Made popular by the famous Looney Tunes’ Wile E. Coyote, coyotes are canids spread throughout North America. They are smaller than wolves – about as big as a mid-sized dog – but they share a striking resemblance to their bigger cousins. Coyotes are intelligent and versatile creatures that prefer living in forests, deserts, and grasslands. However, they are not picky about their habitat and can even adapt to living in cities alongside people. You may not spot them during summer, but seeing coyotes in winter is quite common. This begs the question: what do coyotes do in winter? Do they hibernate, migrate, or adapt?
Do Coyotes Hibernate?
Like other canids, coyotes don’t hibernate. They remain active throughout the year and increase their level of activity in the colder months. Coyotes are more active in winter not only because they spend more time searching for prey but because the young disperse from family groups from October to January. Coyote’s breeding season also peaks from late January to March.
Although they look like smaller wolves, coyotes are very different animals. They have flexible social habits and generally hunt alone or in loose pairs in summer. Throughout the warm months, they prefer smaller prey like rabbits and rodents. Sometimes, they could group with other coyotes to kill larger prey, such as deer, but this behavior is not indispensable for survival.
Things change in winter when coyotes usually form packs for more efficient hunting. This behavior is likely linked to the scarcer availability of small prey and a greater abundance of deer.
Larger coyote packs stick together to survive harsh weather (by hunting larger prey) but generally disperse when the temperatures rise again. However, coyotes form strong family bonds with their mates and pups.
Similar to wolves, coyotes are monogamous, and most spend their entire life with the same partner. The breeding season runs from January to March. Young adults disperse from their parents a few months earlier, generally between October and January.
New pups are born in spring and have sufficient time to grow and learn how to hunt by fall when they, too, disperse from their parents.
Some young coyotes choose to remain in their original family and help their parents (the alpha pair) take care of the new pups. These coyotes do not find mates and do not reproduce. Coyote partners stick together, and both parents are involved in raising the offspring. During the breeding season, they also hunt and eat together.
Do Coyotes Migrate?
Coyotes do not migrate and do not look for warmer climates. Their thick coats enable them to survive the harsh weather. Moreover, coyotes are territorial, and because they generally hunt small prey that doesn’t migrate either, they don’t follow herds of ungulates from one territory to another.
Young, solitary coyotes leaving their original pack may travel at greater distances to find a new suitable territory. Like wolves, solitary coyotes rarely claim a territory for themselves. However, they will claim a territory and establish a new pack if they mate.
In addition to a flexible social behavior, coyotes have flexible dietary habits. They are opportunistic, and even if they generally hunt small mammals, they also eat insects, fish, and even fruits, nuts, seeds, and some grasses.
The invasion and alteration of coyote habitats by humans didn’t lead to a reduction of the coyote population but to further adaptation of the canids.
Similar to foxes, coyotes approach human dwellings and kill livestock or pets. Coyotes are known to eat chickens, smaller dogs, and even cats. Sometimes, they even pack together to kill cattle or sheep.
Moreover, the human presence in the coyote’s habitat can even help coyotes expand their own winter habitat.
While coyotes don’t normally live in deep snow habitats, the presence of humans facilitates the use of these landscapes by coyotes.
Coyotes are not morphologically adapted to travel in deep snow. However, researchers have found that they take advantage of snowmobile trails to use deep snow territories in winter.
While this expansion improves the coyote’s chances of survival in harsh weather, the ecological implications are much wider because the canids occupy hunting territories originally belonging to carnivores that are adapted for traveling in deep snow, such as the lynx, which is an endangered species.
A reduction of prey availability during winter and competition for food with the coyotes reduces the lynx’s chances of survival in winter.
How Do Coyotes Survive Winter?
If coyotes don’t hibernate or migrate, how do they survive the harsh winter temperatures? Similar to wolves, coyotes change their dietary behavior and also make use of their anatomical adaptations.
The most important anatomical adaptation coyotes use during winter is the growth of a winter coat. This coat is similar to that of other mammals that don’t hibernate, including wolves, foxes, and even beavers, and consists of two layers of fur.
The underfur is short and fluffy. It traps residual air that becomes warm thanks to the coyote’s body warmth. By keeping residual air close to the animal’s skin, the underfur prevents heat loss.
At the same time, the rest of the hair is coarser and creates an impermeable membrane on top of the underfur. Rain or melting snow can rarely penetrate it, so the underfur rarely gets wet.
A coyote’s winter coat is long, thick, and covers almost every inch of their body, with the exception of their nose and paw pads.
Generally, a coyote’s winter coat is thick enough to provide warmth even when the animal isn’t traveling or hunting. Thanks to this characteristic, coyotes can sleep outdoors all year round, even curled up in the snow. They only need dens to give birth and provide the young pups with a safe living space.
Coyotes have small feet compared to other predators and are not adapted for traveling through snow. Thus, they don’t usually live in deep snow habitats, preferring areas with limited snowfall. However, as explained above, the alteration of wild territories by humans enables coyotes to travel and hunt in deep snow landscapes, too.
In addition to these anatomical adaptations, coyotes also increase their food intake and build up a layer of fat from late summer and throughout the fall. The fat helps keep the coyote warm while also providing sustenance in periods of scarce food availability.
Change In Dietary Patterns
Beyond anatomical adaptations to cold weather, coyotes also change their dietary patterns to survive periods of scarce food availability.
Coyotes are opportunistic and will always take advantage of any available food source. While they are predators in summer, most coyotes also become scavengers in the cold season. Moreover, coyotes living in or near urban areas can also mess up trash to feed on food scraps or leftovers.
In the wild, the change in dietary patterns sees a shift from small to large prey preference.
Throughout spring, summer, and fall, coyotes prefer small prey. Researchers have found that coyotes feed on rabbits, rodents, chickens, groundhogs, birds, and even house cats. Their winter preferences shift towards deer, however.
The most likely reason for this shift is the scarcer small prey availability. However, deer availability is most abundant in winter. Not only do coyotes group together and hunt in packs to take down larger prey, but they also feed on deer carcasses left behind by other predators or carcasses of animals that have died for natural causes.
Coyotes have very strong, very sharp teeth and strong jaws that can chew on frozen flesh and tear it off bones.
Researchers have also found that the second-most-common food item consumed by coyotes in winter is vegetation. Other types of preferred winter foods include red foxes and house cats. Both foxes and cats are smaller than coyotes and actively seek prey during winter, meaning that they can easily come across the hungry canids.
All these adaptations help coyotes survive harsh winters, even when the temperatures drop below 30°F and their preferred prey is not available.
Coyotes do not hibernate, nor do they migrate in winter. Similar to wolves, coyotes spend the winter in their territory. Anatomical adaptations and a flexible predatory behavior enable them to survive even the harshest weather. Moreover, this opportunistic animal will also take advantage of food left behind by humans or use human trails to invade other territories to hunt during winter.
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