Coyote Packs: Exploring the Social Behavior of North America’s Most Common Canines

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Published on February 8, 2024
Last Updated on February 8, 2024

This article was fact-checked in February 2024 by coyote expert Jonathan Way who runs the website Eastern Coyote Research

Coyotes are one of the most adaptable and widespread predators in North America. They are known for their intelligence, resourcefulness, and ability to survive in various environments, ranging from deserts to forests and even urban areas.

While coyotes are often seen and portrayed as solitary animals, the truth is that they are highly social creatures that live in family groups. The family group, known as a pack, usually consists of a mating pair and their litter from the current and previous years, similar to a wolf pack’s extended family units.

So, how do these canines live with their families and hunt together in packs? Let’s find out.

What is a Coyote Pack?

Simply put, a group of coyotes is called a pack. The dictionary usually defines a pack as a group of at least three members of the dog (Canidae) family that live and hunt together to survive in the wild.

In actuality, a coyote “pack” is usually a family groupResearchers analyzed the genes of the individuals in a coyote pack and learned that they were closely related and were members of a family unit.

Coyote Pack Size 

A coyote pack or family ranges from 2 to 10 adults plus 2 to 12 pups (average of 5-6) of the year. The size of the pack can vary depending on food availability and territory size, but it typically ranges from 3 to 7 individuals.

A pack of coyotes hiding in tall grass
Photo credit: nature80020 via Flickr

In areas with abundant food, packs can consist of up to 12 individuals, while in areas with limited resources, social units might just be composed of the mated pair.

Coyote Pack Composition

According to coyote expert Jonathan Way, coyotes have a hierarchy like wolves, even if the average pack size might be a little smaller than an average wolf pack. 

The parents are naturally the leaders or the alpha pair, while their pups are the subordinates. Of an average litter of 5-6 pups, most will either die or disperse before their first birthday, while 1-2 on average will stick around. Sometimes more do, especially where food is abundant.

So, for example, a pack of 5 coyotes would consist of the mated pair and 3 of their offspring, usually ranging from 1 to 2 years old, who delay dispersal. Those three subordinates would have a pecking order of their own.

These are the typical social classes in a coyote population, as well as their corresponding ages:

  • Alpha/mated pair (breeding male and female): more than a year old
  • Beta or helper coyotes (non-breeders that remain with the pack): 6 months to 2 yrs. old (generally)
  • Transients/Nomads: 6 mos. to 2 yrs. old
  • Juveniles: Pups of the year that, assuming they survive, eventually disperse and become nomads/transients or beta coyotes within their natal pack.

Roles and Responsibilities in a Coyote Pack

The alpha male and alpha female are responsible for raising the pups, finding food, and defending the pack’s territory, which can span up to 15 square miles. Older offspring also help guard and patrol territories. They also assist in babysitting the new litter of pups born during spring, usually in April.

Photo credit: Photographie AMG via Pexels

Do Coyotes Mate For Life? 

As alphas, the breeding pair of coyotes usually mate for life (assuming they both survive) and see to it that they are the only ones to reproduce in the pack. So their pups, assuming they survive, eventually disperse, find their own territory, and start their own pack.

However, some older offspring of the alpha pair (known as beta coyotes) stick around to be ‘helper’ coyotes. They stay behind and help babysit the pups of the year as they develop. They also hunt and bring food items back for the litter, similar to what the alphas do.

Are There Solitary Coyotes?

Solitary coyotes are transient and nomadic coyotes that are not part of a pack and, therefore, do not have a territory. They may be the newly dispersed young canines that want to join other groups or create their own families. Or they can be older coyotes that their former pack forced out of the group because of age, disease, or disability.

As nomads, transient coyotes can travel many hundred square miles and over 500 miles straight line distance to search for their own territory. In the process, they naturally travel over and across many other pack territories. In some instances, solitary coyotes can be accepted into another pack as long as the alpha pair approves. 

But most cases likely involve lone coyotes finding or filling in vacant territories. This is one reason why control programs don’t work; that is, once a coyote in a home range gets killed, other ones quickly take their place. Those “other ones” are the transient/nomadic coyotes. 

Reasons Coyotes Form Packs

As social animals, coyotes create packs to share and participate in crucial and daily activities. Aside from hunting, these canines also turn to their families for assistance in raising pups and protecting their territories. 

So, in addition to food needs, packs are often formed for social reasons (territorial defense and raising pups) as much as for hunting, especially if small and medium-sized prey is abundant for the group. This is similar to wolves as most wolf packs are also extended family units with the breeders and 1-3 previous litters of older offspring (especially the yearlings).

Do Coyotes Form Packs To Hunt?

While coyotes live in packs like their close cousins (wolves), they do not usually hunt in packs like them.

Coyotes usually hunt alone. Scientists have observed more coyote individuals going after prey rather than hunting with others.

But they may also pair up and hunt. Coyotes aren’t picky eaters and will consume whatever’s available or in-season, like fruit. Most of their diet contains small mammals like mice and rabbits. So, a coyote pair may help each other flush out their prey to catch them quickly.

On rare occasions, however, coyotes will take their packs to hunt. When food is scarce, especially in winter, they will have no choice but to hunt ungulates such as deer and elk that are much bigger than them. They usually hunt larger prey in winter, especially when deer/ungulates are weak or vulnerable in deep snow or after a long, cold winter.

As intelligent beings, coyote packs hunt weakened, young, old, or injured prey. Biologists even discovered five moose that became meals for coyotes during the 2009 to 2010 wintertime. These moose were either very young and inexperienced in deep snow or more than 20 years old and weak.

When coyotes hunt in packs, they conserve energy by executing different strategies. They can either apply:

  • The relay strategy is where each pack member takes turns chasing and tiring their prey.
  • The surround-and-conquer strategy is where they silently stalk the prey and gradually close in to cut off its escape route. It overwhelms the animal with sheer numbers, attacking prey from different angles. 
  • The chase-and-ambush strategy is where coyotes work together to chase their prey toward a waiting pack member capable of taking it down, especially if it’s weak or young.

Raising Pups

Coyotes are monogamous, and the bond between an alpha pair is only usually broken by death. When environmental conditions are good, the alpha female will give birth to a new litter each year in late spring or early summer.

Coyote pups are born helpless and largely depend on their parents and helpers (older siblings delaying dispersal to remain with their natal pack). Thankfully, the alphas are caring and devoted parents who nourish their pups to maturity.

The father principally goes for hunts and brings food back for the pups, while the mom stays in the den to nurse and watch over the newborns. Once the pups are done nursing at around 6-8 weeks, both parents hunt, as do the helpers. 

The coyote parents may be the main facilitators in raising and teaching the new litter, but the other pack members will also pass on their hunting skills and knowledge to the next generation. They also teach them how the hierarchy works and how to behave appropriately within a pack.

The whole pack works together to ensure that the coyote pups grow and know how to survive in the wild, especially when they disperse to raise their own family.

Defending Territories

A coyote’s territory size varies according to habitat conditions and prey availability, but the area should support all the members in a pack.

A territory can range from 1 to 15 or more square miles. This is a sizable chunk of real estate, so a whole pack is needed to cover the entire area and guard the territory.

Territory conflicts may arise from:

  • Lone coyotes trying to steal food or trespass within a territory.
  • Transient coyotes that unavoidably cross other packs’ territories.
  • Other alpha or breeding pairs that are looking for new territories.
  • Two packs meeting, usually at a mutual border of their respective territories.

Resident coyotes, or those living in a specific territory, are extra protective when they have a litter under their care. The pack works together to prevent other coyotes from getting too close to the pups and aggressively keep outsiders from entering their territories, especially core use areas.

Coyotes also usually mark their territories with their urine and scat, and they howl together to indicate that they occupy that area.

Coyote Pack Communication

The members of a coyote pack communicate with each other and even with unrelated animals in various ways, including vocalizations and body language.

Vocalizations

Coyotes use a variety of vocalizations to communicate with each other and other animals. These vocalizations include:

  • Howls: Coyotes are known for their signature howls. They howl to communicate with other pack members and to establish territory boundaries. Coyotes also howl to locate other coyotes or to call for help.
  • Barks: Barks warn other members of the pack of danger. Coyotes also use barks to communicate with or ward off other animals, such as dogs or humans.
  • Yelps: Coyote pups use yelps to communicate with their parents. Adult coyotes also use them to signal distress or to call for help.

Body Language

Coyotes also use body language to communicate with one another. Some forms of coyote body language include:

  • Ear Position: Coyotes can move their ears independently, and they use this ability to communicate with each other. Ears pricked forward indicate alertness, while ears flattened against the head indicate fear or submission.
  • Tail Position: The position of a coyote’s tail can also indicate its mood. A tail that is held high indicates confidence or aggression, while a tucked tail between the legs indicates fear or submission.
  • Facial Expressions: Coyotes can communicate a lot through their facial expressions. For example, a coyote baring its teeth will likely feel aggressive or threatened.

Coyotes are highly social animals that heavily rely on communication to survive. Through vocalizations and body language, coyotes establish territory boundaries, warn each other of danger, and coordinate hunts.

Conclusion

Coyotes are social canines that live in packs and have a hierarchy similar to their larger relatives, wolves. But unlike their cousins, they generally hunt alone or in loose pairs. 

Even so, they are known to hunt together, especially in the snow during winter, when they usually have an advantage over ungulates like deer. 

We at Floofmania hope you enjoyed learning about our social North American canid, the coyote.

Authors

    by
  • Gra
    (Author)

    Hello! My name is Graciola Galo, but my friends call me “Gra” – so can you! Aside from being a dog lover, my bachelor’s degree in biology has helped me develop a deep appreciation for animals. I look forward to learning more about all kinds of wildlife in every future article I write for Floofmania and I aspire to impart that same awe and wonder to you, too!

  • Jonathan Way
    (Expert)

    Jon is Floofmania's coyote and coywolf expert. He lends a hand in fact-checking, proofreading and editing our content about coyotes. Jonathan (Jon) Way has a B.S. (UMass Amherst), M.S. (UConn Storrs), and doctorate (Boston College) related to the study of eastern coyotes, also known as coywolves. He is also the author of several books and peer-reviewed studies of which you can read more on his website.

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