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Dispelling Myths about the Coyote in Florida, Or, Probably More Than You Wanted to Know about the Coyote in Florida

If you live in Florida you’ve probably heard people talk about coyotes (Canis latrans) in Florida.  Below are facts gleaned from the literature regarding this interesting mammal.

How Did the Coyote Get Its Name?

The accepted common name ‘coyote’ comes from the Aztec term for the species, Coyotl.  Other names used for this species in North America include coyóte (Mexican), brush-wolf, prairie-wolf, American jackal, and little wolf (Beebe 1964).

Why Did Coyotes Expand Their Range into the Eastern United States and Florida?

Most of us know that coyotes are not native to the eastern U.S., including Florida.  Their range has historically been limited to the western U.S. (Layne 1997).  Humans eliminated gray wolves and red wolves from the eastern U.S. in the early- to mid-1900s, with the red wolf being last recorded in Florida at that time (Beebe 1964).  Wolves were apparently a major constraint on the range of the coyote, so their recent absence from parts of the U.S. allowed for the natural expansion of the coyote’s range.  Thus, the expansion of the coyote into Florida and elsewhere in the eastern U.S. is most likely due to humans extirpating the wolves in this area.  Humans may have helped the coyote become established in Florida through accidental release or escape and (or) intentional release (Layne 1997), such as for hunting. 

Here’s a timeline of the presence of the coyote in Florida:

  • Pre-historic: Coyote fossils found in Florida geology dating to the Pleistocene (2.6 million to 11,700 years ago) (Webb 1974)
  • European colonization: No evidence of the species in Florida (Layne 1997)
  • 1970s: Coyotes were already well established in northern Florida (Layne 1997)
  • Early 1980s: The species was distributed through the middle of the Florida peninsula, from Hamilton County to Polk County (Brady and Campell 1983)
  • 1982: First sighting in Highlands County in southern Florida (Layne 1997)
  • 1988: The coyote’s range extended south to Broward and Collier counties (Wooding and Hardisky 1990)
  • 1995: A survey of coyote tracks by R. McBride found they were widely distributed in Highlands and Polk counties (Layne 1997)
  • 1991: Coyotes killed or trapped in Charlotte and Desoto counties (Layne 1997)
  • 2007: Coyotes documented in every county in Florida, and populations in Florida continue to increase (McCown and Scheick 2007)

What Habitats Do Coyotes Use Most Often?

In Florida, coyotes frequent improved pastures, native prairies, and citrus groves according to a survey by R. McBride cited in Layne (1997).  Den sites are located along brushy slopes, areas of thick undergrowth of vegetation, inside hollow logs, within rocky ledges, and burrows made either by adult coyotes or by other mammals.  Tunnels leading to the den may be 5 to 25 feet long (1.5 to 7.5 meters).  The den chamber itself measures about 1 foot (0.3 meters) in width and is commonly located 3.3 feet (1 meter) below-ground.  Coyotes may undertake seasonal migrations between habitats in some areas of North America (Novak 1999).

What Is the Average Size of the Coyote’s Home Range?

A coyote can cover a distance of about 2.5 miles (4 km) in a night while searching for a meal.  They traveled an average distance of 19.3 miles (31 km) from the point of capture in a tagging study in Iowa, but one individual covered a whopping 200 miles (323 km) during that study (Novak 1999).  A coyote tagged in south-central Canada traveled a record distance of 338 miles (544 km) from the point of capture (Carbyn and Paquet 1986).  Home range sizes vary greatly, from 3 to 31 square miles (8 to 80 km2).  Males have larger home ranges than do females, and male ranges overlap one another considerably.  Females ranges are smaller and do not overlap with those of other females (Novak 1999).

What’s the Average Population Density for Coyotes?

Population densities are generally between 0.1 and 0.2 coyotes per square mile (0.2 to 0.4 individuals/km2), but can be as high as 1.2 individuals per square mile (2.0/km2) in areas having extremely favorable conditions (Knowlton 1972, Bekoff 1977).  A study of coywolves (hybrid of coyote x eastern gray wolf [Canis lupus lycaon]) living north of Boston, Massachusetts, found a very high population density in fall and winter, at 1.1 to 1.3 individuals per square mile (2.9 to 3.4 individuals/km2) and 0.8 individuals per square mile (2.0 individuals/km2), respectively (Way 2011).

When Are Coyotes Most Active?

Coyotes can be active at any time of day or night, but they are mainly nocturnal and crepuscular (Novak 1999) (crepuscular means active around dawn and dusk [insect-eating bats are another example of crepuscular mammals]).

Does a Coyote Sighting Mean They Are More Common in the Area Than in Other Areas?

Coyotes are found in every Florida county.  Their level of abundance cannot be measured merely by anecdotal sightings since coyotes try to blend in with their surroundings and not be seen.  Sightings of coyotes do not necessarily mean that they are more abundant where sighted.  Coyotes are wherever there is suitable habitat, regardless of whether or not they are seen.  A sighting only confirms that coyotes are present.

What Do Coyotes Eat?

Coyotes mainly eat small mammals.  Rabbits and rodents make up the bulk (90%) of their diet in most areas.  Larger animals such as deer are also commonly eaten, but mostly as scavenged carcasses, although sometimes after a chase in which several coyotes worked together to take down the animal.  Other food items include fishes (which they are capable of snatching from streams!), lizards, snakes, birds such as turkeys, insects, grasses, fruits (including watermelon, persimmon, and various wild berries), and seeds (Novak 1999, Coates et al. 2002).  A tracking study conducted in Tucson, Arizona, found that over a 33-day period during November 2005 through February 2006, a group of eight coyotes killed 19 domestic cats (Harris Environmental Group 2015).  This interesting study further strengthens the idea that domestic cats are much better off if kept entirely indoors.  The coyote is also capable of preying on small domestic dogs (McCown and Scheick 2007).  Livestock are occasionally taken but the impact on livestock numbers is minimal (Novak 1999).  In the western U.S., where coyotes share their range with American badgers, the two species have been documented to form hunting partnerships whereby the coyote uses its excellent sense of smell to locate burrowing rodents, and the badger uses its powerful legs and claws to dig out the prey, which they then share (Novak 1999).

How Often Do Coyotes Prey on Domestic Livestock Like Cattle?

It is true that coyotes can kill and consume livestock including calves, poultry, pigs, and goats (Coates et al. 2002).  However, coyotes are not a serious problem to livestock (with the possible exception of sheep [Coates et al. 2002]) in most parts of their range, and reports of livestock damage from this species appear to be driven by popular perception and emotional reactions.  In the words of the past Chief Game Biologist for Mississippi, H.E. Alexander, “Reports of livestock damage from these animals seems to be more dependent on popular attitudes and emotional reactions to conspicuous evidence of depredations at some time and place than on actual fluctuations [of coyote populations]” (Beebe 1964).  Coyotes are not a major concern to livestock producers in Florida according to McCown and Scheick (2007).

What’s the Average Size and Weight of an Adult Coyote?

Adult male coyotes weigh 18 to 44 pounds (8 to 20 kg).  Adult females weigh 15 to 40 pounds (7 to 18 kg).  Coyotes living in northern regions weigh more, on average, than do those living in southern regions of North America (Nowak 1999).  The average weight of a coyote in Alaska is 40 pounds (18 kg), contrasting with the average weight of 25 pounds (11.5 kg) for coyotes living in the deserts of Mexico according to Gier (1975).  An unusually heavy coyote from Canada that weighed 46 pounds (21 kg) was noted by Beebe (1964).  The largest coyotes are those living in the northeastern United States, owing to enhanced nutrition there and (or) hybridization with the gray wolf (Nowak 1999).  In general, coyotes are larger than foxes but smaller than wolves (Coates et al. 2002).

How Fast Can Coyotes Run?

Coyotes are very speedy runners!  Picture this: a coyote racing in the World Championships in Athletics against legendary world record-holder Usain Bolt.  Usain runs a breathtakingly fast time of 9.58 seconds for the 100‑meter sprint.  That’s 23.4 miles per hour (mph) (37.7 km/hour)!  Now, let’s focus on the coyote.  The coyote explodes out of the starting line at a staggering pace, crossing the finish line in about half the time (4.47 seconds) it took Usain to cover the same distance!  That’s right, coyotes are fast and capable of running at speeds of up to 50 mph (80.5 km/hour) (Sooter 1943, Fisher 1975).  Although Novak (1999) gives a top speed of 64 mph (103 km/hour), this is higher than what is stated by most other sources.  Coyotes are clearly one of the fastest terrestrial mammals in North America.

Coyote Reproduction 101

Litter size averages about 6 pups but ranges from 2 to 12 pups.  Large numbers of pups have been found in a single den but were probably the result of litters from more than one female.  Females produce only one litter annually (Novak 1999).  Mating occurs during January through March, and gestation takes about 2 months (Coates et al. 2002).  Parturition (birthing) takes place in spring.  The pups weigh only about 8.8 ounces (250 grams) at birth.  Their eyes don’t open until day 14.  Young emerge from the den within about 3 weeks of birth and are fully weaned at about 9 months, at about which time they approach the weight and size of adult coyotes.  The average life span is less than 6 years, with the most significant mortality being within the first year of life (Coates et al. 2002).  The maximum longevity was recorded at 14.5 years in the wild, but most wild coyotes do not survive this long.  One long-lived captive coyote lived 21 years and 10 months (Jones 1982).

Do Coyotes Sometimes Hybridize with Other Canids?

Coyotes are well known to interbreed with domestic dogs (producing what are called ‘coydogs’).  Coyotes also interbreed with eastern gray wolves (Way 2011) as well as with red wolves (Canis lupus rufus), producing ‘coywolves’.  The offspring produced are fertile. 

What Are the Regulations on Hunting Coyotes in Florida?

The hunting and trapping of coyotes is allowed year-round throughout Florida (http://myfwc.com/‌hunting/season-dates).  However, a permit from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is needed for using steel traps, such as leg-hold traps.  More information on how to apply for a steel trap permit is found at http://myfwc.com/license/wildlife/nuisance-wildlife/steel-traps/.  FWC keeps a list of nuisance-wildlife trappers at https://public.myfwc.com/HGM/NWT/NWTSearch.aspx?.

Sources

Beebe, B.F.  1964.  American Wolves, Coyotes, and Foxes.  David McKay Co., Inc., New York, NY.

Bekoff, M.  1977.  Social behavior and ecology of the African Canidae: A review.  Pp. 120–142.  In: M.W. Fox (ed.)  The Wild Canids: Their Systematics, Behavioral Ecology and Evolution.  R.E. Krieger Publishing Co., Inc., Malabar, FL.

Brady, J.R. and H.W. Campell.  1983.  Distribution of coyotes in Florida.  Florida Field Naturalist 11:40–41.

Carbyn, L.N. and P.C. Paquet.  1986.  Long distance movement of a coyote from Riding Mountain National Park.  Journal of Wildlife Management 50:89.

Coates, S.F., M.B. Main, J.J. Mullahey, J.M. Schaefer, G.W. Tanner, M.E. Sunquist, and M.D. Fanning.  2002.  The Coyote (Canis latrans): Florida’s Newest Predator [online resource].  Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Dept. document WEC124, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, UF, Gainesville, FL.  Accessed 04/22/15 at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/UW/UW12700.pdf.

Fisher, J.  1975.  The plains dog moves east.  National Wildlife 13(2):1417.

Gier, H.T.  1975.  Ecology and behavior of the coyote (Canis latrans).  Pp. 247–262.  In: M.W. Fox (ed.) The Wild Canids: Their Systematics, Behavioral Ecology, and Evolution.  Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, NY.

Harris Environmental Group, Inc.  2015.  Coyote’s Eat Cats! [online resource].  Accessed 04/22/15 at http://www.heg-inc.com/2009/08/coyotes-eat-cats/.

Jones, M.L.  1982.  Longevity of captive mammals.  Der Zoologische Garten 52:113–128.

Knowlton, F.F.  1972.  Preliminary interpretations of coyote population mechanics with some management implications.  Journal of Wildlife Management 36:369–382.

Layne, J.  1997.  Nonindigenous mammals. Pp 157–186.  In: D. Simberloff, D.C. Schmitz, and T.C. Brown (eds.), Strangers in Paradise, Impact and Management of Nonindigenous Species in Florida.  Island Press, Washington, D.C.

MacCown, W. and B. Scheick.  2007.  The Coyote in Florida [online resource].  Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Tallahassee, FL.  Accessed 04/22/15 at http://myfwc.com/media/1228800/CoyoteWhitePaperFinal.pdf.

Nowak, R.M.  1999.  Walker’s Mammals of the World, Sixth Edition, Volume I.  The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD.

Sooter, C.A.  1943.  Speed of a predator and prey.  Journal of Mammalogy 24:102–103.

Way, J.G.  2011.  Record pack-density of eastern coyotes/coywolves (Canis latrans x lycaon).  The American Midland Naturalist 165(1):201–203.

Webb, S.D.  1974.  Chronology of Florida Pleistocene mammals.  In: S.D. Webb (ed.), Pleistocene Mammals of Florida.  University Press of Florida, Gainesville, FL.

Wilson, L.D. and L. Porras.  1983.  The Ecological Impact of Man on the South Florida Herpetofauna.  The University of Kansas Museum of Natural History Special Publication No. 9, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS.

Wooding, J.B. and T.S. Hardisky.  1990.  Coyote distribution in Florida.  Florida Field Naturalist 18:12–14.

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