Category: Behavior & Ecology

Monomoy Island’s Coyote Conundrum

© Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative


As coyotes make their way into new parts of North America and prey on species unadapted to this wily predator, humans are handed a whole new set of puzzle pieces to work out. And when humans have paved the path for coyotes to enter these new territories, how much responsibility do we hold for the damage they do to prey species populations? This question is currently playing out on Monomoy Island.

by Ivan Kuraev
November 2016


As I searched for Piping Plover nests and chicks on Monomoy – the daily routine of my job as shorebird monitor – I could walk any stretch of the island, on any day of the week, and see coyote tracks running the length of the beach, or imprinted in the mud along the edge of a marsh. These tracks were a sign of how regularly coyotes visit Monomoy, and what brings coyotes to an offshore barrier island is their search for food and territory.  They swim through powerful currents and waters famous for Great White Sharks, then wade across the shallows and sandbars that separate Monomoy from the rest of Cape Cod. I became very accustomed to seeing signs of the coyotes’ visits during my time on the island, but I am still bewildered by the journey they make to get to Monomoy.

According to records kept by the State Department of Environmental affairs, coyotes started breeding in Central Massachusetts in the 1950’s. Using farmland, suburban backyards and even city parks as green corridors, coyotes have successfully expanded their range and established themselves all along the Eastern US.

In Massachusetts they occupy every county with the exceptions of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard (though there have been many unconfirmed coyote sightings on the Vineyard since 2010. On Monomoy, the first coyote den was found by Fish and Wildlife staff in 1998.

The coyote’s ability to adapt has allowed this predator to colonize our continent. Coyotes did not exist beyond the prairies and deserts of Central North America before 1700. By eliminating the larger predators that control coyote populations – bears and wolves – people have provided coyotes with new breeding range, and left for them a reserve food supply in the form of our own food trash. There is little risk for coyotes in exploring new territory, and competition for space pushes mature coyotes to leave their parents and claim their own territories every year.

This is why coyotes have spent the past eighty years moving East, and why they swim to Monomoy. Coyote stragglers and pioneers stake their claim to the island, and here they find an abundance of voles living in the dry wrack line and dune grass, Fowler’s toads, sea robins – a fish that feeds in very shallow water and can easily be caught by a quick enough mouth – and of course, birds.

© Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative
© Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative

Monomoy is a unique haven for common terns, piping plovers and American oystercatchers – birds that fail to reproduce in many areas on the mainland, but thrive on the island. Absent of people, the island Wildlife Refuge provides some species of birds better reproductive success than anywhere else in Massachusetts. Monomoy is one of the few remaining wilderness areas in the Northeast, along a coastline that is almost exclusively developed and trafficked by people.

Thousands of common terns have settled on Monomoy to breed in a dense, cacophonous colony. These ground-nesting birds are attracted to remote barrier islands because they are absent of mammal predators, and given how scarce good breeding habitat is in the Northeast, it is advantageous for the terns to invest their nesting effort into a single, uniquely perfect area of land.

The downside of nesting in groups is that a large colony of terns, along with their eggs and chicks, creates a large aggregation of easy prey. By literally placing all their eggs in one basket, the terns attract potential predators to a virgin island. 

Common terns have evolved effective defenses against native predators who might visit their colony. Should a fox, skunk or raccoon walk through the colony in search of tern eggs, the birds will swarm the mammal, pecking and pooping on it, and drive it out of the colony. They will do the same to peregrine falcons, red-tailed hawks and bald eagles, and their group-defense strategy works a treat.

Coyotes are still an unfamiliar predator to these birds and significantly more imposing than raccoons and skunks, against whom the terns have evolved a successful defense system. When a coyote passes through a tern colony, swarming behavior by the terns can escalate to a point where the entire colony – more than 20,000 birds – will leave its nesting grounds for twenty minutes or longer, exposing chicks and eggs to the cold. This can be deadly to an entire population of terns.

Coyotes are not a native part of this ecosystem, and their intrusion on Monomoy poses a serious threat to the reproductive success of native breeding species. In 2006, the stomach of a coyote killed on the refuge contained 69 common tern chicks, which it likely ate in one night. In 2009, the stomachs of two coyotes contained 75 tern chicks between them (USFWS 2016, Appendix J).

In an effort to mitigate the damage coyotes cause to native birds, the Fish and Wildlife Service has established a practice of killing coyotes found on Monomoy. This is done only during Spring and Summer, when the predators pose a threat to nesting shorebirds. In April, contracted hunters use dogs to search the island for denning coyotes. The goal is to destroy any coyotes that have made dens on Monomoy and kill their pups, who are usually born in March.

David Warren, who works for the USDA’s Wildlife Services division, hunts coyotes that visit the island during the summer months.

© Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative
© Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative
© Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative

In July I spent an evening with David, and he told me a little about his routine hunting coyotes.

David spends part of his summer living on Monomoy. The island is usually uninhabited by people, and the only permanent structure on the Monomoy is a lighthouse at the South end of the island. Built in 1849, the lighthouse is the only building that remains of Whitewash Village, abandoned by its residents in 1876.

David has outfitted the lighthouse with a propane-powered fridge, a stove, and decorated one wall with mammal skulls that he has found on the island. Just before sunset, he and I walk to a dune that he uses as a lookout.

David’s hunting routine begins at dusk, when he sits on the ridge of the dune and scans the landscape with binoculars. His rifle is positioned in a stand to keep it steady, in case he has to take a long shot.

Perched on his lookout, David waits for a glimpse of a coyote that might be stalking the overgrown dune slopes.

Every night, David also sets up leg-hold traps that are baited with sardines, cat food, or coyote urine to attract the predator’s curiosity. These traps are padded and articulated, which means that they don’t break a coyote’s foot when triggered, don’t cut a wound, and don’t cause the animal to dislocate its limb as it struggles to escape.

David checks his traps at least once every twenty-four hours, so he can quickly shoot a coyote that may be caught in a snare.

© Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative
© Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative

As I describe David’s work, I can’t help but feel that I am writing about a practice that is brutal and inhumane. No matter what precautions are built into the design of a leg-hold trap, a coyote caught in the trap will still panic and exhaust itself trying to break free.

It seems paradoxical that a protocol of killing animals should be implemented on a Wildlife Refuge. Aren’t these places designed to protect wildlife? I think this feeling may resonate with many people, especially because it is so easy to sympathize with coyotes – they are intelligent, social, playful, curious. However, this paradox should be considered in light of the very difficult choice that biologists who manage the Monomoy Wildlife Refuge must make every spring.

Coyotes have very recently expanded their historic range, which never included Massachusetts, and the native bird species they depredate on Monomoy have not yet adapted to the impact of coyote predation. Being preyed on by coyotes is, on an evolutionary timeline, completely new to these birds.

If coyotes are allowed to hunt and even breed on Monomoy, their presence may reduce the populations of native piping plovers and American oystercatchers, and could completely wipe out one of the largest common tern colonies on the East Coast. The prospect of such damage makes the choice to kill coyotes on Monomoy more comprehensible.

© Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative

Tern and plover populations declined during the 20th Century because the habitat they need to breed – open beaches and sparsely vegetated dunes – has been taken over by people. Just as these birds love the beach for nesting, people love for it for sunbathing, playing beach volleyball and developing oceanside property. It is easy to think of human effect on beach ecosystems as unnatural – in the literal sense of the word, beachfront homes and ocean pollution are made by man, not by nature. Establishing a wildlife refuge where birds may thrive free of human-made obstacles to their reproduction makes sense in this frame of thought.

A coyote is obviously different than a plastic bag floating in the ocean or a backhoe on the beach. It is a wild animal, and the coyote’s arrival on Monomoy seems like a natural process that shouldn’t be tampered with by people. However, there is strong evidence that coyotes would never have made it to the East coast without the influence of people.

There are numerous examples of invasive animals introduced by people to North America, which are now thriving all over the continent and damaging native ecosystems. In 1890 and 1891, a Bronx drug manufacturer named Eugene Schieffelin released a hundred European Starlings in Central Park as part of an effort by a group named The Acclimatization Society to introduce all birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays into America. By 1950, starlings could be found all over the US and south into Mexico (Mirsky, 2008). Starlings have been implicated in the spread of 25 avian diseases that have have killed native North American bird species (Pimentel et al. 2000).

The brown, or Norway rat is another obvious example; likely originating in Asia, the rat is living commensally with people in cities all over Europe and the US, and has decimated ground-nesting bird populations in New Zealand, while similar black rats have taken their destructive toll on the Seychelles and the Galapagos (Harper, Bunbury 2015).

Introducing completely new, invasive species isn’t the only way that people can affect wildlife populations. By modifying habitat, we promote the success of select animal species, while placing others at a disadvantage. Animals that are uniquely advantaged by human presence will expand their natural range and in that process threaten local, specialist species, who may need a specific habitat or source of prey to survive.

For example, crow and raven populations are increasing worldwide due to urbanization – crows love to eat our trash, and thrive around human-built structures. American crows can now be found in habitats they didn’t occupy before human development, like ocean beaches and deserts around Las Vegas (Marzluff 2001). Crows prey on shorebird eggs and chicks along Atlantic beaches, and ravens are driving down desert tortoise populations in Nevada. In central California, ravens and Steller’s jays are predating on the nests of marbled murrelets, a species that nests only in the upper canopy of old-growth coniferous forests (Percy, Golightly 2007). Marbled murrelet populations are crashing, in large part due to corvid predation.

In Northern California, barred owls are taking over territories formerly occupied by the declining spotted owls, because the old-growth forests that spotted owls prefer have been heavily logged. Because barred owls are less particular about the habitat they will use for breeding, and are more aggressive than spotted owls, they have further advanced a decline of spotted owls that was first initiated by people.

© Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative

Coyotes seem to thrive where people are present, and human influence has allowed coyotes to populate areas well outside their historic range. In his book about coyotes on Cape Cod, Suburban Howls, biologist Jonathan Way describes the effect of human presence on coyotes, “many of the things we most cherish about comfortable suburban living, such as lush woods surrounding properties and open grassy yards teeming with wildlife, are also some of the key attributes that make suburban areas perfect coyote habitat” (Way, 124).

Coyotes have taken advantage of the habitat people have created, and used it to expand their range throughout the US. However, their success isn’t limited to rural and suburban areas; coyotes are also thriving in cities.

In 2010, a coyote was seen in the Holland Tunnel, which connects New Jersey with downtown Manhattan (Rovzar 2010). In April 2015, a coyote was seen on the roof of a bar in Queens and later that same month, NYPD officers from the 10th precinct spotted a coyote running through Chelsea, a busy neighborhood in Manhattan (Bittel 2015). Coyotes have successfully denned and reared pups in Van Cortland and Pelham Bay Parks, both in the Bronx, and are likely establishing territories on Long Island.

Because coyotes are nocturnal, they can hunt and roam city parks and alleys when most city residents are asleep, and New York’s large supply of rats and squirrels provides them with an interminable food supply.

I spoke with to Kate Iaquinto, wildlife biologist at the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge. It’s hard to understand that coyotes are here on the East Coast because of people, I said to her. Wild animals are not the same as pollution or litter, and even invasive animals appear to be a part of the natural world.

“A lot of people have a simplistic vision of natural selection,” she replied, “and they think, ‘well the coyotes made it here because they’re awesome,’ but it’s not quite so simple.”

If people are the reason why coyotes have come to Monomoy, and if we are to blame for the damage that coyotes inflict on native bird populations, what should we do about it?

Because Monomoy is an island, it is sensible to kill every coyote that swims there and continue the practice indefinitely, with good success. But what about all the mainland beaches that are home to nesting threatened shorebirds?

What happens when coyotes reach Long Island and start eating black skimmer eggs, or preying on the least terns that nest all along the peninsula? It seems laughable to try and shoot or trap every coyote on Long Island.

In his recent New York Times editorial called “Stop Killing Coyotes,” science writer Dan Flores described a coyote adaptation known as “fission-fusion.” When adult coyotes are killed, surviving coyotes go into colonizing mode.

“They have larger litters. If alpha females die, beta females breed…In full colonization mode…coyotes could withstand as much as a 70 percent yearly kill rate without suffering any decline in their total population” (Flores 2016).

Outside the bounds of an island, killing coyotes is not an effective conservation practice. But, there are alternatives.

© Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative

Because coyotes are intelligent and observant predators, taste aversion and negative conditioning seem to hold potential as effective measures to protect nesting birds from coyote predation. On a mainland Refuge, it may be useful to leave dummy plover or tern eggs and bodies, laced with a repulsive or mildly toxic chemical, for coyotes to find before nesting season begins. Resident coyotes will then learn to avoid similar birds and eggs in the future, and through territorial behavior keep away straggler coyotes who have not developed the aversion.

In a taste aversion study conducted in California, sheep carcasses were laced with lithium chloride, which causes symptoms of poisoning in coyotes but is not lethal, and left for the predators to find and eat. When lithium chloride bait was removed and replaced with poison-free sheep carcasses, wild coyotes continued to avoid the bait for nine weeks, or as long as the study was able to continue. It is unknown how long the effect lasted after that time, but the practice certainly shows promise as an effective way to diminish coyote predation. A coyote’s curiosity, adeptness and memory may give us an advantage when it comes to predator control.

As David Warren and I get ready to leave our lookout dune, having spotted no coyote, I ask Dave if he ever feels proud of the coyotes he’s hunting when they avoid his traps, or when they run to cover before he is able to fire a shot.

“Oh yea,” he laughs, “Oh yea. My wife says to me, ‘So they outsmarted you again, huh Dave?’”

As he says this, Dave smiles, slings his rifle over his shoulder, and starts down the sliding sands of the dune and back toward his lighthouse hunting lodge.

The Monomoy Common Tern colony had a banner breeding year in 2016, and reached its largest recorded population of 10,505 pairs. In April, before the birds arrived on Monomoy, two adult coyotes and eight pups were killed in their den on the island. The decision to do so was a big part of what allowed the terns to have such a productive year.

However, during the summer months, Dave wasn’t able to shoot or trap the two coyotes that visited the island almost every night. I saw their tracks on my bird-monitoring walks every morning, running parallel to mine.

They outsmarted us, again.

© Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative

Related Articles

A coyote pup sits in tall green grass

It’s Coyote Pupping Season! What You Need to Know to Coexist

A coyote pup sits in tall green grass
© Morgan Heim / Urban Coyote Initiative


Urban coyotes become more defensive about their den sites during the spring. Here's what you need to know to avoid conflict.

By Jaymi Heimbuch

Urban coyotes tend to make the news a lot during the spring. More sightings, more interactions with dogs, more following of people walking or cycling through parks and trails.

The reason is that it is denning and pupping season, the time of year when coyotes are both more active around and protective of their den sites.

Though there is more possibility of conflict during pupping season, we can continue to coexist with coyotes if we all understand the reason behind the change in their behavior and how to alter our own routines to ensure we all have enough space.

Two coyote pups sit at their den site, peeking out from tall green grass
Coyote parents warn away any intruders from their dens to protect their pups. Help avoid conflict during pupping season. © Morgan Heim / Urban Coyote Initiative

What to expect during coyote pupping season

Coyotes mate in mid-February and are ready to give birth by mid-April. During this time, both when nearing birthing time and once the pups are born, coyote parents are more protective of their denning areas and more active in hunting food. Their level of activity and protectiveness rises even more as the pups begin to venture out of the den in early summer.

Because of this change in coyote behavior, urban residents, especially pet owners walking through coyote territory, tend to have more interactions. Coyotes that usually avoid any confrontation with humans or dogs will display more territorial behaviors, warning passers-by with vocalizations or even following them. And coyotes that would normally scamper off when chased by an off-leash dog will more likely stand its ground.

The reality of coyote attacks

This doesn’t mean that a dog is more likely to be attacked during pupping season. In fact, the Urban Coyote Research Program found that in their study area of Chicago, “Dogs were more commonly attacked during the winter months than during the spring and summer which corresponds to the breeding season of the coyote.” The confrontations may be more frequent but they aren’t necessarily more injurious.

Coyote attacks on humans are rare, and there have been only two fatal attacks in modern history, in 1981 and 2009. Urban Coyote Research reports, “In almost a third of the reported attack cases, it was known that coyotes were being fed (either intentionally or accidentally) near the attack site. One victim was bitten while feeding a coyote and another was bitten by a coyote that was being fed by her parents.” So it appears there is often a human cause to the bites in the first place.

For comparison, around 4.5 million people are bitten by domestic dogs every year. It is the fifth most common reason why parents take children to the emergency room. From 1979-1996, dogs killed 279 people. So, if it helps assuage fears of neighborhood coyotes, a child is far more likely to be bitten by a domestic dog than by a coyote when out playing in the neighborhood.

That said, it is only smart to know about coyotes and their behavior so that you can continue to coexist peacefully with these wild urban residents.

A litter of four adorable coyote pups sit together at their den among green shrubs and trees
Urban coyotes adjust their litter size according to the resources available in their area. They may have only one or two pups or as many as six or more depending upon the food supply and other pressures. © Morgan Heim / Urban Coyote Initiative

How to avoid negative experiences with coyotes:

As Bay Nature notes, “When a pet goes missing, urban coyotes can quickly develop a bad rap. But many wildlife experts say it’s not the coyotes who need better management — it’s us.”

The fact is, most negative coyote interactions are preventable. When residents act with the reality of urban wildlife in mind, it is easy enough to coexist. Here are tips for how to be proactive and responsible when among your coyote neighbors.

Be aware when you’re in coyote territory

If you’re an urban resident, you may be in coyote territory and not even realize it. That territory could be in a public park, along walking trails, or even your very own back yard. If you are aware of the presence of coyotes, you are most likely to be prepared to avoid any conflict. Pay attention to reports of coyote sightings in local media and on neighborhood message boards. Keep an eye (and ear) out for coyote activity in your area.

Keep pets on leashes during walks and supervise them when outside

No one wants to have a bad experience, neither us nor the coyotes we encounter. For the most part, we just want to go our separate ways. Unfortunately, territories cross and intolerance happens, especially when there is something we each want to protect. What often looks like aggressive behavior by a coyote toward a dog is actually defensive behavior, a coyote just alerting the unwanted visitors that this is their area and they’d rather be left alone.

The video below shows both irresponsible (and in some ways cruel) behavior by a dog owner, and defensive submissive behavior by coyotes who just want the dog to leave:

Smaller dogs are more likely to be taken by coyotes than larger dogs, so small dog owners need to be particularly alert. Following leash laws is one of the easiest ways to keep your pet safe. So too is supervising dogs when out in the yard, especially an unfenced yard. When small dog owners acknowledge that their pet looks like food to a larger animal and take steps to protect them, rather than being stubbornly resentful toward coyotes for being coyotes, their small dog is much more likely to lead a long, happy, coyote-free life.

Pet owners who understand when they’re in coyote territory and how to behave when in coyote territory can prevent negative interactions from happening. Be a smart, alert, and proactive pet owner and avoid conflict for you and for other pet owners.


Do not leave food out

Leaving food outside is an open invitation to all sorts of wildlife. The same trouble begins for any species, be it deer or raccoons, coyotes or bears — when they get used to a free and easy source of food, they become habituated and even aggressive about getting their usual meal. Cleaning up food from your yard goes a long way in keeping coyotes at bay. This includes pet food, birdseed, compost piles, fallen fruit and anything else that might look like a meal to a coyote. Remember, coyotes are omnivorous and will enjoy a feast of overripe fruit with as much zeal as they will a feast of rotund rodents.

Don’t run away

If you like coyotes, the nicest thing you can do is keep their fear of humans intact. If you dislike coyotes, the smartest thing you can do to avoid them is keep their fear of coyotes intact. If you encounter a coyote in an area where it is unlikely there is a den, and it is too close for comfort or approaches you, do what is known as “hazing” or simply scaring it away. If you have a small dog with you, pick it up. Yell and wave your arms, snap your jacket or pop an umbrella, flash a flashlight at it, toss sticks toward (but not at) the coyote, and in general act a little crazy.

Do not chase a coyote, since this may cause the coyote to turn around and chase back. And when you are trying to scare a coyote off, don't run away or turn and walk speedily away as this could trigger a coyote's instinct to give chase. Stand your ground while still acting like your version of a lunatic until the coyote leaves.

Hazing during pupping season isn’t always productive (or safe)

While hazing usually works to frighten off a coyote, it doesn't always work during the spring when there is a den and pups to defend.

As Project Coyote points out, “Be aware that you may encounter a coyote who is trying to haze you away from his den by acting anxious and/or assertive. He may attempt to escort you to a safe distance by hunching his back and walking towards you, or by vocalizing (barking or “huffing”). Please leash dogs and pick up small pets and leave the area calmly.”

UCRP notes, “If a coyote seems intent on defending a certain area, particularly around pupping season, your best bet may be to alter your route to avoid conflict with a normally calm animal.” They suggest avoiding an area or reporting the coyote so that trained professionals can properly haze the coyote without causing too much stress or using ineffective tactics that would only further habituate coyotes to humans.

Hazing by trained researchers has been successfully used before to encourage urban coyotes to move den sites away from areas where conflict was likely. In the case of Coyote 748, a coyote collared and monitored by UCRP, “Through calculated hazing efforts by our research team, coyote 748 was encouraged successfully to move his den to another location which we anticipated would cause less public conflict. Success! Pups were confirmed in May.” The situation was a win for everyone involved.

The more everyone in a community is aware of and proactive about coyotes, the fewer incidents there will be overall. Peaceful coexistence is possible when everyone takes part. Indeed, it is the only real solution. Coyotes have proven to us time and again that they aren't going anywhere, so learning to live together is our one single option. What better time to start than spring when the next generation is on its way.

A coyote pup walks through dry grass.
Urban coyote pups have a big learning curve in order to make it to adulthood. © Morgan Heim / Urban Coyote Initiative

Related Articles

A coyote stands under a shrub in golden sunlight

How Compost Piles Are Creating Problem Coyotes

A coyote stands under a shrub in golden sunlight
© Jaymi Heimbuch / Urban Coyote Initiative


We think we're being environmentally friendly by composting, but without the proper precautions, those piles can be problematic for wildlife. Learn what one study discovered about the surprising impact compost piles have on urban coyotes.

By Jaymi Heimbuch
November 2016


Coyotes live in practically every city in the United States, yet the vast majority of human residents never spot a single one. That's because urban coyotes are skilled at steering well clear of humans, even switching to nocturnal behavior just to stay out of sight.

So what makes some coyotes more likely to be active during the day, or hang around in areas closer to humans with a higher chance of having a run-in? Are these animals simply more bold and brazen, destined to become problem animals — or is there more to it?

We were really interested in the question of why certain individuals are much more likely to be encountering people when really most [urban] coyotes avoid people, tend to stick with natural areas, tend to be quite nocturnal. We wanted to know why there are these big differences in behavior across coyotes.

Maureen Murray

A study published earlier this spring in Proceedings of the Royal Society B helps answer this core question about urban coyotes. Maureen Murray of the Edmonton Urban Coyote Project and her team caught and collared 19 coyotes. Using GPS location data from the collars, hair samples collected while collaring, and video footage placed around nine compost piles, the researchers discovered that these very compost piles and a common disease called sarcoptic mange are two key factors in causing coyotes to alter their behavior and potentially be involved in more human-coyote conflicts.

When the team collared the coyotes, they noted their general health including whether or not they had signs of mange. As they collected GPS collar location data, they noticed distinct differences. The individuals with mange had not just slightly different behavior, but distinctly different behaviors and habits than those individuals without the disease.

Mange is a highly contagious skin disease caused by a mite. It is commonly found in animal species, including our own domestic dogs. The mites burrow just under the skin, causing extreme itching and discomfort as well as hair loss. Imagine the feeling of a constant, pervasive itch and a desperate need to scratch, to the point that you injure your own skin and have trouble concentrating on anything else including eating. Imagine also that the itch causes your hair to fall out, leaving you vulnerable to the cold. That is what an animal with mange is experiencing. So it is no surprise that those individuals with mange would have different behaviors. But the extent to which it affects them is of interest.

“The guys with mange had these huge home ranges, like 60 square kilometers,” says Murray. On the other hand, “the healthy ones never really leave the natural areas. As our sample got bigger and bigger, this pattern kept holding that the ones with mange weren’t nocturnal like the healthy guys. They were active pretty equally at all times of day, they used residential developed areas five times more often, and they had four times larger home ranges.” In other words, the coyotes with mange travel much more, in areas and at times of days where they are much more likely to encounter people. But that isn't the only important distinction.

The coyotes with mange also tended to use residential back yards, specifically those with compost piles. The lure of the compost pile is a key piece of the puzzle in behavior differences among coyotes, but the reasons why are complex.

The team wanted to discover if the compost piles aggregate coyotes, attracting sick coyotes and healthy coyotes alike, and perhaps assisting in the spread of mange among these urban animals. To find out the answer, the team put cameras on the compost piles and looked at how often a coyote with hair loss — a sure sign of mange — appeared and how far apart the visits of individual coyotes were spaced.

With the help of the remote cameras, Murray found that coyotes with hair loss were recorded at compost piles more frequently than they were recorded on cameras set up in natural areas. Not only that, but the visits to compost piles by different coyotes were much closer together in time, increasing the chances of healthy coyotes coming into contact with disease.

Coyotes are naturally territorial so healthy coyotes hunting for rodents and small prey in their home range are sure to let visiting coyotes know they aren't very welcome on their turf. In normal wild situations, the chances of many coyotes meeting up often enough to spread mange are much, much lower. But when you throw in a steady supply of food provided by humans, the dynamics shift. In short, the compost piles are bringing coyotes together far more frequently than happens in natural areas, and more of those coyotes are sick.

The team found that the difference between healthy and sick coyotes isn’t just in where they roam and when. It also comes down to the specific foods they're eating and how their diet is affecting their overall health.

An urban coyote eats bread left near a walking trail
Coyotes are opportunistic eaters, and leaving any food out - whether that is fallen fruit from a backyard tree, pet food on the porch, or uncovered compost piles - is a sure way to attract them to your home. © Jaymi Heimbuch / Urban Coyote Initiative

Murray wanted to find out if there is something about eating from these piles that causes the coyotes to get sick beyond just contact with other coyotes. In other words, is the food itself perhaps to blame in compromising a coyote’s immune system?

“When we ended up looking at the stable isotope signatures of their hair, we found that the sick coyotes assimilated a lot less protein than the healthy guys. If a sick coyote has a worse diet, it's hard to picture them sort of breaking out of that cycle [of illness] since this lower protein diet is also bad for their health.”

Next, the team took samples of the compost at the different piles to test for fungal toxins called mycotoxins.

Mycotoxins can contaminate food supplies from livestock feed to grains that go into human foods. In animals and humans who have consumed mycotoxins, the effect can range from vomiting and weight loss to immune suppression and, in the worst cases, organ failure or even cancer. Immune suppression was of interest to Murray, as this could be part of the reason why coyotes feeding from compost piles tend to be sick. Even if they arrived sick, the food they consume could be making it harder to fight off that illness.

The team found that mycotoxins were present in a significant number of the compost piles, and some piles had disconcertingly high concentrations. “It was quite shocking that an animal eating at this compost pile, you wouldn’t be able to legally give that food to a pet or to livestock,” says Murray.

Piles of food waste we don’t normally think about, or think of as being environmentally friendly, could have negative affects for coyotes, and also for a lot of other wildlife like bears or raccoons or foxes.

Maureen Murray

Easily accessible sources of food change the behavior of wildlife, bringing animals in contact with each other more frequently than would naturally happen. This aids in the spread of many other diseases besides mange as well. In the case of compost piles specifically, it also aids in the spread of toxins that could have even deeper health consequences.

Now the team’s questions take on a chicken-or-egg shape. Are the coyotes visiting the compost piles because the piles are an easy source of food, one that is needed as the mangy coyotes struggle to hunt natural food sources? Or are the coyotes taking advantage of pockets of food that ultimately weaken their immune systems and make them susceptible to contracting mange via other visitors to the same food source? This is an area of future study for Murray.

Either way, the team has been able to point to compost piles as a problematic issue for the health of coyotes. The piles play a role in reducing the health of urban coyotes, bringing sick coyotes into residential areas, and increasing the possibility that coyotes come into conflicts with humans.

Making compost piles difficult for wildlife to access is a simple way to reduce the temptation for coyotes to come near a residential dwelling. Keeping coyotes away from human food sources protects them both from disease and from the potential of becoming a problem animal. Thus, putting a lid on compost piles is both a proactive and a compassionate solution.

In fact, urban wildlife managers universally recommend removing any and all food and water sources around the home as a way to keep wildlife out of residential areas. The less food is in a yard — from bird seed scattered on the ground under a feeder, to ripe fruit fallen under trees, to lids left off of trash cans or barbeque grills left coated in grease — the less likely it is that wild animals become habituated to humans and turn into problem individuals, perhaps problematic enough to be lethally removed.


A lot of coyote management is focused right now on to remove or not to remove because it's pretty hard to get a real problem animal to change its behavior. Managers are stuck between a rock and a hard place; some residents are really concerned about the presence of coyotes, but a lot of residents are super excited about the presence of coyotes and don't want to see them harmed or relocated. We're hoping our results help the city better target how to prevent conflict. We don't mean to imply that all conflict all the time is related to disease, but it does shed some light on a different approach we could be taking.

Maureen Murray


Going after easier food sources such as those found in backyards, taking up shelter in residential areas like under houses and decks, and traveling during the day and in more heavily populated areas are all actions with the potential to cause conflicts. Murray's research is helping to uncover specific causes for this kind of “unnatural” behavior among urban coyotes. Now that the team has made the connection between compost piles and the health of urban coyotes, they can look more deeply into how residents can take proactive steps to avoid creating problem coyotes. This is the kind of research that goes a long way in promoting coexistence through science.

“It's very rewarding to be able to collect knowledge about coyotes and then teach people there's a reason why conflicts are happening and that we can do a lot to prevent those, rather than [conflict] being an inevitable consequence of living with wildlife.”

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An urban coyote heads down the road in her usual morning patrol of her city territory.

10 Fascinating Facts About Urban Coyotes

An urban coyote heads down the road in her usual morning patrol of her city territory.
© Jaymi Heimbuch / Urban Coyote Initiative


Urban coyotes are present in practically every city across the United States. For many cities, the appearance of coyotes has happened only within the last few decades, and residents are still trying to get used to their new neighbors. Though there is a rise in awareness that coyotes are around, there is still a great deal of misunderstanding among city residents about coyote behavior and their role in urban ecology. Here are ten facts about urban coyotes that will clear up common misconceptions and shed more light on this adaptable canid.

by Jaymi Heimbuch



Urban coyotes can create territories out of a patchwork of parks and green spaces

While many urban coyotes make their homes in large parks or forest preserves, this isn't the case in all situations. Urban coyotes don't need one cohesive piece of green space like a single park or a single golf course to call home. They manage to make do with surprisingly small patches of hunt-able land woven together as a whole territory.

Coyotes can thrive in a small territory if there is enough food and shelter, but if there isn't — such as in sections of a city with only a handful of small parks, soccer fields, green spaces and the like — then they will expand the size of their territory to include enough places to hunt for food to sustain themselves. The size of an urban coyote's range is dependent on the abundance of food and can be anywhere from two square miles to ten square miles or more. Urban coyotes tend to have smaller territory sizes than rural coyotes because there is so much more food packed into smaller areas, even if that area has only a few scattered parks.

Studies have shown that coyotes much prefer forested areas and large parks where they can steer clear of humans, and they try to avoid residential areas. But when that's not available, they still figure out how to make due. In a large-scale study of urban coyotes by the Urban Coyote Research Program, it was discovered that “29 percent of collared coyotes have home ranges composed of less than 10 percent of natural land and 8 percent having no measurable patches of natural land within their home ranges.”

There is still a lot to learn about how coyotes use urban landscapes, which inevitably varies depending on the building density of different cities, the quality of green spaces, and many other factors. But one thing is for sure: the more researchers learn about urban coyote territories, the more it becomes apparent that coyotes make use of the most surprising places, even those that at first glance seem like an ecological desert.


Urban coyote dens are surprisingly hard to find

Though coyotes may be denning in the middle of an urban park, in old storm drains or even under sheds, it is still not likely you'll stumble upon one while strolling down the street or hiking through a preserve. Coyotes do their best to hide their dens and will often have multiple dens and multiple entrances to a den to help conceal their activity. These dens are usually tucked away in shrubbery or the wooded patches of parks, washes, culverts, golf courses, preserves and similar spaces.

Coyotes avoid residential and commercial areas when they can, and instead seek out whatever remaining fragments of natural habitat are available, which usually is well away from the eyes of humans. Though this is where they prefer to be, they’ll use what they can get. Eastern Coyote Research notes that urban dens have been found “in culverts under heavily trafficked roads, basements of abandoned houses, and directly behind a drive-in movie screen” and according to National Geographic, “one GPS-collared coyote named 748 and his mate even raised a litter of five healthy pups inside a secret concrete den in the parking lot of Soldier Field Stadium, home of the Chicago Bears.”

However because coyote parents want to keep their pups protected and hidden from threats, once humans disturb a den the coyote likely will move pups to a new location. So even if you find a den one day, the family may not be there the next.

An urban coyote stands on a rock wall overlooking a city park
Coyotes manage to fit right in within cities, often hiding in plain sight as they make themselves at home. © Jaymi Heimbuch / Urban Coyote Initiative


Urban coyotes may live in family packs or on their own at different points in their lives.

It’s common to see a single coyote hunting or traveling on its own, but that doesn't necessarily mean it is alone. Coyotes are highly social animals and this didn't change when they entered the urban ecosystem. Coyotes may live as part of a pack, which usually consists of an alpha male and female, perhaps one or two of their offspring from previous seasons (known as a “helper”) and their current litter of pups. The pack may also welcome in a solitary traveler if their territory can support another member. Packs living in sizable protected areas can have as many as five or six adults in addition to that season's pups.

However, a coyote may also spend part of its life on its own, known as a solitary coyote. This is common when young coyotes disperse from their pack and go in search of their own territory, a new pack to join, or a mate with whom to start their own pack. A coyote may also spend a stretch of time as a loner if it was an alpha in a pack but lost its mate. According to Urban Coyote Research Program, between a third and half of coyotes under study are solitary coyotes, and they are usually youngsters between six months and two years old.

Because coyotes hunt and travel alone or in pairs, it is often thought that they don't form packs. The study of urban coyotes has helped to correct this misconception and has revealed much about the social lives of coyotes.


Urban coyotes mate for life and are monogamous.

Speaking of mates, coyotes mate for life and are 100 percent faithful to that mate. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Mammalogy found that “among 18 litters comprising 96 offspring, [researchers] found no evidence of polygamy, and detected a single instance of a double litter (pups from different parents sharing the same den).”

“I was surprised we didn't find any cheating going on,” study co-author Stan Gehrt, told Science Daily in an article. “Even with all the opportunities for the coyotes to philander, they really don't. In contrast to studies of other presumably monogamous species that were later found to be cheating, such as arctic foxes and mountain bluebirds, we found incredible loyalty to partners in the study population.”

This loyalty holds even when there are other coyotes in adjacent territories and plenty of opportunity for cheating. But coyote pairs stay faithful and faithful for life. Some of the pairs followed by the research team were together for as long as 10 years, only moving on when one mate died.

The researchers believe that this monogamy plays an important role in the success of urban coyotes. Because a female can adjust her litter size based on the availability of food and other factors, she can have larger litters of pups in a city where there is a buffet of rodents, reptiles, fruits, vegetables and so much else in a relatively small area. She also has a dedicated mate to help her feed and raise the pups, so these large litters have a higher survival rate, resulting in more coyotes reaching an age to disperse to other areas of a city.

Even when food is less abundant or there is territory pressure from other coyotes, the couple stays together year after year. Coyotes may be opportunistic about matters of food and shelter, but not when it comes to love.


Urban coyotes do not feast on pets and garbage; they typically stick to a natural diet.

Due to sensationalistic reporting, many urban residents think all coyotes are out to eat their dog or cat at the first opportunity, or that they’re dumpster divers of the first degree. On the contrary, studies have shown that urban coyotes stick mainly to a natural diet.

Coyotes are opportunistic omnivores and will eat fruits and vegetables along with animal prey.  A study by Urban Coyote Research Program analyzed over 1,400 scats and found that “the most common food items were small rodents (42%), fruit (23%), deer (22%), and rabbit (18%).” Only about 2 percent of the scats had human garbage and just 1.3 percent showed evidence of cats. “Apparently, the majority of coyotes in our study area do not, in fact, rely on pets or garbage for their diets,” say the researchers.

This aligns logically with urban coyotes' preference of sticking to parks, preserves, cemeteries, and other out-of-the-way areas as much as possible. The food available in these locations is rodents, reptiles, fallen fruit and other food items that are part of a natural diet.

Coyotes of course take feral cats or the occasional domestic cat that has been left outdoors, and there is certainly evidence that coyotes that have become habituated and overly bold will go after small dogs. However pets are not primary prey for them, not by a long shot.

As it is with the presence of apex predators in any ecosystem, having coyotes living and thriving in an urban area is a positive sign of the health and biodiversity of urban areas. Their presence can be considered a thumbs-up for the quality of a city's urban ecology.

An urban coyote stands in the middle of a road at night illuminated by the orange glow of the streetlight
© Jaymi Heimbuch / Urban Coyote Initiative


Urban coyotes often switch from naturally diurnal and crepuscular activity to nocturnal activity.

When urban residents see coyotes “in broad daylight” it is often assumed that the coyote has grown overly bold or is ill in some way. Actually, it is perfectly normal for a coyote to be out during the day, as this is their natural time for hunting.

Urban coyotes have made a behavior change to avoid humans, switching from being active at dawn and dusk or during daylight hours, to being mostly active at night. This strategy lowers their risk of encountering a species of which they are naturally afraid while still hunting in an urban territory.

However, if a coyote needs to be out during the day to hunt or to get from one place to another, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong or odd about the coyote’s behavior. In fact, in the spring and summer when raising their pups, coyotes need to find more food and so may be more active during the day and thus spotted more often. Urban residents frequently misinterpret daytime sightings as a rise in the urban coyote population or that the coyote could be rabid, neither of which are usually true.


Urban coyotes reduce the presence of feral and free-roaming cats in natural spaces, which helps protect songbirds in parks.

While the issue of cats and coyotes is a sensitive and controversial one, there are aspects of their interaction that may come as a happy surprise. In a 2013 study, urban coyote researchers collared 39 feral cats. They found that while urban coyotes tend to stick to parks, wilderness preserves and other fragments of green habitats, the cats steer clear of coyotes' turf. The felines keep out of these small patches of wilderness and thus aren't predating songbirds. Songbirds aren't really on a coyote's menu, so they have a better chance to thrive when coyotes are present and deterring mesopredators such as cats. Other studies in California showed that coyotes reducing cat activity in habitat fragments resulted in an increase in the nesting success of songbirds in those habitats.

Stan Gehrt, the study’s lead author, told Science Daily, “Free-roaming cats are basically partitioning their use of the urban landscape. They’re not using the natural areas in cities very much because of the coyote presence there. It reduces the cats' vulnerability to coyotes, but at the same time, it means the coyotes are essentially protecting these natural areas from cat predation.”

Coyotes have a clear impact on how free-roaming cats use the urban landscape, but the exact scope of the ecological benefit still needs more study. Urban Coyote Research Program points out, “Within cities, domestic cats may be the most abundant mesocarnivore in some parts of the urban landscape. [F]ree-roaming cats have been reported to depredate native wildlife and, in some instances, appear to have reduced or even extirpated some populations. However, data on the population ecology of free-ranging cats, and especially aspects that relate to potential predation or disease risk, are needed. This information gap is especially true for cats inhabiting urban landscapes, where their numbers can reach inordinately high levels and the systems are already stressed from other anthropogenic effects.”


Urban coyotes help control the populations of other sometimes problematic urban wildlife like rodents, deer and Canada geese.

It’s so easy to think of urban places as home to humans, pigeons, crows and raccoons, and that’s about it. But our cities are increasingly home to an ever more diverse array of wildlife species. Unfortunately, these species are not beneficial when they become overabundant. Canada geese can wreak havoc on baseball fields and golf courses, deer can easily become a nuisance in yards and gardens of residential housing and spread disease-carrying ticks, and rats have been an issue in cities ever since cities were invented. Coyotes play a role in limiting the populations of these species and more, helping to keep a balance and increase biodiversity in urban ecosystems.

Rodents are the primary food source for coyotes in rural and urban areas alike, and studies have shown an increase in the rodent population in areas where coyotes are removed. Deer fawns are also a prey source for coyotes, and coyotes can take anywhere from 20 percent to 80 percent of fawns in various populations. Because coyotes rarely ever take adult deer, they don't cause a reduction in populations, but they do help to stabilize or slow the growth of deer populations in urban and suburban areas.

The same goes for Canada geese; the presence of coyotes is highly beneficial to slow the growth of goose populations, which helps out managers of parks, golf courses, sporting fields and other grassy areas that geese graze in abundance. Urban Coyote Research Program writes, “By placing modified video cameras at the nests, this project was able to identify coyotes as the major predator on the nests. Thus, coyotes are serving as a biocontrol for urban geese. Because egg contents are not detected in coyote scat, the extent of coyote predation on goose nests could only be determined by placing cameras at nests. As with deer, coyotes do not take enough adult geese to reduce the population, but they can slow the population increase through egg predation.”

The predation of coyotes on deer and other species is often controversial, but it is important to remember that what we are witnessing is the return of an apex predator to an ecosystem. When apex predators are present, an ecosystem is more balanced and more diverse. Humans have cleared out other predators like wolves, cougars and bears from their historic territories but the coyote is now filling in this blank in the food web. What we are witnessing with coyotes taking up residence in urban and suburban areas is the return of an apex predator to an ecosystem, and watching what happens is a fascinating area of study for urban ecologists.


The easiest way for city residents to avoid negative interactions with coyotes is to avoid feeding them, either accidentally or on purpose, and otherwise habituating them to humans.

When coyotes become overly bold or aggressive, and in the rare instances when coyotes have bitten humans, it usually is discovered that they were being fed.

Coyotes have a natural fear of humans, and like most wildlife, will start to lose that fear and even become aggressive if they are being fed. This is the reason wildlife managers warn people to never feed wildlife, and there is the saying, “A fed coyote is a dead coyote.”

Once a coyote loses its fear, it is likely to become a problem animal and that means animal control will have little choice but to lethally remove it.

Feeding coyotes sometimes happens on purpose, but it can also be done accidentally when people leave pet food on their porches intending it for cats or dogs, when they leave scattered seeds under the bird feeder, or even when they leave fallen fruit or compost in their yards.

Educating the public on the importance of not feeding wildlife and removing any food sources, as well as educating them on safe and humane coyote hazing strategies to maintain coyotes' fear of humans, is the best way a city can avoid negative interactions and instead enjoy quiet coexistence.

An urban coyote stands in a regal pose on a city sidewalk.
People often feed urban coyotes accidently by leaving out pet food, open compost bins, fallen fruit and other tasty morsels for these opportunistic eaters to find. © Jaymi Heimbuch / Urban Coyote Initiative


Trapping and killing or relocating urban coyotes does not reduce the overall population of coyotes.

A common reaction from urban and suburban residents when they learn coyotes are living in their area is to ask for the removal of the coyotes, either through lethal means or by trapping and relocating them. However, animal control officers have learned through a lot of experience that this is not only a lot harder to do than it sounds, but it does nothing to reduce the number of coyotes living in an area. In fact, it has the opposite effect.

Coyotes are territorial and keep other coyotes out of their home range. The larger the territory of a coyote pack, the fewer coyotes are present overall. Removing coyotes from an area opens that location up for new coyotes to come in and claim it as their own (and there will always be more coyotes coming in to fill a void), often resulting in a short-term increase in coyotes as the territory lines are redrawn by the newcomers. Additionally, when there is less pressure from neighboring coyotes and more food available, female coyotes will have larger litters of pups, again creating a short-term increase in the number of coyotes in that area.

There are other problems with trapping coyotes. As the Humane Society points out, “The most common devices used to capture coyotes are leg-hold traps and neck snares. Both can cause severe injuries, pain, and suffering. Leg-hold traps are not only cruel and inhumane for coyotes, but may also injure other wildlife, pets, or even children. Non-target wild animals are also caught in traps, and many sustain injuries so severe that they die or must be killed.”

If a city wants to limit or reduce the number of urban coyotes living there, the easiest thing to do is allow existing coyotes to work out their own territories, naturally stabilizing the coyote population. There will never be more coyotes in an ecosystem than that ecosystem can support, so (despite what some may think) a city can never become “overpopulated” or “infested” with coyotes.

Citizens can take extra steps to make an area less appealing to coyotes by removing all extra food sources – from fallen fruit or ripe vegetables from backyard gardens to pet food left on back porches – and removing sources of water. The fewer resources available, the larger the territories need to be to support the resident coyotes, and the fewer coyotes there are overall.

This is not to say that removal of problem coyotes isn't necessary. If a coyote has become so bold that it begins targeting pets as prey or biting people and the coyote's behavior is beyond being solved by hazing techniques, then removal is the only solution left to animal control officers. Unfortunately, this typically means lethal removal. Relocation is not an option because it doesn't fix the problem behavior, and actually puts the coyote in danger as it  can be hit by cars as it tries to return back to its home territory or can be injured in fights with the resident coyotes of territories it passes through. Targeted removal of a specific problem animal is a very different issue than the indiscriminate removal of any and all coyotes.

Coyotes are here to stay and removing them is not and will never be an option. Our one and only path forward is coexistence.

Two urban coyote researchers study samples in their science lab.
Interested in more urban coyote information? Support the researchers who are on the ground studying these fascinating and adaptable canids. It is through their work that we learn how to avoid conflicts. © Morgan Heim / Urban Coyote Initiative

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An illustration of a coyote howling

Translating the Song Dog: What Coyotes Are Saying When They Howl


Coyotes are famous for their wide repertoire of sounds, from yips and barks to howls and huffs. Learn more about the meaning behind these vocalizations.

by Jaymi Heimbuch


The scientific name for the coyote is Canis latrans, which translates to “barking dog,” a perfect name for this species which has been called the most vocal of North America's mammals.

Less formally, the coyote is known as the song dog, and one listen to a group howl by a pack of coyotes makes it clear why. Rather than the simple but soul-haunting sound of a wolf's howl, the coyote's howl can be made up of high-pitched howls, barks, and yips that make it clear the coyote has a whole lot of lyrics in a single song. But what exactly do those lyrics say?

The coyote has a range of vocalizations depending on social context and message. In 1978, Philip N. Lehner published his research of coyote communication and what the various vocalizations mean, which has been included in Coyotes: Biology, Behavior, and Management.

“The vocal repertoire of the adult coyote contains eleven vocalizations, several of which are also given by pups. These vocalizations grade into one another such that their separation into eleven types is somewhat arbitrary based on their different sounds, behavior context, and physical characteristics.”

In other words, the coyote language is complex and depends on the social situation, the coyote's body language in addition to the sounds, the intensity of the vocalization, and other factors. This makes sense considering that when one digs a little into hunting forums, some coyote hunters are convinced they know more than eleven calls for coyotes. Indeed, there are likely more vocalizations when one looks at subtleties.

If you have paid close attention the vocalizations of domestic dogs, especially those more talkative breeds, you'll likely find it easy to decode coyote sounds. There is a lot of overlap in the sounds dogs, coyotes and other canid species make – from a startled huff to a whine of greeting, from an antagonistic growl to a bark of alarm. But coyotes take the language of canids to another level with their extensive list of sounds, especially the yips, howls, and of course their choral group howls.

Though Lehner notes that it's a bit arbitrary to categorize coyote sounds, we can at least begin to understand them by breaking them down into the types of sounds they make along with their purpose. So he created the following 11 categories, which can also be considered sign-posts on a gradient of meaning and intensity.

Types of Coyote Vocalizations

1. Growl

– This vocalization holds no mystery. A growl is used as a threat, specifically for something within close range.

2. Huff

– This is the expulsion of air through the nose and mouth, and is also used as a high-intensity threat in close proximity. Huffs are used, for instance, when there's bickering over carrion.

3. Woof

– This vocalization is made as both a low-intensity threat and as an alarm. It's a sound made when a coyote is startled and unsure of exactly what is happening, but knows it is not comfortable with whatever it is.

4. Bark

– The bark is a long-distance threat or alert of low to medium intensity.

5. Bark-Howl

– This is when the coyote gets serious about a threat. The bark-howl is used as a long-distance high-intensity threat or alarm. It starts with a bark and blends into a howl.

What is interesting about the bark and the bark-howl is that research suggests that the varying intensity and frequency of barks could contain different information. More recent research by Brian R. Mitchell has shown that coyotes likely identify individuals by their barks and bark-howls.

“By analyzing spectrograms of howls and barks,” writes Mitchell, “I was able to determine that both of these vocalizations do indeed contain individually specific information. Because of the tremendous advantage of being able to determine individual identities, I presume that coyotes use the information in barks to identify individuals they are familiar with.”

“Another interesting aspect of coyote barks and howls,” he continues, “is that howls stably convey information for distances of at least one kilometer.  Barks, on the other hand, rapidly attenuated and did not appear suitable for transmitting information.  Barks likely serve other purposes, such as attracting information and providing information that listeners could use to estimate distance to the barking animal.”

Barks and bark-howls, then, can serve in saying, “I'm here, and here's how I'm feeling” and allow listening coyotes to recognize if those individuals are family or strangers. Mitchell underscores that a coyote recognizing an individual by their howl isn't about the howling coyote shouting his own name again and again; rather it is akin to how we can recognize a family member or friend by the sound of their voice no matter what they're saying, because of their unique pitch, timbre, cadence and even accent.

6. Whine

– This sound is used to express submission and is usually given by a subordinate coyote to a more dominant coyote.

7. Yelp

– The yelp takes the whine up a notch and represents high-intensity submission. However, it can also be a response to being startled. As is the case with several other of these vocalizations, this categorization shows that coyote communication is more of a gradient. Lehner writes, “A yi-e-e-e often precedes or follows the yelp portion and resembles a high-frequency bark [and] appears on a sonogram like a short howl chopped into segments.”

8. Woo-oo-wow

– This is the “greeting song” of coyotes, and is used during high-intensity greeting displays. The vocalization modulates in frequency and amplitude as a coyote's motivation shifts, Lehner notes, and so can fluctuate from a whine to a growl.

9. Lone Howl

– The lone howl is just what you probably already know it to be: a howl by a single coyote, which is often started with a series of barks that reseracher R. M. Mengel called “herald barks.” As mentioned above, coyotes can distinguish individuals based on their unique howl, and the purpose of the howl is to announce one's location to others in their social group. Often, the lone howl gets an answer, and the coyotes can find each other to meet up.

10. Group Howl

– A group howl is sent up when two or more coyotes come together after being apart, or it could be given as a response to the howls of distant coyotes. It is, according to Lehner, essentially two or more coyotes giving their own lone howls either successively or simultaneously, as a way of giving out location information to any listeners.

11. Group Yip-Howl

– This is what coyotes are really known for. The group yip-howl is sent up when coyotes reunite, or just before they separate to go off hunting individually. As more coyotes join in, the more intense the vocalizations become, increasing in frequency and amplitude. Lehner notes that the group yip-howl includes sounds that researcher H. McCarley called screams, gargles and laughs. In other words, the many variations of coyote vocalizations show up in this chorus.

According to Lehner, the group yip-howl probably strengthens social bonds, may help to synchronize mood, and may also reaffirm social status within the pack. He also notes that the group yip-howl “may be most important in announcing territorial occupancy and preventing visual contact between groups of coyotes.”

The chorus tells any nearby coyote packs about whose turf this is, and thus keeps other coyotes away. It also reveals (or hides) how many coyotes are in the area and may help regulate coyote density through reproductive rate. Research has shown that female coyotes will produce larger litters when there is little competition, and smaller litters when there is a high density of coyotes in the habitat. This is one of the secrets to the coyote's success at spreading across the continent in the last century.

[Note: This is also why indiscriminate killing of coyotes to decrease their density doesn't work as a management strategy. Coyotes repopulate an area quickly and easily when competition is eliminated, with the population rebounding or even expanding in a very short time. Perhaps a more effective, cost-cutting and non-lethal strategy for reducing the number of coyotes in an area could potentially be playing recorded group yip-howls to make resident coyotes think there is more competition for resources. This is something several researchers have expressed interest in exploring, specifically in order to reduce conflicts with ranchers. If we can discover more about what specific messages are embedded in certain howls or barks, ranchers might one day be able to play specific recordings to keep coyotes away from livestock as well as minimize the number of coyotes living in an area.]

Mitchell writes, “Group yip-howls are produced by a mated and territorial pair of ‘alpha' coyotes, with the male howling while the female intersperses her yips, barks, and short howls. ‘Beta' coyotes (the children of the alpha pair from previous years) and current year pups may join in if they are nearby, or respond with howls of their own. And once one group of coyotes starts howling, chances are that any other alpha pairs nearby will respond in kind, with chorus after chorus of group yip-howls rippling across the miles.”

In Talking to Coyotes with the Song Dog, a pamphlet about using a coyote caller, Major L. Boddicker, Ph.D. brings up a personal experience with such a chain reaction.  After sending up what he calls a “Joy of Life Call” which is a group yip-howl, “It sounded like every coyote in the USA responded in the musical see-saw coyote chant which went on and on for 3-5 minutes. I later called a friend in Steamboat Springs, Colorado (150 miles away) to check for the time when the coyotes started to sing there. Given the time it took sound to travel and coyotes to react, I very likely started the chorus.” Whether or not the chorus traveled that far, it is indeed possible to start a chain of coyotes sending up group yip-howls.

Boddicker discusses Lehner's list of vocalizations in his pamphlet, and brings in two more vocalizations that he or experienced coyote callers have heard. He notes that these my fall into the umbrella categories identified by Lehner, but are distinct enough to point out anyway. They are:


– This sound is used as part of more complex sounds such as the group howl or group yip-howls.


– This is when a howl tapers up and ends abruptly, rather than tapering down in a typical howl, which gives the howl a sound like the coyote is asking a question. Boddicker notes that this happens when coyotes howl for an unusual reason such as for a lost family member.

A coyote howls in a clearing among trees
They are called "song dogs" for a reason. Coyotes have an impressive repertoire of vocalizations. © Morgan Heim / Urban Coyote Initiative

How Many Coyotes Are Howling?

“When people hear coyote howls, they often mistakenly assume that they’re hearing a large pack of animals, all raising their voices at once,” writes Mitchell. “But this is an auditory illusion called the ‘beau geste' effect.”

Coyotes howl both to reunite and to keep trespassers at bay. It may be in their favor that if they howl, they sound like a bigger pack than they really are. They accomplish complicated and confusing howls by a smart strategy of using wavering howls and changing their pitch rapidly. This, combined with the howls bouncing off objects in the environment such as rocks, trees, or the far side of a valley may make it hard for a listener to know if they are hearing one coyote or several howling simultaneously.

When two or three coyotes howl together, they can sound like a pack of six or ten or more, which perhaps makes them seem much more formidable to any nearby competitors or predators.

Coyotes May Have Local Accents

We know that coyotes vary in size and build depending on their location, as the difference between western and eastern coyotes clearly demonstrates. Does their location also mean they have accents? We know that other species with complex communication such as whales have different accents, so it makes sense that coyotes may also have regional accents. And does that affect how they might interpret or respond to strangers?

Sara Waller, associate professor of philosophy at Montana State University in Bozeman, told the Billings Gazette, “We know that dogs have ‘accents' just as people do — we can reliably tell the difference between British dog barks and American dog barks. When we have enough recordings to really compare Eastern and Western coyotes, we may find that like dogs, and people, they have regionally based differences in the way they communicate with each other. This would show that coyote vocalizations are impacted by social and environmental factors just as human speech is.”

What Can Coyotes Teach Us About Language?

There is still so much to learn about what coyotes are saying through their complex and varied vocalizations. The more we learn about the way coyotes communicate as social predators, the more we can learn about not just their species, but our own as well.

Coyotes can sense things we humans can't, and Waller questions, “How does that impact the way they think? They are social, communicative predators, and so are very like humans in many ways. If we could figure out what some of these vocalizations mean, it would give us insight into how our own language works, and how human minds differ from those of other social predators.”

Examples of Coyote Vocalizations

In the video below, coyotes send up a group yip-howl. Note that the howls do not begin with a bark, like the previous video. As Lehner notes, the group yip-howl starts usually with the dominant individual of the pack. That seems to happen here as the coyote in the video joins in after another coyote begins the howl:

The video below is a coyote group yip-howl, likely started with reunion of group members, and includes yips, whines and other vocalizations on the coyote-sounds spectrum as the members interact. There is so much great behavior and body language captured in this video, showing the group dynamics of submissive members with more dominant members of the pack:

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A coyote trots along the center line of a road

Urban Coyotes Learn How To Navigate Roads

A coyote trots along the center line of a road
© Jaymi Heimbuch / Urban Coyote Initiative


Only the most alert, careful, and car-savvy coyotes make it across road after road, year after year – and urban coyotes have learned how to adapt to navigate the traffic of cities.

by Jaymi Heimbuch
November 2016


It’s no great revelation that coyotes are smart. These crafty, clever creatures have figured out how to spread from their original range in the American southwest to every corner of North America and into Central America, from California to Maine, from Alaska to Florida, from Canada to Costa Rica. They thrive in rural, semi-rural, suburban and even the densest of urban cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

An omnivorous diet, the ability to increase their litter sizes relative to territory and food availability, and the natural desire for young coyotes to disperse and claim new territories, certainly all play a role in the species’ spread across the continent. But to not just be able to survive, but flourish in places crowded with humans, where other predators have been extirpated, well, that takes smarts. And one of the most important skills is learning road savvy behaviors.

Car strikes are the number one cause of death for urban coyotes. Road collisions account for as much as 40-70 percent of all deaths for the coyotes studied by Urban Coyote Research in Cook County, Illinois. Finding food and patrolling a territory necessitates crossing dozens, sometimes hundreds of busy streets. Only the most alert, careful, and car-savvy coyotes make it across road after road, year after year.

A coyote pup lies dead on the side of the road after being hit by a car.
Road savvy has to come early for coyotes. This coyote pup, only a few months old, sadly lacked the skill and luck it takes to avoid cars. © Jaymi Heimbuch / Urban Coyote Initiative
A coyote peeks out from tall brush on a hillside
A young female coyote pokes her head out from the scrub brush, checking for cars. © Jaymi Heimbuch / Urban Coyote Initiative

Despite the risk, coyotes still take advantage of roads for travel. It makes sense, considering that pack territories in urban spaces can range from less than two to a little over four square miles, and the territories of solitary coyotes can average as much as 10 square miles. There isn't a whole lot of choice involved.

For coyotes in semi-rural and suburban areas, getting from point A to point B can be quite a bit faster and easier if using a road rather than navigating through dense plant cover. At least, that was the choice of one coyote I witnessed using road-smart behavior on a foggy road one morning.

I was on my way to photograph birds in a bay just on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, traveling on a road cut into a hillside with dense scrub on either side. I was day dreaming a little about the morning’s weather conditions and where the tide might be when I got there, when out of the corner of my eye a flash of an image hit me: a coyote looking right at me from out of the scrub brush not 10 feet away. I hit the brakes, but was going around a curve without a shoulder so couldn’t stop without becoming a hazard. I hurried to the next possible spot to turn around and hoped with all my heart the coyote would still be there.

As I rounded the bend back to where I’d seen the momentary flash of a canid’s face, sure enough there she was, trotting up the road in the same direction I was now heading. Her ear twitched back, listening to my approach, and she hopped back up into the brush, seeming to wait for me to pass. I did, and pulled off to the side a little way up, rolled down my window, pulled out my camera, and waited.

I had hardly waited any time at all before she appeared, sticking her face out of the scrub brush, checking the all-clear. She hopped back down into the road and began trotting along on her merry way, passing right next to my vehicle. She went on a bit, slowed and hopped back into the scrub brush — and sure enough a moment later another car rounded the bend coming in her direction. After it passed, out popped her head, she checked for more cars, and hopped out to continue on a much easier, faster path than if she were to scramble over the scrub-covered hillside.

A coyote trots out of brush and onto a road
After checking the coast is clear, the coyote hops out of the brush and back onto the road to continue on her way. © Jaymi Heimbuch / Urban Coyote Initiative
A coyote trots along the side of the road, making eye contact with the camera
The coyote checks in both directions, her ears twitching forward and behind, listening for any oncoming vehicles. © Jaymi Heimbuch / Urban Coyote Initiative

As she trotted up the road, I decided to follow, just to see what would happen. As I pulled up behind her, she sped up, breaking from a trot into a lope, but interestingly she stayed on her route on the opposite side of the road. I passed again, pulled to the side, and waited for her to catch up.

The little dance went on several times, with her trotting along the road, listening for cars, passing me, and then me passing her again, the two of us traveling along the road together, or as together as I could hope to be with this clever and confident coyote.

A portrait of a young coyote
As long as I stayed in my vehicle, the coyote took little notice of how close she got to me -- though she did take care to stay on the opposite side of the road. © Jaymi Heimbuch / Urban Coyote Initiative

In trying to get a different angle, I decided to hop out of my car after pulling over yet again. Even though I hid around the edge of the car, she knew perfectly well something was different, and she came to a full stop while checking me out. I’d pushed too far and broke the magic. Now I wasn’t just a benign vehicle that would continue on, something she deals with all the time. Now I was vehicle plus human, which is another story entirely. She watched me for a bit, came a little closer, but decided to head down into the scrub brush with such purpose that I knew she was not going to pop back out. At least, not any time soon.

While I was sad, and kicking myself, for ruining the moment by getting out of the car, it did encourage me that this brave girl was smart enough to stay well clear of humans. The key to this species’ survival has been invisibility, knowing when and how to stay out of sight.

Urban coyotes are proving every day the incredible skill set it takes to hide in plain sight, to thrive in places where the streets, parks, and wildlife preserves are crawling with humans. Some coyotes are living in territories where there is nearly no natural space at all, where it is nearly 100% concrete, buildings, parking lots, strip malls, and busy streets. And they’re doing it with hardly anyone realizing they’re even there most of the time.

Reports of coyote sightings are becoming more and more common. They are usually reported by people who are scared of seeing them in their parks or front lawns, who are frightened of the risk they seem to pose to pets or small children. However, coyotes have been living alongside humans long enough that we should be aware that they are of no real risk. That is, unless we give them reason to lose their natural fear of humans and make them overly brave. By providing habitat and food sources in our own backyards, we welcome them in. Some people openly feed coyotes, turning them into a true risk. A fed coyote is a dead coyote, as they say, since a fed coyote can become overly confident and even aggressive toward humans, and that leads to being trapped and killed.

There is much, much more to say on the topic of urban coyotes. In my ongoing project of documenting their natural history, I’ll be providing more examples of their trials and triumphs in living near and within cities. But for now, I’ll leave you with this: admire a wary coyote, and don’t do anything that might make them less so. There is great information on coexisting with coyotes at Project Coyote, including how to avoid attracting them to your yard and what to do should you encounter one. And perhaps also admire how much skill they exercise in utilizing what we humans have created, including roads.

A coyote trots along a road in the early morning, making eye contact with the camera
Listening for cars, moving on and off the shoulder of a road, and timing their dashes across busy highways are skills urban coyotes have to use to survive. © Jaymi Heimbuch / Urban Coyote Initiative

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