Scientific Name: Canis latrans
An Eastern coyote radio-collared by
researchers at DEC and SUNY ESF
Eastern coyotes look similar to German shepherd dogs, yet are half the weight. Coyotes have long, thick fur. Their tails are full and bushy, usually carried pointing down. Ears are large, erect, and pointed.
Length: 4 to 5 feet (nose to tail)
Weight: 35 to 45 pounds (males usually larger than females.)
Color: Variable, from blonde or reddish blonde to dark tan washed with black. Legs, ears and cheeks usually reddish. Many have a white chin and a dark spot just below the base of the tail when observed from behind.
The Coyote Diet
Coyotes are opportunistic omnivores, meaning a coyote's diet depends on what is prevalent and easy to find, scavenge, or catch and kill. Coyote diets are diverse and vary throughout the year. Annually, their diet includes white-tailed deer, rabbits, small mammals such as mice and voles, raccoons, groundhogs, birds, insects and plant materials. Their diet shifts with seasonal availability of foods. For example, during the summer, coyotes feed upon berries and insects. During early fall they eat more insects and small mammals. Small mammals remain an important prey of choice during late fall and winter. As winter becomes harder and small mammal populations decline, coyotes turn toward their largest prey - white-tailed deer. Deer killed by vehicles and other causes (carrion) can be an important food source for coyotes. Coyotes infrequently kill healthy adult deer. In late spring, coyotes switch to fawns, as it is common to find evidence of fawn hair and bones in scats (fecal material).
Researchers from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry examined animal carcasses visited by radio-collared coyotes during the winter and summer of 2008-09. During the winter, only 8% of adult deer had been killed conclusively by coyotes. The remaining 92% were scavenged by coyotes after being killed by vehicles and other injuries. The adult deer that were killed by coyotes had severe preexisting injuries and were likely to die from other causes in the absence of coyote predation.
In the summer, about 55% of the carcasses visited by radio-collared coyotes were fawns, 24% were woodchucks, 18% were turkeys, and 4% were goose and cottontail. Not all radio-collared coyotes killed fawns and kill rates of fawns varied widely among individual coyotes. Fawns up to about 20 days old were vulnerable to coyote predation, but predation dropped sharply after mid-June when fawns were about 1-2 months old.
Coyote Activity and Reproduction
Coyotes are not strictly nocturnal. They may be observed moving about during the day, yet are more active after sunset and at night. Seeing a coyote during the day does not necessarily mean it is sick or unhealthy, but caution should be exercised with coyotes as with any wildlife.
Coyotes do not migrate. They are year-long residents and typically inhabit an area known as a home range. They are territorial, and will firmly defend portions of their home range. Adult coyotes live in home ranges throughout the year in New York; however, they may shift their activity patterns during the four seasons.
Coyotes are monogamous and mate for life. After mating in January, gestation lasts approximately 62 days after which females give birth in March and April. In spring, female coyotes use dens for raising pups and often stay close to these sites. Male coyotes may travel greater distances to hunt more intensively while seeking additional food to support the female and pups.
Litters are born in ground dens, brush piles, under downed trees or human structures such as sheds and other buildings. Typical litter sizes are approximately 4-6 pups. Coyote pups grow rapidly and are weaned at 5 to 7 weeks of age and abandon den sites around this time.
As pups continue to grow in size they also become more independent of their parents, and are occasionally observed moving together in mid to late summer. Coyotes become more vocal in late summer and early fall when it is common to hear groups of coyotes howling and yipping as a group.
Pups are fully grown at 9 months and eventually disperse after being driven from their parents' home ranges. Dispersal occurs in late October-January, prior to adults beginning the reproductive cycle once again. These young coyotes that disperse often travel 50 to 100 miles in search of a vacant territory, find a mate, and enter adulthood as a breeding pair.
How Did Coyotes Arrive in New York?
There are two hypotheses to explain the presence of Eastern coyotes in New York. The first explanation is that coyotes were here before Europeans settled North America. The clearing of the forest for farms and homes forced coyotes to retreat to unsettled areas of the northeast. The return of forested habitats during the 20th century coincided with the return of the coyote.
The second and more widely accepted hypothesis is that Eastern coyotes are a relatively new species in New York. This explanation suggests that coyotes originally inhabited central North America and naturally extended their range throughout the continent in response to human changes to the land. Evidence indicates that coyotes reached New York and the Northeast in the early 1930s and 1940s, with coyote range expansion first reaching the state by passing north of the Great Lakes and into northern New York. Coyotes then spread rapidly across the state over the next 40-50 years.
Regardless of how they arrived in the state, coyotes have been present in New York since the 1930s, and have been firmly established throughout the state since the 1970s. They are here to stay.
How Many Coyotes Live in New York?
After hearing a family group of coyotes howl, it is easy to get the impression that the woods must be overflowing with coyotes. In reality there were probably five or six animals present (i.e., 2 adults and young of the year). A few coyotes make a tremendous amount of noise when they want to. The Eastern coyote does not form a true 'pack' with multiple adults living together like their relative the wolf. Instead they are organized as a 'family unit'. Each family unit is made up of the adult pair and their pups from the current year. A family unit will defend a territory of 2 to 15 square miles against other coyotes. It is the territorial behavior of coyotes that limits their numbers in any one area.
A recent study conducted by researchers at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry estimated that there are about 14,500 breeding pairs of coyotes in New York during the summer. Coyote density estimates ranged from a low of about 1 breeding pair/10 square miles in the Lake Plains to around 2.5 pairs/10 square miles in the Adirondack Mountains and surrounding St. Lawrence and Mohawk River Valleys.
In suburban landscapes, researchers from Cornell University found coyote pairs inhabited natural areas at a density of about 4.5 breeding pairs/10 square miles. Home ranges in suburban habitats averaged 2.2 square miles (ranging from 0.5 square miles up to 5.4 square miles), and were located primarily in natural, forested habitats.
Coyotes in Suburbia
Coyotes, commonly believed to live only in the more rural or wild parts of New York, readily adapt to living close to people. Coyotes live throughout upstate New York and commonly inhabit many suburban and urban areas. Occasionally, they are sighted in parts of New York City and Long Island. As unlikely as it may seem, human development makes surprisingly good coyote habitat. The abundant coyote food supply (e.g., mice, voles, squirrels, rabbits, deer, and many fruiting plants) makes living close to people possible. Other attractants and foods (e.g., outdoor cats, small dogs, garbage, pet food, and even road-killed animals) can bring coyotes even closer to people, perhaps too close.
A recent study conducted by researchers at Cornell University studied coyote behavior and ecology in a suburban landscape, and examined the types of human-coyote interactions across the state. In the suburban landscape, coyotes primarily selected and inhabited natural areas and avoided dense residential and commercial lands. Coyotes ate diverse natural diets composed of white-tailed deer, rabbits, small mammals, birds, insects, and grass, fruits, and berries. Despite the close proximity to people, coyotes seldom consumed human sources of food such as bird seed, garbage, and outdoor pets. Living a natural life, coyotes are able to exist within highly human-dominated landscapes but still avoid frequent interactions and conflicts with people.
Across New York, the most commonly reported issues with coyotes were incidents involving pets. Coyotes seldom approach or act aggressively towards people directly; however dogs and cats attract coyotes. Coyotes approaching pets pose an immediate risk to the safety of pets and can jeopardize human safety, too. Overall, problems between people and coyotes are rare, yet the potential for conflicts to occur remains. Human behaviors may increase that potential if people feed coyotes (either directly or indirectly), or if they allow coyotes to approach people and pets.
Researchers from the Human Dimensions Research Unit at Cornell University found residents were relatively well aware of coyotes inhabiting New York State and suburban landscapes. While many observed coyotes occasionally near their homes, few people (4%) actually reported having a problem with a coyote, and an even smaller proportion of people indicated a coyote approached, threatened or attacked a pet or person.
Coyotes will continue to persist in suburban environments. Over time, encounters between humans and coyotes will occur, either as howling at night, sightings, disturbed garbage or pet food, and sometimes, confrontations with pets or people. This background on coyote habits may help people understand these encounters and help to reduce risks from coyotes living close to people. To minimize conflicts, it is important that people do their part to maintain the natural fear that coyotes have of humans.
For more information to reduce or prevent risks see "Dealing with Coyote Conflicts".
Coyote Hunting and Trapping
About 30,000 New Yorkers participate in coyote hunting each year and about 3,000 participate in coyote trapping. All of Upstate New York is open for coyote hunting and a small game hunting license is required to hunt coyotes. All of Upstate New York is also open for coyote trapping and a trapping license is required.
Consult the NYSDEC Hunting and Trapping Regulations Guide for more information on coyote hunting and trapping.
The Environmental Conservation Law allows 'problem coyotes' to be killed at other times of the year. Section 11-0523 says coyotes that are "injuring private property may be taken by the owner, occupant or lessee... at any time in any manner."
More about Eastern Coyote:
- The Status and Impact of Eastern Coyotes in Northern New York - Executive Summary and Table of Contents from a report entitled: The Status and Impact of Eastern Coyotes in Northern New York, June 1991.
- Watchable Wildlife: Eastern Coyote - Fascinating facts about the coyote and information to enhance your wildlife viewing experience.