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You may be wondering what coyotes (Canis latrans) have to do with a backyard wildlife habitat. Here it is: If your home is on an urban hillside with good coverage or even near a city park, you might have a coyote visiting your yard to drink from your dog's water dish, pounce on mice as they nibble spilled birdseed, go fishing in your pond, and search your compost pile for your dinner leftovers.
Most city dwellers will never need to consider the impact of having a coyote visiting their yard. But, if you have a resident coyote, he's hyper-alert and very secretive, so you'll probably never see or hear him.
Coyotes originally inhabited the grasslands of the northwest corner of the U.S. As humans encroached, these clever, quick-learning and adaptable animals began to extend their range. One hundred years ago they received a boost from the ill-conceived, government-sponsored extermination of their most dangerous natural predator, the wolf. Declining numbers of grizzly bears, black bears and mountain lions also have been a boon to coyote populations. The coyote (pronounced KI-oat or ki-OH-tee) now has only one predator of consequence: humans.
Coyotes now live about everywhere, including mountains, forests and deserts. They're in every state but Hawaii and extend up into Canada and down into Mexico and Central America. At least twice a coyote's been found living in New York City's Central Park. Your state's Department of Fish and Wildlife will be able to tell you if coyotes are known to be in your area.
The coyote was first dubbed the Prairie Wolf by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark when they explored the West 200 years ago. Coyotes are members of the dog family, along with the Gray Wolf, the Red Wolf and jackals.
Adult coyotes are generally 30 - 40 inches long and weigh about 45 pounds. They have intelligent, yellow eyes and a black nose. Their ears are large, yellowish, triangular and held upright. Warm-climate coyotes are grayish-brown, yellowish-gray or tawny in color, while colder climates produce darker fur. They have a black-tipped, bushy tail which they carry down, even when running. When making a show of aggression, though, their tail becomes bushy and they hold it horizontally. A dark stripe runs down their back. In winter, mountain coyotes are hunted by humans for their thick, silky fur.
Coyotes stand 15 to 20 inches tall at the shoulder. They range in weight from 20 - 50 pounds depending on their environment -- desert and prairie coyotes are smaller than their mountain-range kin. Males are generally a little larger than females. Coyotes have five toes on their front feet. The back feet have four toes and a dewclaw, which is a rudimentary fifth toe.
Coyotes are nocturnal, but may be seen in daytime. Shy and very wary of people; they'll run away if they think they've been seen.
Most live in social packs of three or more, with an alpha male and an alpha female. The pack is usually a mated pair and their offspring, but there may also be unrelated members. Some coyotes live alone if they're forced out of a pack. This may happen if they're diseased, injured, old or food is scarce. Living singly may doom these animals, as they lack the pack's protection. They also lose an advantage in bringing down prey.
Healthy offspring voluntarily leave at a year old to establish their own pack and territories. Territories, which they mark with their urine, may be several square miles and don't typically overlap. Coyotes will defend them, especially when raising youngsters, but generally different packs from overlapping territories just try to avoid each other. When they do get into a confrontations, it's usually limited to a show of aggression through body language -- a flash of teeth, arched back, raised tail -- and then the intruder is chased away. Fighting usually doesn't occur, and when it does, seldom leads to death.
Coyotes are very vocal. They howl, yelp, bark, growl and huff. In fact, Canis latrans, their scientific name, means "barking dog." Each type of vocalization has a special purpose. For example, their howl, well-known to viewers of old Western movies and to farmers, is to let other coyotes know where they are. Coyote calls are usually heard at dusk and nighttime.
Coyotes are beneficial predators who help keep prey species in balance. Fast runners -- up to 40 miles per hour -- coyotes hunt by day or night and usually alone. Sometimes, though, an entire family group will take down an animal. Groups have been known to split up, with two or three chasing a large animal, such as a deer, toward two or three other coyotes waiting ahead. (They target old, young and weak prey.) Their principal diet in urban areas is rodents, ground squirrels, rabbits and other small mammals, fish, fruit, vegetables, insects and carrion. A thirsty coyote will take its drink wherever he may find it -- swimming pools, water sprinklers, fountains, dog water dishes, birdbaths or even leaking hoses.
Coyotes have a bad reputation among farmers and ranchers who occasionally lose young, old or ill livestock to them. There are exceptions: There's a rancher in Arizona who tolerates two coyotes who arrive every day to play with his ranch dogs, then they go on their way.
Coyotes live in dens, but seldom dig their own. They look for a suitable space in rock crevices, caves, hollow logs, another animal's abandoned den or even thickets. In urban areas, they may den in old sheds or large drain pipes. Coyotes use dens for sleeping and raising their young. They don't hibernate.
Mating season is between January and March. A female chooses one mate from many who will court her. Pairs are monogamous and remain together year-round for life. (Coyotes are capable of mating with dogs, too, producing what are called "coydogs." Coydogs are considered by authorities to be coyotes and therefore can be killed.)
Gestation is about 63 days. Three to nine pups are born (usually six) in a den the mother has prepared for them. The newborns are fuzzy and helpless. Their eyes are closed for about the first 14 days. Once they can see, the pups begin to venture outside their den, but stay in a group. Their father helps a helpful role by bringing food to the female while she's nursing, as well as regurgitated food for the pups. Pups start eating meat at about three weeks. At six to eight weeks they stop nursing. If the mother dies before the pups are able to eat meat, they'll perish from starvation. But once they can eat meat, the father can feed and raise them. Conversely, the mother can successfully raise them alone if she must, but her job is harder. If there are other pack members (usually older offspring), they'll help raise the pups. (Helping to care for young that aren't direct offspring is called alloparenting.)
At six to 10 weeks the mother begins to take her pups out hunting. It's at this time that coyotes are most visible to humans. By fall the pups are hunting on their own and within a year (sometimes two) they leave to claim their own territory, find a mate and begin their own pack. Coyotes live about 10 years in the wild, up to 18 years in captivity.
Life is tough for young coyotes. Their rates of distemper, roundworm and human predation take a heavy toll. It's rare, but they're also susceptible to rabies. Pups are prey for hawks, owls, occasionally even neighboring coyote packs. Only 5 to 15 percent of juveniles live to adulthood. Surviving to adulthood can give them a life expectancy of 10 to 15 years, but six to eight years is more typical. Adults are preyed on by Black Bears, Mountain Lions and wolves, but, by far the greatest threat to adult coyotes is humans. Hunting, traps, poison and automobiles take a large toll.
Coyote at a glance:
Appearance: Grayish-brown to yellowish-gray to tawny. Yellow eyes, black nose. Long legs.
Size: 20-50 lbs.
Lifespan: 6-8 yrs. in the wild; 15 yrs. in captivity.
Behavior: Nocturnal, but also seen in daytime. Shy, smart, wary, stays out of sight. Will run rather than fight. Often in packs of parents and offspring.
Foods: Rodents, other small animals, fruit, veggies, fish, birds, reptiles, carrion; young, old, ill livestock and deer.
Cover/nesting: Dens under logs, in caves, old sheds, drain pipes, thickets, old burrows.
Reproduction: Mates in Jan.-March. Gestation 63 days. One litter, usually 6 pups.
Predators: Pups: owls, hawks. Adults: Humans, Black Bears, Mountain Lions.
Called: Group: pack, band, rout