About Coyotes

coyote © USFWS
coyote © USFWS

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.

Identification

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.

Historical Background

Since the 1920s, when the first eastern coyotes appeared in forests in New York, there has been confusion about their ancestry. 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. Learn More

Life Cycle

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.

Food

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.

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. During the last 60 years, there have been less than 10. Find out what to do if you encounter a coyote.