Coyotes: Up-Close and Personal
Coyotes are not as large or heavy as many people believe; the typical adult male tips the scales at about 30 pounds. They are predominantly grayish to brownish in color with lighter-colored bellies. Color varies, however, ranging from nearly black to red to almost white in some individuals and local populations.
Coyotes are most active at night and during twilight hours. They bed in areas of tall grass or brush, but do not use dens except for raising young (from April till June). Coyotes possess good eyesight and hearing and a highly developed sense of smell. They can run at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour for short distances and travel over fairly large home ranges (from 2 to 20 square miles).
Coyotes are basically solitary and do not form packs as wolves do, although family groups may be seen occasionally. A family group may include a mated pair, non-breeding offspring from the previous year, and pups from the current year. The coyote’s society consists of two kinds of individuals: territorial animals and transients.
Territorial coyotes tend to be mature breeding animals, while transients are typically yearlings or very old individuals. In South Texas, about two-thirds of the population are territorial and the rest are transients. Coyotes establish and maintain territories through direct means (aggressive encounters with intruders) and indirect means (howling, scent posts). Recent studies suggest that transient coyotes occupy the buffer zones between existing territories until they are able to establish a territory of their own.
Coyotes occupy a wide range of habitats and may be found within the city limits of metropolitan areas or in the remote stretches of West Texas. One reason for this success is their ability to subsist on a varied diet, including rodents, rabbits, carrion, insects, fruits, wild game, garbage, and domestic livestock (figure 2) Coyotes are highly opportunistic, and individual diets are dictated to a large degree by the seasonal availability of different foods.
Coyotes are monogamous and breed only once per year. They usually breed during February and March and have a gestation period of about 63 days. Average litter size is 5 to 7 pups, but larger litters are not uncommon (as many as 19 pups have been observed). In areas of low coyote density or where food is abundant; litters tend to be larger than in areas of high coyote density or food scarcity. Dens may be located in steep banks, rock crevices, thick underbrush, or relatively open areas. Both parents share in raising the litter. Pups remain in or near the den until they are about 2 months old, when they may accompany the parents on short trips. Adults and pups usually remain together until late summer, when the pups tend to disperse. Coyotes and dogs will interbreed (rarely), and such “coydogs” are fertile. Hybrids are usually larger and darker than the typical coyote, although size and color vary with the breed of dog involved. Annual mortality rates average about 60 percent for young coyotes, and few coyotes live beyond 6 years of age. People cause most coyotes deaths, but coyotes are also susceptible to canine diseases such as distemper, hepatitis, mange, parvo virus, and rabies. Hookworms are the only common parasite which frequently cause mortality in coyotes, and those mortalities are most common in pups.
Coyotes are perhaps the wariest and most intelligent animals found on Texas rangelands. They are difficult to trap, a tribute to their intelligence and keen sense of smell. Coyotes may become educated or “trap-shy” by unsuccessful attempts at control. As with other species, survival of the fittest applies. In areas where coyote control has been practiced diligently for many years (such as the Edwards Plateau), the coyotes that remain are extremely wary animals.