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Coyote
(Canis latrans Say)

From: Saunders, D. A. 1988. Adirondack Mammals. State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry. 216pp.

Order: Carnivora

Family: Canidae

Description: The coyote is a medium-sized wild canid with slender legs, small feet, prominent erect pointed ears, and a narrow pointed muzzle. The 30.5-38.1 cm (12-15 in) tail is bushy and drooping. Each foot has four clawed toes which support the weight. A fifth toe on each foot is reduced in size, bears a dew claw, and does not touch the ground. The rather course fur consists of long guard hairs that overlap the dense underfur. The yellowish eyes have round pupils. Above the coyote is grayish, reddish, or yellowish brown grizzled with black. The underparts are paler. A black patch occurs at the base and the tip of the tail, and on the front surfaces of the ankles. The upper surfaces of the feet, backs of the ears, nape, muzzle, and outsides of the legs are tan or rufous. The relative amounts and blending of color vary among individuals. Reddish, blackish, and pale (blond) color phases occur.

The coyote is the largest wild canid inhabiting the Adirondack Park. (The gray, or timber wolf (Canis lupus Linnaeus) was present in the Adirondacks until the late 1800’s, when it was extirpated). Averaged-sized adult coyotes are about 122 cm (48 in) in total length, and weigh 10.9-17.7 kg (24-39 lb). Males are heavier than females. There are a few records of Adirondack coyotes weighing 22.7-25 kg (50-55 lb). A 33.9 kg (74.8 lb) coyote, taken in the state of Wyoming, represents the maximum weight.

Coydog and brush wolf are colloquial names for the coyote in the Northeast. Much confusion and controversy exist about the taxonomy of the coyote. This stems from the coyote’s suspected interbreeding with the gray wolf when the coyote spread eastward across Canada, and then with domestic dogs (C. familiaris) as the range expanded south into the U.S. (Coyotes, gray wolves, and domestic dogs are capable of interbreeding and producing fertile progeny). Larger size, the tendancy to live in large family groups (both wolf-like characters), and the resemblance of some coyotes to wolves or dogs are reasons often cited as evidence of possible interbreeding. Whether the coyote interbred with the gray wolf is not known. However, some interbreeding between dogs and coyotes may have occurred in the early stages of the coyote’s range expansion into New York. Today, coyotes breed true, i.e., matings produce coyotes, not hybrids, but some taxonomists designate this animal Canis latrans var., the eastern coyote.

No single trait distinguishes the coyote from the wolf or dog, but combinations of behavioral, physical, and physiological information will separate them. Serological studies are the only means of determining the “eastern” coyote’s ancestry, for example, the possible contributions to the gene pool from interbreeding dogs or wolves. Such studies are being conducted as a part of SUNY-ESF Adirondack Wildlife Program.

Range and Habitat: The range is from northern Alaska south to Costa Rica. Formally, the coyote was a resident of the Great Plains and Southwest, but has extended its range, mainly during the present century. Factors responsible for the range expansion are not clearly known, but may include deforestation, increased agriculture, and in some cases, the extirpation of the gray wolf throughout a large part of North America. Formerly, the gray wolf probably excluded the coyote from much of its range by aggression or predation.

The coyote first appeared in the Adirondacks between 1920-40, and by 1950, occurred throughout the Park, including the central regions. This species increased dramatically in the early 1970’s, and currently is a common resident. While little is known about the elevational range and habitat preference of this species in the Adirondacks, coyotes appear to be more abundant in the lower elevations, where deer are common.

Coyotes use dens for raising their young, but otherwise bed down on the ground. Dens are often the remodels burrows of other mammals, but a female may dig her own. Abandoned buildings, hollow logs, rocky crevices, and other naturally occurring cavities are additional den sites. Excavated dens are about 30-43 cm (7-12 in) in diameter, 1.5-7.5 m (5-25 ft) in length, and usually have several entrances.

Food and Feeding Behavior: The coyote is an adaptable, versatile omnivore, combining the strategies of a predator (hunting alone, in pairs, or in family groups, occasionally even with other species) with those of a scavenger. Food items vary from garden vegetables to large herbivores (porcupines, beavers, white-tailed deer) and even occasionally carnivores (otters, fishers), although in the latter case, an individual may be killed but not eaten. Some coyotes become specialists, preying upon livestock and poultry which has been the main incentive for the numerous studies about feeding habits and other aspects of coyote ecology. A 1975-80 study based on 1303 coyote scats (fecal material) collected near Newcomb, Essex County, determined that the white-tailed deer was the primary food in all seasons, followed in importance by the snowshoe hare. The highest occurrence of small mammals, often the primary prey of coyotes living in other parts of the state, was 6.6 percent of the summer samples. The preliminary results of a current study suggest comparable findings in winter, but a greater importance of insects, fruits and berries, and beavers in summer and autumn (Gary Brundige, pers. Comm.).

Coyotes can, and do, kill healthy adult deer as well as fawns, and deer of all ages weakened by hunger or other causes. Coyotes also scavenge dead deer. At present, the coyote represents the dominant carnivore in the Adirondack Park, a niche formerly occupied by the gray wolf.

The precise nature of the coyote’s impact on Adirondack deer has yet to be determined. However, coyote predation can be included as one of several factors acting together that may influence the level of the deer herd, in any given year. Such factors include winter severity and length, snow depth, condition of winter and summer range, predation by other species such as the black bear (fawn predation), and local levels of poaching.

Activity and Movement: The coyote is active throughout the year. Travel (especially in dense forests) is often along logging roads, and in winter on deer and snowmobile trails, or over the ice of river and lakes. Deep, loose snow inhibits travel. In all seasons, the same travel routes may be used for weeks or months, and during a 24-hour period a coyote may travel 5-16 km (3-10 mi). More activity occurs at twilight (crepuscular) and the first few hours of darkness than during the hours of daylight.  

The typical gait is walking or trotting, but a coyote may attain speeds of 56-69 km/h (35-43 mph) when running, for example, chasing prey. Coyotes swim well, and are capable of swimming at least 0.8 km (0.5 mi). This species is notorious for being wary, and normally avoids humans. During late summer, coyotes are often sighted moving about the edges of Adirondack towns and hamlets. Many of these animals may be the young of the year.

Reproduction: Coyotes mate from January-March (peak, February). A female bears one litter annually, approximately 63 days (range 58-65) later, in April or May. The young, or pups, number about 6, but litter size ranges from 4-12. Newborn coyote pups weigh 227-275 g (8-9.7 oz), are blind, and covered with short, wooly fur. The eyes open at 2 weeks, and shortly thereafter, the pups may make short trips to the den’s entrance. Weaning occurs at 5-9 weeks, or about the same time the pups no longer return to the den, but wait for their parent s to bring prey back to rendezvous sites. The young attain adult weight at approximately 9 months, and some may disperse at this age. Others remain with or near their parents for another year. Both sexes are capable of breeding at 10-11 months, but may wait until 22 months of age. The nutrition available (especially for females) and social factors (density of coyote population, dominance relationships) are important determinants of not only age of first breeding but also litter size and survival. Potential longevity is 18 years, but few individuals in the wild survive 6-10 years.

Predators: Adult coyotes have no predators, although several large flesh-eating animals may occasionally prey upon young pups. Coyotes may kill or prey upon other coyotes, but the frequency and conditions causing fatal encounters are not well known. Hunting and trapping, disease and accidents, especially collisions with motor vehicles, are major sources of mortality.  

Social Behavior:

  • Social system - The social organization and mating system of the coyote in the Adirondacks are unknown. However, casual observations, and information obtained from telemetered (radio-collared) coyotes monitored to determine their response to artificial sounds, as well as data from coyotes in other regions suggest a variable, complex social pattern. The size, relative abundance, and distribution of prey, and local density of coyotes appear to be the main determinants of the coyote’s social system. This varies from adults that are seasonally monogamous and occupy overlapping home ranges to adults that are permanently monogamous or polygamous, live in family groups, and maintain more or less exclusive territories. Home range (territory) size in forested habitat is larger (approximately 70-100 sq km; 27-39 sq mi). An estimate for the density of the central Adirondacks is 15-30 coyotes per 259 sq km (100 sq mi).
  • Communication - Coyotes communicate with chemical, visual, vocal, and tactile signals. Vocalizations include the growl, bark-howl, whine and yelp. Group howls and yip-howls advertise territories and reunite pairs or family groups. The two vocalizations are the hallmark of the coyote (and may be elicited by human imitations, sirens, and other loud noises). Urine and feces (coated with products from the anal glands) delineate boundaries of home ranges, territories, and travel routes. Tail and interdigital glands play a role in close-range encounters, dominants approach (with the tail and the hair on the back raised, ears forward) in a stiff-legged walk while exposing the teeth and snarling. Subordinates may respond by rolling over on the back, flattening the ears against the head, “grinning”, and at times, whining and urinating. These are two of the many visual postures and motor patterns with signal functions.

Additional References 

Beckoff, M. 1977. Canis latrans. Mammalian Species, 79:1-9.

Brundige, G.C. 1993. Predation ecology of the eastern coyote Canis latrans var., in the central Adirondacks, New York. Ph.D. Dissertation. State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse, 194 pp.

Chambers, R.E. 1987. Diets of Adirondack coyotes and red foxes: significance and implications (abstract only). 44th Northeast Fish and Wildlife Conference. Boston, MA.

Goff, G.R. 1979. Analysis and evaluation of three indices of eastern coyote abundance. M.S. Thesis, State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse, 101 pp.

Hamilton, W.J., Jr. 1974. Food habits of the coyote in the Adirondacks. NY Fish and Game Journal, 21:177-181.

Lechner, P.N. 1978. Coyote vocalizations: a lexicon and comparisons with other canids. Animal Behavior, 26:712-722.

Okoniewski, J.C. 1980. Vocal response of eastern coyotes to an electronic siren and human howling. M.S. Thesis, State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse, 47 pp.

Severinghaus, C.W. 1974. Note on the history of wild canids in NY. NY Fish and Game Journal, 21:117-125.

Waddell, C. 1986. The coyote: an update. The New York State Conservationist, 40(4):8-11.


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