The coyote resembles a small German shepherd dog, but carries its tail below the level of the back rather than curved upward. Its upper body is typically light gray to dull yellow, but can vary from mostly black to nearly all gray or white. Course outer hairs are usually tipped with black. The underparts are whitish, cream colored or pinkish yellow. A coyote's muzzle is long and narrow; its ears are erect and pointed. The average length of an adult is 44 to 54 inches, including a 15- to 17-inch tail. Weights measured during fall and winter vary from 22 to 42 pounds.
Distribution & Abundance
Coyotes are common throughout Illinois. They're most abundant in the southern, southeastern and west-central parts of the state. They're least abundant in the northern two to three tiers of counties. Coyotes were rare in Illinois for a long time after settlement of the state, but their numbers increased dramatically during the 1970s and early 1980s.
Coyotes occur in nearly all types of habitat, including urban and suburban areas. They are most abundant in areas with a mixture of farmland, woodland and grassland.
An average home range encompasses 2-10 square miles. Members of packs tend to have smaller home ranges than “loners”. Sizes of home ranges are also influenced by the quality of habitat a coyote lives in, presence of nearby packs and seasons of the year – especially when coyotes are breeding or rearing pups.
Home ranges are not exclusive; several coyotes might live in the same area. These groups, referred to as packs, usually consist of extended families. Members of one pack rarely venture into another’s territory. Some coyotes do not belong to packs. These solitary coyotes tend to have larger home ranges than pack coyotes and are less respectful of pack boundaries. They sometimes join a pack when one of the members leaves or dies.
Coyotes communicate with a variety of barks, yips and howls. They also mark areas with urine, feces or gland secretions, much like domestic dogs. Body language plays an important role in the family social structure and in meetings between strangers. Facial expressions and body gestures can signal a coyote's aggressive, submissive or neutral intentions.
Coyotes prefer semi-open country and like to travel on ridges or old trails. They are most active from dusk until the early morning hours, but are sometimes seen at other times of the day. They can run up to 43 miles per hour for short distances. Water is rarely a barrier because coyotes swim well. Few coyotes live past 3 to 4 years of age. The oldest coyote found in a study conducted in Illinois during 1996 to 1997 was 13 years old.
Coyotes are Illinois' largest wild predator. Most of their diet consists of animal matter, but they often eat insects, fruits or berries. Rabbits and mice are important food items in Illinois and other Midwestern states.
A study in the Chicago area showed the following food groups and percentages of occurrence in coyotes’ diets: small rodents 43%; white-tailed deer 22%; fruit 23%; eastern cottontail 18%; birds 13%. The presence of human-associated foods (like garbage) was rare (2%), as was the presence of domestic cat (1%).
In Iowa, winter foods of coyotes were composed by volume of: 51 percent rabbits, 25.5 percent mice, 8.0 percent other mammals, 2.7 percent birds, 0.5 percent plants and miscellaneous. Coyotes sometimes eat carrion, so it's difficult to determine whether livestock and poultry in their diet represent actual kills.
A few females breed at one year of age, but most mature in their second year. Breeding peaks in late February or early March. A female typically mates for two to five days during this period. The gestation (pregnancy) period is 58 to 63 days. Pups are born during late April or May in a den under a hollow tree, log, brush pile, or even an abandoned building. More often, coyotes raise their young in a remodeled burrow dug originally by a fox, badger, or woodchuck. Litters of 2 to 19 pups have been documented, but four to nine is the norm. The pups are blind and helpless at birth and are covered with brownish-gray woolly fur. Their eyes open between 8 and 14 days of age. The young first come out of the den when they're about 21 days old but don't remain outside for long periods until they are 5 or 6 weeks of age.
Both parents care for the young, especially after they're weaned. Hunting short distances from the den (usually 3 to 5 miles), the parents kill and eat what they catch, then regurgitate it for the pups when they return. The pups begin to learn to hunt for themselves when they are 8 to 12 weeks old. The family usually moves away from the den about this time, and often breaks up in late summer or early fall. After they leave their parents, some young may move up to 120 miles away in search of their own living space.
Coyotes are valuable members of the wildlife community and do more good than harm where humans are concerned. However, they occasionally kill livestock, poultry, and domestic pets, especially where coyotes live in large numbers or in close association with people. Eliminating all of the coyotes in an area is not a realistic goal because voids will be filled quickly. Fortunately, removing individuals with “bad behaviors” usually solves a problem even when other coyotes continue to live in an area. Visit Living with Wildlife in Illinois for suggestions on preventing problems with coyotes and removing them legally.
Attacks on humans are extremely rare considering the range and abundance of coyotes. A study published in 2007 found 187 reliable reports of attacks on humans, most of which (157) occurred in California, Arizona and Nevada. Many of these incidents occurred where people were feeding coyotes intentionally, causing them to lose their fear of humans. See Urban Coyote Ecology and Management for suggestions on avoiding problems in residential areas.
Coyotes are harvested during regulated hunting and trapping seasons. An average of 7,000 coyotes is harvested each year in Illinois. About 75 percent of these are taken by hunters; 25 percent by trappers. The trapping season is restricted to the fall and winter months, while the hunting season is open year-round. A liberal hunting season allows landowners to remove problem animals without having to obtain a special permit. Biologists monitor the population to ensure that hunting and trapping do not negatively impact the population.