Coyotes (Scientific name: Canis latrans) are one of Wisconsin's most common and highly adaptable canines. You may be fortunate enough to see one trotting across a field, marshland, or wooded area in search of its next meal. Sometimes called a brush wolf or prairie wolf, coyotes are extremely intelligent, skillful hunters and play an important role in Wisconsin's natural circle of life. The coyote is a valuable furbearer and it provides the coyote hunter, trapper, and wildlife observer with a great challenge.
Looks are Everything
Smaller than an adult gray wolf yet larger than a fox, these medium-sized members of the dog family have long, thin legs, a tapered nose, or muzzle, and rather large, pointed ears that open forward above the face. Like foxes, coyotes have yellow eyes with round pupils. Interestingly, coyote pups have round pupils while fox pups have elliptical pupils. They have a very bushy, black-tipped tail about a third of the body length. Also, coyotes are half the size of wolves with thinner muzzles. Males and females look similar though females are normally smaller than males. An adult male is about 44-52 inches long, including its 14- inch tail, and weighs from 25 to 42 pounds. Some coyotes even reach the weight of 75 pounds, but this is rare.
Coyote fur is moderately long and coarse, ranging in color from a dull yellow to gray. The back, neck, front of the legs, and top of the tail are usually a buffy gray. The midline is often darker colored than the rest of the back. Each hair on the upper part of the body has several colors and is tipped with black, giving the upper parts a dark, grizzled appearance. The underparts of the coyote are a cream color. The face and back of the ears are redder then the rest of the body. The inside of the ears, the edges of the mouth and the throat are white. The summer coat is usually more buffy than the winter coat. Coyotes shed their fur once each year, beginning in June and continuing throughout the summer.
When moving through their habitat, coyotes typically do the "dog trot" or a gentle lope. They will gallop if pursued or when chasing prey. They average about 25 miles per hour when galloping, but can sprint up to 35 miles per hour. They do not have great stamina for running and will tire rather easily. They can dog paddle fairly well in water.
Coyotes have excellent senses smell and very good eyesight and hearing. They live to be relatively old for an animal. They often reach 12 years old, 18 in captivity, but they're average life expectancy in the wild is 6 to 8 years old.
Tracks 'n Trails
Coyotes are secretive, shy and nocturnal, therefore unlikely to be seen, particularly during the day time. You are more likely to hear a coyote than to see one. Hunters and wildlife watchers alike can call in coyotes using predator calls. These imitate the sound of a squealing mammal in distress. The hunting instinct of the coyote is aroused and it will come in to investigate the source of the sound. You may also get territorial coyotes to respond by imitating their long, mournful howls.
You can, however, see signs of coyotes, particularly in winter, in just about any open area you may hike. Coyote tracks are very similar to those of domestic dogs, so you really have to know what you are looking at to determine if they were made by a coyote. Tracks are most easily identified in moist, firm mud or firm snow. At 2-1/4 to 2-3/4 inches long by 1-3/4 to 2-3/8 inches wide, their front paw prints are slightly larger than their hind prints that register about 2 to 2-3/8 inches long by 1-1/2 to 1-7/8 inches wide. Each track has four toes with blunt, non-retractable claws. The foot pad of the front print is larger and more triangular in nature than the foot pad of the hind print. The general outline of a coyote walking trail is a long, straight line, with a very gentle wave to the overall track pattern. The individual paw prints are about 14 to 15 inches apart. When the animal is trotting, the front and hind paw prints of one side are closer together than the pair of paw prints from the other side of its body. The space in between the two pairs of tracks is about 15 to 16 inches apart.
Coyote droppings, which biologists call scat or feces, often contain bits of bone, hair or plant material. They are long, twisted and segmented with pointed ends. If the coyote has been eating fruit, the scat tends to be more crumbly in nature. You may find scats where coyote trails cross each other.
Ways of the Wild
Coyotes are very sociable and frequently play with each other. In addition to hunting in small packs, they will gather to feed on animal carcasses or just to play. Even as adults they will toss and tumble about like pups. Coyotes advertise their location with smells and sounds. During the breeding season, coyotes are especially vocal. You may also hear them on warm, still summer nights. An individual may start up with its howl and be answered from a coyote in another direction, and then a third may join in and so forth. Sometimes a coyote will start its song with a few dog-like barks, followed by one long clear call that breaks into a tremolo. To the human ear, the long, drawn-out howl sounds lonesome and mournful. But to the coyote, it is just its song, its way of communicating with each other. When chasing prey at night, coyotes can be heard yip-yip-yipping through the woods. If a person happens upon an active den, the guardian parents may bark like a dog. Pups, too, are vocal. They will whine in a high pitch if they become separated from their parents. Soprano in nature, a coyote howl is much higher pitched than that of a wolf.
In Wisconsin, coyotes mate sometime between February and March. Although the same coyote pairs may breed for many years in a row, they do not mate for life. Coyotes can breed when they are one year old.
After successfully mating, the female coyote will seek an appropriately concealed den. If she is an older female, she is likely to re-use last-year's den. If it's her first litter, or if her den was disturbed the previous year, she will have to search for a new site. Coyotes prefer to enlarge an existing burrow, perhaps one made by a woodchuck, fox, badger or even a skunk. They may select an adequate space in a rock outcrop, along a riverbank or in a hole under a stump. Less often, coyotes build a den from scratch.
The entrance to a coyote den usually measures about 10 inches wide by 13 inches high. The den will have two or more entrances and will usually be about 3 to 4 feet underground. The tunnels leading to the internal denning area may be as long as 30 feet, though generally they are not that long. The nesting area is generally only about three feet in diameter and is unlined. Parents leave the den to urinate or defecate. The female will prepare more than one den before her pups are born so that she can quickly move them to the other site if disturbed or threatened or if fleas become too bothersome. Coyotes mark their den territories by leaving lots of scent on stumps, brush or dirt piles using their urine and scent glands. One way you can tell a coyote den from a fox den is by the tidiness inside and around the entrance. Unlike foxes, adult coyotes remove bones and other debris so these materials do not accumulate in or around the edges of the den.
Once fertilized, the female's egg enters a gestation period of 60-63 days. Sometime in April, a litter of 5-7 pups is born. Pups are born with short, rough, yellow-brown fur. They open their eyes in about 10 days; at this time they can crawl around the den. The male, who plays an important role in the rearing of the pups, brings food to his mate while she stays with the pups for their first two months. She eats some of the food to maintain strength and the flow of milk, but also regurgitates some to feed directly to the pups. Coyotes do this both during and after weaning. At 3 weeks of age, the pups venture out of the den to play. At 4 weeks, their fur has started to become softer, fuzzier and more yellowish. By the time the pups are fully weaned at 8-9 weeks old, the family abandons their den site. Pups learn to hunt by tagging along with the adults on hunting trips. By the end of summer and early fall, when the pups are about half grown, the family is hunting together as a small group, called a pack. The young are fairly capable of living on their own at this time of year. By the middle of winter, as the adults ready themselves for another breeding season, the young coyotes move out of their parent's territory. They travel long distances to establish a new territory of their own, often dispersing up to 40 miles away. In this manner, coyotes prevent interbreeding with family members, which reduces vigor. By the time they are a year old, they are ready to become breeding members of the coyote population.
Coyotes will sometimes mate for life, but in Wisconsin--more often than not--they do not mate for more than one year with a particular partner. Coyotes have been known to breed with domestic dogs in Wisconsin to produce fertile offspring called "coy-dogs." These often look identical to purebred coyotes.
A Feast of the Beasts
Coyotes are superb predators. They do most of their hunting after dark and will search for meadow voles, mice, rabbits, snowshoe hares, ruffed grouse and even deer using scent trails. They have an interesting method of stalking small rodents. First, a coyote locates a vole or mouse using its excellent sense of smell. In winter, when rodents are moving under the safety of a snow blanket, a coyote will stand motionless, cocking its head to the side, intently listening. Once it has located a likely candidate, it will walk slowly and quietly in a stiff-legged stance before pouncing on the unsuspecting prey with its feet. It then noses the dead rodent and eats it with relish. Coyotes benefit farmer and rural landowners by helping keep the population of small rodents in check.
Being able to sprint at speeds of 35 miles per hour, an individual coyote can chase down rabbits and snowshoe hares with ease. They generally launch a frontal attack, making a quick kill to the neck or throat. Life in the wild is not easy, and animals are often hungry. Coyotes will often consume the entire animal, but they do prefer the softer organs such as the heart, liver and lungs. Not wasteful, coyotes will come back night after night until the carcass is gone. Sometimes they will kick dirt over their kill to hide it from others.
Often coyotes will hunt in pairs or cooperatively in small groups of three or four. Since deer are so large and fleet of foot, coyotes usually hunt them in packs.
Depending on the season and the habitat, coyotes will take birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians. They also feast on insects, fruits, berries and other plants such as corn. While coyotes are highly skillful predators, they often scavenge for food. Here in Wisconsin, coyotes feast heavily on deer carcasses or the remains of dead poultry or livestock. In this manner, they help clean the countryside of decaying or diseased animals. In a southeastern Wisconsin study, wildlife biologists found that about half of the food eaten by coyotes in winter was composed of livestock and poultry carrion. Rabbits comprised 21% of their diet, mice and other mammals made up 18%, and plants about 12 % of the total diet. In a similar study in northwestern Wisconsin, coyote winter diets were composed of 35% deer carrion, 19% small rodents, 6% snowshoe hares, 26% other mammals, 4% birds, and 5% vegetation.
While coyotes will occasionally snatch up a farmer's livestock, such predation is minimal in Wisconsin. As long as wild animals are available, the coyote tends to stay away from livestock.
Survival of the Fittest
Being one of the primary carnivores sitting atop Wisconsin's ecological pyramid, coyotes have few predators. However, they must still fight for survival on a daily basis. Life as a carnivore is not as easy, food-wise, as it is for an herbivore. Herbivores find their food all about them, in the form of plants, but coyotes must search constantly for their source of protein...other animals. That means they must spend a lot of their energy in the search, the chase and the kill.
Coyotes are plagued with a variety of pests and diseases. Lice, fleas, mites, and ticks infect their coats at certain times of the year, particularly in spring and fall. Mites are especially troublesome since they cause sarcoptic mange. Mange results in loss of hair, weakness, pneumonia and ultimately death. Internally, tapeworms, round worms and other parasites invest intestines and other organs. Coyotes, just like pet dogs, are susceptible to rabies and canine parvovirus, both deadly diseases.
Where in Wisconsin?
Coyotes are present in every county in Wisconsin. They prefer to live in areas where natural supplies of food and shelter are plentiful, such as forests, river bottoms, swamps, old fields, prairies, and drier marshlands. They especially like areas that have plenty of tangled woodland edges, brush thickets or other tall vegetation where they can rest and hide. You may see them trotting along old logging roads or hiking trails in the northwoods, or along an old country road in southern Wisconsin.
While the range of most mammalian predators has shrunk as our population has rapidly grown and invaded the rural countryside, the coyote's distribution has expanded throughout North America. Unlike its relative the wolf, the coyote has adapted quite well to people, to cities and to expansive regions of agriculture. Coyotes in southeastern Wisconsin, for instance, have been known to hunt, eat, sleep and even den in cultivated fields. And the coyote population has grown in urban areas to the point where coyotes now live at the edge of or even within the city limits of places like Milwaukee and Madison. Their population is definitely expanding to the south.
A coyote's home range depends on cover, food availability, season, social structure, age, and gender. In Wisconsin, coyote home ranges reach 8 to 10 miles, but normally are more limited to within three miles of the home den site.
How's it Goin'?
Coyote populations are at "balance" in the northwoods due to the presence of their larger cousin, the gray wolf. In southern Wisconsin, due to improved habitat and adaptability of coyotes to people, their numbers are on the rise. Idle farmlands, protected woodlots with second homes and an increase in private hunting lands have all benefited coyotes in the south.
History of Coyotes in Wisconsin
Coyotes have been part of Wisconsin's native landscape for as long as people have lived here. When white settlers arrived in Wisconsin, coyotes were very abundant in the southern part of the state. In 1866, a news report mentioned that a coyote had been caught within Milwaukee's city limits.
Prior to 1900, coyotes were as common in southern Wisconsin as they were in the north. But coyotes competed with people for the same types of food: rabbits, grouse, turkeys, raccoons and more. This competition, as well as their unfortunate habit of occasionally raiding rural chicken coops or killing a lamb, calf or other young farm animal, put the coyote in dim light in pioneer's eyes. People historically did not appreciate the role that native predators play in the natural ecosystem. They considered coyotes to be troublesome "vermin" or "pests," placed bounties on their heads, and hunted them mercilessly in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In 1863, near Janesville, a newspaper article invited all readers to take part in a "grand wolf hunt" (they referred to coyotes as prairie wolves). The hunt consisted of a long line of hunters spread out over a large area. They walked the area in unison and shot coyotes driven out of their hiding spots. A similar "circle wolf hunt" occurred in Green County three years later. The pounding that coyotes took drastically reduced their numbers in southern Wisconsin. However, their population increased in the northwoods.
Today, the coyote population is healthy in Wisconsin and you may occasionally see these animals even in urban areas. Year-round hunting with no bag limits still exists today, but a defined trapping season was instituted in 1981.
For some western states, coyote management has become a major issue because of complaints of the animals' preying on livestock and controversy surrounding methods of controlling the problem. Because livestock damage in Wisconsin is minor, no special management beyond current regulated hunting and trapping practices is needed. Sometimes an individual coyote will acquire a bad habit of killing livestock (as do some domestic dogs). In such cases, the most effective solution to the problem is a quick elimination of that animal from the landscape.
Some hunters and trappers have expressed concern that the increasing number of coyotes in the southern part of the state is reducing red and gray fox populations, because foxes cannot compete with coyotes for territories. In fact, wild canids have a regular "pecking order" or level of dominance. Gray wolves chase or kill coyotes in their home territory while coyotes will do the same to foxes. Yet gray wolves and foxes co-exist well!