Home in on Coyote Home Ranges

Confidence in your ability to locate, call and kill predators in their home range? Take note, because the ones you saw today may be gone tomorrow.

Home in on Coyote Home Ranges

You call and wait. Ten minutes pass. Then twenty. You call again. After 30 minutes of nothingness, you decide the coyotes that were howling last night just aren’t interested. Is it your calls? Did they wind you or are they simply lounging around with a full belly just out of sight from your stand?

As it turns out, you may have done everything right. Your lack of success wasn’t your fault. The coyotes you heard howling last night just might be somewhere else. That’s because coyotes don’t stay in one place. As predators and scavengers, they are constantly moving in search of their next meal, a behavior biologists call “coursing.”

Most don’t wander aimlessly across the landscape, either. They typically conduct their nightly hunts in what is known as a home range, the area in which they spend nearly all their lives. They know all the escape routes, the best places to hunt rabbits, the exact location of every grape vine and persimmon tree, as well as the safest and most comfortable bedding areas. They live and hunt with a mate and perhaps a few of last year’s pups.

Thanks to recent research, we know home ranges can vary in size and can be large enough that they may never hear your calls, no matter how much you turn up the volume. A study conducted in Georgia found that some coyotes stayed within a 3-square-mile home range, while others had territories as large as 25 square miles.

“The better that habitat, the smaller their home ranges tend to be,” says Auburn University assistant professor Dr. Will Gulsby, who participated in the Georgia study. “Better habitat typically means it has more available food like rabbits and other small mammals, which make up the bulk of a coyote’s diet. Coyotes in areas with poor to marginal habitat need to travel farther to find food, so it only makes sense their home ranges would be larger.”

A study conducted in western Virginia had similar findings. Coyotes in that study had home ranges of 8-10 square miles. However, those territories expanded dramatically during the winter, to as much as 40 square miles. The study took place in Virginia’s mountain/valley region, which consists of large mature forests in the mountains and agriculture in the valleys. The forested areas had little undergrowth and was considered poor habitat for small mammals and birds. Researchers think there were fewer rabbits, squirrels and birds in the winter, making coyotes cover more ground to find food.

Western coyote home ranges also vary by habitat and food availability according to US Department of Agriculture scientist, Dr. Julie Young. Some studies found home ranges in places like Texas, Utah and Colorado are as small as a few square miles, while others are as large as 27 or more square miles.

“It mostly depends on available resources. Generally, in more productive habitats, which tend to be wetter and greener, home ranges are smaller. In drier habitats, their home ranges tend to be larger,” says Young, who works at the National Wildlife Research Center in Colorado. “Better habitat just means there are more rodents, fruits and other foods available, so they don’t have to travel as far to survive. That can vary within a state, too. I was involved in a study near the Gulf Coast in south Texas, which typically receives a lot of rain and is wetter and greener than places like west Texas,” Young expanded.  

Coyotes Cover Ground

Good habitat or bad, one thing is certain: When they move, they cover lots of ground.

Thanks to GPS technology, biologists can track an animal’s activity and determine where it has been and how much ground it covered during a specific period. In Gulsby’s study, coyotes in higher quality habitat traveled an average of 150-200 yards every two hours. Those in marginal or poor habitat covered more than twice that. That’s why the coyotes you heard last night may be out of earshot today.

In almost every instance, resident coyotes had what biologists call a core area, places they frequented more than others within their home ranges. Some coyotes in Gulsby’s study had numerous smaller core areas, while others had one or two larger, more defined core areas, which are locations within their home ranges that they returned to frequently. They don’t necessarily return to that core area daily, though. Nor do they bed in the same spot every day.

“I think they just find a place that offers security wherever they happen to be when it is time to bed down,” says Gulsby.  

Some coyotes don’t have a defined home range or a core area, at least not in the typical sense. Biologists call them transients. Although there were exceptions in Gulsby’s study, transients are often young, lone animals that are likely searching for unoccupied territory where they can settle down and establish their own home range. Because coyotes are territorial, they don’t often welcome outsiders. As such, those outcasts wander, sometimes over great distances.

“We had one transient in Utah that went about 100 miles in a straight line until he hit an interstate," Young said. "He turned around and came right back."

But, How Far?

Some transients take months before they find a place to settle down and often use linear corridors like rivers, power line right-of-ways and major roads as travel routes.

“None of the transients he collared settled down during the course of the several-month study he participated in,” Gulsby said.

A transient coyote fitted with a GPS collar in North Carolina traveled 244 miles before finding a suitable place to settle down. On average, transient coyotes in that study moved five miles a day. As such, they were far more prone to human-related mortality, including cars and hunting.

Resident coyotes didn’t move that much, but they still covered a lot of ground within their home ranges. Young said some occasionally moved “several miles” within their boundaries in a single 24-hour period. Gulsby said resident coyotes in high-quality habitat covered about 200 yards every two hours on average and up to 425 yards every two hours — the time between GPS data points.

“There was no obvious pattern to resident coyote movements,” says Gulsby. “They just seemed to roam around their home ranges.”

One thing they rarely do during their travels is cross into other coyote home ranges. Gulsby and Young found the animals they tracked had well-defined boundaries and typically stuck to them. Those boundaries were “soft,” adds Young, meaning they might overlap, but they generally did not travel deep into another coyote’s territory. However, there was no overlap when those boundaries consisted of some sort of physical barrier like a road or river.  

Although Young says coyotes aren’t as nocturnal as we think they are, Gulsby was surprised to learn that coyotes in his study were active during daylight hours. That activity took place mostly in wooded habitat.

However, most activity took place under the cover of darkness. In Young’s experience, coyotes are crepuscula; that is, they are most active at dusk and dawn.

“Even the most nocturnal populations I worked with did a lot of sleeping in the middle of the night, like from midnight to 3 or 4 in the morning. However, it seems like the more human activity there is in the areas they live, the more nocturnal they are,” she said. “However, that’s not true in places like Yellowstone. There, they are out and about in the middle of the day, regularly. I was also involved in a study on a military base that was open to hunting and then closed to all hunting for security reasons. The coyotes became diurnal after hunting was not allowed and spent lots of time moving around in the daytime.”

Urban coyotes are occasionally spotted during the daytime, but for the most part, they wait until darkness to roam the parks, alleys and woodlots of suburbia. Studies in Chicago, Los Angeles and other cities had similar findings, although there were always exceptions.

What's the Conclusion?

So what does it all mean? For Gulsby, the answer is obvious: If you are certain there are coyotes in the area, don’t give up after a night or two without success.

“I would probably just come back because the coyotes in that area probably just weren’t in hearing range,” he says.

Young agrees, adding one study that examined coyote and mountain lion interactions found that it sometimes took several days before they coyotes discovered a free meal. Researchers placed road-killed deer and other large animals in areas with GPS-collared coyotes and lions and monitored their activity.  

“There were some carcasses that weren’t touched for three of four days. Although I cannot say for sure, I think that’s because they just hadn’t found it yet because they couldn’t detect the odor. They were too far away,” Young said.

In other words, coyotes that are gone today may be here tomorrow.


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