Perceived Size of Coyotes


Usually there are two classifications people use to describe a coyote’s size: 1) it was big, 2) it was small. But perception very often has little to do with reality. I’m going to give four telling examples.

I watched as a fellow’s dog chased a coyote, and then the coyote turned on it’s chaser to return the treatment. The owner made a flailing attempt to shoo the coyote off. When the encounter was over, and the coyote had retreated, the man, who was unaware that I had watched the entire event, told me about the 100 pound coyote that had engaged his dog. Anyone who knows coyotes knows that they run from 18 to 35 pounds, so this statement had more, I think, to do with his fear, or to do with a good story — we’ve all heard about the size of the fish that was caught.

The second example is of a gardener in one of the parks who respects coyotes and sees them often enough. We both had seen a coyote curiously watching an older man who had fallen while attempting to grab his dog which was chasing this coyote. The gardener pointed out that the coyote was very small, probably a puppy. Yet, several days later a coyote passed, at about the same distance, and this same gardener told me that was one of the biggest coyotes he had ever seen — “he knew coyotes well so he could tell a big one when he saw one”. Interestingly, these two sightings involved the same coyote, a coyote I know very well and can easily identify. I have not figured out why he saw them so differently: was it the lighting? Was it that when seen on a large field with a man close by the coyote looked smaller, or did holding its head down make it look smaller? Was it that when he saw the “large” coyote, it appeared large because it was on a ridge?

The third story is about a young woman who was very excited about telling me that she had seen a small coyote pup. This was in January, so of course I wanted to see for myself. Since pups are born in March or April, it would be very unlikely that she would see a small pup in January. She took me to the area, and, yes, it was a playful coyote, but it was not a pup. It was a full-grown two year old that I had been keeping track of for some time. This young woman really likes coyotes, so I’m wondering if she sees them all as adorable pups?

The last example involves the perception of an older woman who is very used to seeing coyotes in a park, so you would think she could assess their sizes pretty well. She likes them well enough, but would prefer that they not be around when she walks her dog. On this particular day, she ran up a hill to shoo away a coyote because she thought it was too close. She told me it was a small coyote — a puppy — and she was helping it. Again, this was an adult coyote which she has seen plenty of times and which I’ve been keeping track of. Another man, months ago, labeled this same coyote as “huge”, which spread as a rumor by folks who wanted to believe this.

Frankly, my conclusion is that describing the size of a coyote often has little to do with reality, but a lot to do with how one is feeling about the coyote at the time. Also, descriptive words often carry very individual-specific and individual-nuanced meanings which everyone doesn’t necessarily agree on. And, in addition, I’ve heard that seven people witnessing the same car accident will give seven different versions of what happened — versions which might often be contradictory — they actually perceive the accident differently.

15 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Cindie White
    Sep 25, 2012 @ 06:36:48

    I love all of your coyotes posts. :)


  2. webmaster - SaveSutro
    Sep 25, 2012 @ 08:15:52

    This is so true. It’s happened to me. I saw a coyote on a trail on a bare hillside, quite close to where I was walking. Its size registered as being that of a largish dog – maybe about Labrador-sized but leaner. But earlier, I’d seen the same coyote in the brush, and it seemed small. I’d have said terrier-sized. I wonder if it’s something to do with camouflage and coloration. In Native American legends, the coyote is the trickster…

    Or, as you suggest, human perception. Our brains accept optical illusions.


  3. Gail
    Sep 25, 2012 @ 18:01:57

    Optical illusions as well as fear, possibly….pre-conceived opinions.
    I was alone, walking a trail in my woods one winter when something suddenly caught my eye. It was scrambling down a hill. All had been quiet during this snow walk and the appearance was sudden and unexpected. It was a grey squirrel. I’m positive it was a 40 pounder. Yup. For sure. ;)


    • yipps
      Sep 27, 2012 @ 20:52:38

      Perceiving a squirrel as 40 pounds is not so far fetched. A couple of months ago a woman walked out of the woods and told me that what she thought had been a squirrel must in fact have been a fox since it’s body was “yea big” (about 15 inches). I’ve kept my eye open for foxes, but we really haven’t had them in that area for a decade. However, I know the fat little reddish squirrels which inhabit the woods there — they actually are normal size. The reddish color may also have thrown her off.

  4. Charles Wood
    Sep 25, 2012 @ 21:26:12

    This is all pretty interesting. I thought it was just me. My Dad coyote looks big or small to me and I’ve been watching him since 2009! I can’t make up my mind about his size. When Dad comes out of the river from a swim he looks small and skinny, like a wet rat. At times he exudes size. I can’t say that when near he looks big, or when far he looks small. Nor can I say that when he is near a bush he looks big or that he looks small when out in the open. It is truly freaky. I’m almost willing to just call them shape shifters or tricksters and be done with it!

    Part of the difference in how we perceive coyote size probably does has a lot to do with the energy the coyote projects in different situations. We pick up on that energy without being entirely conscious of it and it helps us assess a situation on a gut level. I don’t know about 40 pounds squirrels! In the right circumstances I’m sure they look that big though.


    • yipps
      Sep 25, 2012 @ 21:48:54

      That’s a great observation, Charles! Yes, I think the energy they project is a big factor. And, aside from this, they can actually make themselves appear bigger sometimes: hackles up and standing tall and proud; and they can make themselves look meek and small at times — as when they slink away from a dangerous situation, head down, body low to the ground, tail tucked under.

  5. Barbara Knupp
    Sep 25, 2012 @ 23:45:12

    Yes, they are tricksters! I’m never sure about the size – when I see one it is from a distance and I always wonder if it is the size I think. Nor am I certain of the exact location of the yips and howls. A mysterious animal…


  6. Barbara Knupp
    Sep 27, 2012 @ 21:13:55

    We occasionally see a fox late at night crossing a road in the area – within 3 – 5 miles of the farm. Despite our game cameras, we’ve never seen any sign of a fox on our farm. I’ve heard that the presence of coyotes greatly reduces the fox population. Any truth to that? Last night the coyotes were out in full force apparently exchanging howls from their perches at different farms.


    • yipps
      Sep 27, 2012 @ 21:32:02

      Hi Barbara —

      Yes, there is a lot of truth to that statement. Foxes and coyotes are competitors for the same resources. Coyote are the bigger of the two, so it is the foxes that are pushed out to the peripheral areas. That has happened here in San Francisco. Janet

  7. Katie (Nature ID)
    Oct 21, 2012 @ 13:54:05

    Love your blog (found it through a recommendation on Cindy’s Dipper Ranch). I agree emotion has a lot to do with how we perceive and recall what we see. But I wonder… Do coyotes have seasonal fur changes? A friend’s half husky half wolf shed so much hair when it got warmer, she appeared smaller than during her full fur winter periods. And like Charles says, when she was wet I was always surprised at how skinny she really was.


    • yipps
      Oct 21, 2012 @ 17:47:00

      Hi Katie —

      Yes, there are huge seasonal differences in a coyote’s coat — so much so that you might not be able to identify one as the same coyote in June and December. However, in the examples I have given, it appears that the coat really had nothing to do with the perception of size. The man who saw the same coyote twice saw it 3 days apart. The woman who saw the coyote “pup” in January saw it during it’s thickest coat season. The woman who is used to seeing the same coyotes who said she saw a “pup” saw it in early October. The emotion seems to be a bigger factor than reality.

  8. Barbara Knupp
    Oct 25, 2012 @ 00:13:55

    In June my game camera captured a photo (a quite bad one) of a coyote pair. What struck me was how thin they looked altho the farm seemed to have a bumper crop of rabbits this year. I suspect the female was lactating and that would account for her appearing so thin. However, my husband reminds me that, unlike my dogs, coyotes are probably quite lean and muscular. In more recent photos, they look larger and not as thin but I suspect that’s the winter coat developing.


    • yipps
      Oct 25, 2012 @ 00:26:05

      Hi Barbara —

      June is when coyotes have the least amount of fur — they’ve just shed it all, and they do this once a year. Under that fur they have very sparse, lean and muscular bodies. In June you can see the ribs and hip bones protruding. In recent photos they’ll look bigger because thick coats have grown for the winter. My estimate is that the fur gets to be about 3 inches long. Maybe it even gets longer.

  9. Kathleens Hiddens
    Sep 25, 2017 @ 17:54:01

    My Bouvier used to run off a pack of Coyote that liked to hunt on the back part of the property, there was one that was close in height to my 105 pound male.. They never engaged as the coyote would run like hell, but was close enough to size them up.. They found new hunting grounds after a few chases.. This was in mid summer, so no winter coat.


    • yipps:janetkessler
      Sep 25, 2017 @ 18:36:41

      Hi Kathleen —
      On the west coast, coyotes range in size from about 19 pounds to as much as about 35 pounds. The Eastern coyote, the coywolf, is a hybrid dog-wolf-coyote, and that animal may range to about 50 or so pounds. Coyotes indeed may look tall with their long, rangy legs, but they don’t have heft. Coyotes also have hackles which they raise (even in the summer), and they arch their backs, which may make them appear larger than they really are when they feel threatened. Wolves, depending on the type, range from 50 pounds up to about 130 pounds, and are a much more robust, solid animal than the coyote.

      Hope this helps!! Janet

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