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The Coyote (Canis latrans, meaning "barking dog") is a member of the Canidae (the dog family) and a relative of the domestic dog. Coyotes are only found in North America. Coyotes may occasionally assemble in small packs, but normally hunt alone. Coyotes live an average of about 6 years. The word "coyote" derives from the Náhuatl (Aztec) word cóyotl (IPA /ˈkɔ.jɔtɬ/).

Despite being extensively hunted, the Coyote is one of the few medium-to-large-sized animals that has enlarged its territory since human encroachment began (another is the raccoon). Coyotes have moved into most of the areas of North America formerly occupied by wolves, and the "dog" one sees scrounging from a suburban trashcan may in fact be a Coyote.

Anatomy

Coyote profile

The Coyote stands less than two feet (0.6 m) tall and varies in color from gray to tan with sometimes a reddish tint to its coat. A coyote's ears and nose appear long and pointed, especially in relation to the size of its head. It weighs between 9 - 22 kilograms (20 - 50 lb), averaging 14 kg. The coyote can be identified by its thick bushy tail, which it often holds low to the ground. It can be distinguished from its much larger relative, the Grey Wolf, by its overall slight appearance compared to the massive 34 to 57 kg (75 to 125 lb) stockiness of the bigger canid. The coyote is an extremely lean animal and may appear underfed even if healthy.

The Northeast Coyote and the Cape Cod Coyote are thought to be a 50% mix with the Red Wolf. Coyotes can also hybridize and produce fertile offspring with Grey Wolves and domestic dogs. However practical constraints such as the timing of estrus cycles and the need for both parents to care for the pups limit such crosses in the wild. Hybrids between Coyotes and Domestic Dogs are known as "Coydogs".

Behavior

Coyote in a forest

Coyotes are highly adaptable and live in a variety of different niches. Their behavior can vary widely depending on where they live, but in general they live and hunt singly or in monogamous pairs in search of small mammals including shrews, voles, and rabbits. It is an omnivore and adapts its diet to the available food sources including fruits, grasses, and vegetables along with small mammals. (In Yellowstone National Park, before the reintroduction of the wolf, they began to fill the wolf's ecological niche, and hunted in packs to bring down large prey.)

Coyotes mate for life. They breed around the month of February and 4–6 pups are born in late April or early May. Both parents (and sometimes undispersed young from the previous year) help to feed the pups. At three weeks old the pups leave the den under close watch of their parents. Once the pups are eight to twelve weeks old they are taught to hunt. Families stay together through the summer but the young break apart to find their own territories by fall. They usually relocate within ten miles. The young are sexually mature at 1 year of age.

Hearing a coyote is much more common than seeing one. The calls coyotes make are high-pitched and variously described as howls, yips, yelps and barks. These calls may be a long rising and falling note (a howl) or a series of short notes (yips). These calls are most often heard at dusk or night, less often during the day. Although these calls are made throughout the year, they are most common during the spring mating season and in the fall when the pups leave their families to establish new territories. Many people find these calls eerie or disturbing. As well, its howl can be very deceiving: due to the way the sound carries, it can seem as though it is in one place, when the coyote is really elsewhere.

Character in mythology

Coyote with a reddish tint in its fur

There are many myths from Native American peoples that include a character named Coyote. This character is male and is usually anthropomorphic although he may have some coyote-like physical features such as fur. He often plays the role of trickster, although in some stories he is a buffoon and the butt of jokes and in a few is outright evil. His personality traits are usually greed, recklessness, impulsiveness and jealousy. Coyote is often the antagonist of his brother Wolf, who is wise and good natured but prone to giving in to Coyote's incessant demands.

Coyote figures prominently in several creation myths. In one myth Coyote creates the first people by kicking a ball of mud (sometimes a bit of feces) until it formed into the first man. In another myth Coyote is able to successfully impregnate an evil woman who has killed off all the other men in the world during the sexual act.

Coyote is also commonly a character in "just-so" types of stories, in which he unsuccessfully tries to hunt prey or compete with other predators. In the process phenomena such as why rabbits have long ears are explained.

Fictional Coyotes

Coyote

Wile E. Coyote is a Warner Brothers cartoon coyote who is endlessly trying to catch and eat an extremely fast Road Runner with his tricks, many of which involve technology or Rube Goldberg machines. His efforts are always futile, and he usually harms himself in the effort. It is likely that the stereotype of Coyote-as-trickster helped form the basis of this protagonist.

The cartoon character Wile E. Coyote has a comically exaggerated nose, tail and ears, inspired by the appearance of the real animal, as seen at the right.