Coyote (Canis latrans)
Did you know?
- Illinois pioneers called coyotes “prairie wolves” or “brush wolves.”
- Coyotes can run up to 43 miles per hour for short distances.
- Coyotes are good swimmers.
Description and Identification
Coyotes belong to the family Canidae (dog family) along with other dog-like mammals such as the red fox, gray fox and wolf. The coyote looks like a medium-sized dog, but its nose is more pointed and its tail is bushier than most dogs. A coyote holds its tail down between the hind legs when running. Their fur is typically gray to yellow-gray with guard hairs tipped in black. The fur often has a tinge of red behind the ears and around the face, but fur color varies among individuals. Some of the color variation in Illinois coyotes is due to hybridization with domestic dogs. Coyotes are 23 to 26 inches high and three to four and a half feet long. They typically weigh 20 to 40 pounds but sometimes weigh up to 55 pounds. Because of their long fur, coyotes are often mistaken as being much larger than they actually are. Illinois coyotes are usually larger than those from the western United States. A coyote's eyes are a striking yellow with large dark pupils, instead of brown, like most dogs. Their eyeshine is greenish gold. The nocturnal yaps and howls of coyotes may be their most distinguishing characteristic.
Coyote tracks can be difficult to distinguish from medium-sized dog tracks, but are typically more oval-shaped than dog tracks. A coyote print has two nail prints at the top of the paw in addition to having a larger heel impression. Coyote tracks will appear in a straight line whereas dogs shift directions constantly. The track of a coyote’s hind foot may almost overlap the track of the front foot.
Coyotes occupy a variety of habitats in Illinois. They prefer semi-open country with a mix of grasslands and woodlands. However, they are very adaptable and it is not uncommon to find coyotes living in suburban or urban areas.
Coyotes in Illinois tend to have large home ranges compared to coyotes in the western states. In central Illinois, researchers documented an adult male with a home range of 13 square miles and a subadult male with a home range of 39 square miles. In Cook County, Illinois, solitary coyotes traveled over 20 square miles, while coyotes living in family groups traveled over 3 square miles.
Distribution and Abundance
Coyotes are common throughout Illinois. The number of coyotes has increased dramatically during the past 30 years. Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) biologists estimate there are more than 30,000 coyotes in Illinois.
Breeding peaks in late February or early March. Gestation is approximately 58 to 65 days, with pups born during late April or May. Litters of two to 19 pups have been recorded but six to seven pups per litter is average. Coyotes typically produce one litter per year. Den sites may be underground, under hollow trees, logs, or brush piles, or in abandoned buildings, but most are in vacant fox, badger, or woodchuck burrows that coyotes have taken over. Pups begin playing near the den entrance at three to four weeks of age. Pups are weaned by the time they are two months old and begin to learn how to hunt when they are two to three months old. By late summer or early fall most young coyotes will be on their own, but some stay with their parents for another year and help raise the next year’s litter.
Coyotes took over the role of largest predator in Illinois after wolves and mountain lions were extirpated (removed) from the state during the 1860s. Coyotes hunt mice and voles, rabbits, deer fawns, and other prey, but they supplement their diet with insects, plants, and fruits and berries when these items are seasonally available. Besides being good hunters, coyotes are opportunistic feeders and will occasionally eat carrion, garbage, and dog and cat food. Coyotes may also kill livestock and poultry. However, there are many feral dogs in Illinois, and often the coyote is blamed for livestock depredation actually done by feral dogs. It is also commonly thought that urban coyotes frequently prey upon cats and small dogs. A recent study of coyotes in Cook County found that small rodents were the primary food source for urban coyotes. Cat remains were found in less than two percent of the coyote scats studied.
Coyotes are nocturnal (most active from dusk until dawn), but are sometimes seen during the day. They communicate with a variety of vocalizations including barks, yips, and howls.
Coyotes live in close proximity to humans throughout North America. This video produced by the Colorado Division of Wildlife explains typical coyote behavior.
With the extirpation of wolves and mountain lions from Illinois, the coyote has no remaining natural predators. Forces other than natural predation impact coyote longevity. Urban coyotes typically live less than two years, and vehicle collisions are the most common cause of mortality. Rural coyotes typically live three to four years. Malnutrition and disease are also common mortality factors. Coyotes are susceptible to sarcoptic mange, Canine distemper, and Parvo virus. The oldest coyote found in a study conducted in central Illinois during 1996 and 1997 was 13 years old.
Damage Prevention and Control Measures
Despite common misconceptions about coyotes, they are not likely to cause problems. However, individuals do sometimes kill or injure domestic pets, young livestock, or poultry. These incidents can typically be prevented by removing resources that attract coyotes and by using exclusion techniques. Make sure livestock and poultry have access to secure shelter and properly fenced areas.
Some coyotes become accustomed to human activity and may approach close to buildings, people, or pets. Cats and small dogs should be observed closely and placed in fenced areas (yards, kennels) when coyotes are known to be present.
Video Courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Recommendations for Living with Coyotes
- Alert residents of the neighborhood and the local municipality (e.g., police, public safety officer) as soon as a problem develops with a coyote.
- Target the responsible coyote(s) when a pattern of "undesirable” behavior develops. Usually it will be easier to change human and domestic animal use of an area than to capture a coyote.
- Do not feed coyotes.
- Property owners should limit the availability of unintentional food sources such as bird food, pet food, ripe fruit, and trash.
- Comply with local ordinances that require oversight/restraint of pets. Do not leave small pets unattended when they are outside. Consider the use of fencing or kennel runs to protect small pets.
- Recognize that coyotes are a permanent fixture in Illinois’ rural, suburban and urban areas. Seeing a coyote(s) cross a field, backyard, golf course, road, etc. does not necessarily constitute a problem or a dangerous situation for humans or domestic animals.
- Recognize that coyote population reduction (removing some or all of the coyotes in an area) is usually unrealistic and always temporary. Removal of coyotes also requires time, effort and funding.
- If removal of a coyote is deemed necessary, hire a person with coyote removal experience who is licensed by the IDNR. Coyote removals approved by the IDNR usually involve the use of cage (live) traps or padded foot-hold traps.
- Safety procedures for dealing with coyotes are different than those for dealing with a strange dog. If a coyote approaches you, do not run. Yell, stand up straight and wave your arms (the goal is to make yourself appear larger), or throw something at the coyote to scare it away.
- Keep garbage stored securely. Coyotes may eat garbage, but they are more attracted to the rodents that feed on garbage.
- Keep bird feeding areas clean of debris. Even well-maintained feeders can attract rodents. In turn, this may attract coyotes.
- Use squirrel-proof bird feeders. In an urban environment coyotes naturally feed on mice, voles, rabbits, and woodchucks. When natural prey populations decline, it has been shown that squirrels that visit bird-feeders become easy prey for coyotes.
- Feed pets indoors. If pets are fed outside clean up any leftover food daily.
- Do not leave small pets like rabbits, cats, or small dogs outside unattended, especially at night.
Excluding coyotes from your property is an effective way to prevent possible conflicts. Fencing your property can help keep coyotes out if the fence is properly installed. A fence that is at least four feet tall will keep most coyotes out. Chain link or sturdy welded wire fence may be used. Coyotes can jump several feet and are also very good climbers and diggers. Reinforcing the fence with an electric wire or a roll bar, or installing a taller fence, may be needed to deter an overly ambitious coyote. Since these methods can become expensive, using a dog run with a roof can help protect small dogs and may be less costly to install.
Preventative measures do not always work. If a coyote is killing domestic animals, or is aggressive towards people, it may need to be removed. When dealing with coyotes it is safer to use the services of a nuisance wildlife control operator who has experience trapping coyotes than to trap the animal yourself. These professionals will trap and remove the animal from your property for a fee.
Public Health Concerns
Coyotes in Illinois are not considered to be a public health concern. While coyote attacks on humans are increasing in some suburban areas in the Western United States, there have been no reported coyote attacks on humans in Illinois in the last 30 years. Coyotes can be carriers of canine distemper, parvo virus, rabies, and mange (Sarcoptes scabiei). These are diseases to which domestic dogs, cats, and livestock may be suspceptible. However, only mange and rabies have public health implications.
Sarcoptic mange is caused by mites that burrow into the skin. The burrowing of the mites causes severe itching. Sarcoptic mange is contagious to humans and domestic pets (cats and dogs).
Coyotes can be carriers of rabies. This disease is transmittable to humans, pets, and domestic livestock and is fatal if not treated early. If you see a coyote that demonstrates neurological symptoms such as tremors, lack of coordination, paralysis, or convulsions, you should contact your local Illinois Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist.
Coyotes are valuable members of the wildlife community. They help keep populations of small mammals and rabbits under control. As Illinois’ largest remaining predator they are an integral part of healthy ecosystem functioning.
There are many misconceptions about coyotes and their role in urban landscapes. In 2000, a collaborative research project began between the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, the Brookfield Zoo, and the Zoological Pathology Program from the University of Illinois. This project resulted in a six-year study of coyotes living in Chicago and surrounding suburbs. The researchers captured 253 coyotes and placed radio-collars on 175 so that they could track their movements. Their findings indicate that coyotes are an asset in the urban environment. If you are interested in learning more, read the report Urban Coyote Ecology and Management.
In Illinois, coyotes are protected as a furbearer. Coyotes in urban areas that become problems may be removed if a nuisance wildlife permit is issued by an Illinois Department of Natural Resources District Wildlife Biologist.
In rural areas, a hunting or trapping license is needed to harvest a coyote. In rural areas, there is no limit to the number of coyotes an individual with a hunting or trapping license may take. Coyotes may be hunted year-round except during firearm deer season, when only licensed deer hunters may take coyotes. They may be trapped from November through January. Illinois Department of Natural Resources biologists monitor the number of coyotes in Illinois to ensure that hunting and trapping do not negatively impact the population. For full hunting and trapping regulations, visit the IDNR's Hunting Regulations, Licenses, Permits and Applications site.