Click on the links below to learn more about the biology and natural history of these canids.
Pointed, upright ears, a long slender snout, and a bushy tail are identifying characteristics to look for.
Coyotes in Georgia generally weigh between 25 – 45 lbs. as adults, with an average weight of approximately 30 lbs. Most people overestimate their size.
They are smaller than wolves but larger than foxes. As one would expect, females are usually smaller than males, and juveniles smaller than adults.
The two most common signs of coyotes are tracks and scat (feces). Coyote paw prints are generally oval shaped and show claw marks from only the two central claws. The front paws are larger and have bigger footpads than the rear paws. Pups leave smaller prints than adults.
Coyote scat is usually found along pathways or trails. It tends to be tapered at the ends, contains fur, small bone fragments, and/or seeds, and generally has little odor.
Coat color can vary widely, even among pups born to the same parents, and it can also change throughout the year as the coyote sheds or adds fur. Coyotes in the southeast range in color from orange/red to tan to gray to black.
As in other canids, the thickness of the coat changes with the seasons, a feature which can cause a coyote to appear larger at certain times of the year.
Coyotes can adjust their daily activity patterns in order to avoid humans. This usually means that in urban landscapes coyotes are most active at night or in the early morning hours.
Resident coyotes occupy and maintain exclusive access to territories by scent marking, vocalizing, and physically excluding intruders. The territory is home to a male-female pair and their young offspring. Some older progeny might remain with their parents beyond the first year, but coyotes are not known to form large multi-family social groups or packs. Therefore, all coyotes within a particular territory should theoretically be related to one another.
The size of the territory is determined by how easily the coyotes’ needs – reliable food, water, shelter, protection from persecution, ease of mobility, suitable den site – are met. Therefore, coyote territories can vary widely in size. Transient coyotes are those that are looking for a territory, ready to take over when residents move (or more likely are moved) out.
This video shows the typical behavior of a mated coyote pair in the late summer and fall. Coyotes mate for life and work together to maintain their territory and raise their offspring, but they are not necessarily by each other's side at all times. Pups(born in the spring) start dispersing in the fall, leaving mom and dad as temporary empty-nesters. This video begins with the male relaxing on his own, but his mate is likely nearby. He eventually calls for her and she joins him. As they trot off together, he scent marks a spot within their territory telling rivals to keep away (watch him lift his leg) and she quickly adds an exclamation point on top of it (watch her squat). In the final segment, the female is seen by herself as she continues the job of territory patrol (another squat).
Vocalizations (howling/yipping/barking), which are frequently heard at certain times of year, allow coyotes to communicate with one another. The message might be one of romance between a male and female, or it might be telling other coyotes to stay away. Hearing these sounds is nothing to be alarmed about.
This video is a great example of coyote group yip-howl, which was caught on the Berry College eagle cam in January of 2015. Notice that the group appears to be vocalizing in response to coyotes off in the distance (listen carefully for the faint sounds of the other group).
This is likely a situation where two separate groups are announcing their own territory to one another. The vocalizations act like an auditory fence.
This is also an example of the “beau geste” effect. Several vocalizing coyotes in the foreground (probably a family group of a mated male-female pair and one or two of their offspring from the previous year) are giving the illusion that the pack is much larger in numbers. The rapidly fluctuating pitch and frequencies of the barks, yips, and howls reverberate and scatter throughout the environment and become distorted. What is in fact just a few coyotes sounds like many more. This auditory trick works on both humans and other coyotes.
Also notice that the video clip actually spans a 60+ minute time frame, so the sounds come from farther away as the coyote family likely moves across its territory.
Coyotes are omnivorous and will eat just about anything, but their main natural diet consists of:
Coyotes generally hunt for food on their own and are usually not big enough to take down larger prey, although accounts of seeing several coyotes collectively chasing a deer are not uncommon. A small fawn is certainly a potential prey item for a larger coyote.
Should coyotes become emboldened they can easily exploit food sources made available by humans. Such sources would include garbage, gardens, compost, road kill, pet food, and domestic animals.
The presence of diagnostic items like seeds, claws, teeth, and bones in the scat can help us to determine what the coyote has eaten. We can even distinguish among different species of prey by microscopically analyzing the hair that is found in the scat. Think of it as Coyote CSI!
As persimmon fruits (Diospyros virginians) begin to ripen in Georgia in September, their seeds start to commonly appear in coyote scat. Despite the fact that these trees might be few and far between across the landscape, coyotes apparently seek them out and make these fruits a staple of their autumn diet. Ripe persimmons have a pleasant taste to us, but unripe persimmons are loaded with tannins, which makes them highly astringent and bitter as the tannins bind to natural proteins in the mouth. Try one and taste it for yourself! Nevertheless, coyotes don’t just wait for persimmons to be at their ripest and brightest color when the bitter taste has diminished, but rather they consume these fruits as soon as they become available. Either the astringency does not bother them or the coyote’s lack of color vision makes it difficult to distinguish ripe from unripe fruit.
These photos show persimmon fruits in various stages of development as they turn from unripe green to a fully ripe reddish-orange. The trees occur as separate sexes, so only the female trees bear fruit. Their bark and overall size is similar to that of a dogwood tree. Also pictured are coyote scats (droppings) containing persimmon seeds, as well as muscadine grapes (Vitis rotundifolia), which are also consumed by coyotes in the fall.
Coyotes, as most animals, have predictable and consistent life cycles. Mating between a monogamous pair generally occurs in winter (January – March).
The pregnant female will eventually settle into a den and after a 2-month gestation period, multiple pups – usually between four and seven – will be born in the spring.
Both parents help to raise the offspring by providing food, and pups are weaned and begin to venture out of the den after about 35 days.
Pups remain with their parents over the next few months, but they grow up fast and must eventually strike out on their own before the next generation is born. Some of the offspring might remain to help raise the next batch of younger siblings, but most will disperse in an attempt to find their own territory and mates.
The parents can then start to produce a new litter of pups when mating season comes around again.
The pup/juvenile age class makes up the first year of life and the transition to adult teeth is completed by the 6th or 7th month.
By 12 months old, the start of the yearling age class, coyotes are sexually mature and can theoretically reproduce, although this obviously requires a mate as well as possession of an exclusive territory. A yearling’s teeth show no visible tartar or wear on the incisors and canines.
Young adulthood makes up years 3 to 5 of a coyote’s life. Some tartar begins to appear on the teeth and the incisors and canines are now slightly worn. The older adult age class is reached at the age of 5 and the teeth now show heavy tarter and wear. Some teeth might be worn down to the gum line or actually missing. The teeth will continue to deteriorate as the coyote ages; however most coyotes usually don’t live this long.
We began radio-tracking an older adult coyote at Berry College in 2006 and followed him for 5 years before losing contact in 2011, which means that he lived at least 10 years. Several of our other study subjects lived at least 7-9 years.
Prior to the late 1800s, coyotes inhabited only the open plains west of the Mississippi River, but this highly mobile and adaptable animal eventually began to disperse in all directions and is now found throughout most of North America in both rural and urban landscapes.
The geographic expansion of coyote populations became possible as humans exterminated the coyote’s main competitors, gray and red wolves. Deforestation for agriculture and development also helped to pave the way.
It was not until the 1970s that coyotes began to appear in Georgia and it then took another 20 years or so for them to become widespread throughout the state. The gradual loss (extirpation) of the red wolf in the southeastern U.S. created a vacant ecological niche that the coyote easily filled.
As a result, the coyote is now the top (apex) predator in this region, and, as such, potentially influences prey population sizes. We have been observing coyotes at Berry College/Floyd County/northwest GA since 1994.
While coyotes are closely related to wolves and dogs, they are different animals and generally do not interbreed with these other species. Within the coyote’s historical western range where they coevolved with much larger gray wolves, there is no interbreeding and wolves will chase away and/or kill any coyotes caught trying to scavenge for food.
As coyotes migrated east, they encountered smaller and fewer gray wolves and some hybridization did occur. This mixing of genes is thought partially to explain why eastern coyotes tend to be larger than western coyotes. Scientists have recently documented wolf-coyote hybrids, known as coywolves, in Ontario’s Algonquin Park region through DNA analysis.
A similar scenario probably happened in the Southeast as migrating coyotes encountered dwindling red wolf populations, leading to some interbreeding. Red wolves were driven to near extinction by the late 1970s and they are now found only in coastal North Carolina’s Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge as part of a reintroduction effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Interbreeding between red wolves and coyotes does occur in this area, but this is the only place where the two species come into contact with one another.
Dogs come in all shapes and sizes, which means that they can potentially kill or be killed by coyotes. Nevertheless, when dogs and coyotes are similar in size, interbreeding is possible, but dogs are not necessarily on the same annual reproductive cycles as coyotes and male dogs do not instinctively participate in the rearing of offspring. Therefore, coyote-dog hybrids are rare and generally unsuccessful in the wild.
The video below is a PBS Nature video on the coyote’s eastward migration and hybridization with eastern wolves.
The coyote is most closely related to wolves (Canis lupus and Canis rufus) and dogs (Canis familiaris). Selective breeding by humans explains why there are so many different types of dogs, but all modern dogs belong to the same species (familiaris). Some dogs look very much like wolves or coyotes (German shepherds), while others are very different in appearance. Carolina yellow dogs are thought to be one of the oldest dog breeds in North America, arriving with the earliest Native Americans.
Coyotes are now found throughout North America, expanding as wolf populations were drastically reduced over the past 100 years. Gray wolves are found in the northern Rocky Mountains and sporadically throughout the Great Lakes regions and on into eastern Canada. Red wolves are confined to a small recovery population along coastal North Carolina where conservation efforts are underway.
Foxes are smaller and more distantly related to these other canids. Both gray and red foxes are common across North America.
Mange occurs in coyotes and other mammals when a parasitic mite (Sarcoptes scabiei or Demodex canis/injal) burrows down into the skin and/or hair follicles and causes hair loss. Constant scratching compounds the problem and leads to open lesions and sores, thereby allowing infections to develop. Sadly, as the weather turns cold, the sick animal is unable to maintain its body temperature, its immune system becomes severely compromised, and death is usually inevitable. Recent studies of urban coyotes in Edmonton, Alberta have shown an association between poor health (including mange) and the consumption of anthropogenic (human sourced) food (Murray et al., 2015). This means that coyotes with mange tend to become progressively more desperate and have a greater likelihood to come into conflict with humans and their pets. We have seen evidence of a similar pattern here in Atlanta.
This video begins with a young coyote in the early stages of mange. Note the loss of fur, particularly on its tail. One or two of its siblings look like they are also showing symptoms. Next you’ll see a coyote with mange that has come up on to a porch looking for food, then a red fox with more severe symptoms that has done likewise, and finally, a coyote that succumbed to the disease. We have not seen a high incidence of mange locally, but the parasite can be easily transmitted from one animal to another. As always, keep close tabs on your pets and don’t allow wild animals access to anthropogenic food.
In July 2016, a woman was walking her dog (a standard poodle; ~65 lbs) in Leita Thompson Park in Roswell, GA at around 10:30AM when she encountered a juvenile coyote. Unfortunately, the coyote attacked without provocation and the woman was bitten on her arm. Her dog escaped and was uninjured. Other people nearby came to assist and the coyote was subsequently killed and its body was sent to the Georgia Dept. of Public Health to be tested for rabies. That test came back positive. The woman was treated with post-rabies prophylaxis and recovered.
An unprovoked attack by a coyote on a human is an extremely rare event, but this situation underscores the need to treat all animals with caution. Raccoons are the primary reservoir for the rabies virus in the southeastern US and further testing on this particular coyote will be able to detect its infection source. More than likely, this juvenile coyote (which was probably born sometime in March) caught rabies from an earlier altercation with an infected raccoon.
To put things in perspective, a total of only 3 coyotes tested positive for rabies throughout the entire state of Georgia in 2015 and this is the first confirmed case of a rabid coyote in 2016. However, 2 of these 4 rabies cases over the past 18 months have occurred in Roswell. Approximately 250-350 cases of rabies occur annually in Georgia and the vast majority are found in raccoons, skunks, bats, and foxes. Put another way, the chances of a rabid animal in Georgia being a coyote are typically less than 0.01%.
Nevertheless, the public should be vigilant for rabid animals and report any unusual animal behavior sightings to the local police department. Again, the typical transmission vector in our area is the raccoon, so be aware of ALL animals, not just coyotes. Do not attempt to handle injured wildlife and make sure that your pets are all up to date on their vaccinations.