The coyote (Canis latrans), also known as the American jackal, brush wolf or the prairie wolf, is a species of canine found throughout North and Central America, ranging from Panama in the south, north through Mexico, the United States and Canada. They occur as far north as Alaska and all but the northernmost portions of Canada.
Coyotes typically grow to 76–86 cm in length, not counting a tail of 30–41 cm, stand about 58–66 cm at the shoulder and weigh from 6.8–21 kg. Northern coyotes are typically larger than southern subspecies, with the largest coyotes on record weighing 33.91 kg and measuring 5.7 ft in total length.
The color of the coyote's pelt varies from grayish-brown to yellowish-gray on the upper parts, while the throat and belly tend to have a buff or white color. The forelegs, sides of the head, muzzle and paws are reddish-brown. The back has tawny-colored underfur and long, black-tipped guard hairs that form a black dorsal stripe and a dark cross on the shoulder area. The black-tipped tail has a scent gland located on its dorsal base. Coyotes shed once a year, beginning in May with light hair loss, ending in July after heavy shedding. The ears are proportionately large in relation to the head, while the feet are relatively small in relation to the rest of the body. Certain experts have noted the shape of a domestic dog's brain case is closer to the coyote's in shape than that of a wolf's. Mountain-dwelling coyotes tend to be dark-furred, while desert coyotes tend to be more light brown in color.
The upper frequency limit of hearing for coyotes is 80 kHz, compared to the 60 kHz of domestic dogs. Comparable to wolves, and similar to domestic dogs, coyotes have a higher density of sweat glands on their paw pads. This trait, however, is absent in the large New England coyotes, which are thought to have some wolf ancestry.
During pursuit, a coyote may reach speeds up to 43 mph (69 km/h), and can jump a distance of over 13 ft (4 m).
The calls a coyote makes are high-pitched and variously described as howls, yips, yelps, and barks. These calls may be a long rising and falling note (a howl) or a series of short notes (yips). These calls are most often heard at dusk or night, but may sometimes be heard in the day, even in the middle of the day. Although these calls are made throughout the year, they are most common during the spring mating season and in the fall when the pups leave their families to establish new territories. When a coyote calls its pack together, it howls at one high note. When the pack is together, it howls higher and higher, and then it will yip and yelp and also do a yi-yi sound, very shrill, with the howl.
Mother coyotes have been known to signal to their pups with calls that indicate danger, dinner or other more complex feelings. Their very distinct yip-howl is used primarily to keep pack members in communication when they are separated, but it has also been heard simply as a means of expressing some deeper feelings of the animal. Many authors and coyote enthusiasts describe the howl of the coyote and one of the truest wild sounds to be heard. Barking is used more often as a warning to other coyotes that are approaching territory borders. Coyotes have also been observed to communicate through their gait, their posture, and the position of their tail. These can all be indicators of mood and overall health of the animal.
Though coyotes have been observed to travel in large groups, they primarily hunt in pairs. Typical packs consist of six closely related adults, yearlings and young. Coyote packs are generally smaller than wolf packs, and associations between individuals are less stable, thus making their social behavior more in line with that of the dingo. In theory, this is due to an earlier expression of aggression, and the fact that coyotes reach their full growth in their first year, unlike wolves, which reach it in their second. Common names of coyote groups are a band, a pack, or a rout.
Coyotes have an important social structure, much like that of wolves, that relies on strong family bonds and shared territories. These packs have an alpha pair and three to eight additional family members. The size of the pack usually depends on the availability of food and the amount of territory available. The alpha pair are usually the only ones to mate unless the population is threatened, as occurs sometimes with overhunting. Even so, it is very rare for a second female in a single pack to have pups.
There are two or more beta coyotes who are responsible for defending territory and helping to look after the pups and the mother. These betas are siblings from a previous litter that remain with the alpha pair after they are eight months old rather than leaving. Some pups disperse and meet up with other dispersed animals to form new mating pairs and packs. This rearrangement of the pack occurs in late fall, when it is decided which of that year’s pups will become nomadic, which will remain as members of the pack, and which will leave to potentially begin packs of their own in an adjacent territory.
The territory occupied by a pack varies in size depending on population density and availability of food. It can be as large as forty square miles, but most coyote territories are only about one twelfth the size of a wolf pack territory. Home ranges for rogue mating pairs and nomads are much larger, as they need to avoid established pack territories. As with most canines, scent marking is used to mark territorial borders. Often higher objects such as rocks or bushes are marked so that scent is still apparent during winter months when the snow covers the ground. Coyotes tend to avoid wandering into the territories of other packs, especially during mating season and right after pups are born when the pack is the most territorial and defensive. In more urban environments there is little pack structure, and mating pairs are often the largest group that is seen.
Female coyotes are monoestrous, and remain in estrus for two to five days between late January and late March, during which mating occurs. Once the female chooses a partner, the mated pair may remain temporarily monogamous for a number of years. Depending on geographic location, spermatogenesis in males takes around 54 days, and occurs between January and February. The gestation period lasts from 60 to 63 days. Litter size ranges from one to 19 pups; the average is six. These large litters act as compensatory measures against the high juvenile mortality rate – about 50–70% of pups do not survive to adulthood. The pups weigh approximately 250 grams at birth, and are initially blind and limp-eared. Coyote growth rate is faster than that of wolves, being similar in length to that of the dhole. The eyes open and ears become erect after 10 days. Around 21–28 days after birth, the young begin to emerge from the den, and by 35 days, they are fully weaned. Both parents feed the weaned pups with regurgitated food. Male pups will disperse from their dens between months six and 9, while females usually remain with the parents and form the basis of the pack. The pups attain full growth between 9 and 12 months old. Sexual maturity is reached by 12 months. Unlike wolves, mother coyotes will tolerate other lactating females in their pack.
Coyotes will sometimes mate with domestic dogs, usually in areas such as Texas and Oklahoma, where the coyotes are plentiful and the breeding season is extended because of the warm weather. The resulting hybrids, called coydogs, maintain the coyote's predatory nature, along with the dog's lack of timidity toward humans, making them a more serious threat to livestock than pure-blooded animals. This crossbreeding has the added effect of confusing the breeding cycle. Coyotes usually breed only once a year, while coydogs will breed year-round, producing many more pups than a wild coyote. Differences in the ears and tail generally can be used to distinguish coydogs from domestic or feral dogs or pure coyotes. Breeding experiments in Germany with poodles, coyotes, and later on with the resulting dog-coyote hybrids showed that, unlike wolfdogs, coydogs exhibit a decrease in fertility, significant communication problems, and an increase of genetic diseases after three generations of interbreeding.
Coyotes have also been known, on occasion, to mate with wolves, mostly with eastern subspecies of the grey wolf such as the Great Plains Wolf, though this is less common than with dogs, due to the wolf's hostility to the coyote. The offspring, known as a coywolf, is generally intermediate in size to both parents, being larger than a pure coyote, but smaller than a pure wolf. A study showed that of the 100 coyotes collected in Maine, 22 had half or more grey wolf ancestry, and one was 89% grey wolf. The large eastern coyotes in Canada are proposed to be actually hybrids of the smaller western coyotes and grey wolves that met and mated decades ago, as the coyotes moved toward New England from their earlier western ranges. Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources research scientist Brent Patterson has revealed findings that most coyotes in Eastern Ontario are wolf-coyote hybrids and that the Eastern wolves in Algonquin Park are, in general, not interbreeding with coyotes.
Coyotes are opportunistic, versatile carnivores with a 90% mammalian diet, depending on the season. They primarily eat small mammals, such as voles, prairie dogs and mice, though they will eat birds, snakes, lizards, deer javelina, and livestock, as well as large insects and other large invertebrates. The coyote will also target any species of bird that nests on the ground. Though they will consume large amounts of carrion, they tend to prefer fresh meat. Fruits and vegetables are a significant part of the coyote's diet in the autumn and winter months. Part of the coyote's success as a species is its dietary adaptability. As such, coyotes have been known to eat human rubbish and domestic pets. Urban populations of coyotes have been known to actively hunt cats, and to leap shorter fences to take small dogs. In particularly bold urban packs, coyotes have also been reported to shadow human joggers or larger dogs, and even to take small dogs while the dog is still on a leash. This behavior is often reported when normal urban prey, such as rats and rabbits, has become scarce. Yet, confirmed reports of coyotes killing a human have been documented. A 2011 trail camera video uncovered two or three coyotes killing a large deer.
Coyotes shift their hunting techniques in accordance with their prey. When hunting small animals such as mice, they slowly stalk through the grass, and use their acute sense of smell to track down the prey. When the prey is located, the coyotes stiffen and pounce on the prey in a cat-like manner. They will commonly work in teams when hunting large ungulates such as deer, which is more common in winter (when large prey is likely weakened) and in larger-bodied northern coyotes. Coyotes may take turns in baiting and pursuing the deer to exhaustion, or they may drive it towards a hidden member of the pack. When attacking large prey, coyotes attack from the rear and the flanks of their prey. Occasionally, they also grab the neck and head, pulling the animal down to the ground. Coyotes are persistent hunters, with successful attacks sometimes lasting as long as 21 hours; even unsuccessful ones can continue more than eight hours before the coyotes give up. Depth of snow can affect the likelihood of a successful kill. Packs of coyotes can bring down prey as large as adult elk, which often weigh over 250 kg (550 lbs) or more than 15 times the weight of a fairly large coyote.
The average distance covered in a night's hunting is 2.5 mi (4.0 km).
Traditional stories from many Native American, First Nations, and Aboriginal cultures include a deity whose name is translated into English as "Coyote". Although especially common in stories told by southwestern Native American nations, such as the Diné and Apache, stories about Coyote appear in dozens of Native American nations from Canada to Mexico.
Usually appearing as a trickster, a culture hero or both, Coyote also often appears in creation myths and etiological myths. Although often appearing in stories as male, Coyote can be female, hermaphrodite, or gender changing, in traditional Aboriginal stories.
The Navajo referred to it reverently as "God's Dog", while some northern native American tribes called it the "medicine wolf". Early settlers called it the "burrowing dog" or the "brush wolf".