In many of the diverse Native American storytelling traditions, the wily coyote plays the same role over and over: that of the smart, sly trickster. For those who study coyote behavior, this characterization is well deserved. Coyotes are incredibly adaptable creatures – intelligent, observant, curious and well, wily.
Their ability to adjust how they live to fit their circumstances can be seen in almost every aspect of the coyote’s life. For starters, coyotes will eat just about anything. As omnivores and opportunistic feeders, coyotes might be found hunting creatures as diverse as small mammals, birds, snakes, mule deer fawns, insects, or fish, and also seek out grasses, berries and seeds. They can hunt alone or in packs, and are not below feasting on carrion, rummaging through your garbage, or raiding the cantaloupe patch.
The environments in which coyotes can be found are similarly diverse. While once restricted to the American West, coyotes are now widespread across all of North America and parts of Central America, and can be found in nearly every ecosystem from deserts to forests to urban areas from Belize to Alaska.
Sometimes called ‘song dogs’ these social creatures are known for their nighttime solos and choruses. Their scientific name, Canis latrans literally means ‘barking dog’, and their many vocalizations help pack members and families bond and communicate over long distances. Coyotes have strong family ties, especially during spring, when puppies are born to monogamous coyote couples.
Coyotes are territorial and defend their space vigorously – especially when breeding and denning. Mating occurs from January through February and after a gestation period of only 60 to 62 days, 3 to 12 pups are born blind and helpless in March or April. Young coyotes are nursed for 4-5 weeks at which point they transition to regurgitated meals brought by both parents. Youngsters tag along on family hunts at 8 weeks old and are able to hunt independently by fall.
Interestingly, studies have shown that even coyote breeding is adaptable – a phenomenon called ‘density dependent reproduction’. In areas where coyote populations are stable, females bear lower numbers of pups. But in areas where there is disturbance to the population – for example through increased predation or hunting – females have larger litters. On average, newborn pups have less than a 50% chance of surviving to adulthood due to threats from disease, predators, and starvation. It therefore makes sense for females to bear more offspring in areas where threats may be even greater.
To learn more about coyote adaptability, join the Stokes Nature Center for a tour of the USDA/National Wildlife Research Center Predator Research Facility on June 16th. For more information visit www.logannature.org. Thank you to the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation for supporting the research and development of this Wild About Utah topic.
For the Stokes Nature Center and Wild About Utah, this is Andrea Liberatore.
Images: Courtesy and Copyright © Eric Gese
National Wildlife Research Center, Predator Behavior and Ecology
Text: Andrea Liberatore, Stokes Nature Center in Logan Canyon.
Stettler, Brett. 2009. Coyote (Canis latrans). Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Wildlife Notebook Series No. 19. Found online at:
Video: Coyotes Cruise NYC, Science Friday & Mark Weckel, http://www.sciencefriday.com/videos/watch/10444