Coyotes and wolves are evolutionary cousins. It is genetically possible for them to mate and produce viable offspring, but in the stable environment of the past it probably never occurred. Traditionally, coyotes and wolves occupied a very separate environmental niche. The two species are quite different in physical size, prey animals and social structure. Now wolves have almost vanished from the scene and the coyote is everywhere.
The most obvious physical characteristic of the wolf, compared to its diminutive cousin coyote, is its greater size and more robust muscular build. The social structure of wolves is vastly different from that of coyotes. Wolves are pack animals that live in a highly structured hierarchy, more complex than an extended family group. Its leaders are a bonded pair – an alpha male and an alpha female. Only this pair will breed and produce offspring, and when offspring become almost mature enough to challenge the alphas for their role, they will be driven off. Other members of the pack are those outcasts from other packs, or offspring who have demonstrated complete submission to the alphas. Those driven off are most eager to join another pack as submissive members. There is no satisfaction in the role of lone wolf, although most wolves probably aspire to challenging and overthrowing the current alpha. This highly developed pack structure enables wolves to be matchless hunters. Working together, they can bring down very large prey animals such as elk or moose.
Compared to wolves, coyotes are small and rangy. They rely on a wily intelligence to get by. Their prey animals are small, such as mice, rabbits and prairie dogs, but they are omnivores, also consuming whatever plant material is in season – and, they are scavengers. Here they come into conflict with the wolves, camp followers as it were, happy to sneak in and devour the leftovers of a wolf kill before the wolves can have seconds. Thus wolves regard coyotes as a nuisance if not a rival, and will kill them if the opportunity arises. Coyotes are not pack animals. A bonded pair with offspring is the basic social unit. Long term, even lifelong bonding seems to be the norm. It requires the efforts of both parents to raise the pups, and pups stay with their parents for two or even more years to learn all the tricks of the coyote trade. Reports of “packs of coyotes” are sightings of these family groups. Coyotes who graduate from the family group will live as travelling solitaires until they find a new territory, and then a mate. This characteristic, along with their great intelligence, has led to their remarkable success in the modern world.
In the past, a small coyote population was kept in check by a larger wolf population. But as European settlers began establishing farms and ranches in North America, the wolf was seen as a threat to livestock and driven to near extinction. With the wolf almost gone, the coyote population began to increase and spread. Originally a western animal, today there is no part of North America that does not have a growing coyote population. And now we come to the conjugal relations between these cousins in conflict. Wildlife biologists believe migrating coyotes coming into the northeastern U.S. sometime around the late 19th century, interbred with the vanishing remnant of the eastern timber wolf. This hybrid is termed the coywolf, and they are larger than the western coyote. Anecdotal evidence suggests they may form packs to hunt whitetail deer, but this is not clearly understood. The mystery is this – there are no coyote single mothers. A bonded pair is required for the pups to survive. Did a male wolf bond with a female coyote and bring food to her and the pups until they could leave the den? And did this happen not just once but several or many times? It is believed the eastern timber wolf is now extinct. Did all the female wolves die off, leaving the remaining males to mate with coyotes and pass their genetic lineage into this new hybrid species? The coywolf population is healthy and not inbred, so this must have been so.
Coyotes and coywolves have moved from the fields and woods into suburban backyards, urban fringes and now even into city centers. Their wily and cunning intelligence, omnivorous nature and extreme adaptability mean they are now a permanent presence in our landscape. Be vigilant and you may see or hear one of these fascinating but shy animals.