The coyote is a member of the dog family (or family Canidae). They are similar to a medium-sized dog breed in stature and have pointed ears, a narrow and pointed nose, bushy tail and slender legs. Learn about their lifestyle, what they eat and their life cycle. We also cover their population status, threats and the conservation efforts for these fascinating animals.
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Coyote Fast Facts
The coyote is a member of the dog family (or family Canidae).
They are similar to a medium-sized dog breed in stature and have pointed ears, a narrow and pointed nose, bushy tail and slender legs. They weigh an average of 30 pounds and up to 50 pounds with males a little larger than females. They are 2 feet at the shoulder, with height varying throughout their range. The tail is black-tipped and the snout has light fur. Coyotes can live up to 14 years in the wild and up to 20 years in captivity.
Coyotes are often called "song dogs" with the most common call is a high-pitched howl ending in sharp yips. The howling of two or three coyotes may sound like a dozen or more. Coyotes have great vision and smell. They can run 40 miles an hour and are good swimmers, living on islands near the mainland in some areas.
Do I Look Scary?
Image by John Gomes, The Alaska Zoo
Coyotes are masters of change. In the last Ice Age, they preyed on camels and horses killed by saber-toothed cats.
When climate change and Stone Age hunters caused declines, coyotes competed with wolves for food. In the 1800’s, people moving west in the Lower 48 states destroyed wolves and predators. Coyotes moved into empty territories and bred with remaining wolves. They are the ultimate opportunistic hunter and scavenger. Coyotes make city forests and park their home, raising pups in drainage ditches or pipes. They have even moved into Washington DC, appearing in parks just a few miles from the White House.
Coyotes will eat almost any prey including snowshoe hares, rodents, fish, frogs, deer, insects, berries and carcasses.
They will kill young livestock and domestic poultry as well as small pets if they are easily caught. Wolves are an occasional predator of coyotes, but wolves who hunt down large prey such as moose and caribou also provide a food resource for coyotes in the way of moose and caribou carcasses. A coyote study in Interior Alaska found that moose and caribou are their second most common food, after snowshoe hare.
Coyotes avoid living near wolves, while foxes avoid living near coyotes. In studies in Alaska, porcupines were an unexpected prey item. When snowshoe hares are low in numbers, porcupines can make up close to 15 percent of a coyote's diet. Great horned owls, bald and golden eagles, wolves, and bears all have been known to prey on coyotes.
Coyotes have varied hunting styles depending on the situation. They often hunt singly while other times in pairs or small packs. They may use relay methods of hunting to eventually outrun prey species with higher endurance. They hunt alone in an ambush and pounce manner similar to foxes when hunting smaller prey.
Coyotes breed between January and March.
They form a strong pair bond and their typical social structure includes a mated pair and possibly a few of their recent offspring. After breeding, the den is prepared and sometimes a den that is taken over from another animal is used. An average of five to seven pups are born. Litter sizes vary with food resources available.
Pups need their mother's milk for the first three weeks, then solid food regurgitated by adults is introduced leading up to weaning at roughly seven weeks. They are fed solid food by the adults until they are able to catch their own food at three months. Mated pairs stay together until the fall and parental duties are shared by the pair. Coyotes from previous litters may stay to help a pair raise their pups.
Population Status, Threats & Conservation
Coyote populations are stable in Alaska and throughout their range in Canada and the Lower 48 states. They are sometimes seen as nuisances near farms or as threats in cities. If humans keep their food resources away, coyotes will continue to live secretive lives and will pose no threat. They are a furbearing species trapped for their pelts in Alaska.