Wolves and coyotes, two distinct members of the Canidae family, are subjects of endless fascination. The entire reason I went into wildlife biology was due to my fascination with these incredible creatures.
While wolves may be over-exploited as mythical creatures and coyotes misunderstood to be a nuisance, I hope to enlighten and share some of their unique characteristics.
Why Canids Capture Our Hearts
Before we dive into the specifics, let's take a moment to appreciate the magic of canids. Wolves and coyotes, with their cunning eyes and mysterious howls, play vital roles in maintaining the balance of ecosystems.
Their captivating behaviors and adaptability have earned them a special place in the hearts of nature lovers worldwide. My love for my own dog, Harvey, inspired me to get my degree in Wildlife Biology so that I could work towards protecting his distant relatives.
Wolves: Majestic Giants of the North
Wolves, the larger of the two, boast a robust and majestic appearance. With thick fur ranging from white to gray and black, they are built to survive the harsh climates of the northern regions or areas with little to no human interference.
They can range in weight from 29 to 172 pounds and can stand as tall as 3 feet, making them the largest, non-domestic canine. Wolves also tend to carry their tails high, like our domestic dogs, when running or playing.
Coyotes: The Clever Tricksters
Coyotes, on the other hand, thrive in diverse environments, from deserts to urban areas. Their coats are usually a mixture of tan, black, and gray but can range from black to strawberry blond. The average adult coyote weighs 30 to 35 pounds, with males being heavier than females. Large males only rarely exceed 45 pounds, making them more medium-sized.
Coyotes tend to run with their tails hanging down, and the tail will appear bushier than the wolf tail.
Wolf Territories: Vast and Varied
Wolves tend to roam vast territories, often covering hundreds of square miles. These apex predators are commonly associated with forests, tundras, and grasslands, showcasing their adaptability to different climates.
The wolf is still seen today in nearly 70 countries on four continents. Historically, they were the most widely distributed land mammals prior to human transport (Mech and Boitani 2003; Mech and Boitani 2010).
Coyotes: Urban Prowlers
Coyotes, being highly adaptable, have successfully infiltrated urban areas. It's not uncommon to spot these cunning canids navigating city streets, displaying an impressive ability to coexist with human populations. They tend to avoid areas where wolves have claimed dominance, as wolves are larger and will more than likely win in a territory dispute.
Coyotes are native to the Nearctic region. They are found throughout North and Central America. They range from Panama in the south and north through Mexico, the United States, and Canada. They occur as far north as Alaska and all but the northernmost portions of Canada.
Wolf Packs: Family Bonds
Wolves are known for their intricate social structures centered around family units called packs. These packs, led by an alpha pair, work together in hunting and raising their young, showcasing strong familial bonds.
Human hunting irrevocably damages these bonds. If one or more of the alphas are killed, the rest of the pack will scatter and be less likely to work as a cohesive unit.
Coyote Communities: A More Relaxed Hierarchy
Coyotes, while still social animals, exhibit a more relaxed social structure. They form loose family groups and often hunt alone or in pairs, reflecting their ability to adapt to various social settings.
Like wolves, they are a victim of human hunting. Coyotes will self-regulate their populations by only hunting enough for their pack size. If pack members are killed off, they will hunt more than they need to in response to higher reproductive needs.
Wolf Tactics: Cooperative Hunting
Wolves are skilled, cooperative hunters, employing strategic teamwork to take down large prey. Their intelligence and communication within the pack contribute to successful group hunts.
They will remain near their kill for several days depending on the number of wolves in the pack, size of kill, prey availability, and hunger level (Harrington and Mech). They can gorge up to 22 pounds at one time and fast for months at a time if necessary. Dominant, breeding male and female feed first, limiting access to others, including their offspring.
Coyote Cunning: Versatile Hunters
Coyotes showcase remarkable adaptability in their hunting techniques. From stalking small mammals to scavenging for food in urban areas, these clever canids display a wide range of hunting skills.
Fun Fact: Coyotes sometimes form “hunting partnerships” with badgers. Because coyotes aren't very effective at digging rodents out of their burrows, they chase the animals while they're above ground. Badgers do not run quickly but are well-adapted to digging rodents out of burrows. When both hunt together, they effectively leave no escape for prey in the area.
The Howling Symphony of Wolves
Ah, the haunting howls of wolves echoing through the wilderness! These vocalizations serve various purposes, from communication within the pack to marking territories and coordinating during a hunt. Wolf howls tend to be lower pitched and held for longer than coyote vocalizations.
During the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant reported hearing what he took to be a pack of “not more than 20 wolves” while traveling. A short time later, he reached the pair of wolves that had been making all the noise. This phenomenon, called the Beau Geste Effect, may introduce enough uncertainty to make size estimates not only unreliable but potentially lethal if a pack underestimates the size of its rival and approaches.
Coyote Conversations: Yips and Howls
Coyotes communicate through a diverse array of vocalizations, including yips, howls, and barks. Their vocal repertoire aids in maintaining territory boundaries and signaling warnings to other coyotes.
They are the most vocal of all North American wild mammals, using three distinct calls (squeak, distress call, and howl call), which consist of a quick series of yelps followed by a falsetto howl.
Wolf Romance: Mating for Life
Wolves are known for their monogamous relationships, with mated pairs staying together for life. The entire pack contributes to raising the pups, fostering a strong sense of family unity.
Mating season is usually during the months of December through early April. Wolves try to time it to ensure birth is likely after the most severe winter storms and allow sufficient time and resources for the successful growth and development of their pups.
Coyote Courtship: Flexible Bonds
Coyotes, while capable of forming long-term bonds, also display more flexibility in their mating habits. This adaptability contributes to their success in various environments.
Both male and female coyotes bring food to their young after they are weaned and protect their offspring. The young sometimes stay with the pack into adulthood and learn how to hunt during a learning period.
Historical Ties: Wolves and Human Folklore
Throughout history, wolves have been both revered and feared, often playing significant roles in human folklore and mythology. The portrayal of wolves varies widely, from symbols of cunning intelligence to menacing predators.
In Roman mythology, Romulus and Remus are twin brothers raised by wolves whose story tells of the events that led to the founding of the city of Rome and the Roman Kingdom by Romulus, following his fratricide of Remus.
Urban Coyotes: Unseen Neighbors
Coyotes have seamlessly integrated into urban landscapes, often without us even realizing it. Their ability to coexist with human activities raises questions about our shared spaces and the importance of peaceful cohabitation.
Coyotes are a key figure in Navajo mythology, representing both good and evil, humans and gods, and of course animals. They are unpredictable and ambivalent, a characteristic of all these beings. At the same time, however, by testing and pushing the limits of behavior, they demonstrate and reinforce concepts of harmony and order for the Navajo.
Wolf Myths: Separating Fact From Fiction
Myth: Wolves are ruthless killers. In reality, wolves play a crucial role in maintaining healthy ecosystems by controlling prey populations. The term trophic cascade is classically used when describing the positive effects a pack of wolves created upon their reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park.
In essence, their presence changed the behavior of deer so much that the lands and riparian areas that had been overgrazed are now thriving and conducive for more life to blossom in the park.
Coyote Misconceptions: The Wily Trickster
Misconception: Coyotes are pests. While they can adapt to urban environments, understanding their behavior is essential for fostering peaceful coexistence.
Most coyotes will naturally avoid conflict. It is energetically very expensive for them to engage in any other activity beyond hunting and propagating their population. Some coyote populations are more curious than others, but they can all smell humans from miles away and will not want to interact with us if they don’t have to.
Wolves, Coyotes, and the Call to Coexistence
Wolves and coyotes show us remarkable examples of adaptability, intelligence, and resilience. These canids remind us of the wild beauty that surrounds us and present an opportunity to learn, appreciate, and advocate for the conservation of these incredible creatures.