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A Few Minutes in the Life of a Coyote

“Are there any bison around today?”

“How often do you see wolves near here?”

“I guess we won’t be seeing any bears this time of year, huh?”

“Where would we have the best chance of seeing a moose?”

Visitors to the Old Faithful area often ask about seeing wildlife, but few people ever inquire after coyotes.  I wish they would: coyotes are fascinating animals that are easy to see and fun to watch.  The scrappy canids weigh in at around 25-35 pounds and are perhaps the most frequently-observed carnivores in Yellowstone.

When I call coyotes carnivores, I mean they are members of the order Carnivora.  Functionally, coyotes are omnivores, eating whatever they can hunt or scavenge—not just meat.  Their omnivorous habits combine with a keen intelligence to make coyotes versatile and adaptable creatures.  They dwell among us in urban areas, suburbs, and rural communities, as well as in parks and other wild lands.

In the wild, coyotes hunt small mammals like mice, voles, and ground squirrels.  It’s great fun to watch coyotes at work in the winter months, when they use their keen sense of hearing to detect prey under the snow.  Yesterday I had the chance to photograph a coyote as it trotted along a nearby trail in the Upper Geyser Basin.  (All pictures were taken with a 20x zoom.  I’m not nearly as close to this animal as it may appear.  In Yellowstone, people are required to maintain a minimum of 25 yards distance from wildlife.)

A coyote trotting along the groomed trail near Castle Geyser suddenly paused, hearing something.

A coyote trotting along the groomed trail near Castle Geyser suddenly paused, hearing something.

The coyote fixed his attention on a spot in the snow, listening intently.

He put his head down and prepared to creep closer.

Very cautiously, so as not to give away his approach to the rodent beneath the snow, the coyote stepped towards the source of the sound.

He pounced! Jumping high, the coyote landed forefeet-first in the snow, and paused for a moment. Did he succeed in catching a mouse?

No luck. The coyote turned and continued on his way down the trail.

coyote pooping

He stopped and pooped, right in the middle of the trail.  Just another day.

Besides tasty rodents, the diet of a Yellowstone coyote may include scraps spilling over from trash cans or lunch leftovers carelessly left behind by park visitors.  Keeping human foods away from coyotes is important—a coyote that approaches people to solicit food must be hazed or, sometimes, put down.  I’ve seen many a coyote scat in Yellowstone with bits of plastic wrapper embedded in it.  Please do your part to keep human foods and trash away from wildlife.

Learn more about coyotes in Yellowstone on the park website.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Janet Johns #

    We watched a coyote catch a marmot at Grand years ago. Not something I would forget. I know how FAST they can move.

    January 22, 2014
    • Wow! That must have been something to see. I’ve always loved watching the marmots behind Grand, but I’ve never seen anything quite that exciting!

      January 22, 2014
  2. sbpraeceptor #

    We have a three-legged coyote in our neighborhood trying to look for food :p

    January 22, 2014
    • Interesting. Any idea what happened to the leg?

      January 22, 2014
      • sbpraeceptor #

        No clue! He hops around our houses. First time I saw him hop, I could not understand why he was right there in front of my car basically testing if I would let him pass or not. He’s a city kind of coyote I guess. When I reported I had seen him to one of my neighbors, he would not believe me…
        From what I could see, this coyote has only the upper part of the missing leg. Wish he could talk :)

        January 22, 2014
        • No kidding! I bet he has stories to tell.

          I love urban wildlife. I am fascinated by the animals that have been able to adapt to intensively human-modified landscapes. I have a great deal of respect for their flexibility. At the same time, though, I am deeply saddened by the decline of the many species that simply can’t get along with us quite so readily. This is part of the reason I believe that protecting and preserving relatively unaltered landscapes is so important.

          January 23, 2014
          • sbpraeceptor #

            Makes sense !
            Co-existing with others, even among our kind, is something we are struggling with. If we can’t accept our differences with our neighbours, how could we do it with animals who don’t speak our language?

            January 23, 2014
        • Angela #

          This sad news about Philly the snowy owl brought me back to your comment about wildlife in urban landscapes.

          January 29, 2014
          • sbpraeceptor #

            Poor Philly ! :(

            January 29, 2014
  3. audreydclark #

    Love your photos, CB. Somehow they always turn out great, even though I’m pretty sure you’re using a point-and-shoot.

    January 22, 2014
    • I upgraded to a new point-and-shoot this fall, as my old (and much loved) camera suffered some lens damage. The new camera has quite the optical zoom, which helps with getting wildlife shots like these!

      January 22, 2014
  4. standingoutinmyfield #

    Did you read the NPR article on how foxes hunt using magnetoreception? I wonder if the coyotes use it too!

    January 22, 2014
    • I did! I was planning to link to it in this post because in my memory they had talked about both foxes and coyotes. But then when I went back to double-check I saw that they had only addressed foxes.

      Fun fact: this coyote was not facing north when he missed the mouse!

      January 22, 2014
      • standingoutinmyfield #

        Haha, that was going to be my next question!

        January 23, 2014

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