• Sierra del Carmen

    Big Bend

    National Park Texas

The Coyote

A coyote on the prowl
A coyote on the prowl.
Fred Labounty

The coyote, Canis latrans, is a native of the grasslands, but is now found coast to coast in the United States. It lives in the grasslands, deserts, temperate forests, woodlands, swamps, sub-alpine areas, and even in major cities. Despite the billions of dollars spent on predator control projects throughout the U.S., the coyote is more abundant than ever. The coyote has filled the void left by the disappearance of the wolf.

Listen to a coyote

The reputation of the coyote as a predator of big game and livestock is exaggerated. Over half of a coyote's diet are 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. Berries, nuts, and grasses are sometimes consumed. A coyote will cache or store food. Most of the time a coyote is a lone hunter. Using its keen senses of hearing, sight, and smell, the coyote locates its prey. The coyote will immobilize its prey, with its sharp teeth, grasping it by the throat and suffocating it by tooth punctures around the throat. A coyote may combine hunting efforts with one or two others, running in relays to tire the prey or waiting in ambush while the other chase the quarry towards it.

The coyote or song dog is known in the west for its howls and high pitched yipping. Coyotes don't bay at the moon just to enjoy themselves. The barks, yaps, yips, growls, and howls are a means of communication to help keep the band together. 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 average. A typical den is five to thirty feet long with a nesting chamber. It can be dugout in a hillside, in a cave, under a log, in a culvert, or be an old fox den. Regardless of where the den is, it will be 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 help raise the new litter. This helps increase the new litter's survival rate and teaches the helpers about raising pups. The pups will leave the den at about one-month old to play, learn, and grow. One adult will be with 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.

Coyotes tend to travel well-established paths. Their home range is 40 to 100 square miles. Scat is left at intersections as a sign of their territory. Tracks show four toes per foot with claws. The hind foot is slightly smaller than the front. Coyotes can leap up to 14 feet. They easily run up to 30 mph and can 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). 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 red gray with light under parts. The long legs show a dark vertical line on the lower forelegs. The bushy tail has a black tip and the ears are prominent. The snout is slender and pointed.

No matter what name Canis latrans is called - coyote, song dog, God's dog, prairie wolf, brush wolf, trickster- it is a symbol of the wild and free, a symbol of adaptability. It has survived where other carnivores have not and provides vital population control of rodents and other small mammals. It serves as "the garbage man" cleaning up carrion and road kill. The mournful howls and excited yips are a sound many treasure when heard in the Big Bend.

Did You Know?

Big Bend Natural History Association logo

Established in 1956, the Big Bend Natural History Association operates bookstores in all the visitor centers in Big Bend National Park. During that time they have contributed $1.8 million dollars to support the mission of the National Park Service at Big Bend National Park and Amistad NRA. More...