Coyotes Differ from Dogs

A coyote might resemble a small German Shepherd when you first spot it. Western coyotes are relatively small, averaging about 25-30 pounds, with a 26″ height and a 5 foot length including the tail. The tail, which is a key distinguishing characteristic, is very full and cylindrically shaped and is not normally held up high: rather it is always lower than horizontal. The tail ends in a black tip.

Coyotes are tri-colored, including white, black and brown — the brown runs from reddish to yellowish. Their over-all look from a distance ranges from brownish to grayish, and they often have distinctive patterns of color on their backs, but always with variations of a black and white fan-shaped stripe across the upper-mid back. A coyote has a thick undercoat plus outer weather guard hairs. In the fall and winter coyotes gain a much fuller coat which make them appear larger than they do in the springtime, when they can look very, very thin, after loosing these winter coats. The coyote’s underbelly, inner legs, and chest area in front of its front legs are white.

Compared to dogs, coyotes have a much longer snout, they are very thin and lithe. The long, thin snout may help them retrieve gophers and voles from burrows — I have actually seen a coyote “dive” head first into such a hole after the rodent has stuck its head out. Their thin and lithe bodies make them very quick. Cheek fur actually makes the coyote’s face look wider and emphasizes the thinness of the snout. The coyote’s bones, tendons and muscles are made so it can run after prey, leap and twist when pursuing quick moving small prey, and lope a long period of time without tiring.

Their high intelligence, aided by their very keen senses — hearing seeing and smelling are very acute —  has helped them survive in the wild and adapt to entirely new environments. They use their ears, which are triangular shaped and point up, to communicate with each other. Backs of their ears are a rusty red. They have yellow eyes, which can see in very dim light.

Coyotes are very secretive and and are very evasive, which is why most people don’t see them. They are naturally fearful and cautious of humans. However, you may see a bolder one right out in the open, quite unconcerned, maybe on a hillside. They keep their dens well hidden, keeping several of these as alternatives. This way, when fleas build up, or if the coyotes feel a threat is nearby, they move on to one of their other dens. They dig these themselves sometimes, but sometimes they just fix up hollows which they have found. Only 5-20 percent of coyote pups survive their first year.

The coyote’s front footprints can be distinguished from that of a dog, because its two middle toes actually point inwards, compared to those of a dog. Coyotes walk only on their toes!

Coyotes have the same teeth as dogs: four canines for holding on to prey. The teeth behind these, the premolars, are used for tearing prey. And they have molars for chewing, but these are not used frequently by coyotes unless they need to crunch bones or nuts. One thing I’ve noticed is that a coyote’s tongue is very long and maneuverable — possibly more so than a dog’s: a coyote can curl its tongue way out, encircling its nose!

Coyotes in desert areas are active during the cooler early morning and twilight hours. In mild climates they are active during daylight hours. When food is plentiful they might hunt at night, sleeping during the day. All of these alternatives have been noted in San Francisco.

Coyotes yip, bark, huff, yelp, whine, whimper and howl: these are quite high pitched compared to a dog’s bark or a dog’s baying. Coyotes may engage in these vocalizations for a considerable period of time — sometimes 20 minutes or longer. No dog bark will ever sound like the high pitched and continuous bark of a coyote!

I’ve mostly seen coyotes hunt alone. But I did see two females dig at the same spot. It could have been that they were working as a team: one digging at a burrow, the other waiting for the rodent to emerge. Coyotes are opportunistic eaters, which means they will adapt their eating habits to food in the area. They eat small rodents, insects, reptiles, fruit and berries. Several of them will prey on larger animals, such as deer, when the rodent supply is down or in hibernation.

Aggression should be addressed here. Coyotes are not particularly aggressive animals. Most coyotes pose little threat to humans. However, they will defend themselves against dogs if they are chased or interfered with — defending and aggression are not the same thing. One needs to look at statistics to really understand the minor extent of danger to humans: as of this posting, there have been only two human deaths from coyotes ever reported. These were bizarre anomalies. Dog bites, however, including from one’s own pets, are in the tens of thousands, and deaths from dogs are in the hundreds. The relatively few coyote aggression incidents have mostly occurred in Southern California where they have been linked to feedings, even if the feedings were unintentional. Please, never feed or try to tame a coyote: feeding them has been isolated as the source of their aggressiveness towards humans. Once they have been fed, they begin pursuing humans for the food they think is owed to them. Also, please keep your dogs leashed in coyote areas, both to protect the coyote and your dog!