The Coyote, the Western Wanderer

By Erika K. Yery, licensed wildlife rehabilitator

The following article appeared in an earlier True Story. At that time people laughed at the possibility that coyotes would be living in Northern Virginia. Lately more and more coyote sightings have been reported and several cats, small dogs and other small animals have been taken by coyotes. It is appropriate to feature this article again and clear up some of the misunderstandings about this new wild neighbor. Coyotes cannot be trapped and relocated. It is illegal and also impossible. Coyotes are one of our nocturnal neighbors, and we better get used to it. They will not attack people, but I highly recommended you keep your pets indoors, especially at night.

Coyotes, foxes, dogs, wolves, jackals and dingoes belong to the Canidae family. They are among the most intelligent of all mammals. The coyote's scientific name is Canis Latrans. Canis means "dog" while latrans means" barking", and the coyote does a lot of vocalizing. Once a western plains wanderer has adapted to almost any landscape made by humans, from farms to city fringes, and they have spread virtually from coast to coast.

Virginia has been a last frontier for these greyhound-sized canines. They appeared about 15 years ago from Southwestern Virginia and Pennsylvania. Currently, most are reported in the mountainous areas west of Washington, or in southwest Virginia. However, there have been sightings in most areas of Virginia. Coyotes do not migrate, but when the young leave the natal area, they seek new territory. During that process some coyotes have traveled as much a 100 miles. However, if food is plentiful, coyotes seldom travel more than five miles a day.

Coyotes scratch out an existence because of extreme flexibility. Their success is probably due to human actions, including widespread forest clearing that promotes an abundance of small mammals and eradication of wolves from the Eastern United States. If we would stop encroaching into their territory, they would stop coming into the suburbs and on occasions, into towns.


The adult western coyote looks like a slightly built German shepherd dog. Adult males average about 30 pounds; females average 25 pounds. Animals weighing over 40 pound animals have been documented.

The new eastern coyote, Canis Latrans, is a crossbreed between the small northeastern timber wolf and the western coyote, and is considered a true-breeding subspecies. This is a much larger animal than the western counterpart with males averaging 50 percent heavier and females 70 percent heavier. Animals over 60 pounds have been documented for several eastern coyotes.

The coyote has five toes on each of its forefeet and four toes on each of the hind feet. Only four toes show up in any of the tracks because the fifth toe on the forefoot is high on the inside of the foot and does not register in the tracks. The coyote's foot is much narrower than that of a dog of the same size with two outside toes slightly behind the center toes. This is important to know when checking tracks to determine if it is really a coyote or (more likely) a dog. The red fox also has five toes on its forefeet and four on its hind. As with the coyote, only four show in a track because the fifth is high on the inside of the foot. The red fox's foot is much narrower than the coyote's.

Coyote Tracks

The coyote does not chew its food. Small prey or other food is swallowed whole; larger prey is cut into small pieces. The 42 carnivore teeth are designed for meat eating, but coyotes will eat almost anything. Most of the diet consists of cottontail rabbits, jackrabbits, mice and rats, berries and fruit if available. Deer are the coyote's most important prey; they will kill more deer than any other wild predator. In western regions, prey will include pronghorn and antelopes. Some coyotes kill adult sheep, but lambs are most vulnerable. During winter months when snow prevents hunting of mice and rats, carrion is the main diet.

Coyotes have large yellow eyes with black round pupils, indicating a diurnal animal. Although most of the activity is during the night, due to the presence and harassment of man, sightings during the day are not unusual. If coyotes are not harassed, they will be active in early morning and late afternoon and howling and singing can be heard in the evening. When the coyote is under some pressure, howling is only heard after darkness sets in and they are seldom seen. However, if animals are under harassment, they will not howl and only tracks will indicate that they are around.

Coyotes trot like dogs, but when surprised or scared will gallop with body flat, ears laid back and can reach a speed of 35 miles per hour or more. Coyotes can always outrun dogs.


The coyote follows a social order and exists within a strict social hierarchy within the family group. Each member knows its place in the family. When a strange coyote arrives, usually bluffing and sometimes fighting quickly establish dominance.

Coyotes are monogamous and mate for life. During breeding season, late February or March, the female picks a mate. Copulation usually occurs several times and after completion, preparation is made for construction of a birthing den. Unless disturbed, older pairs will use the same birthing den year after year. The pups are born after a 63-day gestation period, and are blind and helpless. Litters consist of five to seven pups. Until the pup's eyes open, 10-12 days after birth, the female does not leave the den and the male will hunt and bring food to her. Coyote pups will become active when three to four weeks old and will start engaging in active play fighting. When eight to nine weeks old, pups will begin to travel with their parents and learn how to hunt. After a short time, they have learned the skill to kill mice, insects and frogs. At this time, the weaning process will begin and the birthing den will be abandoned. By the time, the pups are six months old they look like miniature adults, only with a much lighter coat. Some pups may leave the family at this point, but most will stay with their parents until spring.

The coyote's life span is between 12-15 years, but most die during the first few weeks of life and many die or are killed before they are a year old.

Humans kill most coyotes using various methods such as, hunting, trapping, aerial gunning and poisons. Dogs may kill coyotes if they can catch them. In some area mountain lions, eagles and bears kill pups, but seldom get an opportunity to kill an adult. Coyotes also die from disease such as distemper, heartworm, rabies and mange.

Relationship with Humans

To Indian tribes the coyote has always been a friend, and they were treated with respect. Although the Indians raised sheep and goats, they had few losses from coyotes because the way they cared for their flocks. Trouble began when white rangers invaded the territory and established large sheep ranges, and coyotes started to kill Iambs, the ranger's livelihood. Over the years many methods have been employed to keep coyotes away from livestock. Attempts to reduce the western coyote population with a wide variety of lethal and inhumane methods have proven only that the coyote is more resourceful, smarter and more adaptable than we are.

The establishment of bounties began over 100 years ago and has been widely recognized as a waste of money and effort. Sheep producers are better served by establishing a program that makes information available on managing livestock to reduce predation. Many predation- reduction techniques have been used with great success. Livestock-guarding dogs have been very effective. Some farmers have enlisted the aid of donkeys, which are known to scare off coyotes. Electric fences, strobe lights and alarm systems also work well and should be installed around areas that are in coyote territory.

People view the coyote in a variety of lights. To some hunters, the coyote is a challenging quarry, which gives many a thrilling chase. To people who simply enjoy and love nature, the coyote ranks as one of the most beautiful, intelligent creatures on earth. To many cattle rangers, it is the symbol of the "Old West" and they enjoy listening to the yipping song of coyotes at sunrise and sunset, while others hate it as a despised varmint. Biologists are grateful to have coyotes around to keep the ever-increasing deer population under control naturally. The coyote is a very resilient animal and will always be around. To paraphrase William Faulkner, the coyote has not just survived, it has prevailed.