Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Species Spotlight: Coyotes

"I'm the voice of all the Wildest West, the Patti of the Plains; I'm a wild Wagnerian opera of diabolic strains; I'm a roaring, ranting orchestra with lunatics becrammed; I'm a vocalized tornado - I'm the shrieking of the damned."

- Ernest Thompson Seton, The Coyote's Song, 1913

The coyote was considered by some as the voice of the untamed American desert, and it is certainly one of the most vocal of all North American wild mammals. Coyotes, unlike wolves, make barking or yipping noises. Its Latin name, Canis latrans, means "barking dog." Thomas Say, who gave the first official zoological description of the coyote, noted, "Their bark is much more distinctly like that of the domestic dog, than of any other animal; in fact the first two or three notes could not be distinguished from the bark of a small terrier, but these notes are succeeded by a lengthened scream." Researchers have identified 11 forms of vocal communication in coyotes. Barking is often associated with territoriality, especially when accompanied by foot scratching. The howl keeps pack members in communication with one another.

Coyotes also rely on nonverbal systems of communication. For example, movement and position of the ears is used to communicate mood and rank. They also make use of an intricate system of scent marking.

The coyote is the most widely distributed large predator in North America. Because of its incredible adaptability, the coyote is presently one of the few mammals whose range is increasing despite increasing human impacts on its habitat. Its range extends from Costa Rica to Alaska and from coast to coast in the United States and Canada. The extermination of the wolf in central and northern America contributed greatly to its range expansion. Originally a native of the American Southwest desert and arid regions of the Midwest, the coyote has adapted to a wide range of habitats including Alaska's North Slope, the mountains of Guatemala, and the forests of New England. The coyote's preferred habitats are meadows, pastures, wooded bluffs, and prairies--any open area in which they can hunt with greatest ease.

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Coyotes were present in Illinois before European settlers arrived, and increased in numbers due to the removal of timber. Journals kept by settlers suggest that coyotes (then called prairie wolves) were abundant in Illinois in the early 1800s, but by the mid-1800s the number of coyotes was dwindling. This trend was linked to declining populations of prey caused by habitat loss and overharvest, and organized efforts of humans to eliminate the coyote.

Since European settlement, the coyote has been erroneously blamed for preying on livestock. When ranchers began raising livestock on the American and Canadian prairies in the mid-1800s, coyote eradication programs were formed, which coincided with the elimination of all rivals for western range land, including bison, wolves, and grizzlies. By the late 1800s, millions of coyotes had been killed by trappers, hunters, and ranchers. The eradication attempt is by no means over; in 1992 alone, nearly 100,000 coyotes were killed by government agencies.

Coyotes are beneficial to agricultural cropland because they prey on rabbits and mice, keeping these populations in check. Clever and determined scavengers, coyotes also eat insects, fruits and berries of wild plants, deer, raccoons, birds, fish, carrion, and small domestic animals. Coyotes are now most active from evening to early morning, however they were probably daytime hunters in the past but became more nocturnal due to human activity.

Justifiably, coyotes have grown to be very secretive and wary of humans. They make their dens in concealed spots, usually a burrow in the soil, a hollow between rocks, or in the base of a hollow tree. Sometimes they enlarge an abandoned fox or badger hollow. Dens are usually dug by females, and birth and early pup care is carried out there. Pups are born in early May, leave the den in June, and remain with the mother until fall. Pups depend on food brought by pack members until they learn to hunt for themselves. A coyote pack averages six animals, and at the center of the pack is the mating, or alpha, pair. In general, only the alpha female bears young, a litter typically being six to eight pups.

Eastern subspecies are characterized by a doglike body that resembles a German shepherd in size, conformation, and color, but carries its bushy tail below the level of its back rather than curved upward. Western coyotes are smaller and finely featured, more like large foxes than dogs. Coyotes can breed with domestic dogs and wolves, a dog-coyote mix being called a "coydog." Coyotes are often blamed for damage caused by coydogs.

Considered rare in Illinois as recently as the 1950s, the coyote is now common throughout the state, and is most abundant in southern, southeastern, and west-central parts. The coyote population increased dramatically in the 1970s, and seemed to peak in the mid-1980s. As of 1995, the coyote population in Illinois was estimated at 30,000.

Michelle Garland, INHS Office of the Chief.

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