The coyote (Canis latrans) is a well-known canid native to North America.
Coyote males average 8 to 20 kg (18 to 44 lb) in weight, while females average 7 to 18 kg (15 to 40 lb), though size varies geographically. Northern subspecies, which average 18 kg (40 lb), tend to grow larger than the southern subspecies of Mexico, which average 11.5 kg (25 lb). Body length ranges on average from 1.0 to 1.35 m (3 ft 3 in to 4 ft 5 in), and tail length 40 cm (16 in), with females being shorter in both body length and height. The largest coyote on record was a male killed near Afton, Wyoming, on November 19, 1937, which measured 1.5 m (4 ft 11 in) from nose to tail, and weighed 34 kg (75 lb). Scent glands are located at the upper side of the base of the tail and are a bluish-black color.
The color and texture of the coyote's fur vary somewhat geographically. The hair's predominant color is light gray and red or fulvous, interspersed around the body with black and white. Coyotes living at high elevations tend to have more black and gray shades than their desert-dwelling counterparts, which are more fulvous or whitish-gray. The coyote's fur consists of short, soft underfur and long, coarse guard hairs. The fur of northern subspecies is longer and denser than in southern forms, with the fur of some Mexican and Central American forms being almost hispid (bristly). Generally, adult coyotes (including coywolf hybrids) have a sable coat color, dark neonatal coat color, bushy tail with an active supracaudal gland, and a white facial mask. Albinism is extremely rare in coyotes; out of a total of 750,000 coyotes killed by federal and cooperative hunters between March 22, 1938, and June 30, 1945, only two were albinos.
The coyote is typically smaller than the gray wolf, but has longer ears and a relatively larger braincase, as well as a thinner frame, face, and muzzle. The scent glands are smaller than the gray wolf's, but are the same color. Its fur color variation is much less varied than that of a wolf. The coyote also carries its tail downwards when running or walking, rather than horizontally as the wolf does.
Coyote tracks can be distinguished from those of dogs by their more elongated, less rounded shape. Unlike dogs, the upper canines of coyotes extend past the mental foramina.
Social and reproductive behaviors
Like the Eurasian golden jackal, the coyote is gregarious, but not as dependent on conspecifics as more social canid species like wolves are. This is likely because the coyote is not a specialized hunter of large prey as the latter species is. The basic social unit of a coyote pack is a family containing a reproductive female. However, unrelated coyotes may join forces for companionship, or to bring down prey too large to attack singly. Such "nonfamily" packs are only temporary, and may consist of bachelor males, nonreproductive females and subadult young. Families are formed in midwinter, when females enter estrus. Pair bonding can occur 2–3 months before actual copulation takes place. The copulatory tie can last 5–45 minutes. A female entering estrus attracts males by scent marking and howling with increasing frequency. A single female in heat can attract up to seven reproductive males, which can follow her for as long as a month. Although some squabbling may occur among the males, once the female has selected a mate and copulates, the rejected males do not intervene, and move on once they detect other estrous females. Unlike the wolf, which has been known to practice both monogamous and bigamous matings, the coyote is strictly monogamous, even in areas with high coyote densities and abundant food. Females that fail to mate sometimes assist their sisters or mothers in raising their pups, or join their siblings until the next time they can mate. The newly mated pair then establishes a territory and either constructs their own den or cleans out abandoned badger, marmot, or skunk earths. During the pregnancy, the male frequently hunts alone and brings back food for the female. The female may line the den with dried grass or with fur pulled from her belly. The gestation period is 63 days, with an average litter size of six, though the number fluctuates depending on coyote population density and the abundance of food.
Coyote pups are born in dens, hollow trees, or under ledges, and weigh 200 to 500 g (0.44 to 1.10 lb) at birth. They are altricial, and are completely dependent on milk for their first 10 days. The incisors erupt at about 12 days, the canines at 16, and the second premolars at 21. Their eyes open after 10 days, by which point the pups become increasingly more mobile, walking by 20 days, and running at the age of six weeks. The parents begin supplementing the pup's diet with regurgitated solid food after 12–15 days. By the age of four to six weeks, when their milk teeth are fully functional, the pups are given small food items such as mice, rabbits, or pieces of ungulate carcasses, with lactation steadily decreasing after two months. Unlike wolf pups, coyote pups begin seriously fighting (as opposed to play fighting) prior to engaging in play behavior. A common play behavior includes the coyote "hip-slam". By three weeks of age, coyote pups bite each other with less inhibition than wolf pups. By the age of four to five weeks, pups have established dominance hierarchies, and are by then more likely to play rather than fight. The male plays an active role in feeding, grooming, and guarding the pups, but abandons them if the female goes missing before the pups are completely weaned. The den is abandoned by June to July, and the pups follow their parents in patrolling their territory and hunting. Pups may leave their families in August, though can remain for much longer. The pups attain adult dimensions at eight months and gain adult weight a month later.
Territorial and sheltering behaviors
Individual feeding territories vary in size from 0.4 to 62 km2 (0.15 to 24 sq mi), with the general concentration of coyotes in a given area depending on food abundance, adequate denning sites, and competition with conspecifics and other predators. The coyote generally does not defend its territory outside of the denning season, and is much less aggressive towards intruders than the wolf is, typically chasing and sparring with them, but rarely killing them. Conflicts between coyotes can arise during times of food shortage. Coyotes mark their territories by raised-leg urination and ground-scratching.
Like wolves, coyotes use a den (usually the deserted holes of other species) when gestating and rearing young, though they may occasionally give birth under sagebrushes in the open. Coyote dens can be located in canyons, washouts, coulees, banks, rock bluffs, or level ground. Some dens have been found under abandoned homestead shacks, grain bins, drainage pipes, railroad tracks, hollow logs, thickets, and thistles. The den is continuously dug and cleaned out by the female until the pups are born. Should the den be disturbed or infested with fleas, the pups are moved into another den. A coyote den can have several entrances and passages branching out from the main chamber. A single den can be used year after year.
Hunting and feeding behaviors
While the popular consensus is that olfaction is very important for hunting, two studies that experimentally investigated the role of olfactory, auditory, and visual cues found that visual cues are the most important ones for hunting in red foxes and coyotes.
When hunting large prey, the coyote often works in pairs or small groups. Success in killing large ungulates depends on factors such as snow depth and crust density. Younger animals usually avoid participating in such hunts, with the breeding pair typically doing most of the work. Unlike the wolf, which attacks large prey from the rear, the coyote approaches from the front, lacerating its prey's head and throat. Like other canids, the coyote caches excess food. Coyotes catch mouse-sized rodents by pouncing, whereas ground squirrels are chased. Although coyotes can live in large groups, small prey is typically caught singly. Coyotes have been observed to kill porcupines in pairs, using their paws to flip the rodents on their backs, then attacking the soft underbelly. Only old and experienced coyotes can successfully prey on porcupines, with many predation attempts by young coyotes resulting in them being injured by their prey's quills. Coyotes sometimes urinate on their food, possibly to claim ownership over it. Recent evidence demonstrates that at least some coyotes have become more nocturnal in hunting, presumably to avoid humans. Coyotes may occasionally form mutualistic hunting relationships with American badgers, assisting each other in digging up rodent prey. The relationship between the two species may occasionally border on apparent "friendship", as some coyotes have been observed laying their heads on their badger companions or licking their faces without protest. The amicable interactions between coyotes and badgers were known to pre-Columbian civilizations, as shown on a Mexican jar dated to 1250–1300 CE depicting the relationship between the two.
Food scraps, pet food, and animal feces may attract a coyote to a trash can.
Being both a gregarious and solitary animal, the variability of the coyote's visual and vocal repertoire is intermediate between that of the solitary foxes and the highly social wolf. The aggressive behavior of the coyote bears more similarities to that of foxes than it does that of wolves and dogs. An aggressive coyote arches its back and lowers its tail. Unlike dogs, which solicit playful behavior by performing a "play-bow" followed by a "play-leap", play in coyotes consists of a bow, followed by side-to-side head flexions and a series of "spins" and "dives". Although coyotes will sometimes bite their playmates' scruff as dogs do, they typically approach low, and make upward-directed bites. Pups fight each other regardless of sex, while among adults, aggression is typically reserved for members of the same sex. Combatants approach each other waving their tails and snarling with their jaws open, though fights are typically silent. Males tend to fight in a vertical stance, while females fight on all four paws. Fights among females tend to be more serious than ones among males, as females seize their opponents' forelegs, throat, and shoulders.
The coyote has been described as "the most vocal of all [wild] North American mammals". Its loudness and range of vocalizations was the cause for its binomial name Canis latrans, meaning "barking dog". At least 11 different vocalizations are known in adult coyotes. These sounds are divided into three categories: agonistic and alarm, greeting, and contact. Vocalizations of the first category include woofs, growls, huffs, barks, bark howls, yelps, and high-frequency whines. Woofs are used as low-intensity threats or alarms and are usually heard near den sites, prompting the pups to immediately retreat into their burrows. Growls are used as threats at short distances but have also been heard among pups playing and copulating males. Huffs are high-intensity threat vocalizations produced by rapid expiration of air. Barks can be classed as both long-distance threat vocalizations and alarm calls. Bark howls may serve similar functions. Yelps are emitted as a sign of submission, while high-frequency whines are produced by dominant animals acknowledging the submission of subordinates. Greeting vocalizations include low-frequency whines, 'wow-oo-wows', and group yip howls. Low-frequency whines are emitted by submissive animals and are usually accompanied by tail wagging and muzzle nibbling. The sound known as 'wow-oo-wow' has been described as a "greeting song". The group yip howl is emitted when two or more pack members reunite and may be the final act of a complex greeting ceremony. Contact calls include lone howls and group howls, as well as the previously mentioned group yip howls. The lone howl is the most iconic sound of the coyote and may serve the purpose of announcing the presence of a lone individual separated from its pack. Group howls are used as both substitute group yip howls and as responses to either lone howls, group howls, or group yip howls.