“Behavioral Motivations for Coyote Responses to Predator Calls”

I called it and Tyler shot it with the camera

By Rich Higgins 

Many callers that are new to the sport of predator calling are of the misperception that coyotes respond to our calls motivated only by hunger. Over time, and based upon their experiences, those callers will begin to wonder and ponder other influences that may motivate a coyote to investigate distress calls and vocalizations.

Those that begin to appreciate and study the complexity of coyote behavior learn that the coyote will respond to our calls compelled by one or more of at least seven different motivations each of which is influenced by social status, pressure, the four biological seasons of the coyote and other factors.

These seven motivations include:

6.Social issues
7.Territorial concerns

If we examine each of the seven motivations and try to learn why coyotes respond as they do then perhaps we can understand the coyote a little better and become better callers. And perhaps not.

Greed, as a motivation to investigate a calling stand, can overlap with competition, just as curiosity will overlap with entertainment and social issues will overlap with territorial concerns. So I am going to treat them as three overlapping subjects rather than six individual subjects.


Coyote puppies compete with their litter mates from the time they are born. The most aggressive puppies suckle first and do so on the teat of their choice. The most submissive puppies are usually the smallest because they are the least competitive and settle for what is left over. After the pups are weaned they compete for food that is carried to the den by the adults. Rabbits, birds, rodents and anything edible that is brought to the den, whole or regurgitated, is competed for by the puppies with the strong and aggressive pups getting the lions share, the small and submissive pups snatching whatever they can. Greed becomes a driving force among some of the puppies and, combined with the competition for food that it generates, continues to influence behavior throughout the coyotes adult life.

Coyotes do not share, even mated pairs. The cute spaghetti dinner scene from Disney’s Lady and the Tramp movie in which the Tramp pushes the last meatball across the plate to his Lady love just does not happen between coyotes. They have developed a stylized ritual to establish feeding order (pecking order) on carrion and deadpiles motivated by greed and both, inter-group and intra-group competition.

Dr. Franz Camanzind filmed three coyotes stealing a large carp from an otter on a frozen river in Yellowstone. One coyote stole the fish and ran off with the other two in pursuit. After a couple of tug-of-wars and a change in possession the fish was torn in two and two coyotes ran off with a piece each, leaving the third coyote alone with none. That is the nature of the coyote. A coyote’s individual environment and it’s most recent experiences most greatly influence it’s responses to our calls. A coyote that recently competed for food with a group member, stole food or had it stolen, is likely to approach a distress call with enthusiasm if it’s security level is high enough. This is one scenario that explains hard chargers.


Webster’s defines curiosity as
1. a desire to learn
2. inquisitiveness
both definitions imply a degree of intelligence. The degree or amount of intelligence that coyotes possess is disputed even among the top behavioral researchers. Dr Frederick Knowlton, who has studied coyotes for 30 plus years and knows as much about them as anyone, believes that coyote behavior is governed more by instinct than by intelligence. Dr. Michael Jaeger, who has studied coyotes just as long, believes that they are capable of cognitive reason. The majority of professionals with whom I have discussed coyote behavior, men and women that deal with the coyote on a frequent basis, have developed a respect for the coyote’s quick intelligence.

A quick and intelligent mind requires stimulation. Curiosity and play will provide that. The curious and inquisitive nature of the coyote is well documented, as is their ability to learn.

Dr.s Fagan, Bekoff and Wells, individually conducted studies that demonstrated the importance of play to the social structure of the coyote. Play is neccessary in forming and strengthening bonds within the family unit. The most aggressive and the most submissive of the puppies rarely solicit or engage in play, do not develop strong social bonds with their siblings, and these are the first of the puppies to disperse. The most social of the pups engage in play often and this continues through adulthood. Adults are often observed toying with rodents, rabbits, birds and ungulates and it is considered to be a form of play/entertainment. Just as with hunting dogs there can be no doubt that coyotes enjoy the hunt and will do so when there is no other need or reason other than enjoyment.

Many callers have had coyotes respond to their calls while carrying rabbits, rodents or birds in their mouths and we have called coyotes off of carrion and deadpiles that had full stomachs. Hunger was obviously not a motivation. Coyotes are among the most opportunistic of all predators and instinct probably compells them to investigate the distress cries of prey animals but there can be little doubt that curiosity attracts them as well.

On stand my son, Tyler, and I offer sounds that we consider to be curiosty draws, sounds presented in a manner that may or may not appeal to the 6 other motivations but can attract the coyotes just as surely. Often they will sit down and then lie down and just watch us as we dink with their little brains and often we can attract the same coyotes repeatedly. There is no doubt in our minds that they approach these sounds motivated by curiosity.


Coyotes are the most vocal of all North American mammals. Resident coyotes, that is. Transients and nomads are usually non-vocal because announcing their presence and location usually isn’t to their benefit. Transients and nomads can comprise as much as 70% of the population at certain times of the year.

Resident coyotes may establish and defend exclusive territory as is commonly thought by most callers. This is generally true of stable, unexploited populations and in areas with limited resources that must be defended. In areas with unlimited resources establishing and defending exclusive territory is not neccessary and coyotes may only establish home ranges and defend only the core area in the immediate vicinity of the den. Jim Wegge, the enforcement officer for Unit 24 in Az. told me that he found 6 active dens along a one mile stretch of an earthen canal north west of Phx. That is one den every 300 yards. I asked how the coyotes settled their territorial issues and he replied that apparently they are very tolerant of the presence of other coyotes during time of drought.

Biologists Berg and Chesness conducted a 5 year study of 106 radio collared coyotes in Minnesota. They discovered that female coyotes established and defended exclusive territory and males did not. Females excluded only other females and the males were free to travel and socialize anywhere they wished.

This is important to know if you use aggressive, territorial vocalizations such as the barks and threat-howls (challenge howl). If you issue a threat bark-howl, which in essence is a demand that intruders leave now or else, in overlapping home range or along boundaries, every coyote within hearing is likely to do just that—leave. If you issue a threat bark howl near a den during denning season, the response from dominant resident coyotes can be spectacular and it’s reports of that kind of response from those kinds of coyotes that is probably the reason that so many callers insist on using that vocalization. If your primary objective is to call as many coyotes as possible the threat bark howl will be counter productive.

The coyote, as a species, is a very social animal. They correspond with each other with vocalizations, urine markings and scat deposits. They also investigate strangers and, if the dominance issue is settled quickly, will often spend time in their company rather than running them off as most callers believe. Non aggressive, non intimidating howls will elicit a physical approach from coyotes of all social groups and if your objective is to call in as many coyotes as possible these will be the most productive.

Big eared young of year

Mark Twain described the coyote as
“ a living, breathing allegory
of Want. He is always hungry. He
is always poor, out of luck and friendless.
The meanest creatures despise
him and even the flea would desert him
for a velocipede.” .
The coyote is an opportunistic feeder and the diversity of it’s diet is related to the diversity of the prey base and available food crops. They are instinctually hard-wired to gorge themselves at any opportunity and to cache anything left over.

In 1931, the Biological Survey established a laboratory in Denver, Co. to analyze the stomach contents of coyotes obtained by Government trappers in seventeen states. 14,289 stomachs were analyzed over a period of ten years and the study concluded that coyotes were primarily carnivorous and that flesh accounted for 96 percent of their diet regardless of the time of year. Conversely, coyote scat in Arizona commonly contains only mesquite beans regardless of the time of year or the availability of rabbits, hares,
rodents and other prey. When melons are ripe, pink plop is commonly found within 5 miles of melon fields, pale plop near cantalope fields, red plop when prickly pear fruit ripens, orange plop near citrus groves, and piles of juniper berries all year long.
I doubt that there is ever a truly hungry coyote in the lower zones of Az.

Other stomach content studies have revealed an amazing variety of substances that are eaten by coyotes, ranging from fruits and melons to pets and livestock and included harnesses (including buckles), rocks, various debris, insects, grains, and just about anything that can be swallowed.

They can survive for long periods on vegetable matter alone. One coyote in Kansas, which reportedly had it’s lower jaw sawn off, survived by picking partially digested corn out of cow manure. Another that reportedly had it’s mouth wired shut with baling wire survived on insects.

In northern climes, during prolonged and deep snow, food crops are nonexistant and prey base can be scarce. Coyotes are known to starve in extreme conditions. Hunger is a more important motivator in some areas than in others.

In conclusion, jackrabbit and cottontail distress are still the primary staple of callers, however, because of increasing pressure from increasing numbers of callers, and because of the four social season’s influences on coyote behavior, the old tried and true staple calls don’t work all of the time and it would probably serve all callers well to consider all seven motivations, especially during the latter part of calling season.

This article is the property of Rich Higgins and can not be reprinted without  permission.