percent of their diet consists of rabbits, squirrels, gophers, mice, and rats. Normally solitary hunters, they sometimes hunt in pairs and rarely in packs to bring down larger prey. When hunting, coyotes follow specific foraging routes reused throughout the year.

Coyotes can run up to 45 mph for short distances and swim well. They are active both day and night, though chiefly nocturnal. They have a life span of 10 to 15 years in captivity and 8 to 10 years in the wild. Like wolves, coyotes have been known to interbreed with domestic dogs. Hybrids are common in some suburbs and are hard to distinguish from pure-bred coyotes because they behave similarly; however, unlike purebred coyotes, domestic hybrids go into heat twice a year.

The scientific name Canis latrans literally means "barking dog," though the animal's most characteristic vocalizations are shrill yips and howls. Howling is often a group effort and may function as greetings between individuals or territorial claims. Not as social as wolves, coyotes do form family groups that share territories; they may also tolerate transient young coyotes living on the edges. Territories vary from 300 acres to 100 square miles, depending upon food supply and coyote population density. A normal home range is 25 to 30 miles in diameter. Coyotes have been reported to travel up to 400 miles in search of food, though when feeding young they do not range more than 5 miles from the den.

Coyotes' exceptional senses of smell, vision, and hearing, coupled with their evasiveness, enable them to survive both in the wild and in suburban areas. They adapt quickly to environmental changes and exploit new food sources, ignoring fast-moving automobiles to clean up road-killed birds and small animals, for example, The abundance of coyote populations limits fox and bobcat populations because these animals compete for the same prey.

Enemies and Defenses

Humans are the coyote's chief enemy. As settlers moved west and destroyed the coyote's traditional food sources, such as pronghorn, deer, mountain sheep, and even buffalo carrion, coyotes adjusted to hunting the young of domestic livestock. Because of this natural adaptation to a food source, humans declared war on the coyote, as on wolves, and have hunted, trapped, and poisoned them since that time. It has been estimated that 30 to 50 percent of all adult coyotes die each year from human-related causes.

Unlike the wolf, however, which was eliminated from the lower 48 states during this antipredator campaign, the coyote's adaptability led to the increase of its original range, as far north as Alaska and as far south as Central America. In fact, the coyote's reproduction level appears to be directly correlated to attempts to control its population. Larger litters seem to be born in areas where intensive efforts at eradication or control have been undertaken.

Coyotes are actually helpful to farmers and ranchers because they kill destructive, vegetation-eating rodents. And much of the poultry and livestock coyotes are unjustly accused of killing is already dead when coyote finds the carrion.

From Living with Wildlife, a Sierra Club book, 1994, The California Center for Wildlife

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