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Mammals

Coyote
(Canis latrans)

Photo: Jared Hughey
An adult coyote stands howling in tall grasses during the fall. The brown, gray and rust color of the coyote's fur helps it blend into its surroundings.
A coyote howling

Did You Know?

  • There is a lot of work being done by the Urban Coyote Project to study coyotes.
  • Illinois pioneers called coyotes “prairie wolves” or “brush wolves”.
  • Coyotes can run up to 43 miles per hour for short distances.
  • Coyotes are good swimmers.

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Positive Benefits

Coyotes are valuable members of the wildlife community. They help keep populations of small mammals and rabbits under control. As Illinois’ largest remaining predator they are an integral part of healthy ecosystem functioning.

Photo: Jared Duquette
Coyote resting in the shade.
Coyote resting in the shade.

There are many misconceptions about coyotes and their role in urban landscapes. In 2000, a collaborative research project began between the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, the Brookfield Zoo and the Zoological Pathology Program from the University of Illinois. The initial project resulted in a six-year study of coyotes living in Chicago and surrounding suburbs. The researchers captured 253 coyotes and placed radio-collars on 175 so that they could track their movements. Their findings indicate that coyotes are an asset in the urban environment. Check out the latest from the Urban Coyote Project.

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Description & Identification

Coyotes belong to the family Canidae (dog family) along with other dog-like mammals such as the red fox, gray fox and gray wolf.

The coyote looks like a medium-sized dog, but its nose is more pointed and its tail is bushier than most dogs. A coyote holds its tail down between the hind legs when running.

Photo: Micahel Heimlich
Urban coyote
It isn’t uncommon to see coyotes during the day in urban areas.

Coyotes’ fur is typically gray to yellow-gray with guard hairs tipped in black. The fur often has a tinge of red behind the ears and around the face, but fur color varies among individuals. Some of the color variation in Illinois coyotes is due to hybridization with domestic dogs.

Because of their long fur, coyotes are often mistaken as being much larger than they actually are, especially during the winter when their fur is thicker.

Coyotes are 23 to 26 inches high and three to four and a half feet long. They typically weigh 20 to 40 pounds but sometimes weigh up to 55 pounds. Illinois coyotes are usually larger than those from the western United States.

A coyote’s eyes are a striking yellow with large dark pupils, instead of brown, like most dogs. Their eyeshine is greenish gold. The nocturnal yaps and howls of coyotes may be their most distinguishing characteristic.

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Size Comparison

 

Illustrator: Lynn Smith
Man and coyote illustration
Size comparison of a six-foot tall man and a coyote.

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Recommendations for Living with Coyotes

Coyotes are found throughout Illinois—in rural, suburban and highly urban areas. So if you see a coyote resting in or crossing a backyard, golf course, park or field—that is normal coyote behavior. It is also common to see coyotes out during the day. As long as they are given their space, coyotes do not typically pose a threat to people or pets.

For more information about coyotes in urban areas check out the Urban Coyote Project.

Here are some steps to prevent human-coyote conflicts:

  • Do not run if a coyote approaches you. Safety procedures for dealing with coyotes are different than those for dealing with an unknown dog. Yell, stand up straight and wave your arms (the goal is to make yourself appear larger), or throw something at the coyote to make it move away (the goal is to scare it away, not to injure it).
  • Teach your kids what to do if they see a coyote. Have them throw their arms up in the air and yell “like a monster” to scare the coyote away.
  • Do not leave small pets unattended when they are outside, especially at night. Consider the use of fencing or kennel runs to protect small pets.
  • Do not feed coyotes. Property owners should limit the availability of unintentional food sources such as bird food, pet food, ripe fruit or trash.
  • Comply with local ordinances that require oversight/restraint of pets. Coyotes that are protecting their den or young will vigorously defend the area. Simply walking your dog in another area helps keep everyone safe.
  • Target the responsible coyote(s) when a pattern of “undesirable” behavior develops. Usually it will be easier to change human and domestic animal use of an area than to capture the coyote(s). Recognize that coyote population reduction (removing some or all of the coyotes in an area) is usually unrealistic and always temporary. Removal of coyotes also requires time, effort and funding.
  • Alert residents of the neighborhood and the local municipality (e.g., police, public safety officer) if, and as soon as, a problem develops with a coyote.
  • If removal of a coyote is deemed necessary, hire a person with coyote removal experience who is licensed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). Coyote removals approved by the IDNR usually involve the use of cage (live) traps or padded foot-hold traps. These animals are humanely euthanized, not relocated.

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Signs: Tracks & Scat

Coyote tracks can be difficult to distinguish from medium-sized dog tracks, but are typically more oval-shaped than dog tracks. A coyote print has two nail prints at the top of the paw in addition to having a larger heel impression. Coyote tracks will appear in a straight line whereas dogs often shift directions constantly, leaving a random track pattern. The track of a coyote’s hind foot may almost overlap the track of their front foot.

Photo: Bob Bluett
Dog track and coyote track in mud with a quarter to illustrate size difference.
The track on the left is from a dog. The coyote track on the right is smaller and oval shaped.

Coyote scat looks very similar to dog droppings but often small bones, fur, or vegetable matter will be visible. Coyotes often deposit their scat in the middle of trails or near the borders of their territories where they are easily seen.

Photo: Bob Bluett
Coyote scat on a rocky road. A butterfly is resting their to collect minerals from the scat.
Notice the fur visible in the coyote scat. Butterflies are attracted to the minerals in the scat.

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Distribution & Abundance

Coyotes are common across Illinois and have increased during the past few decades. For these reasons, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources uses Hunter Harvest Surveys to monitor the status of the coyote population. Surveys conducted by the Illinois Natural History Survey during 2013–2017 estimated an average annual harvest of about 85,000 (range of 54,444–110,738) coyotes, which comprised only a fraction of the total statewide population. More information on coyote harvest can be found in Legal Status below.

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Behavior & Ecological Role

Coyotes are nocturnal (most active from dusk until dawn), but are sometimes seen during the day. They communicate with a variety of vocalizations including barks, yips and howls.

Coyotes live in close proximity to humans throughout North America. This video produced by the Colorado Division of Wildlife explains typical coyote behavior.

Coyotes serve an important ecological role by keeping populations of rabbits, mice, voles and other animals from growing too large.

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Diseases & Public Health

Coyotes in Illinois are not considered to be a public health concern. While coyote attacks on humans are increasing in some suburban areas in the Western United States, there have been no reported coyote attacks on humans in Illinois in the last 30 years. Coyotes can be carriers of canine distemper, parvovirus, rabies and mange (Sarcoptes scabiei). These are diseases to which domestic dogs, cats and livestock may be susceptible. However, only mange and rabies have public health implications.

Photo: Willowbrook Wildlife Center
Coyote with mange being treated at a wildlife rehabilitation center.
Coyote with mange being treated at a wildlife rehabilitation center. Coyotes with mange are sometimes called “zombie coyotes” by the media.

Sarcoptic mange is caused by mites that burrow into the skin. The burrowing of the mites causes severe itching. Sarcoptic mange is contagious to humans and domestic pets (cats and dogs).

Coyotes can be carriers of rabies. This disease is transmittable to humans, pets and domestic livestock and is fatal if not treated early. If you see a coyote that demonstrates neurological symptoms such as tremors, lack of coordination, paralysis or convulsions, you should CONTACT your local Illinois Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist.

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Habitat & Food

Coyotes occupy a variety of habitats in Illinois. They prefer semi-open country with a mix of grasslands and woodlands. However, they are very adaptable and it is not uncommon to find coyotes living in suburban or urban areas.

Coyotes in Illinois tend to have large home ranges compared to coyotes in the western states. In central Illinois, researchers documented an adult male with a home range of 13 square miles and a subadult male with a home range of 39 square miles. In Cook County, Illinois, solitary coyotes traveled over 20 square miles, while coyotes living in family groups traveled over 3 square miles.

Coyotes took over the role of largest predator in Illinois after wolves and cougars were eliminated from the state during the 1860s. Coyotes hunt mice and voles, rabbits, deer fawns and other prey, but they supplement their diet with insects, plants, and fruits and berries when these items are seasonally available. Besides being good hunters, coyotes are opportunistic feeders and will occasionally eat carrion, garbage and pet food that has been left outside. Coyotes may also kill livestock and poultry. However, there are many feral dogs in Illinois, and often coyotes are blamed for livestock depredation actually caused by feral dogs. It is also commonly thought that urban coyotes frequently prey upon cats and small dogs. A recent study of coyotes in Cook County found that small rodents were the primary food source for urban coyotes. Cat remains were found in less than two percent of the coyote scats studied.

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Reproduction & Longevity

Breeding peaks in late February or early March. Gestation is approximately 58 to 65 days, with pups born during late April or May. Litters of two to 19 pups have been recorded but six to seven pups per litter is average. Coyotes typically produce one litter per year.

Photo: Forest Preserve District of DuPage County
Four coyote pups explore outside their den.
Four coyote pups explore outside their den.

Den sites may be underground, under hollow trees, logs or brush piles, or in abandoned buildings, but most are in vacant fox, badger or woodchuck burrows that coyotes have taken over. Pups begin playing near the den entrance at three to four weeks of age. Pups are weaned by the time they are two months old and begin to learn how to hunt when they are two to three months old. By late summer or early fall most young coyotes will be on their own, but some will stay with their parents for another year to help raise the next year’s litter.

With the extirpation of wolves and cougars from Illinois, the coyote has no remaining natural predators. Forces other than natural predation impact coyote longevity. Urban coyotes typically live less than two years, with vehicle collisions being the most common cause of death. Rural coyotes typically live three to four years. Malnutrition and disease are common mortality factors. Coyotes are susceptible to sarcoptic mange, canine distemper, and parvovirus. The oldest coyote found in a study conducted in central Illinois during 1996 and 1997 was 13 years old.

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Damage Prevention & Control Measures

Despite common misconceptions, most coyotes do not cause problems. However, individuals do sometimes kill or injure domestic pets, young livestock or poultry. These incidents can typically be prevented by removing resources that attract coyotes and by using exclusion techniques.

Some coyotes become accustomed to human activity and may approach close to buildings, people or pets. Cats and small dogs should be observed closely and placed in fenced areas (yards, kennels) when coyotes are known to be present.

Habitat Modification

  • Keep garbage stored securely. Coyotes may eat garbage, but they are more attracted to the rodents that feed on garbage.
  • Keep bird feeding areas clean of debris. Even well-maintained feeders can attract rodents. In turn, this may attract coyotes.
  • Use squirrel-proof bird feeders. In an urban environment coyotes naturally feed on mice, voles, rabbits and woodchucks. When natural prey populations decline, it has been shown that squirrels that visit bird-feeders become easy prey for coyotes.
  • Feed pets indoors. If pets are fed outside clean up any leftover food daily.
  • Do not leave small pets like rabbits, cats or small dogs outside unattended, especially at night.

Exclusion

Excluding coyotes from your property is an effective way to prevent possible conflicts. Fencing your property can help keep coyotes out if the fence is properly installed. A fence that is at least four feet tall will keep most coyotes out. Chain link or sturdy welded wire fence may be used. Coyotes can jump several feet and are also very good climbers and diggers. Reinforcing the fence with an electric wire or a roll bar, or installing a taller fence, may be needed to deter an overly ambitious coyote. Since these methods can become expensive, using a dog run with a roof can help protect small dogs and may be less costly to install.

Make sure livestock and poultry have access to secure shelter and properly fenced areas.

Removal

Preventative measures do not always work. If a coyote is attacking domestic animals or livestock, or is aggressive towards people, it may need to be removed. When dealing with coyotes it is safer to use the services of a nuisance wildlife control operator who has experience trapping coyotes than to trap the animal yourself. These professionals will trap and remove the animal from your property for a fee.

If you plan to remove the coyote yourself, you will need a PERMIT from an Illinois Department of Natural Resources district wildlife biologist before removing the animal. The biologist can provide information on options for resolving problems, including issuance of a nuisance animal removal permit.

Click HERE for more information about hunting and trapping Furbearers. The Illinois Trapper Education Manual provides guidance on the best management practices for trapping. Trap size recommendations for coyotes is found on page 94, see: TrapperEducationManual

Current hunting and trapping seasons can be found in the Illinois Hunting and Trapping Digest or in the Legal Status section below.

Recreational fur-trapping (and hunting when/where allowed) is the preferred method to deal with nuisance furbearer issues. Trapping can help control the local population of animals and, in some cases, reduce the number of nuisance complaints and the damage that some species can cause. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources offers a lengthy trapping season (3 months, in some cases 4.5 months). Legal trapping can occur 100 yards from an occupied dwelling without permission of the occupants, closer with permission as long as there are no municipal ordinances that prohibit trapping.

 

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