Coyote: Canis latrans
The coyote is a member of the dog family, similar in appearance to a medium size shepherd. Coyotes weigh between 20 and 30 pounds, have pointed ears, a narrow muzzle, and bushy tail. Males tend to be larger than females. Pelts are usually grayish-brown, but occasionally black, often with a patch of white chest hair. When running, coyotes usually hold their tails extended out behind them at "half-mast." Coyote tracks are narrower and more elongated than dog tracks.
The scientific name of the coyote, Canis latrans, literally means "barking dog." Coyotes exhibit a variety of vocalizations. They can bark like dogs, though the sounds most often heard are shrill yips and howls. Howling is often a group effort, perhaps beginning as a simple howl, but quickly increasing in intensity to a series of group howls and high-pitched barks. Howling may function as a greeting between coyotes or as a territorial claim between groups.
The coyote (Canis latrans), once strictly a western species, now occurs throughout the eastern United States. Coyotes began expanding their range into the Southeast in the 1960s, reaching northwestern Florida in the 1970s. In a 1981 survey, coyotes were reported in 18 of Florida's 67 counties. A similar survey in 1988 reported coyotes in 48 counties. According to a 2007 FWC report , the presence of coyotes has since been documented in all 67 Florida counties.
Coyotes are extremely adaptable; just about any type of forest or farmland is suitable habitat. They can also adapt to and live in suburban and urban areas. They are not particular about what they eat or where they live. Coyotes are established in every state except Hawaii and live in some of our largest cities such as Denver, Los Angeles and Chicago. They are proving they can adapt to living near people, and with some simple changes we can learn to better coexist with them.
Living with Coyotes webpage
Living with Urban Coyotes brochure
A coyote’s diet varies with its location and the season. Coyotes are considered generalists because they eat a variety of plant and animals, and are considered predators because they do prey on other animals. They are also opportunistic because they will eat whatever food is available to them. Foods eaten by coyotes include fruits, insects, rats and mice, rabbits, birds, deer, livestock, virtually any type of carrion, as well as people’s trash and pet food. The types of foods that coyotes eat varies seasonally with availability, but studies have shown that plant material and insects often make up a big part of a coyote’s diet. Coyotes usually hunt alone, sometimes as a pair, but rarely, as a pack.
Coyotes have one breeding cycle per year. Coyotes can first breed when they are 10 months old. The proportion of the yearling females that breed varies as a function of food supply and competition: a higher proportion breeds when there is more food and less competition with other coyotes. Coyotes breed in late winter; following a 63-day gestation period, typically 4-6 pups are born. The number of pups in a litter usually increases with the amount of food that is available. While coyotes can breed with domestic dogs, this occurs infrequently in the wild.
Coyotes den in hollow logs, brush piles and burrows. They will dig their own dens, but more commonly they enlarge burrows made by another animal, such as an armadillo or gopher tortoise. Pups emerge from dens when they are about 3 weeks old. Dens, used only when the pups are small, are abandoned when the young are 8-10 weeks old. Coyotes may re-use dens in subsequent years.
Parental care lasts until the pups are about 9 months old. The young usually then disperse to a new area, where they establish their own breeding territories. Some pups, however, may stay in their parents' territory and assist with rearing the next year's litter.
Coyotes are active day or night, but usually most active at sunset and sunrise. In urban or suburban areas coyotes are usually less active during the day. The basic coyote social unit is a breeding pair, which often lives as a group with some offspring from a previous year. The strongest bonds between the group occur during the breeding season and when the pups are young.
Coyotes are territorial, with a resident pair having an established territory shared by other members of the family group. A resident pair often stays in the same territory for several years. An established coyote population includes both resident and transient animals. Transients are generally younger animals which move frequently and live on the edges of the territories of the residents.
Coyote home range sizes vary greatly between individuals. In a southeastern study, home ranges of adult coyotes ranged from 1,500 to 12,000 acres. Studies suggest that coyotes established in urban areas have smaller home ranges than coyotes in rural areas. This is likely due to food availability. More food is available in urban areas (garbage, pet food, bird seed, rodents, etc.), and the coyotes don’t need as large of a territory to patrol.
The Coyote’s Role in Ecosystems
Predators like coyotes are important in the natural systems where they live. Coyotes can be of benefit to many bird and small mammal species because, as a larger predator, coyotes may control smaller predators such as raccoons, foxes and feral cats that prey on native small mammals, birds and bird nests. The red wolf has been eradicated from Florida and some biologists believe that its role has been partially filled by coyotes because they prey on some of the same species and may interact with competing carnivores in a similar manner. Coyotes also often prey on rabbits and rodents, which can be pests to farmers.
Coyotes naturally prey on smaller animals such as rodents, rabbits and small predators – including raccoons, opossums and foxes. In urban areas they can and do prey on domestic cats and small dogs. They can also prey upon a variety of livestock including goats, calves, hogs, and poultry. Because they are generalists, they will also eat crops such as watermelons.
Preventing Problems near Residences
Coyotes that associate places where people live as an easy place to find food will gradually lose their natural fear of humans. Never feed coyotes either intentionally or unintentionally. Do not place food outside that will attract wildlife. Clean up pet food, fallen fruit and seed around bird feeders. Secure trash and compost in animal-proof containers.
Protect pets by not allowing them to roam freely. Keep cats indoors and walk small dogs on a short leash, especially at night, dusk or dawn. Be extra careful if you are going to walk your pet in wooded areas or areas that have heavy foliage. If pets are kept in a fenced yard, be sure the fence is high enough to prevent coyotes from jumping over it and check the bottom of the fence regularly to ensure that coyotes and other wildlife cannot get underneath.
Coyotes are normally timid towards people and rarely pose a threat to humans, especially adults. Hazing (or scaring coyotes away) as they are seen can reinforce their natural fear of people. Throwing rocks, setting off car alarms or yelling at them are all acceptable ways to haze a coyote. For more information, please visit our Living with Coyotes webpage.
Recognizing Livestock or Crop Damage
Animals causing property damage are rarely observed in the act of destroying the property. For that reason, careful observation is usually necessary to determine if coyotes are responsible for any observed damage. The presence of coyotes does not necessarily mean that they are responsible for the damage or even that damage will occur.
Watermelon damage by coyotes can be recognized by observing tracks near the destroyed melons. Also measure the bite marks in the rind -- coyote canines are approximately 1.25 inches apart.
Because coyotes readily feed on carrion, the presence of coyote tracks around a carcass does not necessarily indicate predation. To verify livestock predation, look for trampled vegetation or other signs of a struggle. Bite marks and bleeding, particularly on the head and neck should also be evident but may require skinning the animal. Coyote bites may leave tooth marks that can be observed even on badly decomposed carcasses.
When predation on livestock occurs, it happens most frequently in late spring and early summer when coyotes are feeding pups. They most often kill larger prey by biting the throat, causing death by suffocation. Coyotes frequently adjust their grip on the prey's neck, leaving multiple bite marks.
When small animals, such as chickens or newborn goats, are killed they are often carried off by the predator. For that reason, signs such as tracks may be the only clues as to whether it was a coyote, fox, bobcat, or other predator that killed the animal.
Coyotes may attack fleeing animals from the rear, biting the legs or tail to slow them down. Coyotes typically begin feeding behind the ribs, often eating the stomach of nursing animals. The nose and hindquarters are typically eaten on calves. Coyotes have been known to attack cows in labor, feeding on both the emerging calf and mother.
Distinguishing coyote predation from dog predation can sometimes be difficult. But, typically, dogs leave their victims mutilated and may kill multiple animals without feeding on the carcasses because they kill out of excitement, lack the experience to kill efficiently, and often don’t kill for food. Also, while coyotes usually hunt alone or as a pair, dogs often hunt in packs of various sized members, so various sized tracks around a killed animal may help to indicate dog predation.
Coyote tracks (left) are narrower and more elongated than most dog tracks (right)
If you have experienced coyote livestock or crop damage, or anticipate damage, several prevention options are available.
Non-lethal methods to protect livestock include exclusion fencing, corralling animals at night and using trained guard dogs. Fencing is possibly the most effective. To exclude coyotes, woven or welded wire fences should be at least 4 feet high with barbed wire above for a total minimum height of 5 feet. Adding height to the fence will increase its effectiveness. Mesh sizes should not exceed 4 x 6 inches (coyotes can squeeze through fences with larger mesh). An outward overhang of fence wire will help prevent coyotes from jumping over. Electrifying the fence may also help to deter coyotes from crossing. Though fences probably will not offer complete protection, they will keep most coyotes from crossing.
If lethal control measures are necessary, they should be directed at specific coyotes or toward coyotes in a specific area. Indiscriminate killing of coyotes is unlikely to reduce coyote populations, which can withstand 70 percent annual kill. Studies suggest that light, indiscriminant harvesting of coyotes may actually increase reproduction and thus increase their numbers.
There is no closed season on coyotes in Florida. Legal methods of take are by gun, bow or snare. Steel traps can be used only by special permit issued by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, and use of poisons to kill coyotes is illegal. A permit is not required to take coyote with a gun and light at night on private property with landowner permission.
Shooting requires little specialized skills, but is laborious. Predator calling, using either a mouth call or tape player, can be used to lure coyotes within shooting range. Calling coyotes is allowed during legal daylight shooting hours, or at night.
You can receive technical assistance for coyote problems by contacting the FWC regional office nearest you.
Image Credit: Game camera photo of a coyote in Big Cypress Preserve, photo by FWC.