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What is a Coyote?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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A coyote is a canine native to North and Central America. These animals are often compared to wolves, another well known wild canine, although they are much smaller, with distinctly different behavior patterns and lifestyles. They are also extremely well adapted to living alongside humans and can be seen in urban areas in addition to more rural and wild areas. Several zoological parks also keep coyotes, for members of the public who are interested in seeing these creatures and learning more about them.

Formally, these animals are known as Canis latrans, with the English word coming from the Spanish; Spanish conquistadors borrowed the word from the Nahuatl coyotl. Coyotes play an important role in the mythology of many Native American nations, where one is often depicted as a trickster god. Legends about it often include complex and clever shenanigans and tricks in which an anthropomorphized Coyote pulls the wool over everyone's eyes.

Coyotes look a lot like dogs, with brownish-gray to yellow-gray fur and a classic canine profile. They are also extremely bold, and very clever. These animals are famous for being heard and not seen, with a wide array of vocalizations, including yips and howls, which are often included in Westerns for ambiance. The canids are also extremely bold, and they are typically unafraid of people when they encounter them.

These canines are carnivores, seeking out small animals to hunt on their own and sometimes bringing down larger animals as a pack. This can be a problem for livestock like sheep and goats, as coyotes will freely prey on this animals. They will also eat carrion and garbage, with ones living in urban areas relying heavily on dumpsters and trash cans for nutrition, often much to the frustration of humans.

Unlike wolves, coyotes do not typically form large packs. Many live and hunt alone or in pairs, and when a pack forms, it is typically small and easily redistributed. The animals mate in the early spring, producing litters of around six pups after a two month gestation, and the pups are usually independent within six months or so, although some may stick around to supplement the pack. They have also been known to interbreed with dogs; the result of such matings is known as a coydog.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a coyote and where can it be found?

A coyote is a medium-sized canid native to North America. It is highly adaptable and can be found in a variety of habitats, including forests, grasslands, deserts, and even urban areas. Coyotes have expanded their range to cover most of North and Central America, thriving in close proximity to human settlements.

How do coyotes communicate with each other?

Coyotes are known for their distinctive vocalizations, which include howls, yips, and barks. They use these sounds to communicate with pack members, convey their location, establish territory, and coordinate hunting. Howling can also reinforce social bonds within the pack and may serve as a warning to other coyotes to stay away.

What do coyotes eat?

Coyotes are opportunistic omnivores with a diet that varies depending on their habitat. They primarily feed on small mammals like rodents and rabbits, but they will also eat fruits, vegetables, insects, fish, and carrion. In urban areas, coyotes may scavenge human garbage or prey on pets. Their flexible diet helps them adapt to diverse environments.

Are coyotes dangerous to humans?

Coyotes generally avoid humans and are not typically considered a significant danger. However, they can become accustomed to human presence, leading to bold behavior and potential conflicts. While attacks on humans are rare, it's important to maintain a safe distance, secure food sources, and supervise pets when coyotes are known to be in the area.

How do coyotes impact the ecosystem?

Coyotes play a crucial role in maintaining ecological balance by controlling rodent and small mammal populations. As apex predators in some ecosystems, they help to regulate prey species, which can prevent overgrazing and promote biodiversity. Their scavenging habits also aid in the decomposition process, returning nutrients to the soil.

What is the social structure of a coyote pack?

Coyote packs are typically family units consisting of a breeding pair and their offspring. The social structure is less rigid than that of wolves, with pack sizes varying based on food availability and habitat. Non-breeding adults may join packs temporarily, especially during the winter months. Coyotes are also known to form loose alliances or hunt solo.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Kristee — On Aug 30, 2012

There is nothing creepier than a sudden coyote howl breaking the silence of the night. I can hear them from my backyard at times, and I actually get chills.

The howls usually begin with just one coyote that pierces the air with a cry that sounds like it comes from a place of deep anguish. It is followed by a chorus of howls and yips that you can definitely tell are not coming from a pack of domesticated dogs.

All the neighborhood dogs can't help themselves when they hear this. Every dog on the street starts howling, and it really shows how connected they are to their wild relatives.

By seag47 — On Aug 29, 2012

My brother is a hunter, and he has downloaded some coyote calls to his phone. I think it's rather strange to combine technology with something that is supposed to be so primal and simple. However, he says it works.

By JackWhack — On Aug 28, 2012

@Perdido – First of all, it's good that your neighbors haven't resorted to coyote trapping. All too often, other innocent animals get caught in these traps.

I don't think you have to worry about your big dogs. Coyotes will defend their pups and their dens if threatened, but usually, dogs will leave them alone and walk the other way.

However, if anyone in your area has little dogs, they should take them inside at night. Coyotes have been known to kill small breeds, and I've even heard people say that they lure the dogs away from the houses with their yipping. My friend told me that the dogs mistake the yipping for an injured puppy, so they go out to investigate.

By Perdido — On Aug 27, 2012

Coyotes have become so common in my neighborhood that some people have started hunting them. They didn't want to put out coyote traps, since many people have dogs that run loose in the woods.

I have four big dogs, and I'm wondering if I need to be concerned about the safety of my animals. Do coyotes ever kill dogs, particularly ones bigger than they are?

By StormyKnight — On Nov 08, 2010

@cellmania: Here are a few more facts about coyotes:

Coyotes feed live mice to their cubs for hunting practice. The coyote can usually reach a speed of around 40 mph.

Coyote litters usually have around 5 or 7 pups. The maximum litter known is 19. They normally breed in February.

The coyote’s main enemies are wolves, bears, and humans. Coyotes can escape their enemies fairly easily and have excellent swimming abilities. They regulate their body temperature by panting.

Only about 5 to 20% of pups survive their first year.

A coyote can breed with domestic dogs and wolves. A coyote-dog mix is called a coydog.

By OceanSwimmer — On Nov 08, 2010

@cellmania: I will provide you as much information as I can about coyotes. Good luck on your project.

Coyote’s tails become bushier and will turn sideways as an aggressive gesture. In an attempt not to be detected by predators, coyotes will often walk on their toes to make as little noise as possible. Coyotes, just like dogs, use their urine to mark their territory. They are most active during the early morning hours. Also, like a dog, when the coyote feels frightened, it will hold its head down and tuck its tail between its legs.

By CellMania — On Nov 08, 2010

I need to find a little more information about coyotes for a paper I'm doing in school. If anyone has additional information that you could post, I would really appreciate it.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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