In size, the coyote falls somewhere between a wolf and a fox and most closely resembles a small German shepherd. Its bushy tail, flat forehead, wide, pointed ears and long, slender muzzle are all characteristic features. The expression “wily coyote” may come from the animal’s crafty-looking, slanted yellow eyes.
Its longish fur varies in colour from grizzled grey to rufous. The coyote’s throat, underbelly and inside of the ears are white, while the legs, paws, muzzle and back of the ears are reddish brown to yellow. The thick fur is well suited to colder weather.
To lower its body temperature in warm weather or after a high-speed chase, the coyote pants. Its main tool for hunting is its teeth, as its non-retractable claws are generally too worn down from constant contact with the ground to be of much use.
Habitat and behaviour
Usually found in open or semi-wooded areas such as prairies, plains and deserts, the coyote has proved itself highly adaptable, even as humans have moved into its territory.
It is an opportunistic feeder, dining on almost anything. While it prefers rabbits, hares and small rodents, it also eats insects, garbage, birds, eggs, reptiles, amphibians, crustaceans and wild fruit, such as blueberries. It even scavenges carcasses left behind by wolves and preys on domestic livestock and pets.
The coyote in eastern North America is larger than its western cousin. The eastern coyote has taken over the niche left by the almost exterminated grey wolf, learning to hunt in packs to pursue large prey, especially white-tailed deer.
The coyote is best known for its distinctive howl, as its Latin name Canis latrans (“barking dog”) suggests. It also communicates with barks, bark-howls and yip-howls. When several coyotes are in one area, the ear-piercing howl of one often triggers a response from another and can result in a group howl. Coyotes vocalize between sunset and sunrise and are silent by day.
The coyote’s present range consists of the continental United States, much of Canada and as far south as Costa Rica.
It is one of the few North American mammals that has substantially expanded its range over the past 200 years. Originating in the West, the coyote had spread eastward into Ontario by the beginning of the 20th century, into Quebec in the 1940s and into the Eastern provinces in the 1970s. In 1985, coyotes were spotted coming ashore on the coast of Newfoundland, having crossed on the sea ice, probably from Nova Scotia. The coyote reached Labrador in 1995. Its range also expanded northward into the boreal forest.
Human activity, such as the clearing of forests, the increasing number of livestock available for food and the gradual extermination of the grey wolf, has probably helped the coyote’s surprising range expansion. Especially helpful is the latter, as it equates to less competition for prey.