Meet Canis Latrans
The coyote (scientific name: Canis latrans or “barking dog”) is one of the world’s most adaptable animals. The coyote is a native species that has increased its range as a result of human alteration of the landscape and human intolerance of wolves, the coyote’s natural enemy. Once confined to the Great Plains region, it can now be found throughout many parts of North and Central America and is represented by 19 or 20 subspecies.
Eastern vs. Western Coyotes
One of these subspecies is the eastern coyote (Canis latrans thamnos) found in New England and other parts of the Northeast, along with southeastern Canada. Our coyotes are descendants of Great Plains coyotes that expanded their range to the north and east as forests were cut and wolves were extirpated. Eastern coyote DNA reveals that, as coyotes spread through southern Canada, they occasionally interbred with the wolves they encountered. As a result, our eastern coyotes are larger than their western counterparts. With a typical weight of 30-50 pounds and a length of 48-60 inches (nose to tail), they can sometimes reach twice the size of their more diminutive relatives. Because there are no wolves in Rhode Island, our coyotes are not actively cross-breeding and are not “coywolves.” They are coyotes with some wolf genes they picked up along the way to New England. These genes give them the tendency and the ability to hunt deer. This trait is very beneficial—for coyotes and people—in regions overpopulated by deer. Because many canids (species in the dog family) readily hybridize, our coyotes have some dog genes incorporated in their DNA as well.
Diet and Habitat
As coyotes expanded their range, they also expanded their menu. Once omnivores limited by the grassland fauna of rabbits, mice and insects, they now opportunistically consume everything from small mammals and birds to livestock and pets, fruits and vegetables, carrion and garbage. Their habitat has also expanded to include a variety of natural and human-altered environments, including forests and fields, scrublands and wetlands, parks and golf courses, suburban backyards and urban developments.
Coyotes are generally monogamous and maintain pair bonds that can last for several years. The breeding season runs from late December through March, and pups are born in the early spring. Litter size depends on a variety of factors but typically ranges from four to seven. Both parents care for their young, frequently with the help of older offspring. Coyotes make their dens in rocky crevices, dense thickets and sometimes the dens of other animals. The den is abandoned after the pups are weaned but may be used from year to year. Pups are close to adult size at about nine months, when some will begin to leave the pack while others may remain with their parents.
When living in close proximity to humans, coyotes tend to be nocturnal but may also be active in the early morning and at sunset. In areas with little or no human activity, coyotes will hunt during the day, and when a litter of pups needs to be fed, they may have to hunt around the clock. Coyotes normally hunt alone or in pairs and rarely as a pack, unless the prey is a deer or other large animal.
The coyote is a very vocal animal with a varied repertoire of calls. It uses a long howl to report its location, short barks to warn of danger, yips when reuniting with pack members, growls when establishing dominance, whines and whimpers when bonding, and high-pitched barks to summon pups.
Packs and Territories
A pack is a coyote family dominated by an alpha male and female who form a breeding pair. It can also include this year’s pups and offspring from the previous year, along with individuals from other packs that have been accepted into the family. The size of the pack will depend on the amount of food available to sustain it. If the pack relies on a natural diet, its numbers will tend to be smaller. But if the diet is subsidized by humans, either intentionally or unintentionally, its size could be considerably larger.
Coyote packs have a “home range”—the entire area in which they live—and a “territory” that they will defend against other coyotes and whose boundaries are marked with urine (like dogs). Coyotes also use scat to mark the most heavily defended core areas (unlike dogs). Our coyote packs appear to defend all the area they regularly use: their territory is the same size as their home range. As with the size of the pack, the size of the territory will depend on the amount of food available. If the pack relies on a natural diet, its territory will be larger than that of a pack whose diet is subsidized by humans.
Residents and Transients
Resident coyotes are members of packs (family groups) and help defend their territory against other coyotes. Transient coyotes are solitary individuals that do not belong to a pack. They are commonly yearlings that have recently left their natal pack and sometimes old or sick coyotes that were forced to leave. Transients can join another pack if accepted by the alpha pair. Transient coyotes are not territorial and have a huge home range that spans many coyote pack territories. They do not use all of the area, however, and confine themselves to the spaces between the resident pack territories. Often resident coyotes will use geographic features like roads or streams as a easily recognizable territorial boundaries. For this reason transient coyotes spend a lot of time on roadsides, where they will not be attacked by residents, but where they are more frequently hit by cars.
Coyotes are affected by a wide variety of parasites and diseases, including ticks, fleas, intestinal worms and heartworms. They may also be infected with canine distemper, parvovirus and mange. While susceptible to rabies, they are not frequent carriers of the “raccoon” or mid-Atlantic strain of the virus. The average lifespan of a coyote in the wild is six to eight years, while coyotes in captivity can live twice as long. In places where coyotes are the top predator, humans are usually their greatest threat. In rural areas, a major cause of death is hunting or trapping, while in urban areas it is usually automobiles. Laws regarding hunting vary from state to state, but in many places it is always open season on coyotes, although the use of traps and poisons may be restricted or prohibited.
Photo credit: © Otter Brown,The Conservation Agency