Eastern Coyote Ecology
Back to Eastern Coyote Main Page
Like their larger cousins the gray wolf (Canis lupis) Coyotes are social animals. But unlike wolves they can vary their social structure relative to their needs, living as individuals, pairs or packs. This is often based on the abundance of individuals in a given area, as well as the availability of resources in a given year/area.
Coyotes live as transient individuals when they leave the home pack they were raised in, and go searching for a mate and territory. When they do find a mate, they may stay with that mate for the rest of their lives (or their mate’s) which happens frequently. Some individuals change mates, either when their original mate dies, or another individual presents themselves in the area and attempts to usurp the territory used by the original mated pair.
If a mated pair of coyotes has a litter of pups, both individuals stay with the pups to share in the duties of raising them. If the pair remain together once the pups are old enough to disperse and have another litter in following seasons, pups from the first litter who didn’t disperse to find their own mates/packs and territory may stay with the breeding (alpha) pair and help raise successive litters. These individuals are subordinate to the breeding (alpha) pair. Typically there is only one breeding pair of coyotes in a pack. If all the pups in a litter disperse, the original pair may stay together for the rest of year until the following breeding season, or they may temporarily separate. Once the breeding season comes around again the pair usually comes back together, but occasionally will mate with a different individual.
Popular views might have you believe that coyotes can exist on just about any food source, but they are still carnivores, and predators at that. They can have a more flexible diet than wolves (which are much stricter carnivores), but coyotes still make meat a large portion of their diet. In summer when other foods – berries, fruit, vegetation – are plentiful, their scat (feces) will show remnants of these and other foods – sometimes to exclusion. But other times of the year their prey sources (small mammals, rabbits and deer) make up the majority of their diet.
Whether or not the Eastern Coyote actively hunts white-tailed deer is often a question for many people, and views on this vary widely – as do many opinions surrounding coyotes. There is direct evidence of coyotes in packs hunting deer, and research and casual observations show that they are most successful when hunting smaller and weaker individuals. I have personally heard of two first-hand accounts of individual coyotes chasing down seemingly healthy adult deer, but this behavior still seems to be more of an aberration than not.
Coyotes also show greater flexibility in their habitat needs than wolves. It is well-known that coyotes don’t just live in large undeveloped spaces, but can and will live among humans in suburban and even urban settings. The book Suburban Howls (see resources) by Dr. Jonathan Way documents extensive research on coyotes living in areas densely populated by people. If you have coyotes living in your suburban or urban neighborhood and want a good look at what their lives are like when you’re not looking, this is a fabulous resource.
When a pair or a pack of coyotes establishes a territory, the size of that territory will depend on a number of factors including the density of other coyotes in the surrounding area, and the availability of resources and usable space. Additionally, territory size varies seasonally: in winter, when food sources are more scarce, home range sizes increase. During breeding season when individuals are caring for pups, the home range shrinks considerably. Studies show a wide variety in average home range sizes during non-breeding times – anywhere from 28 – 43 square km. (Navarro, 2002; Way, 2007)
More eastern coyote information:
- Eastern Coyote Morphology
- The History of Coyotes and Wolves in the northeastern US
- Living With Coyotes
- Eastern Coyote Resources
All photos on this page by Obo Menard and Copyright Withywindle Nature Programs, 2011.