Common Name: Coyote, Prairie wolf, Brush wolf, Little wolf, Song dog – The coyote was named by the Nahua people of Central Mexico; it is spelled coyotl in the Nahuatl language.
Scientific Name: Canis latrans – The generic name is the Latin word for dog. The species name is from latratus, the Latin word for “barking,” in reference to the distinctive howling of the coyote.
Potpourri: The coyote is very similar in appearance to the domestic dog (Canis familiaris), as they are closely, but not directly, related. The distinguishing features that are key to the identification of the coyote include a coat that is coarse – buff-colored on the dorsal side, white on the ventral side, and a rusty-brown on the legs, snout and ears. The coarseness of the coat is due to specialized protective hair known as guard hair that extends from a thick insulating, denser undercoat. The color of the coat varies according to the habitat of the coyote with darker hair in northern ranges; red coloration prevails in the south. Northern coyotes are also much larger and heavier than their southern counterparts; about 75 pounds compared to 25 pounds – those that have migrated East of the Mississippi River occupy the middle of the range – about 35-55 pounds. The bushy, black-tipped tail, yellow eyes, long pointed ears and muzzle complete the picture of a very intelligent and alert looking animal.
Coyotes are reputed to be loners, though recent observations have refuted this stereotype; they also travel in small, unisex groups that have no definitive membership. The female coyote is monestrous, with a week-long fertilization period that normally occurs in February or March; she is courted by several males and chooses one. The mated pair frequently stay together for several years and occasionally for life in areas of low coyote population density. After a gestation period of about two months, the female either digs a den, adapts an extant fox or badger burrow, or uses any convenient shelter such as a cave or log to give birth to about six pups. The pups are cared for by both parents after weaning until the males depart in about seven months; the females generally stay with the family group. It is by their calls that coyotes are most well known, the coyote’s iconic ululating call punctuated with staccato yelps is a metaphor for the lonesome prairie cowboy. The “song dog’s” howl is most often proffered at dawn and dusk, though a daytime serenade is not uncommon, particularly during the spring mating season and when the young male coyotes seek to establish their own territory.
Members of the Canis genus including wolves, jackals, coyotes and domestic dogs are all thought to have evolved from a single ancestor, though the evolution is not yet totally clear in the fossil record so there is some conjecture. The Miacis was a carnivorous, arboreal mammal that emerged in the Eocene Epoch about 50 million years ago having evolved from Cretaceous insectivores; its direct living Holocene Epoch ancestors are members of the family Viverridae including the genet, a small spotted African carnivore. One of the theories of the origin of the Canis genus is that it first evolved in North America late in the Miocene Epoch. Subsequently, one or several species, possibly C. etrucus, crossed Beringia, the land bridge between Alaska and Siberia to become the progenitor of the gray wolves (C. lupus), jackals (C. aureus), and, about 10 thousand years ago, the domestic dog. The gray wolf is thought to have returned to North America from Eurasia across Beringia in the Early Pleistocene just before end of the Ice Age and the flooding of the land bridge. The coyote, on the other hand, evolved from speciation indigenous to North America, probably from an ancestor named C. leophagus (“lion-eater” in Latin). Therefore, the coyote is the only “native” member of the Canis genus in North America, and is a distant relative of the dog.
The versatility of the coyote is a matter of lore and legend, a trait to which its survival and endurance in diverse, unforgiving environments may be attributed. A primarily carnivorous omnivore, the coyote eats small mammals including rabbits, squirrels and mice, reptiles and amphibians, insects, fruit and vegetables. It is also necrophagous; carrion from dead carcasses, especially deer, are an important winter food source. The hunting capabilities of the coyote are prodigious, a combination of physical prowess and mental cunning. It is the fastest of the canines, and can run at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour and can leap over 14 feet in pursuit of prey. Although coyotes can hunt singly, stalking prey and “pointing” before they pounce, they also hunt in small groups to take advantage of tactics that require a second party. These techniques include the pursuit of prey in relays where coyotes of the group take turns in the chase until their quarry is exhausted and can be dispatched with relative ease. Another technique is the ambush – one coyote chases the intended prey into the lair of its cohorts. Their cunning is manifest in the observed practice of a coyote waiting at the exit of a burrow for the frenzied exit of a rodent fleeing from a badger or another coyote digging at the burrow’s opposite end. The coyote is virtually indefatigable in the hunt; pursuits of over 20 hours have been recorded.
The inexorable spread of the wily coyote from its original prairie and desert canyon habitat of southwestern North America north to Canada and, more recently, to the more populated regions east of the Mississippi River has inevitably resulted in some friction in their encounters with humans and their habitats. In the west, they are generally reviled as vermin and accused of all manner of depredation for their alleged attacks on livestock, notably sheep, calves and chickens. The government of the United States has a long history of campaigns to exterminate the coyote and other wildlife to protect the livestock of western ranchers. The Animal Damage Control Act was passed in 1931 (7 U.S.C. 426) and directed the Secretary of Agriculture to “promulgate the best methods of eradication and suppression of mountain lions, wolves, coyotes, bobcats, prairie dogs, gophers …. For the protection of stock and other domestic animals … and to conduct campaigns for the destruction or control of such animals.” The Division of Predator and Rodent Control (PARC) was established in 1938 to implement the law, eventually extirpating wolves and grizzly bears from the contiguous United States. The killing of coyotes using poisons, traps and aerial shooting is still practiced by the renamed USDA Division of Wildlife Services.
What is ironic is that the range of the coyote has expanded and their numbers have increased over this period as they have replaced the other predators that were eliminated. Research by wildlife biologists that began in 1937 with the seminal work of Adolph Murie revealed that predators like the coyote and the wolf are not the voracious sheep killers of lore, but rather important members of a complex ecosystem that controls populations of range animals and rodents by removing the weak and infirm. Field examinations of the contents of the stomachs of coyotes frequently reveals that the remains of domestic animals were mostly carrion, the animals had died of other causes. With the spread of the human populations to suburban areas that have become the new habitats of the coyote, concerns have been raised about the possibility of attacks on humans. However, coyote attacks on people are very rare; it is estimated that there have been a total of about 20 to 30 attacks on humans by coyotes that resulted in injury. The last human killed by a coyote was a child in California in 1980; to put this in perspective, 300 people were killed by domestic dogs in the U. S. between 1979 and 1990.
The coyote occupied a pivotal position in Native American mythology. In general the coyote character was anthropomorphic with some distinguishing canine characteristics like a pointed snout. The roles played by coyote varied widely from one tribe to another and ranged from creator and cultural hero to magician and trickster. As a benign entity, coyote provided for basic human needs and was the fount of wisdom and art. However, coyote was more commonly a nefarious character who engaged in deception but who was frequently bested by those who exploited his greed , recklessness and jealousy. Perhaps this was the basis for the inexorable triumph of Road Runner over Wil E. Coyote.