Coyote (Canis latrans)

The howling, yipping, and choral singing of coyotes is a familiar sound of the desert night. The coyote's howl includes a multi-tonal range of notes so that just two coyotes howling may sound like half a dozen. Although this vocalizing has survival value in advertising territory and locating other members of the pack, it often seems that they are singing for the sheer enjoyment of it.

More likely to be heard than seen, this desert survivor hunts by night and covers a lot of ground. The southwestern coyote is about the same size as a medium sized dog, weighing in at about twenty-five pounds. It's larger than a fox and smaller than a wolf and is so versatile, adaptable and clever that it has been able to survive and even extend its range at a time when many other large animals are being reduced in number.


The coyote's scientific name, canis latrans, means "barking dog" and refers to the diverse vocabulary of barks, growls, and howls it uses to communicate with other coyotes. A small pack will generally consist of a breeding pair and their young, and the male coyote is a "good father" who helps to feed and raise the pups.

Sleepy coyote pupWhen the young are born they are blind and helpless, and require total care by their parents. Newborn pups are dark brown or dark greyish black in color. This coloration camouflages them when they are in the dark recesses of their den. By the time they are old enough to venture out of the burrow, their color has changed to a sandy yellow. Coyote pups are just as playful and inquisitive as the puppies of the domestic dog, and they spend much of their time chasing and tackling each other, building their muscles and practicing the skills they will need for hunting.

In an arid environment where game is never very plentiful, coyotes often hunt from dusk to dawn. They are fast enough to catch jackrabbits and typically hunt alone when only small prey is available. Their danger to cattle has been greatly exaggerated. In the desert they prey mostly on rodents such as mice and pack rats but will eat almost anything in hard times, including carrion, insects, mesquite pods, and dry grass.

Coyote digging

Coyotes are a valuable check on harmful rodents and they often kill sick and diseased rodents, birds, and other small game. According to Edmund Jaeger, the coyote is a useful health officer who "doubtless assists in improving the vigor of the species as well as negating the chance for the spread of wildlife epidemics such as coccidial diseases. The coyote is always a useful scavenger and perhaps not such a bad neighbor as one might think."*

One way to differentiate it from similar species, (i.e. fox and wolf) is the position of the tail when running. The gray wolf, which is also much larger, holds its tail erect when running, while the foxes, which are smaller, hold their tails out behind when running. Typically a coyote will tuck its tail between its legs when running.

Recommended reading:

Hanson, Jonathan and Roseann Beggy. Desert Dogs: Coyotes, Foxes and Wolves. Tucson: Arizona Sonora Desert Museum Press, 1996.

*Jaeger, Edmund C. Desert Wildlife. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1961.

Leydet, Francois. The Coyote: Defiant Songdog of the West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977.

Olin, George. 50 Common Mammals of the Southwest. Tucson: Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, 2000.

Mark Twain on the Coyote

Desert Dogs: Coyotes, Foxes and Wolves