A Coyote or a Wolf? How do you tell the difference? ... and some concerns about wolf hunting with hounds

Most people are cognizant that coyotes live in Ontario, especially in the central region. Often these smaller cousins of the gray wolf (Canis lupus) are mistakenly identified as gray wolves by the untrained eye. This can lead to confusion amongst people regarding what exactly they have spotted; is it a coyote or a wolf?

As a result, because there are generally more coyotes than wolves around, some people are led to believe that a given area is being over-run with gray wolves when in fact this is not the case. Coyotes are normally present in higher populations and therefore people are likely to see them more often than pure blood wolves. One way to distinguish a coyote from a wolf at a glance is the ears. A wolf's ears are smaller and spaced farther apart on the cranium than a coyote. A coyote's ears are close together & stand up straight on the top of their head.

Grey Wolf Paw Print Lifted off BeachIt is interesting to note that while wolf, coyote, and fox can often share the same territory, they don't get along well and are pretty much total enemies of one another . They tend to be able to tolerate each other around a plentiful food source such as a dead deer or moose, however under other circumstances it is not uncommon for wolves to kill coyotes and for coyotes to kill fox. The main reason for this is competition for food and territory. If given the chance, an adult fox, wolf or coyote will eat the competitors young.

Grey Wolf Paw Pring Lifted off BeachFirst, clarification needs to be made of the differences between wolves and coyotes (Canis latrans). Second it should be noted that it is doubtful (but not impossible) that any true gray wolves exist in south central Ontario. There may well be coy-dogs (a gene-pool cross of coyote and dog), or animals that have a gene pool split/combination of wolf, coyote and dog, but rarely true gray wolves.

The occasional gray wolf or pack has been known to pass (usually in the depths of winter) through the less disturbed areas of places as far south as Waubaushene, via the Matchedash Swamp, or Orillia, Fenelon Falls and further to the east in locations such as Marmora and Perth. But to assume that any permanent and stable populations reside in these southerly points is a bit of a stretch. Gray wolves simply don't do well around people. It is predominantly transient populations that frequent these areas.

Algonquin Wolf (Eastern Wolf) Paw Print from Algonquin parkA clear dividing line for these two canid species, known as the Trent Severn Waterway, is a good border to work with, -- wolves can be found north of the waterway and coyotes to the south (note: Coyotes have greatly expanded their range and have been found as far north as Gowganda, Shining Tree and to the east towards New Liskeard). This is not to say that the occasional cross border shopping doesn't happen between these two species, although the shopping appears quite one-sided because coyotes crossed over the Trent Severn boundary many years ago and now permanently occupy vast areas to the north in very stable numbers. I said one-sided because to a much lesser extent it is usually only the occasional wolf that will make the odd foray (of any appreciable distance) south of the Severn River, and if they do they don't usually stay too long.

Grey Wolf Paw Pring Lifted off BeachCoyotes are actually very different from their wild cousins in size, shape and habits. In terms of behaviour, coyotes do not live in social groups as wolves do. By late summer of their first year, a coyote will be ready to care for itself and leave its parents, whereas wolf pups usually mature within the pack and become part of it. When examining the contrasts in size between the two species, in almost all cases (at least in Ontario) the biggest pure blood coyotes are about 30 pounds (14 kg) lighter than the smallest wolves.

In the northern part of Ontario's central region adult wolves such as the Eastern Gray wolf or as it is otherwise known the (Algonquin Wolf) are generally not all that large and may weigh anywhere from 75 to 95 pounds (34 to 43 kg), with 75 to 85 pounds (34 to 39 kg) being the norm. I believe that while Dr. John Theberge was extensively studying wolves in Algonquin Park (a 12 year study started in the 1990's), he did weigh the odd male wolf that topped the scales at about 108 lbs. (49 kg), but this was rare.  Pure blood coyotes, on the other hand, in the same area will average at about 30 to 36 lbs. (13.5 - 16 kg) although some have been found to weigh substantially more. Again these weights depend on their diet.
Clearly though, it's worth mentioning that hybrids or coy-dogs can weigh more, falling somewhere around the 30 kg or 66 lb mark.

Wolves on average measure from 5 to 6.5 feet (153 cm - 196 cm) in length from tip of nose to outstretched tail, but their overall size is dictated by the food sources available to them in their territory.

Coyotes can measure between about 4 to 4.9 feet (122cm - 144cm) in length from nose tip to end of outstretched tail.
Their size also depends on whether one is looking at an eastern coyote or the western species. Their size is also somewhat dictated by their diet.

However as far as physical differences in size are concerned wolves clearly win out. Coupled with their greater weight and approximate 2.5 foot (76 cm) height, wolves also have much larger paws (roughly the size of a large German shepherd), broader chests, wider larger skulls, wider snouts and smaller ears.

Undoubtedly, it is coyotes that are more likely to be seen in central Ontario since there are more of them than there are wolves in this region. At one time gray wolves widely populated central Ontario in stable numbers, but due to constant disruption and invasion by man into various areas, wolves are now found only in the most wild and least human populated regions. In a growing number of areas in Central Ontario wolves continue to be extirpated.

The fact that they are no longer common in an increasing number of areas in Ontario has allowed the coyote to move in to fill the void.
Coyotes are far more pragmatic and adaptable to human change and interference, so it is understandable that they have moved in where wolf populations have been severely disrupted or pushed out altogether. Wolves do still live in relatively stable, but fluctuating populations in Central Ontario similar to any other top predator, and continue to try to hang on despite a barrage of obstacles that affect their survival; mostly caused by man.

Another hybrid called the Tweed wolf (a genetic combination of coyote, wolf and dog) is a larger canid species and can sometimes look surprisingly like the gray wolf. In the lower parts of southern Ontario hybrids can be a light reddish rusty colour and largely lack the salt and pepper coat of coyotes.

As I have said Coyotes are highly adaptive to varying or disruptive environmental conditions and can withstand substantially increased levels of human activity.  They continue to appear to be expanding their range and in many areas are co-existing alongside wolves in locations where only wolves once dominated.

Is this a sign of things to come? Are coyotes rapidly evolving physically and psychologically to take the wolf's place?
This could be the case, as evidenced by what is happening to the coyote regarding it's expanding range, increasing size/weight, and in some cases it's genetic mixture of dog & wolf. It is certainly something to think about and watch with interest.

No matter what direction the development of coyotes is heading in, I cannot help but have a huge amount of admiration for them. They are true survivors, and I believe are largely misunderstood. Coyotes are extremely beneficial and are masters at helping to keep the rodent population in check. They can be great entertainment to watch as they leap in the air to pounce on a mouse.

At our family's old house which was situated deep in the countryside, my wife, daughter and I would stand on our back deck and howl if we heard them. There were a few that got used to hearing us, and they would always come closer, and we would all howl together. I'm glad we did not have neighbours too close by!

Seriously though, when it comes to wolves and their ability to buffer stresses in the environment or human encroachment, they score badly.  Clearly the coyote is more adaptive, opportunistic and can survive quite nicely on ground hogs, mice, squirrels, insects and carrion.

This is not to suggest that wolves are not resourceful, but their preferred prey are the larger ungulate species such as moose, deer, elk, and caribou.  Their diet, to a lesser extent, consists of beaver and rabbit. On one occasion I even found a consumed snake, while examining a wolf scat, north of the Six Mile Lake region of Ontario some years ago.
That was a real oddity!

Wolves are by nature rather shy and illusive mammals and because of this choose to inhabit wilder tracts of forest, preferably far away from human activity. For that reason, they are usually difficult to hear, let alone actually see.

Anyone who has had the opportunity to see a wolf in the wild or hear one howl in the night, should consider themselves very fortunate. I have had a chance to howl with many wolves (captive and wild) and to view them in both of these situations. I feel very privileged. I am always humbled when I see a wolf in the wild, for theirs is not an easy life, mostly due to human persecution by a relatively small and ignorant portion of the population.

Most people these days view the wolf as being the epitome of all that is wild and free. Canadians should do everything in their power to protect this magnificent species.


I am not opposed to good clean and legal deer and moose hunting. I have eaten and enjoyed both meats, but I am completely against predator control/wolf kill programs who's sole purpose is to unnaturally reduce wolf numbers in order to artificially increase ungulate numbers to provide humans with more sport. This is unquestionably wildlife management and human meddling at its worst.

In addition, I am also sorry to say, that in some areas of Ontario and Canada wolves are still shot, trapped and vilified. The MNR still allows wolf hunting with dogs and appears to turn a blind eye to this disgraceful, so-called 'sport'. There is a growing groundswell of public support calling for this 'recreational' activity to be recognized for what it is,...unethical hunting, and banned outright.

There is nothing sporting about a pack of hunting dogs chasing a wolf to exhaustion and then forcing the wolf to turn and fight, only to be attacked by the dogs before hopefully being mercifully shot and put out of its misery. How anyone sees this activity as sporting is beyond me.

Those who condone, allow or partake in the hunting of wolves with hunting dogs are guilty of allowing the cruel and inhumane treatment, unnecessary suffering, and terrorizing of a wild animal. Clearly, all of the aforementioned are absolute contraventions of the Game and Fish Act and hunting regulations and yet this activity is allowed to continue. It's as if the government is ignoring its own laws.

Accordingly, those who support or indulge in this pastime should be held accountable in the courts. Wolf hunting with dogs is not ethical hunting, but rather a sadistic blood sport.

We in Canada have the last truly healthy populations of wolves on the planet. The onus is on us to be the caretakers of this species, and to protect them.

Write or email the Minister of Natural Resources, the Hon. Donna Cansfield, and tell her how you feel. Tell her that you want to see better protection of wolves, including a total ban on wolf hunting involving hounds. Suggest to the Minister that this form of barbaric hunting should be outlawed once and for all.

Wolf hunting with hounds: there's nothing sporting about it

Bill Leeming is a published wildlife columnist, with background in zoology, and environmental issues. He has been interviewed on radio and television, and has written about wildlife for many years.


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