Coyotes have been in DC and the DC metro area for over a decade now. Originally found in the western part of the United States, coyotes have naturally expanded their range and now live in 49 states (excepting Hawai'i!). There are a few reasons this has happened: humans have extirpated larger predators (wolves, mountain lions) that suppressed coyote populations in much of the country; they are rather tolerant of human-presence; and they can adapt to human-altered landscapes.
Coyotes are social and territorial animals. They live in groups ranging from a bonded pair (coyotes are monogamous) to packs with adult pups from previous years that help raise the current year’s pups. Some coyotes are transient – they haven’t settled down with a mate yet – and so move around an area, while coyotes that have found a mate guard a territory. In urban areas, resources are abundant, and so coyotes often have smaller territories than in rural areas.
It’s natural for coyotes to be active during the day, as their eyes are better adapted to seeing in the daytime than at night. However, coyotes are very adaptable, and so in many places they are more active from dusk to dawn so that they can avoid humans.
Coyotes mate in the winter, and pups are born in the spring. During the summer months, parents move their pups out of the protection of the den to so-called "rendezvous" sites, where there is vegetative cover but not as much security as dens. In the fall, some pups disperse from their family, in search of new territories and mates of their own.
Green Mountain Exposures/Shutterstock.com
A coyote "mousing."
Coyotes eat a wide variety of foods, and are opportunistic, eating whatever is available to them. This can range from fruits and other vegetation to insects to small birds and rodents to deer. Coyotes often scavenge animals that have died in other ways, such as road-kill deer. Urban areas tend to have an abundance of food for coyotes (rodents, for starters!), which is one of the reasons they do so well living in close proximity to humans. They can also take advantage of anthropogenic food sources, such as pet food that has been left outside (see “Human-Coyote Interactions” for more on this and to learn how to prevent conflict with coyotes).
Coyote or fox?
Coyotes are a mid-sized canine, ranging in weight from about 20 to 50 pounds in the Eastern states. Their coats generally are brown, gray, white, and black, although variations in color and pattern can occur. Their eyes can be brown or yellow, and many people say that their snouts are longer and thinner than most dogs.
We have four canine species in the DC area, three wild: red fox (Vulpes vulpes), gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), and coyotes (Canis latrans); and one domestic canid (Canis lupus familiaris). Sometimes it can be hard to tell them apart, but here are some tips.
Confusion often happens between red fox and coyotes, especially if they're seen from a distance. Coat color can be an indication (coyotes have more brown and gray fur, while red foxes tend to have reddish fur), but their coats can vary greatly which can confuse matters.
Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)
Coyotes have black tips on the ends of their tails, while red fox have white tips (however, sometimes this can be difficult to see if the coat is long or bushy; see the photo below of a red fox trotting for an example). When coyotes are trotting, their tails tend to hang down, while red foxes tend to hold their tails straight out.
Coyote (Canis latrans) showing tail carried down while trotting and black tip.
Red fox (Vulpes vulpes) trotting, showing tail held out straight and white tip
Gray foxes are less commonly seen, as they're shyer and less tolerant of human presence than red foxes or coyotes. They look more “cat-like” than either red foxes or coyotes.
Gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus)
Gray foxes are quite agile and sometimes even climb trees!
Gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus)
Most domestic dogs look quite a bit different than coyotes, but some breeds and mixed-breeds can be mistaken for coyotes, especially if at a distance.
The coyotes found in the DC metro area tend to be a bit different than coyotes in the western part of the country. When coyotes first started to migrate to the East coast, some of them went up north first, and gradually made their way down south through generations. Others went down south and made their way north. The mid-Atlantic region is the last part of the continental United States that coyotes have colonized (here's a research article about this).
When there were only a few coyotes in the Northeast (including in Canada), they were less likely to find coyote mates as they were few and far between. One of the things that makes canids so interesting is that wolves (Canis lupus), coyotes (Canis latrans), and domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) can all interbreed and produce viable offspring. This does not commonly occur, but when populations are under stress and there are few members of the species around, it becomes more likely. So coyotes bred with wolves and in some cases domestic dogs, which means that eastern coyotes generally have some wolf and/or dog genes in their genetic make-up. It’s unlikely that breeding between the species continues today to any great degree, as coyote populations are now well-established and they prefer to mate with their own kind. Of course, as there are no wild wolves found in the mid-Atlantic region, there have been no recent wolf-coyote hybridizations in our local populations. The genetic contributions of wolves can vary greatly, from relatively minor (just a couple of percentage points) to more moderate (up to 25% in the Northeast, but that's unlikely to occur in the mid-Atlantic and southern states. In general, the further south you go, the smaller the contribution of wolves).
You might have heard reports of “coywolves” in the news recently. While some researchers have adopted that term to describe Eastern coyotes, we believe that it’s a misnomer for the animals we see here (they are not 50/50 coyote/wolf hybrids), and that the term “coywolf” might generate more concern about their presence than the more accurate Eastern coyote. In addition, the term ignores the contribution domestic dogs have made to Eastern coyotes (see this article for more insight on this issue). What does this hybridization mean? Eastern coyotes tend to be larger than western coyotes, and they might display more pack behavior (for example, hunting a deer in a pack) than Western coyotes. But fundamentally, they are still coyotes and not a new species.
Eastern coyotes, like all predators, fill an important role in our local ecosystems, left open by the extirpation of larger predators such as wolves and mountain lions. They’re adaptable and so live well close to humans, and – perhaps most importantly – they’re here to stay. It is impossible to get rid of coyotes; although you might be able to temporarily suppress their populations through lethal control, the population will recover, and in some cases even grow. Once coyotes have found suitable habitat, more will follow if that territory is vacated. If we want to reduce human-coyote conflict, then, we need to change our own behavior and learn to live with these wild neighbors.