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It has a varied diet consisting primarily of animal meat, including deer, rabbits, hares, rodents, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates, though it may also eat fruits and vegetables on occasion.

Lewis, writing on May 5, 1805, in northeastern Montana, described the coyote in these terms: the small woolf or burrowing dog of the prairies are the inhabitants almost invariably of the open plains; they usually ascociate in bands of ten or twelve sometimes more and burrow near some pass or place much frequented by game; not being able alone to take deer or goat they are rarely ever found alone but hunt in bands; they frequently watch and seize their prey near their burrows; in these burrows they raise their young and to them they also resort when pursued; when a person approaches them they frequently bark, their note being precisely that of the small dog. the hair and fur also resembles the fox tho' is much coarser and inferior. the eye of a deep sea green colour small and piercing.they are of an intermediate size between that of the fox and dog, very active fleet and delicately formed; the ears large erect and pointed the head long and pointed more like that of the fox; tale long; . their tallons [claws] are reather longer than those of the ordinary wolf or that common to the atlantic states, none of which are to be found in this quarter, nor I believe above the river Plat.The animal was especially respected in Mesoamerican cosmology as a symbol of military might.After the European colonization of the Americas, it was reviled in Anglo-American culture as a cowardly and untrustworthy animal.The hair's predominant color is light gray and red or fulvous, interspersed around the body with black and white.

Coyotes living at high elevations tend to have more black and gray shades than their desert-dwelling counterparts, which are more fulvous or whitish-gray.

Another account from the early 1800s in Edwards County mentioned wolves howling at night, though these were likely coyotes.

This species was encountered several times during the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804–1806), though it was already well known to European traders on the upper Missouri.

This is further corroborated by the coyote's sagittal crest, which is low or totally flattened, thus indicating a weaker bite than the wolf's.

The coyote is not a specialized carnivore as the wolf is, as shown by the larger chewing surfaces on the molars, reflecting the species' relative dependence on vegetable matter.

In early post-Columbian historical records, distinguishing between coyotes and wolves is often difficult.