Coyote Biology

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Reproduction 

Coyotes become sexually mature in about 12 months. They usually breed between January and March and produce 1 litter per year. Gestation lasts approximately 63 days. Females sometimes breed during the winter following their birth, particularly if food is plentiful. Average size of litters is 5 to 7 pups, although a litter of 13 has been reported. Pups frequently are moved from the den to larger quarters such as dense brush patches or sinkholes along water sources. 

On rare occasions, more than 1 litter may be found in a single den, which may be from females that are mated to a single male. Coyotes inbreed with each other in areas where they are overpopulated, which can lead to disfigurement. Adult male and female coyotes bring food to their young for several weeks. Other adults associated with the pair also may help feed and care for pups.  

Pups begin emerging from the den by 3 weeks of age, and within 2 months will follow adults to hunt or feed on carrion. Pups normally are weaned by 6 weeks of age. The adults and pups usually remain together until fall or early winter, when pups become independent. Occasionally, pups are found in groups until breeding begins. Pups may disperse 50 miles or more from their natal home ranges. 

Denning and Cover 

Coyotes bed in sheltered areas, but may seek shelter underground during severe weather or when closely pursued. Dens usually are used for raising young. Coyotes often dig or enlarge holes dug by smaller animals. Dens vary from 3 feet to 50 feet long and may have several entrances. Dens usually are found in protected, concealed areas (e.g., steep banks, crevices in rocks, sinkholes, and underbrush), typically less than a mile from water.  

Behavior 

Coyotes bear young in the spring and raise them through the summer, a process that demands increased nutritional input for both the mother and the young. The increased nutritional demand of coyotes corresponds to the time when young sheep or calves are on pastures or rangeland, making livestock very vulnerable to attack. Predation also may increase during fall, when young coyotes disperse from their home ranges and establish new territories.  

Coyotes are most active at night and in early morning during hot summer weather. Activity during the day is more likely to occur during the mating and breeding seasons, during periods of low human activity, and cool weather. Coyotes commonly hunt as singles or in pairs. Extensive travel is common during hunting forays. If food is plentiful, coyotes will hunt in the same area regularly. They occasionally cache remains of food for consumption at another time. 

Coyotes flourish in the presence of humans. Recent research has demonstrated that coyotes are compensatory breeders, meaning that they increase reproduction and immigration in response to human-induced reduction of populations of coyotes. Mortality is highest during the first year of life and few survive for more than 8 years in the wild.  

Habitat 

Coyotes exist in virtually every type of habitat in North America. Coyotes live in deserts, swamps, tundra, grasslands, brush, and dense forests. They may live below sea level, on mountains, and all intermediate altitudes. High densities of coyotes occur near urban and suburban areas such as Los Angeles, Pasadena, Phoenix, Denver, New York City, and Chicago.  

Food Habits 

Coyotes are opportunistic feeders that hunt the species that are most abundant in their territory. Common food items include carrion, rodents, ungulates, insects, livestock, and poultry. Coyotes are omnivores that consume mostly meat during winter, spring, and summer. However, during fall, more than half of their diet may consist of plant material. Coyotes readily eat fruits such as watermelons (Figure 4), persimmons, and berries. Coyotes may exploit sources of food generated by humans, including garbage and pet food.  

Figure 4. Coyotes eat watermelon. Photo by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). 

Coyotes generally take prey that is the easiest to secure. Coyotes may attack cats and kill small dogs in territorial defense. Larger dogs may be chased. Among large wild animals, coyotes tend to kill young, inexperienced, old, sick, and injured individuals. Selection of prey is based on opportunity and behavioral cues. Strong, healthy lambs often are taken from a flock by a coyote even if smaller, weaker lambs also are present. Usually, stronger lambs are on the periphery and are more active, making them more prone to attack.