The Eastern Coyote

By John Hall

Adaptability is the greatest strength a species can have to ensure its survival. The eastern coyote is an exemplary example in the wildlife world, and many scientists have speculated that the coyote will likely be one of the last species standing when others have failed.

Coyotes were found only in the Great Plains and western areas until relatively recently. The existence of coyotes in Vermont was first documented in 1948; they apparently moved into our area from New York and southern Quebec as they migrated eastward from the upper Midwest.

Our coyotes are larger than their western kin, due in part to hybridizing with timber wolves in Canada and domestic dogs when they first settled into new country. The size and weight of coyotes, however, are commonly over-estimated, most likely because their long fur masks a relatively light bone structure. A coyote weighing 35 pounds will appear much heavier to the inexperienced eye. Adults weigh 20 to 40 pounds, with males weighing more than females.

Coyotes look somewhat like a slender German shepherd. Key features include a pointed snout and erect, pointed ears along with a bushy tail. They are normally tawny gray with black-tipped fur on the head, back and tail. Some coyotes appear lighter, with a few individuals being yellow and gray. Two other common features are a shoulder saddle of longer black-tipped hairs and a black spot part way down the top of the tail.

Most breeding occurs in February, with pups being born in April. Litter size is normally four to seven pups which are born in a secluded spot such as a hollowed out woodchuck burrow. The male and the female care for the pups, and often a juvenile from the previous year's litter will remain with the family to help raise the new pups. The other pups, however, leave the family in October and November to find a niche of their own.

Their adaptability includes a willingness to eat a wide variety of foods. Small rodents, birds and other small mammals are staple fare, but coyotes also take deer fawns and they will kill and eat some adult deer, especially in the winter. Coyotes also consume almost any plant material that offers food value, with berries and fruit topping the list. Vermont coyotes have even been observed catching and eating grasshoppers when the insects were abundant. Coyotes also will prey on domestic animals such as sheep, chickens, cats and small dogs.

A person with a hunting license may shoot a coyote at any time in Vermont. A trapping season begins the fourth Saturday in October and ends December 31. However, mortality more typically comes from being hit on the highway or diseases and parasites, including mange and heartworm.

It appears coyotes are going to be with us for a long time to come. They are doing exceptionally well throughout Vermont, from the suburbs of Burlington, Brattleboro and Bennington to the remote cedar swamps of the Northeast Kingdom.

The coyote is a survivor that was revered by many Native Americans for its wily ways and ability to adapt and succeed. It's easy to see why.

John Hall is an information specialist with the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.