He’s known as the Trickster in Native American culture, has famously appeared in Looney Tunes shorts and is found living happily in every state in the union. We’re talking about the coyote — our dog’s most populous wild cousin.
If you’ve ever seen a coyote in the flesh, you know how closely this wild canid resembles some domestic dog breeds. Siberian Huskies, Shiba Inus and Australian Kelpies are just a few breeds that possess a primitive look reminiscent of the coyote. While hundreds of years of domestication have softened that wild appearance, if you take a good look at a coyote, it’s easy to make the connection.
A neighborhood near you
The coyote (Canis latrans), known by the nickname Song Dog, is one of a few canine species native to North America. Once found mostly in the western United States, coyotes have spread all throughout the United States and Canada, with some even making it to Mexico and beyond. Because coyotes are so smart and adaptable, they have found ways to coexist with humans and are flourishing in suburbs and even some urban areas — including New York City.
Coyotes have a bad reputation with many people because of their proclivity to capture and kill domestic pets. Although a coyote’s normal diet consists of rodents, rabbits and deer, cats have become a favorite prey of coyotes that live in suburban and urban areas. Because male coyotes can weigh as much as 44 pounds and females 40 pounds, they are also big enough to take down small dogs. Suburban neighborhoods frequented by coyotes are dangerous places for cats and small dogs who venture outside, particularly at night.
Over the centuries, farmers and ranchers have waged war on the coyote because of the tendency to prey on livestock. Young sheep, goats and cattle have been the most likely targets. Yet despite attempts to wipe them out over the past 100-plus years, coyotes continue to thrive.
While some people are afraid of coyotes and view them as aggressive wild dogs, coyote attacks on humans are rare. The truth is that most coyotes are shy with humans and will run away if they see a person. Coyotes who are less frightened of people tend to be those who live in highly populated areas, where they have grown accustomed to human presence.
Just like dogs but not
Coyotes don’t just look like dogs — they act like them, too, in many ways. Highly social like dogs, coyotes live in packs. They play with each other like dogs do, mostly when they are puppies. They also develop hierarchies within the pack.
Coyote body language is similar to our dogs’ body language. When coyotes want to play, they do a play bow, just like a dog. Once play is initiated, they will bite each other’s scruffs — just like dogs in play.
Both dogs and coyotes love to vocalize. Dogs howl, bark, growl and make all kinds of noises. Coyotes are no different. Even though they are famous for their yapping howls, they also yelp, whine and growl, just like their dog cousins.
Coyotes are smart, and they learn fast, just like dogs. Some captive coyotes have even been trained to retrieve and point. That said, keeping a coyote as a pet is never a good idea because, unlike our domestic dogs, they are wild animals and never truly acclimate to captivity. In fact, adult coyotes who have been raised with humans are still incredibly destructive and hard to manage.
If we were to let our domestic dogs go back to the wild, they would probably start living much like coyotes do. Most coyote packs are made up of family members, usually a breeding male and female, with pups from previous litters staying with their parents. When a female coyote has a litter of pups, her daughters from a previous litter will often help raise the pups, watching over them and providing them with food until they are old enough to hunt for themselves.
Genetically, domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) and coyotes are similar enough to interbreed and produce fertile offspring. Many cases of coydogs — crosses between coyotes and dogs — have been documented. Although not common because coyotes usually view dogs as either prey or a threat, coydogs often don’t survive puppyhood in the wild because the dog parent doesn’t help to raise the pups. Coydogs that do make it to adulthood tend to resemble their coyote parent in both appearance and behavior.
Living around coyotes
Given the coyotes’ ability to adapt, coyote sightings in both urban and suburban areas are likely to continue. Instead of being alarmed by their presence, we should try to appreciate the coyote’s close relation to our own dogs and learn to live with them.
Don’t feed or interact with coyotes
The best way to live in harmony with coyotes is to discourage their interactions with humans. First and foremost, feeding coyotes, whether deliberately or inadvertently, is an absolute no-no. Don’t leave food out for coyotes to help them get through the winter or raise a litter of pups. While on the surface it may seem like a humane thing to do, feeding a coyote only makes him less apprehensive of humans. Coyotes who get too used to people can get into trouble and will ultimately suffer for it. Keeping wild coyotes is the best way to help them.
Most people don’t deliberately feed coyotes — they do it accidentally by pet food outside at night or by not leaving garbage can lids. While coyotes are excellent hunters, they are also scavengers and are attracted to any kind of food that’s easy to access. Don’t leave food outside for your dog or cat because it will attract coyotes (and other critters, too). Cover trash cans and make sure they are tightly secured. Otherwise coyotes will knock over the cans and push open the lids to get at the leftover food inside.
Keep cats and dogs indoors during hunting hours
The common coyote behavior that makes them so unpopular with humans is their habit of killing pets. Losing a small dog or cat to a coyote is a painful experience filled with trauma, grief and guilt. Yet it’s important to remember that when a coyote goes after a pet, he is only doing what comes naturally as a predator. It’s our job to keep our pets safe from these hunters.
The most effective way of protecting pets from coyotes is to keep them indoors at dawn, at dusk and during the night. Most coyotes hunt during these hours, and pets left outside during these times of day and night are vulnerable. Make it a point to bring your small pets inside before the sun goes down, and keep them inside the house until the sun is well up in the sky.
Just walk away
If you do encounter a coyote, calmly walk away. Do not talk, approach or stop and take a picture.
Fence your yard
If coyotes are common in your neighborhood, invest in a good fence. It needs to be 6-feet tall but that still may not be enough. Installing a roll bar that makes it difficult for coyotes or even your own jumping dogs to grab the top is your best bet. Motion activated lights or water sprinklers can also help.
Coyotes have been on the North American continent since the Ice Age, probably arriving here long before humans did. As dog lovers, we can learn to appreciate the coyote for its close connections to our own four-legged companions. The coyote gives us a glimpse of what dogs were like before they became domesticated and provides us a window into the dog’s true soul.
Let’s hear it for the wolves
Unlike the coyote, gray wolves (Canis Lupus) are hard to find in North America. Systematic attempts to eliminate them from the landscape since the 1800s have resulted in only a small remaining wolf population. In the United States, wolves are considered endangered and are protected by law.
While the coyote is closely related to the dog, the wolf is even more so. Wolf DNA is found in all domestic dogs, and many experts believe our pet dogs descended from wolves that were tamed some 15,000 years ago. As with coyotes, wolves can breed with domestic dogs, and also live in family groups, where both parents help raise the pups.
Dogs and wolves are similar in many ways but differ in one significant area: dog pups mature much more slowly than wolf pups. Dog pups can also be born at any time of year, while wolf pups are only born in the spring.
While wolves are related to both coyotes and dogs, they are a much rarer creature, and truly special in their own right. Your odds of coming face to face with a coyote are significantly higher than ever seeing a wolf. Should you ever experience a wolf sighting, consider yourself truly lucky.
Other canine cousins
Dingo (Canis lupus dingo): Weighs about 22 to 33 pounds. Live in Australia.
Jackals (Canis aureus, Canis adustus and Canis mesomelas): Weighs about 17 to 26 pounds. Lives in Africa, Asia and Europe.
Red wolf (Canis rufus): Weighs about 45 to 80 pounds. Critically endangered and living in small populations in Eastern North Carolina.
The African wild dog (Lycaon pictus): Weighs about 40 to 70 pounds. A wild canine native to Africa. However, its genus is Lycaon and not Canis, differing by its lack of dewclaws and hypercarnivorous diet (similar to a cat’s). The genus Canis has a more omnivorous diet.