The Cook County, Illinois, Coyote Project



  About Coyotes  



  • Appearance
  • Historical Range & Current Distribution
  • Diet
  • Breeding
  • Life Expectancy
  • Social Life

APPEARANCE: What does a coyote look like?

The coyote is a medium-sized member of the dog family that includes wolves and foxes.


Overall Appearance: With its pointed ears, slender muzzle, and drooping bushy tail, the coyote often resembles a German shepherd or collie

Coloration: Coyotes are usually a grayish brown with reddish tinges behind the ears and around the face, but coloration can vary from a silver-gray to black. The tail usually has a black tip.

Profile of a coyote, with long snout and large upright ears.

Eyes: Eyes are a striking yellow, with large dark pupils, rather than brown like many dogs.

Weight: Most adults weigh between 25-35 lbs. A few big ones weigh in the 42-43 lbs. range.

Coyote-Dog Hybrids:  People often speculate as to the frequency of coyote-dog hybrids, or coydogs, in urban settings. Coyotes and dogs are related, and they are biologically capable of producing hybrid litters.  Coydogs have been raised in captivity.

Genetic surveys of coyotes have rarely documented evidence of dogs in the genetic makeup of coyotes, despite domestic dogs and coyotes sharing the continent for the past 9,000 years.

Although it is possible, coydogs in urban settings are unlikely because:

         Coyotes are highly seasonal breeders; dogs are not.

         Coydog females have a shifted estrus cycle that does not coincide with the coyote period.

         Domestic dog and coydog males do not tend to litters, whereas male coyotes do.

         Coydogs may have lower fertility than either domestic dogs or coyotes.


 Current Distribution: Coyotes are native to North America and currently occur throughout most of North America (see Figure 1).  In addition to occurring in natural areas, coyotes are also found in a range of human-populated areas, including rural farms, suburbs and cities (see Habitat for more information).

Fig. 1.-- Image provided by Canadian Geographic


Historical Distribution:  Although coyotes have a current distribution that spans across most of North and Central America, their historical range prior to 1700 was restricted to the prairies and desert areas of Mexico and central North America (see Figure 2).

 Since the 1700s, coyotes have dramatically expanded their range across North America (see Figure 3) and now are found in an increasing number of cities in the United States and Canada.  This expansion in distribution is unique as other large carnivore populations, such as wolves and bears, were extirpated from many portions of the United States, leading to the absence of large carnivores in most urban landscapes.


Fig. 2.Historical distribution of coyotes prior to 1700.

The emergence of coyotes in urban systems can have important ecological implications, such as through their role as an apex carnivore and subsequent effects on prey (see Relationships with Other Animals for more information).

Fig. 3. Progression of coyote range expansion throughout North America and Mexico.

DIET: What do urban coyotes eat?

Many people believe that urban coyotes primarily eat garbage and pets.  Although coyotes are predators, they are also opportunistic and shift their diets to take advantage of the most available prey.  Coyotes are generally scavengers and predators of small prey, but can shift to large prey occasionally.

Paul Morey analyzed scat contents at different locations within our study area.  He analyzed 1,429 scats and found that diet items varied across space and time, which reflects the flexible food habits of coyotes.

The most common food items were small rodents (42 percent), fruit (23 percent), deer (22 percent), and rabbit (18 percent). (Scats often have more than one diet item; therefore, frequencies do not necessarily add up to 100 percent.)  Apparently the majority of coyotes in our study area do not, in fact, rely on pets or garbage for their diets.

The most food items were small rodents (42 percent), fruit (23 percent), deer (22 percent), and rabbit (18 percent). (Scats often have more than one diet item; therefore, frequencies do not necessarily add up to 100 percent.)  Apparently the majority of coyotes in our study area do not, in fact, rely on pets or garbage for their diets.

BREEDING: When do coyotes have young?

Mating and Gestation: In most years, coyotes typically mate in February. Only the alpha pair mates in a pack, but subordinates may help raise the young.  In April, after a 62- to 65-day gestation period, the female will begin looking for existing dens or dig one herself.

The Den: During mating and gestation is the only time coyotes will voluntarily use a den; otherwise, coyotes usually sleep above ground in the open or in cover.

Dens usually consist of a hollowed out tree stump, rock outcrop, or existing burrow made by raccoons, skunks or other medium-sized carnivores. 

Coyotes will also build dens from scratch by digging a hole. They usually prefer some protective cover at the den, such as bushes or trees, and some type of slope for drainage.

It is not uncommon for mothers to move their young from den to den to keep them protected or to re-use the same den in multiple years. Some coyotes select secluded areas for their dens, whereas others in more urbanized areas have less selection and may use dens near buildings or roads.

Pup in den from the Big Hill pack.

The Litter: Litter sizes often range from four to seven pups, depending on food availability and the density of the surrounding coyote population.  Some litters can be bigger; the largest litter we have found was 11 pups taken from one den. 

Coyotes have the ability to adjust their litter sizes based on food abundance and population density.  It is difficult for us to get reliable estimates of litter sizes in urban areas, but our results suggests that litter sizes are larger than average, indicating an abundant food supply.  Pups stay in the den for about six weeks, and then begin traveling short distances with adults.  By the end of summer, pups are spending some time away from parents and attempting to hunt on their own or with siblings.

LIFE EXPECTANCY: How long do coyotes live?

In captivity, coyotes can live 13 to 15 years, but in the wild, most die before they reach three years of age.  In our study, we found that coyotes generally have a 60 percent chance of surviving one year.  See Coyote Mortality for more.



Coyotes typically have a highly organized social system, even in urban areas. This consists of packs, or groups of coyotes that apparently defend territories from other coyotes.

In Cook County, we have identified coyotes that live in packs (pack coyotes) as well as coyotes that live and travel alone (solitary coyotes).  See Territories & Home Ranges and Coyote Packs to learn more about social behavior found among urban coyotes in Cook County.








The Cook County, Illinois, Coyote Project

The Ohio State University