Yes Coyotes Eat Snakes: Here’s How and Why They Do It


coyote closeup

Coyotes were once secluded to the grassy plains of the midwest but have expanded their populations and are now spotted even in the heart of cities. Their successful expansion is due in large part to their adaptability to different environments and their food habits.

Coyotes are highly adaptable and change their diet depending on what’s available. In addition to their favorite meal of white-tailed deer, coyotes will eat just about anything including rabbits, voles, mice, apples, pine leaves, pears, and persimmon. Coyotes will even eat a snake, venomous or not!

As humans have expanded their populations, coyotes have crept along with us, howling and yipping at the edges of our campfires and housing plants. We know coyotes eat a lot of stuff, even sifting through our garbage and left-out pet food for a quick meal. But do they really eat snakes?

Do Coyotes Eat Snakes?

Say it ain’t so! Do coyotes really eat those slithery danger noodles that we humans tend to go running away from (possibly while screaming)?

As the name of this article suggests, coyotes do eat snakes. The kinds of snakes that coyotes eat depend on where they are located. For example, garter snakes are found throughout most of the United States, while coachwhip snakes are found only in southern states.

Coyotes, on the other hand, occupy every continental state in the United States. This means a coyote living in Pennsylvania will not eat the same snakes as a coyote in California.

Instead, coyotes will opt for whatever snakes are around and whatever is easiest to eat. They’re opportunistic feeders. The largest portion of a coyote’s diet across the board is white-tailed deer. After that, the next largest food item is region-dependant. 

Coyotes that live near orchards are likely to have a higher percentage of apples or pears in their diet than coyotes living in urban areas. Conversely, coyotes living on nature preserves in Colorado or Wyoming may consume higher ratios of bighorn sheep, whereas coyotes in New York have never even seen a bighorn sheep.

It all depends on where the coyote lives.

In general, reptiles are a pretty small percentage of a coyote’s diet. Deer, rabbits, mice, and plants typically rank higher on a coyote’s priority list for food than a snake. 

However, coyotes in regions where snake populations are greater such as Texas, Arizona, Florida, and New Mexico, may see an increased appetite for snakes due to their abundance. 

Did we mention coyotes eat what’s available?

If you’re interested in learning about more of the animals that coyotes eat, you can read our coyote meal guide here.

Why Coyotes Actually Eat Snakes (and How They Do It)

Wild Coyote in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado

How and why coyotes eat snakes may not be as obvious as you think. Our mischievous coyote changes its hunting style depending on what it’s going after.

Coyotes are not social creatures. They don’t form large packs like wolves, instead preferring to hunt alone, in pairs, or in a small pack. With that in mind, it’s not unheard of for coyotes to travel in small packs for an extended period if resources are available.

With that being said, when hunting large prey such as deer, bighorn sheep, and pronghorns, coyotes will band together to take them down. They either take turns tiring the animal out or chase it into a waiting ambush coyote.

Coyotes take on a different approach to hunt small prey. Smaller creatures are typically hunted by a single coyote, not a pack.

Coyotes have an excellent sense of smell and hearing. They use both of these properties to stalk snakes. To catch them, they use a method of pouncing, similar to how foxes catch voles and mice.

The coyote will locate the snake, stalk it, and then stiffen its legs, ready to pounce. Once it has zeroed in on the snake’s location, it will pounce on it. They kill their prey using their jaws, and people have even reported coyotes throwing snakes up in the air.

The time of year will also determine if a coyote is willing to eat a snake or not. Fall and winter are typically heavy plant-eating times for a coyote, while spring and summer are more carnivorous seasons.

According to a study done in Southern California, coyotes are most likely to eat snakes during the dry season. Snakes move the slowest during the dry season when temperatures are cooling off. Because snakes are cold-blooded, they are more active during warm, wet weather than cold, dry weather.

Remember how coyotes are opportunistic? They’re also a bit lazy. They prefer slow-moving prey such as a cold snake rather than a quick, alert snake. 

But why?

Why do coyotes eat snakes? The first answer isn’t too mysterious. They eat snakes because an opportunity presented itself, and the coyote needed food either for itself or for its pups. 

Another reason a coyote might hunt a snake is to protect its den. Coyotes are super smart and understand that snakes can present a danger to their pups. Snakes hunted in this manner may not be eaten but simply eliminated.

If a snake, or any other predator for that matter, comes too close to a coyote den, the mother is likely to move her pups to a new location. However, she may also decide to eliminate the snake to prevent future threats to her pups.

If you need to repel coyotes, you can read about the scents that coyotes hate here.

What Kinds Of Snakes Do Coyotes Eat?

This is a loaded question. There are TONS of different kinds of snakes in the United States. Texas alone is home to over 100 species of snakes. Yikes! No wonder Texans are so tough!

On average, each state has about 25 species of snakes. However, some states have more, some less. Hawaii and Alaska, for example, have only 2 and 1 snakes species, respectively. In Alaska, the presence of garter snakes isn’t even really confirmed, so to call it a native snake species is a stretch.

So, is there a certain species of snake that coyotes prefer?

There’s no scientific research available to prove or disprove a coyote’s favorite snake meal. It’s more likely that coyotes will eat the snakes that are available and easy to catch.

Coyotes are more likely to go after an injured snake because it’s slow and easier to catch than a fast-moving healthy snake. But there’s no research on if they would rather go after a rabbit or a snake.

There is evidence that rabbits are a larger part of a coyote’s diet than are snakes, but rather that’s because of availability, or the coyote’s preference is unknown.

study done at Utah State University in 2001 looked at flavor preferences in coyote pups. They were fed flavored milk and kibble at a young age. At 6 months, they were offered two different kibbles, one flavored and one unflavored. The study concluded that coyotes didn’t have a flavor preference in terms of their kibble. 

With this in mind, it’s unlikely that coyotes base their food off of taste alone. And since we know they are opportunistic feeders, we can conclude with some safety that our mischievous coyote doesn’t have a preference for certain kinds of snakes.

Availability plays a big role in which snakes coyotes will eat. Garter snake habitat range is one of the widest of any snake species in the U.S. Because of this; they may be the most commonly eaten snake for coyotes. Or any other animal that preys on snakes, for that matter.

In the southeast, coyotes have been known to prey on rat snakes and pine snakes as well. These are two species of snakes that are widely distributed in the southeast, with abundant populations.

Do Coyotes Eat Rattlesnakes?

Closeup of rattlesnake on ground

The thought of any animal wanting to eat a rattlesnake is hard to believe. They’re dangerous, venomous, and give you fair warning when they want you to get the heck away from them.

Will, a coyote pounce on a rattlesnake? Or any venomous snake?

Yep! Our adaptable coyote will hunt a rattlesnake. According to the book ‘Rattlesnakes’ written by Adele Richardson, coyotes are predators of rattlesnakes.

Rattlesnakes can be a danger to coyote pups and might be hunted by coyotes more for safety than for food. If one is found slithering near a coyote den, mama coyote will probably move her pups to a new den, but not before eliminating the threat to her pups.

Coyotes have been known to hunt other venomous snakes as well, likely for the same reasons as rattlesnakes. 

Unlike us humans, coyotes don’t know the difference between venomous and nonvenomous snakes and probably treat them all as if they were venomous and a threat to their young.

Do Coyotes Eat Dead Snakes?

Coyotes have been known to eat carrion of all sorts. They’ve been spotted picking at deer carcasses along roads, as well as many other animals.

Although coyotes have been labeled as garbage disposals, willing to eat just about anything edible, it’s not completely true that they’ll eat anything.

According to the University of Nebraska, coyotes are opportunistic. They are more likely to prey on something old, sick, or weakened in some way. They also go after young and inexperienced prey that is easier to catch.

But what about snakes?

For some reason, coyotes do NOT like to eat dead snakes. You’d think it’s an easy meal, but coyotes that have been observed coming upon dead snakes do not tend to eat them. Instead, they do something pretty peculiar.

They roll on the dead snake. Yep, you read right; they roll on them! They’ve also been observed tossing the snakes in the air.

What gives? Why roll over a dead snake? And what’s up with tossing them in the air? Let’s take a closer look:

Rolling over dead snakes: You may see this type of behavior if you have a pet dog. You bring Fido out for a walk, and all of a sudden, they rub their snout into the ground and start rolling over.

According to the American Kennel Club, researchers and veterinarians still aren’t sure of the purpose of this, but they have a few theories about both dogs and coyotes.

One thought is that the coyote may be marking its food, telling other coyotes and animals to back off and leave it alone. 

In this way, the coyote is actually putting its scent on the dead animal, not the other way around. This would make sense, but coyotes have been known to urinate on dead animals as well, as if marking it, so this theory may be flawed.

Another theory is that coyotes are getting the scent of the snake on themselves to show off to other coyotes that it had a successful hunt. 

“Hey, look what I caught! Look how awesome I am, I smell like a dead snake!” Weird flex, but alright…

Lastly, researchers theorize that coyotes rub on dead snakes to mask their own scent. This is a trait they might have learned from their ancestral wolves. The less they smell of ‘coyote,’ the less likely their prey will recognize their scent on the wind.

Tossing dead snakes: Okay, this is a weird one. Coyotes have been spotted catching snakes that are either alive or sometimes they’re already dead and tossing them in the air.

What advantage could this possibly give the coyote? Are they just having fun?

Again, researchers aren’t really sure what the deal is with this, but they have a few theories. According to Coyote Yipps, an informative website about the behaviors of San Francisco’s coyotes, this is a common sight.

Coyotes will often throw the snakes up in the air and then watch them intently as if waiting for movement. One theory is that the coyote is making sure their prey is definitely deceased.

However, this behavior is actually more common with coyotes that come upon already-perished snakes. So, the next theory is that the coyote is simply playing.

We were always taught not to play with our food, but for a coyote, a dead snake isn’t food. They rarely eat dead snakes, so they might be using them as a toy or a means of playing.

The last theory plays into the first coyote behavior of rolling. The coyote may simply be trying to spread the scent around or make it more profound by tossing the snake in the air. The coyote then proceeds to roll over the creature, getting all the wonderful snake smells on its fur.

Wrapping Things Up

That’s everything we have on coyotes and snakes for now! To recap, here are some key points from the article:

  • Coyotes eat snakes by pouncing: Coyotes will change their hunting styles depending on what they’re going after. Deer and other large prey require a group of coyotes. For smaller prey, like snakes, coyotes will simply stalk the creature and then pounce.
  • Coyotes eat all kinds of snakes: There isn’t a single species of snake that coyotes prefer. They’re opportunistic and eat whatever is available and easy to catch.
  • Coyotes will eat venomous snakes: Coyotes have been known to prey on rattlesnakes and other venomous snakes. It hasn’t been thoroughly studied, so rather coyotes hunt them for food or to keep their den safe isn’t clear.
  • Coyotes hunt snakes for food and for safety: The reason behind stalking and pouncing on a snake may not be simply due to food necessity. Snakes that come near dens while mama coyotes are rearing pups may be eliminated for safety reasons.
  • Coyotes rarely eat dead snakes: Our mischievous pal, the coyote, might eat carrion in the form of deer or fox, but they are NOT fans eating dead snakes. Instead, they’ll roll on them or play with them by tossing them in the air.

Although coyotes can be a nuisance in neighborhoods and farmlands, they are excellent rodent and snake control. So the next time you hear a coyote howling in the night, be thankful it is out there hunting other pest animals.

References

Dorcas, Michael E., and Gibbons, Whit. Snakes of the Southeast. Greece, University of Georgia Press, 2005.

Green, J. S. (1994). The Handbook: Prevention and Control of Wildlife Damage (Vol. 34). Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management.

Larson, R. N., Brown, J. L., Karels, T., & Riley, S. P.D. (2020). Effects of urbanization on resource use and individual specialization in coyotes (Canis latrans) in southern

Richardson, A. (2003). Rattlesnakes. United States: Capstone High-Interest Books.

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