As members of the Canidae family, coyotes have the same characteristics of their other relatives that are pack animals – this includes wolves and jackals. While wolves are the most notorious large pack animals in the family, coyotes will form smaller packs themselves. There are a few reasons that coyotes form packs in the wild. One of the reasons is that coyotes are the smaller canid members of the Canidae family, and use a pack to their advantage in hunting situations. These packs are formed by having strict social hierarchy rules in place.
How a Pack is Formed
A coyote pack is formed by an alpha female and an alpha male coyote. This coyote pair will form a territory or home range that they will remain in for the duration of their life, unless forced to leave. Sometimes a male coyote will already have a territory in place and will try to attract a female from other areas into his home range to breed by howling and displaying other pre-mating behavior. When the alpha male locates a female to breed, they will become a bonded pair that will remain together for their lifetime. Since coyotes are monogamous mammals, this alpha pair will be the head of their pack together.
When the alpha male and alpha female coyote breed in late winter and early spring, the litter size of the female will determine the size of their pack. Depending on the source of available food and density of coyote population, coyotes can have between three to ten pups. These pups will become members of the pack until they are fully grown around nine months. At this time, the alpha male will force the male offspring to leave the pack and find their own territory. The female offspring will generally stay with the pack as beta females.
If there is not much competition for food in the home range, coyotes may allow other transient coyotes into their pack, if only for a short while. These coyotes are usually non breeding females that have left their packs, or sick and old coyotes that were forced to leave. These outsiders will stay temporarily with the pack until they find their own territory or become the new alpha when the head coyote dies.
Coyotes benefit from forming packs, especially for hunting purposes. By themselves, coyotes can catch and kill small prey and even livestock or deer fawns. But when they hunt together in packs, coyotes have the ability to take down larger prey like deer. In the northeast region of North America where deer are more heavily concentrated, coyotes are bigger in size and live in larger packs to take advantage of this readily available source of food. These coyote packs will work together using vocalization to howl and alert other pack members of prey and distances when hunting. Coyote packs can also do significant damage to livestock and pets when they are hunting in packs. Once the pack has learned the location of their target, they will work together and even teach younger pack members how to successfully take down their prey.
Having more pack members also means more coyotes to help defend the home range. You will hear coyotes howling at night to warn other nearby coyotes of their presence and territory. The pack members will respond back with a call to alert the coyote of their location in the home range. The coyote will recognize the howl from each member of his pack by their distinct sound. This helps them distinguish pack members from non pack coyotes.
Where are Packs located?
Coyote packs can be formed in all regions of coyote habitat- which is basically all of the U.S, Canada, and parts of Mexico. They will form packs in plains areas as well as mountainous country. The biggest factors in pack formation and size are the food sources available to the coyote and territory sizes of other coyote packs. Their food can consist of smaller easier to catch prey, in which coyotes can hunt in solitude and do not need a larger pack to supplement their diet with large game prey. In contrast, in regions with higher deer and wolf populations, coyote packs have to compete with the wolf for prey and will form larger packs in these areas.
In urban parts of North America where coyotes live in close proximity to humans, pack sizes tend to be smaller. This is due to the fact that these urbanized coyotes can rely on finding sources of their diet from humans instead of having to hunt down more prey in larger packs.