Coyotes (Canis latrans) are medium to large sized members of the Canidae 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 is typically sandy brown, but can vary from reddish-brown to tan, gray or black. The tail usually has a black tip and is held downward while running. The coyote in the eastern United States is typically larger than coyotes in the western United States. Female coyotes weigh on average 30 – 40 pounds, and male coyotes weigh on average 35 – 45 pounds, although their full coats often make them appear larger. Coyotes are frequently confused with foxes and have been mistaken for domestic dogs.
Coyotes may live as solitary individuals, in pairs, or in small family groups, both in rural and urban areas. Family groups 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. Coyotes use a range of howls, barks, yips and growls to communicate.
Coyotes appear to be strongly monogamous and breed from January- March. Typically, only the dominant pair breeds and produces one litter per year.Other adults in the group may assist with raising of the young. They give birth to a litter of 5 to 7 pups on average with most born by mid-April. Pups become independent around 6-to-9 months of age. Some juveniles will disperse in late fall to seek new territory, while others may remain with their parents.
Coyotes are primarily nocturnal but may be active during the day, especially during the spring and summer months when they are searching for food to feed pups.
Coyotes play an important ecological role as a natural predator that may help to regulate and balance other wildlife species that are abundant in Fairfax County. Coyotes are omnivorous, opportunistic foragers with diverse diets that commonly prey on small animals such as rabbits, rodents (mice, rats and voles), squirrels, and groundhogs, but will also readily eat amphibians, reptiles, insects, fruits, and plants. Coyotes may also take larger prey such as turkeys and white-tailed deer (primarily fawns). Coyotes will scavenge on carrion and use human-provided urban food sources such as garbage, pet food, compost, and gardens.
Coyotes are highly adaptable and use diverse habitats, often 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, under downed trees, thickets, or enlarged burrows made by other animals such as foxes or groundhogs, along steep banks and rock ledges, in culverts, or under out-buildings and crawl spaces in urban areas.
Coyotes, Humans and Pet Safety
Coyotes differ from most other wildlife species in urban areas in that they are often perceived to be a danger or a nuisance simply by being seen. Most complaints regarding coyotes are that they occur near people, even when no incidents or damages have occurred. Simply seeing a coyote should not be cause for alarm.
Unprovoked coyote attacks on humans are very rare. In most cases where coyotes have acted aggressively, a coyote is responding to the presence of a dog, is in close proximity of a den with pups, or has become too comfortable around humans, often a result of people feeding them. Attacks by rabid coyotes have also been reported in the U.S., although these attacks are not common.
Feeding or unintentionally providing food for coyotes is a primary concern by wildlife officials as these actions may result in coyotes becoming less wary of humans or cause them to display bold and aggressive behaviors.
Pets that are outside unattended may be at risk to coyotes, especially during nighttime and early morning hours. Coyotes may consider small, unattended pets including cats and small dogs as prey due to their similar size to natural wildlife prey. Coyotes are territorial and may view larger dogs as a threat. This behavior may be more pronounced during the mating season (January-March) and when coyotes are caring for their pups (March-August). Wildlife officials recommend that residents maintain supervision over pets when outdoors, and keep them inside whenever possible to reduce encounters with coyotes and other wildlife. Dogs should be walked on short leashes (less than 6 feet in length). Cats should be kept indoors and not allowed to roam free. Feeding of feral cats is strongly discouraged. Provide secure shelters for poultry, rabbits, and other vulnerable animals. Be alert at dusk and dawn. Coyotes are most active at night and early morning hours; however, they may be active during the day in search of food or denning sites. Make sure your pets are up-to-date on all vaccinations.
If you or your pet have physical contact with a coyote or aggressive behavior is observed, or if an animal is showing signs that may indicate illness or injury, report it to the Animal Protection Police through the Police non-emergency number at 703-691-2131. Signs of aggression are similar to those shown by domestic dogs and include agitated barking (unprovoked), raised hackles, snarling, growling, and lunging.
Reducing Conflicts with Coyotes
Preventive practices such as reduction and removal of food attractants, habitat modification and responding appropriately when interacting with coyotes are keys to minimizing the likelihood of conflicts.
• Never feed or attempt to “tame” a coyote.
• Place garbage and compost in an animal-proof container, such as a metal trash can with latches on the lid or secure with bungee cords.
• Keep trash inside until the morning of trash pick-up whenever possible.
• Cover compost piles.
• Do not feed pets outside or store pet food outside. If you must feed outside, make sure the bowl is empty afterwards or remove it.
• Pick up ripe, fallen fruit and do not let it accumulate on the ground.
• Put away bird feeders to avoid attracting small rodents and other coyote prey.
• Trim shrubbery to ground level to remove hiding cover.
• Close up all openings under porches/decks, crawl spaces or sheds where animals might establish dens.
• Coyotes can jump and climb fences. Consider installing or altering fencing to keep coyotes out of yards. Fencing should be at least 6 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.
Keeping coyotes wild and wary is the key to successful coexistence. Hazing simply means scaring a coyote away from you, your yard, or your neighborhood. Hazing techniques attempt to discourage coyotes from frequenting areas used by humans and re-instill fear of humans back into bold coyotes who have become habituated. Haze a coyote if it approaches you in a park or in a neighborhood, or if you see a coyote who is comfortable walking your street or visiting yards.
• Do not run from a coyote. This may stimulate a coyote’s chase instinct.
• Stand your ground. Make eye contact.
• From a safe position, yell and wave your arms at the coyote.
• Use noisemakers such as whistles, air horns, bells, “shaker” cans full of marbles or pennies, or pots and pans banged together.
• Throw non-edible objects in the direction of the coyote including sticks, small rocks, cans, or tennis balls.
• Spray the coyote with a water hose.
• Install motion sensor lights or a motion-activated sprinkler around your home.
If a coyote is avoiding humans and pets and not creating conflict, do not seek out opportunities to haze or otherwise aggravate the animal. Do not haze a coyote if pups are present or if you suspect a coyote is sick or injured, as the coyote might behave defensively or react in an unpredictable manner.
Additional information on coyotes in Virginia and ways to reduce conflicts with coyotes in your community can be found at:
For information on managing wildlife interactions and resolving human-wildlife conflicts, the Virginia Wildlife Conflict Helpline is available toll-free at (855) 571-9003, 8:00AM-4:30PM, Monday through Friday.This helpline is a collaborative effort between the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources and the U.S. Department of Agriculture - Wildlife Services.