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Coyotes are the most common wild canine species in Iowa, and their ancestors have been here for millions of years. Today, these majestic and mysterious animals continue to impact the ecology of Iowa and now act as our most common large predator. Although it’s difficult to estimate current numbers, lack of competition and plentiful food sources mean the Iowa population is likely at an all-time high.
Adaptation ExpertsCoyotes are native to North America and nowhere else, although their range is continually expanding south. In the Eastern hemisphere, the most analogous animals are jackals. Before European colonization, coyotes preferred to live in open areas like prairies and deserts, which earned them the colloquial names of “prairie wolves” or “brush wolves.” Later, as their open habitats shrank, coyotes adapted to living in forests and mountains. Today, these clever animals live closer than ever to humans, and some even live in ultra-urban cities like Los Angeles and New York.
Happy TogetherCoyote parents take care of their pups as a team, which increases the youngsters’ chances of reaching maturity. The pair of parents bond over the winter as the female enters estrus, and the relationship is strictly monogamous. On average, six babies are born a few months later in an earthen den that the parents either dug or cleaned out from a previous resident like a skunk, badger or woodchuck. Litter sizes can be larger when conditions are right and prey is abundant. The family will stay at this location until late summer.
Cold ComradesIn warm months when food is plentiful, young, non-reproductive coyotes may be solitary animals. However, in the winter they become more social in the interest of finding food and mating. A coyote can run at speeds up to 40 miles per hour, so even a small pack can be fairly formidable. Coyote packs are usually either a nuclear family centered around a reproductive female and her monogamous mate or an entirely unrelated group of animals, who may be bachelors or too young to reproduce. The unrelated groups disband much more readily than families, who will generally stay together for at least the better part of a year, sometimes more. Non-reproductive sisters or daughters may stay with a reproductive female for another whole season to help raise the next litter of pups. Even when they don’t, familial females generally stay closer to their mother’s home range than their brothers do.
Coat ColorCoyote populations in different areas exhibit substantially different coat coloration from one another. Populations in high-elevation areas tend to be darker than their desert-dwelling counterparts, and northern populations have substantially longer and denser fur than those in Central America. Additionally, albinism is very rare in coyotes: out of 750,000 animals harvested between 1938 and 1945, only two exhibited the condition.
Family TreeAs closely-related canines, partial coyote crosses are possible from a coyote mating with a domestic dog or wolf, and variations in the DNA of certain populations indicates this may have affected local genetics at some point in history. Today, however, hybrid offspring are very rare because the different species are antagonistic toward each other and coyote mating cycles do not generally align with those of other species. The hybrid offspring are less likely to survive to adulthood than pure coyote pups, as their parents will not bond and co-parent.
Unexpected OmnivoresWhile their canine classification may lead people to assume coyotes are carnivores, their diets are actually quite varied. They have significantly narrower and less powerful jaws than those of a gray wolf, and a coyote’s back molars have larger chewing surfaces for eating different types of food. They commonly eat everything from fruit, grass and insects to deer, trash and pet food. Still, coyotes do seem to enjoy meat. They will commonly hunt rabbits, mice, and other small mammals, which helps control small pest populations, and they will eat deer depending on the time of year. Unfortunately, coyotes are sometimes regarded as pests themselves because those in urban areas may kill domestic animals and smaller livestock like calves, lambs and chickens. To avoid this conflict and protect animals, keep pets inside at night and keep livestock in safe and sturdy enclosures, preferably with a roof.