The name coyote comes from the Aztec name Coyoti. The Latin name for the coyote is Canis latrans which means barking dog. A member of the family Canidae, the coyote is also called God's Dog, brush wolf, prairie wolf, and the Songdog.
Coyotes are especially important to biologists and others studying wildlife and the environment both because of their ability to control their own population and because of their effect upon other wildlife populations, especially that of the white-tailed deer.
The coyote is roughly the size of a small German Shepherd, weighing from 20–35 lb (9–14 kg) and 4–5 ft (1.2–1.5 m) long, although some can grow as large as 50 lb (23 kg) in the northern and northeastern part of their range. The coat of a coyote can be gray or brownish gray, depending on the season and habitat , with a bushy tail that is tipped with black. Coyote fur is long and soft and grows heavier in the winter to protect it from the cold. Its fur also grows lighter in color in the winter and darker in the summer to help it blend in with its natural surroundings.
The early European settlers originally found the coyote only in Central and western North America. However, despite many attempts by humans to get rid of them, coyotes today range from Panama to Northern Alaska, and from California to Newfoundland. They have been seen in every state in the continental United States, but since they are predominately nocturnal, are too elusive to count accurately. Coyotes have even been found in isolated regions such as Cape Cod, as well as in various urban areas such as Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City.
This ongoing expansion of the coyote's range began in the late 1800s, soon after the United States government began programs of killing them in order to protect domestic livestock, especially the sheep that were grazing on public lands . However, unlike the overhunting of other species , such as the passenger pigeons, grizzly bears, wolves , and whales , the best efforts to kill off the coyotes have all failed, and coyotes have continued to thrive. Biologists now believe that the coyote population has more than doubled since 1850.
Several factors account for this expansion. Farming and the clearing of the unbroken forests that once covered much of North America have created new and more suitable habitats. The eradication of the wolf in much of North America has removed one of the coyote's major predators and has led to less competition for many prey animals. Unlike the wolf, the coyote has more easily adapted to changing habitats, and has adjusted to living close to human populations. In addition, the introduction of sheep and other domestic animals has given the coyote new food sources.
Coyotes are opportunistic carnivores with a variable diet depending on the season or habitat. Although they prefer rodents, rabbits, and hares, they are definitely not picky. They will emulate the larger wolf and hunt deer, elk, and sheep in packs. They will also eat carrion and have been known to eat grasshoppers, beetles, snakes, lizards, frogs , rats, domestic cats, porcupines, turtles, and even watermelons and wild blueberries.
Coyotes are one of the most vocal animals of the wild. Through a series of howls, yelps and barks, coyotes communicate to other coyotes in the area, with others in their pack, and with their young.
Studies of the coyote's breeding patterns have shown that they are able to control their own population. To do this the coyote relies upon various breeding strategies. If there are too many coyotes for the food supply, they will continue to mate and have young, but only enough pups will be born and will survive to replace those that have died. However, if they are not being overhunted and if there is plenty of food, there will be more pups born in each litter and the number that will survive into adulthood will increase.
Because of this innate ability to vary their own populations, coyotes have thrived and play a central role in maintaining the overall ecological balance. Extensive studies of the coyote have shown the crucial interaction between them and many other species, both predator and prey. When the jackrabbit population decreases, as it does periodically in the Curlew Valley of Idaho and Utah for example, the coyote population decreases also, usually within the following year. Then, when the jackrabbit population increases again, coyotes become more numerous also.
Coyotes mate for life and the adults breed between January and March. The female maintains the den that she selects from an old badger or woodchuck hole, or a natural cavity in the ground. The female carries her young for over two months, giving birth in April or May. A litter may have from two to 12 pups.
Both parents play an active role in raising the pups. At three weeks old the pups are allowed to leave the den to play and by 12 weeks old they are taught to hunt. The family stays together through the summer but by fall the pups will leave to find their own territories. The survival rate for these pups is low. Between 50 and 70% die before they reach adulthood. Eighty percent of those deaths are due to man.
Coyotes limit the populations of various smaller predators, by preying upon them directly or by competing with them for prey. This in turn indirectly affects various prey communities, especially those of birds. When there are no coyotes to keep them in check, the smaller predators expand and are able to kill off a larger segment of the various bird populations.
The coyote and the deer populations interact in an important way as well. Whenever the coyote population decreases, the deer population, particularly that of the whitetailed deer, increases, leading to unhealthy herds and, according to some biologists, to an increase in Lyme diseasebearing ticks in some regions. Coyotes are thus a major factor in maintaining healthy deer populations and in preventing the spread of a disease that is dangerous and potentially fatal to humans.
Coyotes affect humans more directly as well, especially through their impact upon domestic animals. Since Europeans first came to North America, coyotes have preyed upon sheep and other livestock, costing sheep growers, farmers, and ranchers untold millions of dollars. In some areas, livestock may make up 14% of a coyote's diet. This has prompted extensive hunting to control the number of coyotes that ranchers and farmers view as pests. Some ranchers keep guard dogs to protect their livestock. New technology, using inaudible ultrasonic sound, also allows ranchers to detect or repel coyotes.
Although there are no documented cases of humans dying from coyote attacks, coyotes will fiercely defend themselves if cornered. However, they are much less dangerous than wild domestic dogs, which have killed more than 300 people in the decade since 1990. Coyotes can coexist with humans. But can people learn to live with them? Humans cause 90% of all adult coyote deaths by hunting, trapping , poisoning , and automobile accidents. Wolves, black bears, mountain lions, and eagles, as well as various parasites and diseases, account for the rest.
[Douglas Dupler ]
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COYOTE (Canis latrans) is a wild dog species, smaller than wolves but larger than foxes. The subject of many Native American creation tales and myths, coyotes came under attack during the twentieth century. Livestock ranchers, aided by government bounty hunters, used poison, traps, and aerial hunting to kill 428,849 coyotes in 1988 and an estimated 20 million during the entire century. Nevertheless, coyotes have expanded their numbers and domain from the trans-Mississippi west to every state except Hawaii because they are omnivorous, adaptable, and freed from competitors and predators by those same hunters. Coyotes demonstrate that humans often cannot control nature as they wish.
Ryden, Hope. God's Dog: A Celebration of the North American Coyote. New York: Lyons and Burford, 1989.
coy·o·te / ˈkīˌōt; kīˈōtē/ • n. 1. (pl. same or coyotes ) a wolflike wild dog (Canis latrans) native to North America. 2. inf. a person who smuggles Latin Americans across the U.S. border, typically for a high fee.