What is a coyote?

A photo of a coyote taken in Cheseboro Canyon in the Simi Valley.  Photo taken by Jared Hughey.

 

Coyotes are wild dogs that are native to North America.  In body form and size, the coyote (Canis latrans) resembles a small collie dog, with erect pointed ears, slender muzzle, and a bushy tail.  The color and size of coyotes can vary regionally, but in southern California, coyotes are predominantly brownish gray in color with a light gray to cream-colored belly. Across their range in north America, color varies greatly from nearly black to red or nearly white in some individuals and local populations. Most have dark or black guard hairs over their back and tail. In western states, typical adult males weigh from 25 to 45 pounds (11 to 16 kg) and females from 22 to 35 pounds (10 to 14 kg). In the Eastern U.S., many coyotes are larger than their western counterparts, with males averaging about 45 pounds (14 kg) and females about 30 pounds (13 kg).

Diet

Coyotes are a generalist species- they are able to take advantage of a wide range of food sources. Their diets can vary regionally and their teeth are ideal for a mixed diet. With their sharp canines, they can kill prey of many sizes, yet with their carnassial premolars, they can shear both fruits and meats. Finally, with their molars they can check meat, bones, and nuts. They truly are generalists! In Southern California, small mammals such as gophers, woodrats and rabbits are important to their diet. Coyotes may use their large ears to detect subterranean small mammals such as gophers and voles. When they detect a small mammal underground, they may patiently hunt, watching a burrow entrance, pouncing when the small mammal emerges. They are also known to hunt deer, or scavenge a mountain lion's deer kill. During summer, they may eat many insects including Jerusalem crickets. When in season, they will also eat native fruits and nuts. Contrary to common belief, in coyotes in urban areas primarily consume their natural diet, though may occasionally take advantage of ornamental fruits and trash (see below for more information). 

Activity and movement patterns

Coyotes, like most of the urban carnivores in Southern California, are active primarily during sunset, sunrise, and evening hours. They may be seen during the day, particularly around more natural, open spaces. In urban areas where coyotes may be persecuted, they are more likely to isolate their activity to evening hours. When active, they may also try to move unnoticed by using areas of thick cover. When resting, they will find a protected area that will allow them to be unseen, but a place that will still allow them to be on the alert to any potential dangers. They may find a spot on rocks or hillsides where sounds and smells can be carried over long distances.

When traveling, coyotes do so primarily in a trot, and they can move several miles at a time in a fast trot. Coyotes may slow or pause when investigating something and they can run up to 45 miles per hour! When moving in a pack in open areas, they will do so in single file and often step in each other's tracks, making it difficult to distinguish how many animals were present in the pack by sign alone.  When under cover, they may spread out as they move through the landscape.

Research on coyotes near Los Angeles

Use of urban areas 

From 1996-2004, the local National Park Service (NPS) biologists studied coyote populations in Thousand Oaks, Agoura Hills and Calabasas in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties  This study involved the capture and radio-collaring of coyotes.  A total of 128 coyotes were captured and sampled during this time. 

Coyotes were found to be present and in relatively high densities in almost all of the remaining natural habitat fragments throughout the study area. Although coyotes will visit the surrounding urban areas, they were found to prefer spending time in the natural open space. However, many of the remaining fragments around Thousand Oaks, Agoura Hills and Calabsas are too small to support a family group of coyotes, and therefore these groups must include multiple fragments within their home range. To use these fragmented patches coyotes are forced to travel through developed areas, including crossing roadways of various sizes. Some habitat fragments have become separated by large networks of urbanization so that even residents not on the edge of natural areas may come into contact with coyotes as they move between these habitat patches. However most of the coyotes that occur in these patches are rarely seen by the citizens living around them. They tend to be very secretive, which has allowed them to persist in these urbanized areas.

Howling coyote!  Coyotes are well known for their howling songs, often heard at night in both urban and natural areas around the Santa Monica Mountains.  Song is important for communication between coyotes.  Photo taken by Jared Hughey.

Diet

As a part of the NPS coyote study (1996-2004), biologists collected scats to identify food use in their study area. Coyote diet consisted mainly consist of native fruits and small mammals such as rabbits, woodrats, and mice. These urban coyotes only occasionally utilized human food sources, most predominantly ornamental or non-native fruits which can constitute up to 25% of their diet. Other items such as trash, pet food and domestic pets may also be consumed on occasion, but constitutes a very small percentage of coyote diets in the study area.

Sources of mortality

During the NPS study, one of the most surprising findings was the important sources of mortality for coyotes in the Santa Monica Mountains.  The number one source was vehicle collisions.  Roads have important impacts on wildlife populations.  They act as barrier to movement and gene flow, and also as a direct source of mortality. 

The surprising find was not the road mortalities but rather that the next most important source of mortality for coyotes in the study area are rat poisons.  Canids (a.k.a. dog species) are very vulnerable to the effects of anticoagulant rat poisons, the most commonly used method of rodent control worldwide. Coyotes are likely secondarily exposed to the poisons meaning that they are consuming the small rodent pest species that people are targeting with the poisons. These poisons have a delayed action so that once a small mammal eats the poisons, it can take up to 10 days for them to die.  Meanwhile the poisoned small mammals can continue to eat the poison bait accumulating more than a lethal dose of the poisons in their system.  Additionally, they can continue to move around their natural habitat and as they approach death become easy targets for predators.  To read more about the impacts of these poisons on other species, see the 'Poisons' page. 

Photo of a coyote that died of anticoagulant poisoning.  This picture is graphic but is the bottom line for the effects these poisons have on some species. Outwardly, the coyote looks healthy and unharmed. However, when the animal is dissected for autopsy, we find excessive amounts of free-blood in the abdominal and thoracic cavities. In this picture, the blood has spilled out of the coyote when it was cut open.

Human-coyote conflict? 

Coyotes are notoriously in southern California for becoming nuisance animals; however serious coyote conflicts with humans are actually rare. Public reports of nuisance issues range from coyotes being seen during the day to reports of them preying on domestic cats and attacking domestic dogs. Only in very rarely have coyotes been accused of biting/attacking a person. During the NPS study, biologists followed 110 urban coyotes using radio-collars and observed no such human-coyote conflicts (ie., attacking pets or humans). NPS is currently looking for funding to examine more closely the behavior coyotes in more urban areas, such as Griffith Park near downtown Los Angeles where coyotes are considered more of a nuisance than in other parts of Los Angeles and Ventura Counties. The data for the proposed study would be used to identify methods of dealing with nuisance animals to help reduce conflicts between humans and coyotes.

The behavior of residents neighboring natural areas plays an important role in reducing conflicts with coyotes and other wildlife. People should never intentionally feed wildlife, and care should also be taken to not unintentionally feed coyotes as well. Residents should make sure to promptly pick up low hanging and fallen fruits in their yard, keep trash in a secure container, secure compost piles, feed pets inside, and keep small pets inside or on a leash near themselves, especially at night. Park visitors should be careful with food wrappers and left over snack items brought along. They should either make sure all of this goes back home with them, or it is disposed of properly. Although use of these human food sources is low, once a particular animal learns to associate humans with food, it may become more aggressive towards people and there will be more potential for nuisance behavior. If nuisance issues are occurring in your neighborhood try to identify areas of food availability and work toward removing the food source, which should in turn cause the coyote to quit using the area where it is being a nuisance. If confronted by a coyote make loud noises and if this fails throw rocks and act like you are a major threat to the animal by yelling, stomping and throwing things at it. Continue this behavior until the animal completely leaves the area.

References

*Elbroch, M. and Rinehart, K. 2011. Peterson Reference Guides to Behavior of North American Mammals. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, New York, New York. pp. 374. 

Gehrt, S.D. and Riley, S.P.D. 2010. Coyotes (Canis latrans). In: Urban Carnivores (Gehrt, S.D., Riley, S.P.D., Cypher, B.L., eds.). John Hopkins University Press. pp. 78-95. 

 

* This resource is most excellent for information on many mammals throughout North America. It is highly recommended if you are interested in mammal behavior!!!