Five differences between coyotes and wolves

I still remember the first time I heard a coyote pack howl as dusk began to settle on the Iowa Great Lakes area.

On a walk at Kettleson Hogsback, the sun started to set above the calm shallow lakes, and a high-pitched howl began in the distance. Another answered it. And another. And another.

My husband and I stopped to listen and watched the reaction of our Olde English Bulldog, who apparently has no instincts and didn't pay attention to the ruckus at all. The howling ended as quickly as it had begun. The coyotes had all found each other as night approached and the nocturnal coyotes banded together.

(Learn about nocturnal animals in Iowa.)

Coyotes (Canis latrans) are a common sight and sound in Iowa, but as breeding populations of gray wolves (Canis lupus) increase in border states such as Minnesota and Wisconsin, the bigger predator has also been sighted in the northeastern part of the state. It seems unlikely that wolves will make a home in Iowa anytime soon, but it's still interesting to think about as populations increase in our northern neighbors. It's also interesting to see the pretty obvious differences between coyotes and wolves.

gray wolf

Gray wolf

Here are five ways to tell the big predators apart, and some hints on how to tell them apart from domesticated dogs as well.

1. Coyotes don't care about humans as much as wolves.

Our environmental education coordinator called coyotes the kings of adaptation, because although they are native to prairies, they have adapted to live in urban environments, suburban areas, forests, meadows and prairies. They have adapted to the presence of people, because where people are is often where they can find food. Wolves, however, are skittish, tend to stick to forest cover and avoid people if at all possible.

2. Coyotes are less picky eaters.

The fact that coyotes will search for food in more urban environments shows that they are less picky eaters than wolves. Coyotes are technically carnivores, meaning that they eat meat. They hunt rabbits, mice and other small mammals and sometimes will prey on deer. However, they also have back molars with large chewing surfaces which makes it easy for them to also eat fruit, grass, insects, trash and even pet food if it is left outside.

Wolves are solely meat-eaters. Gray wolves, found in the continental U.S., prey on large, hoofed animals such as deer, moose, elk and the like. If they need a secondary food source, they will also hunt beaver, hares, birds or small mammals. They will also prey on domesticated livestock or eat carrion --- already dead animals --- if no fresh meat is available.

3. They look significantly different.



Coyotes are quite a bit smaller than are wolves, weighing 15-50 pounds while gray wolves weigh 70-150 pounds. Coyotes also stand at 21-24 inches tall at the shoulder, while wolves grow to 26-32 inches tall. Wolves are also quite a bit longer, from 4.5-6.5 feet from nose to tail. Coyotes max out at 4.5 feet long.

gray wolf

Gray Wolf

Wolves and coyotes can have very similar coat colors, but their faces vary significantly. A coyote has a narrow and pointed face with a small nose and tall, pointed ears. The gray wolf has a broad head with large nose and short, rounded ears.

Coyote --- long pointed nose, tall ears, small nose flesh

Gray wolf --- short, rounded ears, broad face, large nose flesh

Dogs also look different from both coyotes and wolves. Dog ears are usually large relative to their head size, and they usually have quite wide eyes. Wolves and coyotes both have eyes with inner corners that tend to slant downward. Dogs also have typically wider chests, whereas coyotes and wolves have narrow chests with legs that are close together.

4. They have different howls.

A coyote has a high-pitched howl with short bursts that rise and fall. They also intersperse their howls with yips and yaps.

Gray wolves have a lower-pitched howl that is long and drawn out. It can also include growls and barks.

5. Wolves have huge feet.

A coyote track is about 2.5 inches long by 2 inches wide, whereas a wolf track could be as big as an adult hand --- 5 inches long by 4 inches wide. Coyote tracks usually have crisp edges, whereas wolf tracks often are fluffier, especially in winter when they have more hair on their feet.

Check out this website for a great comparison of tracks.

Coyotes and wolves tend to walk in cleaner patterns than do domesticated dogs, who walk willy-nilly. Wolves also walk with their front and back paw tracks almost overlapping. Dog tracks are more spread out.

Both wolves and coyotes are nocturnal animals, which means that they are most active at night. We've made a fun nocturnal coloring page just for kids. Click the image below to open a PDF of the page to print at home for free!

coloring page

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  1. Dee Johnson on June 15, 2020 at 10:27 am

    Last summer 2 coyotes were in our backyard standing under our pear tree. These coyotes picked up a pear in their mouths and ran off quickly. We’ve seen coyotes several times. We are surrounded by the woods and streams. I never knew they would eat pears

  2. M. Lieberman on April 15, 2020 at 1:50 pm

    Very interesting and informative.

  3. Chris risher on April 14, 2020 at 8:52 pm

    Lately hearing about coyotes in San Francisco, which supports the information regarding their accepting various food, and being near people. Good article.

  4. Jane Jones on April 6, 2020 at 8:42 am

    I have a question. Are coyotes more suited for the environment, or grey wolves?

    • kiley on April 6, 2020 at 2:46 pm

      They are both suited to their own environments, but coyotes are more able to adapt to changing environments than wolves are.

    • stuart hanney on April 15, 2020 at 2:15 am

      Coyotes do not seem to have the same fear/wariness of humans as wolves, they often live in the city. Wolves prey on larger animals and hunt in packs, whereas coyotes eat smaller prey and are generally not known to hunt in packs. In Seattle I have seen coyotes in a green belt contiguous with an elementary school and found myself wondering about the safety of that but I have never heard of a coyote attacking or eating a young child. I had a coyote den on my acreage in Snohomish County Washington and my dog a Rot Lab mix would play with them, but he was generally a very social dog and turned the aggression of all canines he met to play including a huge mastiff who other dogs were mortally afraid of.There is a woman who has a coyote/dog mix that walks in our local park and is very well behaved but you totally have the sense that getting too close to the woman would not be good for you.
      Hope that helps a little.

  5. John Shannnon on April 3, 2020 at 7:07 pm

    Let’s give some credit for tenacity and resourcefulness. The coyote is the only mammal to spread its range after the destructive anglo species arrived from Europe, and is even on Long Island now. Their wily gene pool may save the species.

  6. Ross on August 13, 2019 at 4:55 pm

    I know there is other information about coyotes, but I would be interested what you would do if you spotted a coyote or cane face to face with one. In live in a very urban area and have seen what appear to be coyotes. Thanks.

    • kiley on August 16, 2019 at 2:42 pm

      Most coyotes are very skiddish around humans. Just make sure to give them their space!

    • D Brown on January 8, 2020 at 3:09 pm

      Unless it’s diseased you have nothing to worry about. Face to face? Clap your hands and yell loudly at it. If it is healthy it will take off. If it doesn’t take off it may be diseased. Back away slowly & get indoors or in a vehicle. Call your local animal control to report the incident if that occurs.

  7. Wil. E. Coyote on May 18, 2019 at 2:54 pm

    Interesting. Thank you.

  8. George Rohmeyer on May 8, 2019 at 6:16 am

    I live in an old growth wooded area with a creek running through.
    This is a natural passage way for creatures.
    I have cameras up and the diversity of wildlife amazes me.
    I have bears, coyotes, bobcats, wolves, deer, turkeys, gray fox, etc,
    I love watching creatures as they navigate the complicated system of survival in a human dominated world.
    We are far more brutal and blood thirsty than any animal I have observed.

    • Bruce Neviaser on January 8, 2020 at 2:50 pm

      Thanks for your post, George. I am so envious of your extraordinary position to watch and appreciate the diversity of animals that we humans so often dismiss and ignore. I completely agree with your assessment of humans versus animals; I am often ashamed of what humans so thoughtlessly do to kill and destroy the world we share. And the future doesn’t look very promising.

  9. Phyllis Heitsman on April 21, 2019 at 11:39 pm

    This was very interesting. What a great job!! I have coyotes and Bobcats in my woods.phyllis

  10. Karen dokken on October 22, 2018 at 4:39 pm

    Well done and very interesting, Kylie!!

    • KJenks on August 12, 2020 at 5:16 am

      I’ve lived in Northern Minnesota for 5 years now, and in that time I have had the honor of 2 grey wolf sightings.
      The first, it wasn’t even quite dark yet, but a pretty big grey wolf was just walking across the road about 20 minutes out of town. It moved a little faster when it saw our vehicle, and we slowed down of course.
      The second, I was on my way home around 9 pm from a neighboring town, and about 1/3 of the way through I slowed wayyy down to avoid hitting what I thought was a deer at that moment. The hind legs were in the road, and as I layed on the horn it lifted it’s head and I realized that was a huge grey wolf and not a deer! I honestly thought there was a chance of accidentally hitting it, so I swerved. Maybe it was nibbling on some roadkill.
      Coyotes are around all the time. Our property is backed by almost 200 acres of public land and we hear them frequently. I always see there tracks & potty spots when out on the ATV trails in our woods. (My dog loves to try and roll in it.) It wouldn’t surprise me if wolves trekked through there, too.