- Coyotes are a canid related to wolves and domestic dogs.
- Coyotes tend to inhabit places where they will not be in direct competition with wolves and cougars including grasslands, prairies, deserts, and areas populated by humans.
- In more populated areas, coyotes will eat raccoons, rabbits, domestic pets, roadkill, trash, and garden produce.
- Coyotes and American badgers work as a team to hunt their common prey of rodents.
Coyotes are fierce predators adapted to many climates. Coyotes, Canis latrans, evolved 380,000 years ago and are descended from a long line of predatory canines. They prey on a number of different animals and are influential members of whatever ecosystem they inhabit. So, what unfortunate creatures fall victim to the vicious coyote? Here we will investigate what coyotes eat and how they go about catching it.
What are coyotes?
Coyotes are a canid species closely related to wolves. They are much smaller than their massive wolf relatives, however. The average male coyote has a body length between 3.3 and 4.5 feet long and they typically weigh 18 to 44 pounds. The wide variation in weight is correlated to geography with northern populations weighing more than southern populations. A coyote’s fur color will also vary with the geographic region but includes different shades of white, gray, and light brown.
Coyotes have been culturally significant to humans for hundreds of years as well. Coyotes are depicted as warriors in Mesoamerican artwork in Teotihuacan and Aztec culture. These animals also appear extensively in Native American artwork and folklore. Amongst different tribes, the coyote has multiple personas including the untrustworthy trickster in southwestern and plains regions, and a companion of The Creator in Chinook, Pawnee, Ute, and Maidu tribes. Coyotes are also the state animal of South Dakota.
Where do they live?
Coyotes have a large distribution covering the majority of North America and Central America. They inhabit as far north as Alaska and as far south as Costa Rica from west to east coast. With such a wide distribution, coyotes are flexible in many different climates and habitats. The versatility of coyotes has allowed them to inhabit different environments including those urbanized by humans.
Coyotes tend to inhabit places where they will not be in direct competition with wolves and cougars. This primarily includes grasslands, prairies, and deserts. The coyote’s range has become far more expansive, however, since wolf populations have dwindled. The red wolf specifically was a species inhabiting the southeastern United States that is currently close to extinction. Coyotes now inhabit grasslands, tundra, deserts, boreal forests, and major cities such as Los Angeles and Denver. Should you worry if there are coyotes in your city? Click here for more information!
Who competes with coyotes for food?
Coyotes have many different predators they must compete against for food. Gray wolves and coyotes have a long history of competition. Coyotes tend to avoid areas where wolves live because the wolves dominate hunting and either kill the coyotes or kill their food supply. In the 19th and 20th centuries, as wolf populations began to decline, coyote populations began to increase. Later, in Yellowstone National Park there was a large population of coyotes. When the once locally extinct gray wolf was reintroduced to the area, the coyote population decreased by 39%. Coyotes also compete with and are preyed upon by cougars. Cougars and coyotes compete for deer in the Sierra Nevada and cougars usually dominate. Cougars do kill coyotes but not to the same degree as wolves.
What do coyotes eat?
Coyotes are omnivores but are highly carnivorous and eat a variety of different prey depending on where they live. Coyotes eat insects, amphibians, fish, small reptiles, birds, rodents, and larger mammals including white-tailed deer, elk, bighorn sheep, bison, and moose. Birds preyed upon by coyotes include thrashers, sparrows, and wild turkeys. The coyote can reach speeds of 40 miles per hour and can hunt in a pack or alone. Coyotes will only attack larger ungulates in a pack, not individually. It is uncommon for coyotes to eat toads, shrews, moles, or rats even if they are plentiful. Coyotes also cannibalize the carcasses of other coyotes.
Although a coyote’s diet is 90% meat, the remaining 10% is important as well! Coyotes eat a large variety of fruits and vegetables including peaches, blackberries, pears, blueberries, apples, carrots, cantaloupe, watermelon, and peanuts. Coyotes also eat grass and grain, especially in the winter.
In areas inhabited by humans, coyotes have adapted to eat what is available. In rural areas, this includes livestock and crop plants, for example, cattle, sheep, maize, wheat, and other produce. In more populated areas, coyotes will eat raccoons, rabbits, domestic pets, roadkill, trash, and garden produce. Regardless of where they are living, coyotes are incredibly versatile and are capable of adapting.
A List of What Coyotes Eat
- Bighorn sheep
- Wild turkeys
- Domestic pets
- Garden produce
How does their diet impact other species?
Coyotes have a mutualistic relationship with the American badger. This means that their interaction is beneficial to both parties. When coyotes are hunting various rodents, American badgers will assist in digging them up. Many prey animals will crawl underground to escape a coyote but will run above ground if they see a badger. When the coyote and badger work together, the prey becomes vulnerable both above and below ground. The coyote and badger cooperating increases their catch rate by 33%.
A Coyote’s diet also impacts other species because of the potential spread of disease and parasites. The coyote carries more diseases and parasites than any other carnivore in North America, likely due to its highly varied diet. Viral diseases carried by coyotes include rabies, canine distemper, canine hepatitis, multiple strains of equine encephalitis, and oral papillomatosis. Coyotes can suffer from mange caused by parasitic mites, can experience tick infestations, and occasionally flea and lice infestations. Coyotes also host and spread parasitic worms such as tapeworms, hookworms, and roundworms. 60-95% of coyotes have at least one tapeworm. This relates to diet because many parasites and diseases can spread during feeding. For example, if coyotes were to feed on cattle with parasites, they are at risk of hosting that parasite.
What Human Foods Attract Coyotes?
It’s important to remember that human food can attract wild animals. Coyotes are no exception and can be drawn by the smell of certain foods. Coyotes will not hesitate to rummage through spilled garbage or accessible containers in suburban areas, as it makes for an easy meal.
Another food that can attract coyotes–perhaps more surprising–is bread and seed put out for birds. Not only would they feed on these kinds of foods, but the prospect of nabbing a bird, squirrel, or rodent that is drawn by these same foods is even more exciting for the wily coyote. They can also be tempted to enter yards where there’s pet food, compost piles, outdoor grills that haven’t been properly cleaned, and yards with fruit trees.
How are coyotes doing today?
Currently, the IUCN categorizes coyotes with the conservation status “least concern”. Populations are increasing and coyotes face little threat of endangerment at this time. The dangers coyotes face are widespread hunting and habitat loss due to human activity.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © JayPierstorff/Shutterstock.com
Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.