Coyotes (Canis latrans) are resourceful creatures who have successfully adapted to areas altered by people. They are able to survive in rural forests, fields, thickets, marshes, and woodlands as well as populated suburbs. Mainly nocturnal animals, coyotes are most often observed at dawn or dusk, but can be active at anytime.
Their dens, which are occupied for the purpose of giving birth, are located on slopes, banks, or rocky ledges and are often hidden under downed trees, stumps, or in culverts. Although capable of digging their own den, they frequently enlarge abandoned burrows of woodchucks, foxes, or skunks.
The eastern coyote stands 23 to 26 inches tall with a body length of 42 to 52 inches, including a 12 to 15 inch bushy tail. Males are slightly larger than the females. In Massachusetts, females average 30 pounds and males average 35 pounds.
Except for their size, male and female coyotes look alike; both have long, dense fur, which varies in color from grizzled gray to yellowish gray. The hair on the back is a mixture of gray, black and buff, with more black on the tail and less on the under parts and head. They resemble a German shepherd in appearance, but have pointed ears that stand erect, a more pointed muzzle, and a very bushy tail that hangs down in a vertical position.
Eastern coyotes do not mate until their second year and most are monogamous, remaining paired for several seasons. In Massachusetts, breeding takes place in February. During March coyotes seek out and excavate their den sites.
In April, after a 60 to 65 day gestation period, the female gives birth to four to seven pups. They weigh about a 1/2 pound at birth and are nursed for about two weeks. When their eyes open, at 10 to 14 days, they also begin eating regurgitated food provided by the father.
As the young grow and become more mobile, the female leaves the den to hunt. There are even reports of offspring from the previous litter bringing food to the pups. The pups are weaned at nine weeks and are hunting on their own by mid-summer.
When the pups are very young, traits emerge that identify one male and one female pup as being dominate over the others in the litter. In the fall, the dominant pups remain in the parents' territory, while the others disperse. These young, inexperienced coyotes, now on their own, have less than a 50 percent survival rate; cars, hunters, and trappers account for most of the deaths.
In Massachusetts, the bulk of their diet consists of deer, mice, woodchucks, voles, shrews, rabbits, beaver, muskrat, weasels, squirrels, and carrion. They eat ground-nesting birds and their eggs as well as reptiles and amphibians. When other prey is scarce they will eat a variety of insects including grasshoppers, beetles, and cicadas. When animal matter is scarce, they will eat available fruits such as apples, cherries, grapes, and strawberries.
Since the 1920s when the first eastern coyotes appeared in forests in New York, there has been confusion about their ancestry. In 1957 and 1958 coyote specimens were taken in Otis (Berkshire County) and New Salem (Franklin County) confirming that coyotes were present in the state. Since that time they have been confirmed in every county in the state, including Cuttyhunk Island and Martha’s Vineyard in Dukes County.
Because it is 20 to 30 percent larger than the western coyote, people believed it to be a cross between a coyote and a dog, giving it the name "coydog." Even though coyotes and dogs have been known to interbreed both in the wild and in captivity, mortality in the offspring is high and they likely could not evolve into the resilient canids now known as eastern coyotes.
Some researchers now believe that the eastern coyote is a hybridization between the western coyote and red wolves many generations ago in the upper Great Lakes region of the United States. It is theorized that as populations of the western coyote increased, they were forced to move east and north in search of food. As they moved into Minnesota they crossbred with eastern/red wolves and produced a genetically hardy animal able to sustain itself through New England winters.
Situations & Solutions
Coyotes are wary animals who will avoid people at all costs. The increased coyote sightings in suburbia have created concerns about peoples' safety in their backyards. Coyote attacks on humans are rare in Massachusetts.
Keeping Coyotes Out of Yards
The prospect of an easy meal can bring coyotes into yards. Coyotes are also drawn to an area by the availability of small mammals, which are attracted to the same food sources. If a coyote does appear in your yard, don’t try to approach it or its pups.
To make your property less attractive to coyotes, follow these steps:
- Don't leave pet food outdoors. If you must feed pets outdoors, provide only the amount your pet will consume in one feeding.
- Secure your garbage. Coyotes are capable of knocking over trashcans and tearing open trash bags left in the open.
- Pick up fallen fruit. Fruit that has fallen to the ground and left to rot can be appealing to wildlife, including coyotes.
- Don't feed coyotes. Feeding can draw them closer to homes and cause them to become less wary of humans.
- Keep pets indoors. A roaming cat or small dog can be perceived as prey by coyotes. There have been rare cases of an unattended small dog being taken by a coyote.
Found or Injured Coyotes
Sick or injured animals can be unpredictable and dangerous, especially those susceptible to the rabies virus (including coyotes). If you find a coyote in either condition stay away from it and do not attempt to handle it or move it. Learn more about rabies and what actions you can take.