Have you ever
heard a coyote howl under a clear desert night sky? It's a
breathtaking and somewhat eerie sound--enough to send shivers down
your spine. A lone coyote howling at the moon has become a symbol of
the American West, but in reality coyotes are not solitary animals.
Nor are they only found in the western United States. Coyotes, which
mate for life and sometimes hunt in packs, are now found throughout
North America from eastern Alaska to New England and south through
Mexico to Panama.
The coyote is a member of the dog family. In size and shape the
coyote is like a medium-sized Collie dog, but its tail is round and
bushy and is carried straight out below the level of its back. The
coyote coat has guard hairs to protect him from the weather and a
thick undercoat for insulation.
Once restricted primarily in the western United States, coyotes are
now found in virtually all habitats in North America. The coyote is
one of the most adaptable animals in the world and can change its
breeding habits, diet and social dynamics to survive in a wide
variety of habitats. Coyotes' acute hearing, excellent vision,
extremely sensitive sense of smell, cunning and intelligence enable
them to even live in some urban areas. Coyotes have even been
spotted in New York City’s Central Park! These traits, coupled with
the near eradication of their primary competitor and natural
predator, the grey wolf, are the primary reasons why coyote
populations and territories have grown over the past 200 years,
while those of many other predators have shrunk.
Coyotes are the
most vocal of the North American mammals and use a variety of
vocalizations to communicate with one another. Howls, yelps, and
high-pitched cries are best known, but they also bark, growl, wail,
and squeal. Two coyotes howling in unison can create the illusion of
a dozen or more performing in concert. Usually, coyotes are most
often heard around dawn and dusk.
Coyotes are omnivores. This means they eat both meat and plants.
Coyotes are opportunistic feeders. They prey upon a variety of
mammals (80% of the coyote diet is mice or other rodents), but will
readily eat fruit, seeds, berries, or grasshoppers when available.
Coyote pairs are monogamous and devoted, living in unions that
usually last a lifetime. Most coyote packs are family units
consisting of a mated pair (alpha pair) and its current offspring
and possibly a few of last year’s offspring (beta coyotes).
Generally, the alpha pair are the only breeders with the betas
helping to raise pups, gather food and defend territory. Only rarely
are beta pairs allowed to mate.
Coyotes are among the fastest animals in North America, sprinting up
to 45 mph. The coyote can run down his prey, leap and twist to
follow rabbit and rodent, and lope for hours without tiring.
The popular name
for the coyote comes from the Aztec word coyotl, which can be
loosely translated as "trickster." In Native American stories
coyotes are clever and tricky. This reputation is based on fact.
Coyotes may scan the sky for ravens flying in circles. Coyotes know
that the birds often hover over a dead animal, so finding the birds
frequently leads to finding a free meal.
Coyotes are clever enough to trick other animals. A coyote might
leap about crazily near a group of birds to distract them, then its
partner might sneak up on the birds and seize a few of them for
dinner. Coyotes have even been known to form a symbiotic hunting
relationship with the badger; with the coyote scenting out burrowing
rodents and the badger digging them out, and both animals sharing
Coyotes are one of over 40 mammal species that live on the INEEL.
Along with the weasel, the coyote is one of the two most common
predators found. The coyote is a year-round resident and can be
found over the entire 890 square miles within the INEEL’s borders.