Coyotes in Fairfax County
Coyotes (Canis latrans) are highly adaptive members of the canine family that survive in a wide range of habitats, including suburban and urban areas. In Fairfax County, coyotes are an established part of our local environment and serve an important role in the ecological community. Coyotes generally avoid humans. They usually coexist in areas with people without raising attention to their presence.
What's the big picture?
The coyote's geographic range spans the North American continent from Alaska to Central America. Within the continental U.S., coyotes have shown remarkable expansion since the 1970s from their historical western range to east of the Mississippi. Their opportunistic and adaptive nature enables them to take advantage of diverse habitats, including suburbs and cities. They are now permanent members of the wildlife community in Virginia.
How long have they been in Fairfax County?
Coyotes started moving into northwest Virginia in the 1970s. By the early 21st century, they were established and widespread throughout Fairfax County. Coyotes have been documented in every part of the county and are an established part of our local environment.
What do they look like?
Coyotes are medium to large sized members of the canine family, which includes wolves, foxes, and dogs. They have pointed and erect ears, a long, slender snout, and a bushy tail pointed downward. Fur coloration varies from reddish-brown to tan, gray or black with a pale blaze on the chest. The tail usually has a black tip and is held downward while running. Coyotes in the eastern U.S. are typically larger than their western counterparts and average between 30-40 pounds, but they can weigh as much as 60 pounds. Coyotes have been mistaken for German shepherds or collies.
Where are they?
Coyotes use diverse habitats, and where they go is determined by the availability of food. They prefer wooded patches bordered by fields and brushy areas that provide abundant prey and shelter for concealment. During their breeding season, coyotes will use dens that could be in hollowed-out tree stumps, thickets, or burrows made by other animals such as foxes, along steep banks and rock ledges, in culverts, or under out-buildings and crawl spaces in urban areas. Coyotes may wander into residential areas in search of food that could be in garbage, pet dishes, and compost, but they normally stick to their natural diet.
What do they eat?
Coyotes are opportunistic foragers with a generalist diet, feeding on both animal and plant material. They will consume rabbits, rodents (mice, rats and voles), squirrels, groundhogs, turkeys, deer (primarily fawns), fruits and vegetables, seeds, acorns, and insects. Coyotes will scavenge on carrion and use human-provided urban food sources such as garbage, pet food, compost, and gardens.
What is their social behavior?
Coyotes in urban areas usually are solitary travelers or small family groups. Small packs usually are composed of a breeding alpha male and female pair and a few close relatives, including pups that were born that year. Coyotes have an organized social hierarchy and will defend their territories from other coyotes. They appear to be strongly monogamous and breed during February and March. They give birth to a litter of 5 to 7 pups on average in April or May. Pups become independent and disperse around 6-to-9 months of age. The coyote uses a range of howls, barks, yips and growls to communicate. Although you might hear one, our eastern coyotes are not as vocal as their western cousins.
Are there benefits to having coyotes?
Coyotes play an important ecological role as a natural predator that may help to regulate and balance other wildlife prey species that are abundant in Fairfax County. Coyotes are significant predators of deer fawns in other areas and may contribute to reducing the overabundant deer herds of Fairfax County. They also may help control resident Canada goose populations by eating goose eggs (and occasionally a goose dinner), and that might reduce human-geese conflicts such as property damage from overgrazing and accumulations of goose droppings and feathers in our parks and backyards. Small mammals are a large part of the coyote diet, so coyotes may help to limit populations of rats and other rodents that impact natural resources and are considered a nuisance by humans. Coyotes also remove sick or injured animals from the environment.
Are we likely to see a coyote?
Maybe, but unlikely for most residents. Coyotes are most active at night and early morning hours. They are smart, secretive animals and tend to avoid humans. The number of encounters between people and coyotes has risen as years have passed, but it’s uncertain if that means the number of coyotes is rising, that encounters are related to human expansion and development, or is the result of increased awareness about coyotes in our communities.
Can coyotes carry diseases?
Coyotes are susceptible to canine distemper, rabies and sarcoptic mange and to a variety of parasites, including roundworms, tapeworms, fleas, ticks, lice and mites.
Should we be concerned?
Coyotes, often persecuted as predators and perceived as a threat to human safety, in reality pose little threat to humans. Residents should not be alarmed at their presence. They have been in Fairfax County for a number of years, although they are seldom encountered. Most conflicts with coyotes can be avoided by taking simple preventative measures -- remove food sources or modify habitat to make areas less attractive to them.
Should I be concerned about my pet?
Don’t leave small pets outside unattended. Cats should be kept indoors. Pets left unattended outside may be at risk to coyotes, especially during nighttime hours. There have been encounters between pets and coyotes, and that's one reason for the Park Authority's rules on dogs and leashes. That’s especially true in the spring, when coyotes may be denning and protecting their young. A small, off-leash dog or a dog without an owner nearby may not escape. A coyote may view a large dog as competition and a small dog as prey. Cats also may be taken as prey. Coyotes can interbreed with domestic dogs and produce hybrid litters, often referred to as “coy-dogs.” As a safety measure, keep dogs on short leashes (less than 6 feet) while walking outside. If you keep other animals outside, such as poultry or rabbits, provide them secure shelters. Keep all pets up-to-date on their vaccinations in case they come into contact with coyotes or other wildlife.
What do I do if I spot one?
Coyotes can sometimes be seen moving through yards or crossing streets in search of food, usually in areas that border open space. In most cases, coyotes will flee from humans, and you won’t have to do anything. If you see one, keep a respectful distance away and do not approach it. If the coyote does not leave the property, there are techniques (see next question) that can be used to scare them away so that they do not feel welcome. If a coyote acts aggressively or appears to be sick or injured, call the county police non-emergency number at 703-691-2131 and ask to be connected with Fairfax County Animal Control Services.
Can coyotes be scared away?
There are techniques that can be used to discourage coyotes. From a safe position, yell and wave your arms at the coyote. Noisemakers such as whistles, air horns, bells, “shaker” cans full of marbles or pennies, or pots and pans banged together can be used. Throw non-edible objects such as sticks, small rocks, cans, or tennis balls in the direction of, not at, the coyote. Spray the animal from a distance with a water hose or water guns. If the coyote still does not leave, back away slowly while continuing to harass it, and go indoors if possible.
For additional information on resolving human-wildlife conflicts, call the Virginia Wildlife Conflict Helpline toll-free at (855) 571-9003, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. This helpline is a collaborative effort between the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the U.S. Department of Agriculture – Wildlife Services.
How can I make my home less attractive to coyotes?
Remove food sources. Secure garbage and compost in an animal-proof container, such as a metal trash can with latches on the lid, or secure them with bungee cords. Keep trash inside until the morning of trash pick-up whenever possible. Do not feed pets outside or store pet food outside. Put away bird feeders at night to avoid attracting small rodents and other coyote prey. Close off all openings under porches/decks, crawl spaces or out-buildings. Few fences are completely coyote proof. Fencing should be at least six feet tall, have an outward slanting overhang or roller-type device to prevent coyotes from climbing or jumping, and have an L-shaped mesh apron buried one to two feet to deter digging.