Photo Courtesy of Mark Schuler
The coyote, Canis latrans, is a native of the grasslands, but is now found coast to coast in the United States. In addition to the grasslands, coyotes live in deserts, temperate forests, woodlands, swamps, sub-alpine areas, and even in major cities. Despite billions of dollars spent on predator control projects throughout the U.S., coyotes are more abundant than ever. They have survived where other carnivores have not and provide vital population control of rodents and other small mammals. Coyotes fill the void left by the disappearance of the wolf.
Coyotes are half the size of wolves, standing two feet high at the shoulder and four to five feet long from the nose to the tip of the tail. They weigh 30 to 70 pounds, and the female is smaller than the male. Their fur is gray to reddish-gray with light under parts. The bushy tail has a black tip and the ears are prominent. The snout is slender and pointed. The long legs show a dark vertical line on the lower forelegs. Tracks show four toes per foot with claws, and the hind foot is slightly smaller than the front. Coyotes can leap up to 14 feet, and can easily run up to 30 mph and reach 40 mph in a sprint. Coyotes run with their tails down (wolves run with their tails horizontal and domestic dogs with their tails up).
A coyote's home range is 40 to 100 square miles. Within the range, coyotes tend to travel well-established paths, and scat is left at intersections to mark their territory.
Most of the time a coyote is a lone hunter, though it may combine hunting efforts with one or two others, running in relays to tire or ambush prey. Coyotes locate prey using their keen senses of hearing, sight, and smell. The coyote immobilizes its prey with its sharp teeth, grasping it by the throat and suffocating it by tooth punctures around the throat. Over half of their diet is rodents like gophers, squirrels, and mice. They also eat rabbits, hares, grasshoppers, and other insects, frogs, salamanders, snakes, fish, birds, and eggs. Road kill, carrion, and injured animals are also eaten and berries, nuts, and grasses are sometimes consumed. Coyotes often cache or store food.
Coyotes mate for life. Mating usually occurs between January and March. After a gestation period of about two months, a litter of two to twelve pups are born; five or six pups are the average. Coyotes raise their young in a den. A typical den is five to thirty feet long with a nesting chamber. It can be a dugout in a hillside, in a cave, under a log, in a culvert, or be an old fox den. Regardless of the den location, it is well hidden and underground; if the den is discovered or disturbed, the coyote will change dens. The male helps raise the pups by hunting for their food. Young from a previous litter may also help raise the new litter. This assistance increases the new litter's survival rate while serving as a learning experience for the helpers. The pups will venture from the den at about one-month old, though one adult stays near the pups at all times. They are weaned by the summer's end. Parents will then carry food in their stomach and disgorge a partially digested meal for the pups outside the den. They begin to teach the pups how to hunt and by late fall they can survive on their own. Coyotes survive in the wild an average of six to eight years.The coyote or "song dog" is known for its howls and high pitched yipping. The barks, yaps, yips, growls, and howls are a means of communication to help keep the band together. The mournful howls and excited yips are a sound many treasure when heard in the Big Bend.