Love Is in the Air

I’m not talking about an early Valentine’s Day celebration, but the time when Eastern Coyotes (Canis latrans var.) are seeking mates, if they don’t have already have one. Pairs are monogamous and will often stay together for several years. In Connecticut, January through March is their breeding season. An average of seven pups are born from April to mid-May. In the fall, dominant pups may remain in their parent’s territory, but others will disperse. It’s the parents and their young that are sounding off when you hear yips, yowls, barks, and other vocalizations.

Eastern Coyotes look somewhat like German Shepards but are leaner, with long legs, a pointy muzzle and long ears. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region, PDM-owner, via Wikimedia Commons.

Coyotes have only been in Connecticut since the 1950s. The Western Coyote (Canis latrans) from the midwestern and western United States expanded its range eastward through Canada and down into the U.S. Northeast and mid-Atlantic states. Along the way it interbred with the Canadian Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) and domestic dogs (Canis familiaris). The Eastern Coyote is a hybrid. Studies have shown that genetically the animals in the Northeast are on average a mix of about 60% coyote, 30% Gray Wolf, and 10% domestic dog.

Eastern Coyotes pair up and mate between January and March. Gestation is 63 days. Females will stay underground with the pups until their eyes open about 12 days later. Photo by http://www.ForestWander.com, CC BY-SA 3.0 US <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/us/deed.en&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Even with this mixed parentage, coyotes today avoid contact with dogs. So the idea of the “coy-dog” is actually more of a myth, as breeding between the two species is rare. Because both coyote parents raise the young, if a male domestic dog bred with a female coyote the male would not help with care and the pups probably wouldn’t survive.

The Eastern Coyote is larger than its western counterpart (due to its wolf ancestry) and weighs about 20 to 30 pounds (9 to 13 kilograms) more than the Western Coyote (Canis latrans texensis). Eastern animals hold larger and more extensive territories as well. The Eastern Coyote looks like a small German Shepard, with pointy ears, long legs, a long muzzle, yellow eyes, and a long, straight, black-tipped bushy tail.

There is a striking difference in size between Eastern and Western Coyotes. It is thought that Eastern Coyotes are larger because of Gray Wolf ancestry. The skull on the right is an Eastern Coyote. Photo by Mrgordon, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Coyotes are extremely adaptable and exploit a variety of habitats, even developed populated places. Their diet includes the White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus), the Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus), Woodchuck (Marmota monax), squirrels (Sciurus spp.), White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus), fruit, carrion, and even garbage.

Some coyotes prey on small livestock, poultry, and small pets. Poultry can be locked up at night and guard dogs help prevent attacks on sheep. People who let their cats roam free outside should know that they are vulnerable to coyote attacks. (Cats should be kept inside for another reason—millions of threatened birds are killed each year by free-roaming cats.) Small, unleashed dogs under 25 pounds (11 kilograms) are also vulnerable. I remember watching a sensational local newscast about a large dog that had been attacked by “vicious” coyotes. What the reporter failed to mention was that the dog was unleashed and ran up to a den where a mother coyote had defended her pups.

Never feed coyotes. It causes them to associate people with food and leads to negative human–animal interactions. With the thousands of coyotes in the United States today, there have been only two documented human fatalities in history from coyote attacks.

Coyotes have been persecuted. Although they continue to be trapped, shot, and poisoned, they will come back resiliently after population losses. Let them be. They are magnificent animals that are part of our forest ecosystem and are here to stay.

Published by Jim Sirch

Jim Sirch is the author of Beyond Your Back Door, a weekly blog about nature in your neighborhood. He is also Education Coordinator for the Yale Peabody Museum, a UConn Master Gardener and board member of his local land trust. As a trained naturalist, he brings a deep understanding of geology, plants and wildlife and how they interact within a particular ecosystem. He holds a B.S in Forestry from West Virginia University, a B.S. from Miami University in Science Education; and an M.S. in Environmental Studies Administration from Antioch University. He is also the 2014 Sigmund Abeles Award recipient from the Connecticut Science Teachers and Supervisors Association for outstanding science teaching and professional development.

14 thoughts on “Love Is in the Air

  1. Just the other day one tore across Farmington Avenue near the Reservoir in front of our car. Sort of looked like a wolf. Moving fast!

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  2. Thanks Jim! This is so informative. I’ve been hearing coyotes at my house in Madison. I live next to hundreds of acres of land trust and state forest. Woke me up the other night, they were so loud. I love them but the sound can be quite a scare when you are awoken from a sound sleep!

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    1. Thanks for commenting Alicia! You must have had a family group yipping nearby! A number of years ago, I used to do breeding bird survey at Devil’s Den Preserve at 5:30am and it was a bit unsettling at first to have them howling and barking nearby – but really neat!

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  3. Thank you! I love coyotes and am fortunate to live next to a nature preserve where coyote families have lived in the past. My neighborhood is suburban but I work across the river in New London where frequent coyote sightings the past few years have led to the usual mixture of awe and fear. So far the awe and admiration has drowned out the fear, at least on social media. I hope it stays that way!

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  4. This was so informative! I always wondered why coyotes on the east coast were so much larger than the ones out West. Fascinating to have the dna breakdown. When the families vocalize, is it due to a fresh kill or is it a territorial, or something else? Thank you for this wonderful post, Jim!

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    1. Thx Michelle! Actually you are right on both answers, but a big part of the yowling and other vocalizations is to let others know where their territories are. Because a pair give all sorts of yips and yowls, they sound like many more than there are. Young from previous litters who live nearby will join in as well. I’ve read that urban coyotes are much quieter than those in rural areas.

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  5. Jim, you noted that coyotes have only been in CT since the 1950s. I’m wondering, then, why they aren’t considered an invasive species? In my neighborhood, they have been a presence only for about the last 5 years, and in that time the wild turkeys have vanished as have most of the rabbits, which I would consider part of the native ecosystem. I’m afraid this apex predator will wipe out the native wildlife.

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    1. Hi Rita, coyotes as an invasive species is an interesting thought, but I really don’t think they are. Long ago in CT, there were gray wolves here – the last were exterminated in the early 1800s. Coyotes have filled in that niche. But, coyotes really don’t bother wild turkeys. In fact, they probably help them by eating sick turkeys that could infect a whole flock. Wild turkeys are very wary animals who sleep at night in trees. See http://www.foxwoodwildliferescue.org/2006/05/07/turkey-season-and-coyote-attacks/#:~:text=Studies%20have%20shown%20that%20coyotes,could%20decimate%20the%20entire%20flock.

      I think Wild turkey populations are wavering somewhat. They need both fields (for raising young) and mature woodlands with nut trees like oaks for food. I blame some population losses on habitat loss from development (particularly in fields!) and invasive species taking over native plants. With my brush piles, shrubs and cover I have plenty of rabbits. I would be happy to give you some!
      Cheers,
      Jim

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