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Coyotes: Coming to a town near you?

Coyote walking through a park in Quebec

Coyote in a forest (bjmc, iStockphoto)

Coyote walking through a park in Quebec

Coyote in a forest (bjmc, iStockphoto)

Samantha Fowler
Readability
6.6

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Learn why coyotes are spreading in Canada and how this affects their relations with humans.

Have you seen a coyote near you? If you haven’t, you soon might. This is because coyote populations are spreading across Canada.

While some populations of large  are struggling to survive, coyote populations are increasing. They are spreading into new regions across North and South America. So, why is this? As it turns out, the struggle for some animals may be what is helping the coyotes thrive. Human impacts on the environment have created challenging conditions for most large carnivores. On the flip side, this has meant perfect conditions for the adaptable coyote.

Coyote standing among tall grass in B.C.
Coyote in Richmond, British Columbia (Source: jamesvancouver via iStockphoto).

Spread of the Coyotes

Coyotes used to only live in the western part of North America. They ranged from the Canadian prairies to California. Today, coyotes are found across the continent. Since the 1950s, coyotes have expanded their geographic range by 40%. This is twice the rate of other North America carnivores. They aren’t stopping there, either. New studies suggest they are rapidly making their way into Central America as well.

Did You Know?

Researchers can determine where different animals lived historically using different methods. Scientists may consider Traditional Knowledge from Indigenous peoples. They may look at past survey records where scientists counted the animals in a region. They could also search for fossils left behind by the animal or its behaviours, such as footprints. This type of science is called zooarchaeology.

So, what’s causing this thriving population? One of the main reasons for the increase in coyotes is the decrease in competitors. Populations of wolves and cougars in eastern North America are much smaller than they used to be. This is due to habitat loss and other human impacts. The same is true for cougars (aka mountain lions) and jaguars in Central America. Less competition when hunting for prey animals means more food for coyote populations.

Left to right: Wolf, Cougar and Jaguar
Left to right: Wolf, Cougar and Jaguar (Sources: Andyworks via iStockphoto, moose henderson via iStockphoto and agustavop via iStockphoto).

 

Image - Text Version

Shown are three colour photographs of large animals, arranged horizontally.

In the left photograph, two wolves sit shoulder to shoulder on a large rock. They are both looking intently toward the right side of the photograph. There are tall trees in the background. 

In the centre photograph, a cougar lies across a moss-covered boulder. Its right paw is draped down across the front of the rock. Its head is turned to look at the left side of the photograph. More boulders and moss are visible in the background. 

In the right photograph, a jaguar looks directly at the camera. It is lying with both front paws poised on a log. Large, green tropical leaves are visible in the background.

Map showing the expansion of coyote ranges over time.
Coyote population range over time (© Hody JW, Kays R (2018) Mapping the expansion of coyotes (Canis latrans) across North and Central America. ZooKeys 759: 81-97. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.759.15149) [CC BY 4.0].
Image - Text Version

Shown is a map of North and Central America, with coloured areas to illustrate the coyote population range between 1900 and 2016. 

The land is illustrated in pale grey, with the ocean white around. Layers of colour are washed across the continent. They stretch from east coast to west coast, and from Alaska to Panama. A legend on the left side of the map indicates that each colour represents a date between 1900 and 2016. 

The smallest coloured area is red, which represents 1900. This area starts in northern British Columbia and reaches across to the tip of Lake Michigan, and down close to the southern border of Mexico. 

An orange area, representing 1920, is larger. It stretches from the Yukon, just across the border to Alaska, across to Lake Ontario, and down to Honduras.

The coloured areas become larger and larger every ten years. The largest area is 2016, represented in blue. Edges of the blue area are visible in Labrador, Virginia, North Carolina, and in Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.

Central America is shown in an enlarged area in the bottom left corner of the map. All the coloured areas in this part of the continent are yellow, green and blue. This indicates that coyotes have only inhabited these areas since 1960.

The decrease in predator populations can cause prey populations to rise. Without wolves, for example, deer populations can get bigger. With so many deer in an area however, there may not be enough food for the deer to eat.

Deer weakened by a lack of food make them an easy target for coyotes. As coyote numbers rise, deer populations fall. This helps to keep both predators and prey below the carrying capacity for the .

Did you know?

The carrying capacity of a habitat is the number of living things that can be supported based on space, food, and water.

Coyotes vs Wolves 

You have probably heard that wolves are great hunters. So why are coyotes now doing better than wolves? Despite their visual similarities, coyotes are quite different from wolves.

For example, wolves are carnivores that only hunt large prey animals, such as deer. Coyotes are  that have a diverse diet. They will eat insects, small mammals, and even garbage! Being able to eat many types of food allowed coyotes to survive even when some of their prey became scarce. This lets them thrive even in urban areas filled with humans.

Coyote sniffing at garbage in the wild
Coyote picking through fast food packaging (Source: Eric Buell via iStockphoto).
Image - Text Version

Shown is a colour photograph of a coyote eating from a paper wrapper.

The coyote looks thin, and its tail is between its legs. It is holding down the wrapper with one paw, and its nose is buried in the paper. 

The coyote almost blends in with its surroundings. The land around has dry grass and sparse vegetation. Its fur is beige, grey, and white, similar to the colours of the landscape. A few small yellow flowers are out of focus in the bottom left corner of the photograph.

Coyotes also live in a different habitat from wolves. Coyotes prefer open spaces whereas wolves prefer forests. As forests were cleared to make room for agriculture, wolves were pushed into smaller and smaller areas. Coyotes on the other hand gained more and more habitat.

Did you know?

The spread of coyotes into Western Canada and Alaska likely happened due to new human settlements and deforestation during the Gold Rushes of the late 1880s.

Even the behaviours of coyotes are different from that of wolves. Coyotes are brave enough to hunt and attack prey. At the same time they maintain enough shyness to avoid being killed themselves.

This combination of behaviours is essential in urban environments, where animals are not used to human interactions. Urban coyotes may even be bolder than rural coyotes. These new behaviours allow them to scavenge and hunt effectively in human-centric ecosystems.

Coyote walking down an urban street
Coyote walking down an urban street (Source: Eric Buell via iStockphoto).
Image - Text Version

Shown is a colour photograph of a coyote walking on a street next to a red painted curb.

The coyote is mid-stride on grey asphalt. Behind it, the bright red curb stretches stretches across the photograph. On the far side is a hill covered in grey stones.

Wolves, on the other hand, are very wary around people - for good reason. Farmers and ranchers are always on the lookout for wolves, which can prey on large livestock like cattle.

Adaptability is the key to success for the coyote. They can eat different things, live in different places, and respond well to the environmental changes humans make. However, scientists still aren’t sure how spreading coyote populations will impact these new environments and neighbours. If coyotes are the new “top predator,” this could affect every living creature under them in the food chain.

Coyotes and Carrying Capacity

Even with rapidly increasing coyote populations, most habitats have not reached their carrying capacity for coyotes. Why?

Coyotes are kind of cheating, in a way. Normally, if food runs out for a population of animals, the population declines. This does not happen to coyotes because they simply adapt to eating new foods. Coyotes are considered opportunistic animals. This means that when a resource they rely on is limited, they adapt and change their needs.

Another factor that limits carrying capacity is space. Like wolves, coyotes are. This means that they defend an area of space from other coyotes. Unlike wolf packs, which need territories of 129 square kilometres (50 square miles) to over 2 590 square kilometres (1 000 square miles), breeding pairs of coyotes only need territories of 10 to 40 square kilometres (4 to 15 square miles).

Coyote pups sitting together in a clearing in a forest
Group of coyote pups in Canmore, Alberta (Source: Annie Hewitt via iStockphoto).
Image - Text Version

Shown is a colour photograph of four coyote pups in long grass.

The pups are side-by-side, in a row. Their fur looks soft and fluffy, in shades of gold and white. Their ears look too big for their faces. The two on the left are sitting up, looking at the camera. The two on the right are lying down. One is looking at the ground, and one is looking off to the right. 

In the background, long green grass stretches above the pups' heads. More green grass in out of focus along the bottom edge of the photograph.

This allows them to thrive in small pockets of land around farms and cities. When coyotes run out of room in a particular place, they carve out a niche in a new environment. This has allowed coyote populations to grow, rather than be constrained by the limitations of their environment.

Did you know?

Scientists suggest that coyotes have in fact reached their carrying capacity in states like Maine and New Hampshire. These were some of the first eastern states coyotes spread to during their dramatic push through North America.

So does this mean coyote populations will keep on growing and growing until they get out of control? Like every living thing, there are limits to coyotes’ adaptability. Eventually coyotes will run out of space, even given all their adaptability. There is only so much suitable land around. Other factors that limit population growth are things like disease. A disease called Canine distemper occasionally breaks out among coyote populations. Finally, factors such as weather and natural disasters can keep populations in check.

Coexisting with Coyotes 

As coyote populations continue to grow and spread, there will be more human interactions with coyotes. Here are some quick tips for interacting safely with these wild animals.

Do not feed coyotes
Some may look underfed, but they survive just fine without our help. Also, do not leave pet food, water bowls, or wild bird seed on your lawn.

Sign meaning "Do not feed the coyotes"
Do not feed coyotes warning sign (©2022 Let’s Talk Science).
Image - Text Version

Shown is a colour illustration of red circle with a line through it, over a picture of a person throwing food to a coyote.

The person is a simplified black silhouette with a circle for a head. It throws black square objects toward  the coyote silhouette. It has pointed ears and narrowed eyes. Its mouth is open to show sharp teeth.

Do not touch coyotes
Coyotes bite and they can carry rabies! If a coyote appears sick or injured, call your local animal shelter or rescue group.

Sign meaning "Do not touch coyotes"
Do not touch coyotes warning sign (©2022 Let’s Talk Science)
Image - Text Version

Shown is a colour illustration of red circle with a line through it, over a simplified picture of a person petting a coyote.

The person is close to the coyote, and reaching out towards its head. The coyote has pointed ears, narrowed eyes and sharp teeth.

Keep your dog on a leash
Coyotes can bite and even kill dogs. It is safer for both your dog and the coyotes if it is on a leash.

Sign meaning "No dogs off leash"
Do not let dogs off leash warning sign (©2022 Let’s Talk Science).
Image - Text Version

Shown is a colour illustration of red circle with a line through it, over a simplified picture of a dog.

The dog is a black silhouette with a rectangular body and stick-like legs. It has a square snout, pointed ears and a pointed tail. The dog is wearing a collar, but no leash. There is no human figure in the picture.

Starting Points

  • Would you be afraid to go outside if you heard that coyotes were seen near your neighbourhood? Why or why not?
  • Have you ever encountered wildlife in an urban area? If so, which animals did you see?
  • Are there any stories from your culture that feature coyotes?
  • What are the risks of having wildlife close to where people live?
  • Coyotes have been the target of many hunts in order to reduce their number. Do you think this is necessary or should it be banned?
  • Coyotes can be a major problem for farmers. People also worry about pets going outside if coyotes have been sighted. What are some of the methods people can use to prevent coyotes from harming or killing farm animals or pets?
  • Explain how the spread of coyotes into urban areas is an example of the relationships between science, technology, society and the environment.
  • Other than the coyote, can you think of an opportunistic species that has adapted to urban areas? What changes did they make in regards to their behaviour compared to being in a natural habitat?
  • Many Canadian game species are monitored by wildlife biologists to evaluate if they are close to carrying capacity. How is this information used by the government to ensure animal populations are not affected by human hunting?
  • Wildlife management aims to prevent wildlife and human conflicts. The risk of automobile accidents is an example of a conflict. Describe the actions that can be taken to reduce this conflict for coyotes.
  • Can you think of a time when the media helped raise awareness in the public about a possible wildlife risk in your area? What did you learn about the animal? What language did they use? Did it scare you? Why or why not?
  • After reading this article, students could summarize and consolidate their understanding of the article content using a Issues & Stakeholders learning strategy. Ready-to-use Issues & Stakeholders reproducibles for this article are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.

Connecting and Relating

  • Would you be afraid to go outside if you heard that coyotes were seen near your neighbourhood? Why or why not?
  • Have you ever encountered wildlife in an urban area? If so, which animals did you see?
  • Are there any stories from your culture that feature coyotes?

Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment

  • What are the risks of having wildlife close to where people live?
  • Coyotes have been the target of many hunts in order to reduce their number. Do you think this is necessary or should it be banned?
  • Coyotes can be a major problem for farmers. People also worry about pets going outside if coyotes have been sighted. What are some of the methods people can use to prevent coyotes from harming or killing farm animals or pets?
  • Explain how the spread of coyotes into urban areas is an example of the relationships between science, technology, society and the environment.

Exploring Concepts

  • Other than the coyote, can you think of an opportunistic species that has adapted to urban areas? What changes did they make in regards to their behaviour compared to being in a natural habitat?
  • Many Canadian game species are monitored by wildlife biologists to evaluate if they are close to carrying capacity. How is this information used by the government to ensure animal populations are not affected by human hunting?
  • Wildlife management aims to prevent wildlife and human conflicts. The risk of automobile accidents is an example of a conflict. Describe the actions that can be taken to reduce this conflict for coyotes.

Media Literacy

  • Can you think of a time when the media helped raise awareness in the public about a possible wildlife risk in your area? What did you learn about the animal? What language did they use? Did it scare you? Why or why not?

Teaching Suggestions:

  • After reading this article, students could summarize and consolidate their understanding of the article content using a Issues & Stakeholders learning strategy. Ready-to-use Issues & Stakeholders reproducibles for this article are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.

Learn more

Coexisting With Coyotes
On this page by Coyote Watch Canada, learn how we can live in harmony with coyotes.

Carrying Capacity
This collection of lessons from the National Geographic is aimed at grade 5 to 8 students exploring the concept of ecological carrying capacity.

Learn about North America’s “Song Dog”
This page from the Coyote Project presents scientific facts on the coyote and its relation with humans.

Coyote
This page from the Canadian Wildlife Federation presents information on coyotes’ biology and ecology.

References

Biology Online (n.d.). Carrying Capacity.

Canadian Wildlife Federation. (n.d.). CoyoteHinterland Who's Who. Retrieved May 20, 2021.

Coyote Watch Canada. (2021, May 24). Coexisting with CoyotesCoyote Watch Canada.

Dell'amore, C. (2019, November 29). Coyotes have expanded their range to 49 states—and show no signs of stoppingNational Geographic.

Gibson, B. (2021). Population EcologyNNHS Honours Biology.

Hody, J. W., & Kays, R. (n.d.). Mapping the expansion of coyotes (Canis latrans) across North and Central AmericaZooKeys759: 81-97.

Kilgo, J. C., Ray, H. S., Vukovich, M., Goode, M. J., & Ruth, C. (2012). Predation by coyotes on white-tailed deer neonates in South CarolinaThe Journal of Wildlife Management76(7): 1420-1430.

Levy, S. (2012, May 17). Rise of the coyote: The new top dogNature485: 296-297.