A relative of the wolf, fox and jackal, the coyote was named by the Aztecs. It is also called “brush wolf” in southern areas, or simply “wolf” – a term that often leads to its being confused with the timber wolf. The coyote’s scientific name, Canis latrans, means “barking dog”.
The coyote is found throughout Canada except in the boreal forests and the arctic tundra. Although it was originally a plains animal, it has adapted well to the agricultural areas of central and southern Ontario. Coyote populations also occur throughout the United States, Mexico and Central America.
The coyote is about the size of a small collie, but has a narrower snout and nose. The average male weighs to 16 kg (35 lbs), and the average female, 13.6 kg (30 lbs). Both sexes average about 1.2 m (4 ft) in total length. Coyotes are sometimes mistaken for wolves as adults, and for foxes as infants. The adult coyote usually runs with its tail pointed downwards. This helps to distinguish it from the wolf, which runs with its tail straight out. A coyote pup can be distinguished from a fox pup by its tail, which lacks the white tip characteristic of a new-born fox, and by its eyes. Unlike the eyes of a young fox, which are blue and slit-like pupils, the eyes of a young coyote are yellow with round pupils. The true coyote does not show the colour extremes displayed by some wolves. Its pelt is a greyish-fawn colour with heavy, dark-tipped hairs along the back and tail. The throat is white, and white patches may also be found on the chest and belly. A black spot marking the tail gland is often prominent. The ears are chestnut brown, and the muzzle grizzled. Crossbreeding between coyotes and dogs produces hybrids, called “coydogs”. They show greater variation in their coats. Their underfur is woollier than a true coyote’s, and the guard hairs are longer and silkier, may not be banded, and may lack the dark tip that gives the coyote its salt-and-pepper appearance. Many features not typical of the coyote, such as white feet and light markings, may appear on the hybrid. The coyote moults annually between June and the fall. The pelt is prime from late November until February.
The female coyote has one heat period each year between January and March. Males are sexually active only during this time. The female may not breed until her second year of life, when she is more likely to breed earlier in the year than her older relatives are. Female hybrids usually have two heat periods each year, and the males are always capable of sexual activity. The pups are born 63 days after mating takes place. Litters may contain as many as 12 pups, but from four to six is the usually size. The new-borns are blind, and have sooty brown, woolly coats and dark ears, backs and tails. They weigh about 250 g (8 oz). At three or four weeks, the young are able to leave the den. Whether or not the den is disturbed, the parents may move the pups from site to site, always choosing areas with water, shade, activity space for the pups, good visibility and nearby escape cover. By August, the pups are likely to have gone on excursions with the adults, and are familiar with the surrounding territory. Family groups remain intact throughout the fall, or until the young disperse. The new generation has a life expectancy of nine years or less in the wild.
Coyote habitat includes the marginal farmlands on the southern edge of the Canadian Shield, the highly developed mixed farming areas further south, swamplands, game preserves, parks, and the edges of cities and towns. They can do well wherever there are forest edges, and even inhabit the park-like valleys of the rivers, which flow through Metropolitan Toronto. Dens are found in concealed spots on brush-covered slopes, steep banks and rocky ledges, as well as under stumps, dry culverts and empty buildings. Like the fox, the coyote prefers to renovate the abandoned dens of other species such as groundhog and skunk. The den chamber, about 1 m (3 ft) in diameter, is found at the end of a tunnel 10 m (30 ft.) long.
Food and Feeding Behaviour
Like the fox, the coyote eats whatever is available and will consume vegetable matter as well as meat and carrion. Although the species has a reputation for sheep killing, it actually causes relatively little damage to livestock and wildlife and, on the whole, is beneficial to the economy. In many cases, hybrids or feral dogs cause the livestock damage for which the coyote is blamed. The coyote can assist farmers by eliminating large numbers of groundhogs, an important summer food. Mice make up about one-third of the coyote’s diet even in the fall and winter, and rabbits and hares represent another 15 to 40 percent of the total. Although the coyote usually hunts alone or with a mate, more than two animals may unite to capture larger prey. In late summer and early fall, families hunt as a group. When tracking smaller animals, the coyote behaves much like the fox, tracing the prey, standing motionless upon spotting it, and then pouncing. Surplus food is cached beneath a covering of dirt.
Like other canids, coyotes are active throughout the year. They are chiefly nocturnal, and are also active at dawn and dusk. They are very vocal animals, and are particularly noisy during the mating season. The group song consists of yips, short howls, warbles and barks. Pups communicate by screams and gurgles. Coyotes are very social animals, and follow the territorial habit of maintaining scent posts. As with other canids, this is done by urinating on stumps, small bushes, rocks, and at all feeding and digging sites. The usual home range is about 78 square km (30 square mi), but variations of from 26 to 156 square km (10 to 60 square mi) do occur. Coyotes usually travel at a trot. They can cover short distances at speeds of 40 to 50 km/h (25 to 30 mph). When chased, they increase their speed by at least 10 km/h (6 mph). They are strong swimmers, and never hesitate to wade into the water in pursuit of waterfowl.
The number of coyotes in a particular area fluctuates according to the food supply. Where rabbit and mouse populations are low, females may produce very small litters or none at all. The young born during periods of food shortage are likely to die before reaching the age of one year. Coyote populations are also affected by a number of diseases and parasites, including distemper, mange, tularemia, heart and kidney worms, lice, fleas and ticks. Surprisingly, rabies is rare in coyotes, and the species accounts for only one per cent of all diagnosed cases. The chief predator of coyotes is man, who shoots and traps nuisance coyotes, hunts the animals with specially trained dogs for sport, traps them for their pelts and unintentionally causes death through such things as road accidents. During the 1970s, about 2,000 coyotes and hybrids were harvested annually in Ontario. Several studies have shown that 70 percent of the harvest over several years consisted of juveniles. This suggests that the coyote has responded to the pressure put upon it by increasing its reproductive rate to compensate for the increased mortality.
The bounty on coyotes and wolves, which existed between 1793 and 1972, had never proved a very effective management tool. It generally resulted in the elimination of easily taken animals, while the major culprits remained at large. Frequently, a lone coyote or a female with young is responsible for ravaging a farmer’s livestock, and it is only this animal that need be removed to remedy the situation. When the Ministry of Natural Resources receives a complaint of predation upon livestock or wildlife, it assesses the situation carefully and begins a control program, if that is required. Local trappers employed by the Ministry often carry out these programs. The emphasis is placed on the use of traps, since these are the most selective and effective means of eliminating predators. The control programs are continued until the problems are resolved. The principles of good animal husbandry are stressed to avoid problems in the first place. The Ministry actively encourages local trappers, farmers and other interested parties to take part in predator control, since these people are in the best position to monitor the coyote population. Moreover, since 1972, compensation has been available to people suffering losses because of predation. There is no closed season on coyote in Ontario.