Coyotes and people have coexisted on the land we today call Iowa for thousands of years. The coyote is a remarkably adaptable species that has survived persecution that drove away the wolf, mountain lion, black bear and other predators once found in Iowa. Although still highly persecuted, today we find coyotes thriving in all 99 of Iowa’s counties carrying out a fascinating life history everywhere from large forests to the streets of our busiest cities. Coyotes are a habitat generalist species, although they prefer natural areas of forests and grasslands, they also inhabit today’s altered landscape of highly intensive agriculture and urban areas as well. The vast majority of coyotes carry out their lives without any conflict with people, our pets, or our livestock and bring great joy to observers across the state enthusiastic to catch the sight, or often the sounds of these fascinating animals. In rare instances, coyotes can cause conflicts with people. The resources on this page seek to help people minimize the risk of creating conditions favorable for those conflicts or abating those conflicts when they arise.
Diet: Coyotes primarily feed on small mammals, including mice, voles, and rabbits, which can collectively comprise up to 90% of their diets in many cases. However, coyotes have a quite omnivorous diet that varies throughout the year with the seasonal availability of different food items. Hundreds of different plants and animals have been documented in coyote diets. In some times of the year fruits, insects, birds, deer fawns, or plant matter can comprise large portions of a coyote’s diet. In cities diet studies have found coyotes will scavenge in garbage, eat pet food, or even capture and eat free-roaming cats. Around farms, coyotes can eat chickens, calves, sheep, or goats. Coyotes will also scavenge wild animals or livestock killed by other means, such as vehicle collisions, hunters, or disease.
Mating strategy and social behavior: Coyotes have a social structure revolving around a territorial pair and their offspring that form a ‘pack’. Both the male and female of the pair participate in defending the territory, establishing a den, and raising the young. Other coyotes in the social group are sub-dominant to the alpha pair and most often related to (i.e. offspring) the dominant pair. A pair typically has one litter per year, born around April or early May. The typical litter size in Iowa is six young, however litter sizes can vary by area depending upon prey availability and the density of other coyotes. The young are nursed by their mother around the den and then fed prey captured by both parents. They abandon the den around six weeks as the young start to feed more on their own. Non-breeding coyotes are often solitary during summer when food is abundant and then form groups during the winter when food is scarcer. Eventually, young coyotes will disperse to establish new territories or replace their parents when one or both die and no longer defend the territory.
Coyotes use many different tactics to defend their territory, including direct interactions with other coyotes, vocalizations, and scent marking. Among these behaviors, the most conspicuous behavior for humans to observe is the vocalizations coyotes make to announce their presence to other family groups or in enforcing social bonds within their family group. High pitched yips, barks, and howls are most common, however coyotes make a wide range of vocalizations that can be heard by humans from great distances. Often, their cacophonous sounds make humans overestimate the density or abundance of coyotes in any one place which can add to common misconceptions related to the risks coyotes pose to humans, pets, game, or livestock.
Activity periods: Coyotes are generally most active at night, especially in cities or in other areas where humans are active during the day. In rural areas or areas with fewer people, coyotes tend to have peaks of activity around dawn and dusk. These contrasting activity patterns between people and coyotes are one way coyotes coexist with people. Coyotes can be more aggressive especially towards pets that are near their den site during the spring and early summer when they are nursing or capturing prey to feed to their young.
Habitat: Coyotes can be found almost anywhere but are generally most abundant in landscapes with large natural areas where prey is abundant and people are relatively rare. In rural areas, this means coyotes are most abundant in areas with interspersed grasslands, pastures, forests, or other natural areas not in row crops. In cities, this means that coyotes are most common within city limits around green space areas. This includes parks, preserves, walking/biking trails, golf courses, or neighborhoods with more landscaping or other natural features.
Survival: Coyotes can live up to a dozen years, but most have much shorter lives. A typical coyote life span is around 1.5 years, with many dying in their first year of life and few surviving beyond three years. Estimates of annual survival among adult coyotes range from 40% to 80%. The main mortality sources in cities are vehicle collisions whereas in rural areas it is harvest or control by hunters, trappers, or wildlife control operators.
Conflicts with people: Conflicts between people and coyotes are relatively rare. Most common conflicts include occasional depredation of livestock, namely young animals like calves, kids, or lambs. In cities or around human dwellings, coyotes will rarely prey on small pets, including free-roaming outdoor cats and very rarely small dogs. Coyotes very rarely threaten humans, with only a few reported incidents nationally that generally involve habituated coyotes or very young, unsupervised children. In most cases, simple measures can be taken to reduce risks of these conflicts, as discussed below.
Coyote trends in Iowa: Prior to the 1800s, coyotes were most abundant in the plains and semi-arid areas of the central and western U.S. Thus, coyotes were found throughout most of the state, but would have been most common in the open prairies of central and western Iowa. Like other predator species, coyotes were highly persecuted during the 1800s and early 1900s, a period that included concerted efforts by local, state, and federal entities to incentivize the reduction (with the goal of elimination) of coyote populations with bounties and government control programs. It is believed coyote numbers reached a low point during the 1920s. Coyotes were never fully extirpated like other carnivore species once more common in Iowa, like black bears, cougars, and gray wolves.
During the 1970s and 1980s, surveys and research showed that coyote numbers rose dramatically throughout Iowa. Because gray wolves were extirpated, coyotes became the ‘top dog’ or top predator in Iowa. Annual coyote harvest numbers from regulated hunting and trapping have been documented in Iowa from 1930 to present day, and illustrate the initial increase in coyote populations. You can learn more about coyote population trends by examining reports published annually by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources on a diversity of monitoring methods they use.
Coyotes are generally easy to identify. Their fur coat (pelage) is often tan and drizzled gray with black tips on the hair. The pointed ears and snout along with a thickly-furred tail are the most noticeable features. Adult coyotes in the Midwest typically weigh 25-45 pounds, but seldom exceed 35 pounds. They are about the size of an average mid-sized dog, a bit smaller than a German Shepherd. Body length is 3 ½ to 4 ½ feet from nose to tail. The shoulder height of an adult coyote is typically 20 – 24 inches. During late fall and winter, coyotes can appear larger because of their thick winter fur coat.
Do you have a coyote conflict?
Observing a coyote is a natural, and to many exciting, event. Seeing a coyote does not necessarily mean any actions are necessary to avoid conflicts. Coyotes are ubiquitous in Iowa and only in certain circumstances does their presence mean humans should take actions. This table can help you assess whether the coyote interactions you are having merit interventions.
Occasional sightings at dawn, dusk, or night. Coyote displays a clear fear response to humans.
No action is necessary and there is no reason for concern.
Occasional sightings during the day, frequent sightings at night or dusk and dawn.
Ensure no outside food sources are available, never feed coyotes, supervise pets outdoors, especially at night, dawn, and dusk.
Frequent sightings and evidence of aggression towards free-ranging pets or livestock
Consider implementing interventions to protect livestock, supervise pets, haze coyotes whenever they are seen. Try to instill fear in the coyote.
Frequent sightings and stalking or attacking pets, but still afraid of people.
Continue to supervise pets and haze coyotes when seen. Implement interventions to protect livestock including fencing and livestock protection animals. Consider direct control measures with problem individuals.
Approaching people aggressively, following children, preying on pets or livestock frequently.
Direct control measures are merited for aggressive coyotes. Municipalities or landowners can work with licensed nuisance wildlife control operators or DNR conservation officers for professional help. Find professional help here.
This table was adapted from resources from the Cook County Urban Coyote Research Project.
Living with coyotes
People live in close proximity to coyotes every day all across Iowa and all across the U.S. To ensure continued safe coexistence, people should engage in behaviors that reduce the likelihood coyotes will habituate – or become overly comfortable or confident among people. Once coyotes lose their fear of humans they become more emboldened, more active during daylight or around humans and pets. Hazing or chasing off coyotes can be a really important solution to ensuring coyotes do not lose their fear of humans. Practices like protecting domestic animals and never feeding or allowing free-access to food are also proven measures to reduce the likelihood of coyote habituation and conflicts.
Limit access to food
It is critical to ensure coyotes do not have free and easy access to food sources in cities or around farms where conflicts may arise. Because coyotes have such a varied diet, many different possible food sources should be limited. Here’s a few recommendations to limit access to food.
- Never feed coyotes for any reason
- Do not feed or water pets outside or only do it once a day and immediately cleanup any leftover or spilled food
- Contain garbage in a closed receptacle
- Dispose of uneaten food from outdoor gatherings in a closed garbage receptacle
- Do not dump food in backyards
- Take precautions to avoid attracting coyotes to compost piles
- Do not compost meat, poultry, fish, or dairy
- Turn compost often to speed up breakdown of food materials
- Contain compost in a container that is not accessible to wildlife
- Cleanup spilled bird feed
- Cleanup any unused fruit from the ground from fruit trees
Protect outdoor pets
Coyotes occasionally perceive pets as suitable prey items, especially small pets like cats and cat-sized or smaller dogs. Follow these steps to ensure the safety of your pets while they are outdoors.
- Try to always attend to small pets when they are outdoors by keeping them close or ideally on a leash.
- If left unattended in a yard for long periods, pets are safest behind a 5-6 foot tall fence with a ‘coyote roller’ type structure on top or an 8 foot fence of material that is not climbable.
- If a coyote is encountered while walking a dog do the following:
- Do not let the dog engage with the coyote
- Keep the dog nearby or if it is a small dog pick it up
- Haze the coyote according to steps below
Reduce risks of livestock issues
Coyotes can become problematic among some livestock production operations during certain times of the year or with certain species of livestock. Smaller animals, including sheep and goats are more at risk than cattle, and younger or sicker animals are also at more risk of coyote depredation. Here are some tips for protecting livestock from coyote depredation issues:
- Consider using 7-wire electric fences around paddocks or pastures where calves, kids, or lambs are.
- Use livestock protection animals, like dogs, donkeys, or llamas.
- Give special consideration to where livestock, especially young livestock, spend the night. Corals close to buildings are safe places when feasible. Motion-activated activated lights or sound devices around corals can also help.
- Remove dead livestock quickly to avoid scavenging and habituation.
- Shorten calving/lambing/kidding seasons to reduce opportunities for losses.
- Haze coyotes anytime they are seen around livestock or buildings according to steps below.
Scare away habituated coyotes
If a coyote become habituated to people and starts to be visible during daylight hours and not show apprehension, it is important to demonstrate aggressive behaviors to dissuade the habitual behavior.
- Wave your arms.
- Throw objects in the direction of the coyote.
- Look big.
- In rural areas, you may be able to use harassment devices like pyrotechnics, sling shots, or paint balls.
Each of these behaviors should elicit a fear response in the coyote and reduce its habituated behavior.
What about other wildlife?
Many misconceptions exist about the impacts of coyotes on other species of wildlife, like ring-necked pheasants, wild turkeys, or white-tailed deer. Although it is true that coyotes occasionally capture and eat these species and others, in general research shows that the impacts of coyote predation on game populations in Iowa is minimal. Wildlife biologists suggest that the best way to protect game and other wildlife species from predation is to ensure there is an abundance of quality habitat. Quality habitat provides the essential elements of food, water, and cover in appropriate proportions and locations to protect them from heavy predation rates.
Addressing coyote conflicts
Step 1: Haze coyotes to discourage habituation
The most important step to ensuring coyotes do not become habituated to people is to make sure they are routinely scared away from humans, pets, livestock, and human dwellings. Hazing coyotes when you see them can be an effective means to stave off future conflicts. Hazing may include;
- Loud noises such as yelling, shaking a can of coins, whistles, pots and pans clanging, air horns, etc. These noises and gestures should be directed specifically at the coyote.
- Make yourself look big by raising your arms in the air or waving an object in your hands.
- Throw objects towards the coyote such as sticks or balls.
- Use a garden house or squirt gun to spray water at the coyote.
Continue to haze until the coyote leaves. Haze loudly and aggressively! Do not chase the coyote, but let it know that you are serious. Do not hide behind something when hazing: make sure the coyote knows it is a human that is hazing. A few other considerations for effective and safe hazing;
- Never run away from a coyote
- Never corner a coyote.
- Never pick up or interact with coyote pups.
- Do not haze a coyote if it appears sick or injured, is cornered, or is with pups.
Step 2: Report aggressive coyote behavior in cities and towns
As coyote interactions and behaviors progress up the scale shown above, more interventions may be merited. Simply seeing coyotes is not a cause for concern. But seeing them regularly during daylight hours or observing aggressive behaviors may be a cause for concern. In urban areas, it’s important to report these aggressive behaviors to city officials to see if they align with other recent reports in an area. In rural areas, individual landowners may have more control over the interventions listed above.
Step 3: Use direct control with problem coyotes
Direct control means to remove problem coyotes, typically through trapping and euthanasia or shooting them. Direct control should be used as a last resort in most instances, but is an important tool to dealing with problem coyotes. State and local municipal rules will dictate what measures can be legally employed for direct control. Licensed nuisance wildlife control operators, Conservation Officers, local animal control authorities, or wildlife depredation biologists from the Iowa DNR could all be resources in learning what options are available for direct control. Contact information for these professionals can be found for individual counties here.
Resources to learn more
- Learn more about avoiding coyote conflicts in urban areas
- Living with Coyotes from the Minnesota DNR
- Managing Surburban Coyotes from Texas A&M Extension
- Managing coyote depredation from Michigan State University Integrated Pest Management
The resources presented on this page were developed in collaboration with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources