Coyotes are one of the most adaptable animals out there, and as a result, can be found all over Kananaskis, throughout the province, all of western North America to the north coast of Alaska, across the Great Lakes areas to the east coast of Canada and south as far as Panama – and that range is expanding. There are 20 identified subspecies in the whole range, and we are at the border between the Plains coyote and Mountain coyote.
What’s in a name?
You can call them “kai-YO-tee” or “KIE-yoat”, both are correct. Unlike wolves, coyotes are always the same colouration pattern, buffy-gray with reddish parts, a white underbelly, a large fluffy tail with a black tip. Once you’ve seen one coyote, you’ve seen them all. They’re about the size of a medium dog; the largest ever found weighed 75 lbs, but generally, they’re about 45 lbs.
Living and eating
There are a lot of myths about coyotes, especially about how they live and eat. They live in family groups consisting of a breeding male and female, plus some kids and one or two unrelated animals. Unlike wolves, they are generally solitary hunters, and rarely hunt in packs, though occasionally will do so to hunt larger ungulates.
The core of their diet is small rodents, such as mice, voles and both red and various ground squirrels, plus rabbits. But they are so adaptable they eat berries, fruits and roots, plus insects (pups in particular like grasshoppers), your housecat or dog (coyotes have successfully killed full-grown Rottweilers), bobcat and lynx.
They will also go after larger game like deer and sheep on their own (like the sheep being chased above right). In the winter in the mountains, they become big fans of scavenging carrion from cougars and wolf packs. Alberta Parks Ecology has captured many photos of them scavenging other animal’s kills. The one to the left got part of a cougar kill.
Faithful to family
They mate for years, often for life. They will normally breed in February/March, with 2-8 pups (normally 6) born late April. However, this changes if the breeding male or female in the family unit dies. In that case, the remaining breeding family member immediately breeds, occasionally with his or her own offspring. Survivability of their pups is related to the amount of food available at that time of year. If the breeding female dies during weaning, the male will abandon the pups and go off to breed again with a new female, creating a new family unit. For these reasons, farmers who kill coyotes in the hope of getting rid of them often find the strategy backfires. Coyote pups’ eyes open in 9 days and are weaned at 5-8 weeks. They are fully grown and ready to mate at 1 year, and can live up to 18 years.
Coyotes can breed with wolves or domestic dogs (in particular, Coywolves are fairly common in eastern Canada). Generally, though, they don’t get along with either at all. Coyotes try to steal wolf kills, which wolves aren’t a fan of, and wolves actively predate coyotes. A healthy wolf pack will generally exclude coyotes from their territories. Wolves are the most successful animals in keeping coyote populations in check.
Denning & territorial behaviours
Coyote dens vary, but are most commonly a hole in the ground or under a large tree root (or your deck). They develop a home range up to 60 square kilometres around their den site (about 7.5 km by 7.5 km), but don’t defend their territory outside of denning season. They often re-use the same den year after year. Coyotes actively scent mark their home range, too.
Here’s a trick we learned from a coyote ecologist. If you have a coyote den in a place that’s problematic (say, under your porch), urinating around the den entrance will cause them to move almost immediately. They don’t like other scent marks.
Nocturnal, diurnal or…?
Given a substantial part of their diet are small rodents, it should not be surprising that coyotes carry a significant number of parasites and diseases. These include rabies, distemper, hepatitis, tularaemia, mange, lice, ticks, fleas, flukes, tapeworms, roundworm, hookworm and others. For this and a lot of other reasons, never touch coyote scat.
Coyotes howl, normally at night. They do so for lots of reasons, including establishing territory, family bonding, communication and announcing kills. Up to 11 different vocalizations have been identified, each serving a different purpose.
Given their adaptability, coyotes can be found anywhere in Kananaskis. We’ve seen tracks crossing K-Country glaciers in the summer (the one at right is high on Mt. Allen) and crossing Spray Lake in the winter (pictured below). But it’s while they’re mousing in the grasses along the roads you’ll see them most often.
If you’re looking for tracks, they look a lot like narrow, oval versions of a domestic dog, so usually can only be identified if you know there’ve been no dogs around. Still, finding actual tracks in deep snow can be a challenge. Coyotes have relatively thin legs and small feet. This allows them to move around in fairly deep snow easily, but they do no do it like lynx, floating on the snow. Rather, they sink in and just wade, much like moose and deer.
Coyote-human interactions vary; some are shy and will run away when seen. Some ignore you and just go about their business. But many are quite bold (especially ones in higher population density settings, such as near campgrounds or townsites). Coyotes seem to like golf balls, possibly thinking they are eggs. Adverse encounters on golf courses are common. Unlike wolves that rarely attack humans, coyote attacks are on the rise, so keep a close eye on your dog and your kids if a coyote is near.
Find out about some of the other critters of K-Country here!