The amazing, adaptable coyote (Canis latrans), also known as the "prairie wolf" and "brush wolf,"
is unique among North American wildlife. Unlike virtually all other large mammal species—which have
declined in population and range since the settlement of North America by Europeans—coyotes
have dramatically expanded in number and range.
Coyotes, Wolves, and Dogs
The coyote, like the wolf, is a member of the dog family (Canidae). Coyotes, wolves, and
dogs are similar, but there are certain ways to tell them apart. Coyotes are typically smaller
and thinner than gray wolves. Coyotes do, however, look much like red wolves, an endangered wolf
species in the southeastern United States.
The skull of a coyote is typically narrower and longer than the skull of a similarly sized
domestic dog. Also, a coyote usually holds its tail down, but a dog’s tail is usually held up.
Coyotes, wolves, and domestic dogs are all capable of interbreeding and producing fertile
offspring. The hybrid (mix) between a coyote and a dog is sometimes called a "coydog."
Where Coyotes Live
When American Indians were the only human inhabitants of North America, coyotes lived
primarily in what would become the western United States. Today, the howling coyote is still
commonly thought of as a symbol of the American West. But as farms, towns, and cities spread
throughout North America during the 1700’s, 1800’s, and 1900’s, coyotes spread with these
human communities. Coyotes can now be found in most of the Unites States, Canada, and Mexico,
and down into Central America.
Coyotes make themselves at home in a wide variety of natural, rural, and urban habitats. They
live in open forests, prairies, old fields, brushy areas, deserts, and mountains. They also are
common on farmland and in suburbs. Coyotes are even occasionally seen in the middle of big, busy
The Coyote's Body
The coyote looks much like a medium-sized dog. Its body is generally about 2.5 to 3 feet
long—not counting the bushy tail, which is from 11 to 16 inches long. Most coyotes weigh between
20 and 50 pounds, with males being somewhat larger than females.
A coyote’s coat often has a banded appearance because of a blend of different colors in the fur.
These colors range from yellowish to reddish to gray to brown. Each hair is tipped with black. A
coyote has large pointed ears and a pointed nose.
A major reason for the success of coyotes is their omnivorous diet—in other words, they will
eat almost anything. They mainly capture and eat small mammals, such as rabbits and rodents
(including mice, rats, squirrels, and prairie dogs). They also eat lizards, snakes, birds, and
insects. To catch such small prey, a coyote slowly stalks the animal to get close. It then pounces
on the prey by leaping into the air and pinning the animal to the ground with its front feet.
Coyotes occasionally capture larger animals, such as antelope, deer, cattle, and sheep. To hunt
such prey, coyotes typically work together in small packs. They bring this prey down by biting it
in the neck.
Other items in the coyote’s diet include plant food (such as fruit), dead animals, and even
Coyotes may be active at any time of the day or night, though their activity level increases
around dawn and dusk. Some coyotes may roam more than 100 miles, moving at a rate of about 7 miles
per week. A coyote can sprint as fast as 40 miles per hour.
Some coyotes live alone. Other coyotes live in male-female pairs or in packs of three or more
animals. Packs are especially common in areas where there are many large prey animals. Coyotes in
packs, like wolves in packs, form social hierarchies—with some animals becoming dominant and
Coyotes dig their own dens in the ground, or they enlarge dens abandoned by other animals,
such as badgers or woodchucks. Coyotes may also den in hollow logs, under rock ledges, under
porches, and in storm drains.
Coyotes are famous for their eerie howling, which is usually heard in the evening, at night,
or in the early morning. Biologists believe that this howling is a way for coyotes to announce
their locations and territories to their neighbors. Coyotes also make high-pitched yaps, barks,
Like wolves, coyotes use a variety of body signals to communicate with each other. These
signals include changing body stances, facial expressions, and ear and tail positions.
Coyotes mate between January and March. The same male-female pair may mate together each
year for several years. In spring, approximately 60 days after mating, the female gives birth to
her pups in a den. Typically, five to six pups are born, each blind and weighing only 7 to 10 ounces.
The eyes of the pups open within two weeks, and they begin leaving the den when they are about three
The coyote pups drink their mother’s milk for about the first six weeks of their lives. They
then begin eating solid food brought to them by their mother and father (and sometimes by brothers
or sisters who were born the previous year).
Young coyotes normally go out on their own by late summer. However, they may continue to stay
in contact with their parents, brothers, and sisters for years, helping out in hunting and
Coyotes in captivity may live more than 18 years. In the wild, their normal lifespan is
approximately 10 to 12 years. Various diseases affect populations of wild coyotes, including
rabies, distemper, and illnesses spread by fleas, ticks, and parasitic worms.
Coyotes are commonly hunted and trapped by people and killed when struck by automobiles.
Few other animal species in North America have been as successful as the coyote—despite
centuries of eradication efforts by humans. People have killed coyotes as pests and outlaws
and also for pure sport. Yet, there are probably more coyotes today than ever before. Coyotes
may not be the most admired wild animal, but they are undoubtedly a genuine success story.
Article Written By: Alfred J. Smuskiewicz
MAIN SOURCES USED IN RESEARCH:
- World Book Online: Coyote article, 2008.
- David Burnie, Don E. Wilson, editors. Smithsonian Institution Animal.
Dorling Kindersley Publishers, 2001.
- Joseph A. Chapman, George A. Feldhamer, editors. Wild Mammals of North America.
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.
- William H. Burt, Richard P. Grossenheider. A Field Guide to the Mammals. Houghton
Mifflin Company, 1976.
- Robert Snedigar. Our Small Native Animals: Their Habits and Care. Dover Publications,