Wilderness Underfoot: Coyote Confusion

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11309587454160.jpg’, ”, ‘The coyote—Canis latrans, the largest predatory animal in Illinois, grows to just more than 40 pounds. It resembles a very small German shepard, except it holds its tail down instead of curved upward. Coyotes feed mostly on rabbits, mice and rats, but they’ll eat other mammals and birds. They also consume small livestock and poultry. Occasionally, they’ll feed on insects, fruits and berries as well. Coyote pups are usually born in April, when food is more abundant. They’re cared for in small dens and burrows, and after about six weeks they’re fully weaned. The young spend much of the summer with their parents, and then set off on their own. Illinois coyotes are less inclined to run in structured packs than coyotes in other regions. They spend more time on their own, in ranges that extend to about 20 miles.’);

Our largest natural predators, coyotes, are easily mistaken for their close relatives

Your chance of spotting one of these animals is better than at any time in the last century. The coyote population in our state today is perhaps as high as 30,000, and it has been growing steadily since the mid-1900s. Coyotes are found throughout Illinois and across much of the Midwest—most often in rural areas—but they tend to avoid humans, and their brief appearances have always made their identification difficult.

Early wildlife accounts in Illinois often confused dogs and wolves with coyotes (which were also called prairie wolves). All of these animals belong to the genus Canis, and they’re similar in many ways. Our coyotes are somewhat larger than those found in the Southwest, so they’re easily mistaken with smaller dogs and young wolves. But what has made their identification all the more difficult is interbreeding between species of Canis.

In fact, coyotes and dogs interbreed so readily that it may be difficult to anymore find a 100 percent full-blooded coyote in our state. Offspring from these matings are known as coydogs. One researcher, Donald Hoffmeister, estimates there may be as many as 4,500 first-generation coydogs in Illinois.

Determining whether an animal is a coydog or a coyote is difficult, even for an expert. From outward appearances, the snout of a coyote is typically narrower than that of a dog, but in cases where the identification is not clear, the only sure way is to do a detailed postmortem examination of the skull.

Coyote-wolf hybrids wouldn’t be expected in Illinois today. Wolves are extinct here, and their appearance in our state is extremely rare. Coyotes can be distinguished from wolves by such features as their more pointed ears, smaller nose pads, and less robust teeth. Any interbreeding between coyotes and wolves in Illinois would have happened before the wolf was eliminated from this region in the 1860s—although traces of wolf genes can still be found in modern coyotes.

From the Nov. 2-8, 2005, issue

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