City Slickers

Coyotes are thriving in virtually every urban area in the country; biologists who study the predators say they pose no threat to people--as long as we let them stay wild

  • Doug Stewart
  • Oct 01, 2006

LAST MARCH, a full-grown coyote made headlines when it led a posse of heavy-breathing police officers, city officials and reporters on a zigzagging chase through New York City's Central Park, where it was finally subdued with a tranquilizer dart.

To most of the public who watched video footage of the chase the next day (thanks to the five news helicopters that had followed along), the saga of the coyote in midtown Manhattan seemed utterly bizarre. The coyote, however, was likely a native New Yorker, quite possibly even a Bronx resident. It just picked the wrong time and place to show itself.

From coast to coast, coyotes have become a fact of life in urban America. They howl in downtown Chicago, trot across Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills and dig dens in and around Tucson, St. Louis, Boston, Detroit and Washington, D.C. "Coyotes that have been born and raised in urban areas prefer urban areas," says wildlife ecologist Stan Gehrt of Ohio State University, who has radio-collared nearly 200 coyotes in the Chicago area over the past six years. "It's not a matter of coyotes being pushed out of better habitat and into a city. For the majority of these animals, they're home. They're where they want to be."

While these four-footed neighbors are bound to make some city dwellers nervous--coyotes are carnivorous, after all--Gehrt and other wildlife experts say there's no reason we should feel threatened. Most coyotes avoid contact with people so thoroughly that we're lucky if we see one at all; learning to be wary is part of a pup's upbringing. The key to coexisting is to not undo what coyotes have learned so well. 

Few wildlife success stories are as dramatic as that of Canis latrans. "If you go back 200 years, Lewis and Clark didn't stumble on coyotes until they got to what is now the Dakotas," says Matthew Gompper, a wildlife biologist at the University of Missouri. Coyotes were originally grassland animals, he says. The disappearance of huge swaths of forest helped them expand their range, as did the eradication of wolves, their chief predators. Expanding beyond the rural West over the past century--despite efforts early on by farmers and ranchers, with federal help, to exterminate them--coyotes now reside in every state except Hawaii. Their infiltration into cities and suburbs in recent decades, Gompper says, is simply a side effect of their overall range expansion. "At this point, all cities have them. Urban coyotes are probably much more common than people realize." No one knows how many coyotes live in urban areas. Their total U.S. population could be anywhere from one to ten million. The sense that their numbers are on the rise is based in part on increases in phone calls to animal-control officers about coyote sightings. Some of this increase no doubt stems from a heightened awareness of coyotes and what they look like, thanks to sometimes sensationalistic press coverage.

Most coyotes manage to operate unobserved, mainly due to their preference for the wee hours between midnight and dawn. They may visit your backyard regularly, but not while you're awake. Urbanites who do cross paths with coyotes can easily mistake them for unleashed dogs. With their large, upright ears and bushy tails, they look a bit like small German shepherds but with lighter frames and narrow, foxlike muzzles. In the western United States, adults typically weigh between 20 and 30 pounds, though their heavy coats can make them appear larger. Eastern coyotes average 10 pounds more; some reach 50 or 60 pounds. Their larger size may be due to crossbreeding with wolves sometime in the past.

A modern city might at first seem like marginal habitat for a coyote. Not so, says Paul Krausman, a University of Arizona wildlife biologist who is studying two groups of coyotes living in downtown Tucson. "Coyotes are one of the most adaptable species on the face of the Earth," he says. "In urban areas, they've got everything they need. There are no wolves or mountain lions, so they're at the top of the heap. People are throwing out garbage for them to eat, and they're watering their lawns, which attracts prey species. It's a perfect setup." 

In dietary matters, coyotes are opportunists, which is one reason they're able to make themselves at home while surrounded by people, cars, buildings and asphalt. Strictly speaking, they're more omnivores than carnivores. Their diet consists of mammals like deer (fawns in spring, roadkill year-round), raccoons, rabbits, mice and, when the opportunity presents itself, cats and small dogs, but also birds, insects, berries and other fruit. An urban coyote's natural diet is often supplemented by anthropogenic food items like pet food and trash.

How this latter, unintended smorgasbord is affecting coyotes is among the questions that Paul Curtis, a wildlife specialist at Cornell University, hopes to answer. Curtis is involved in a five-year investigation, begun in 2005, of urban and suburban coyotes in New York state. While most of his data are preliminary, Curtis can already confirm the coyote's legendary wiliness: Trapping study animals has not been easy. He and his colleagues mask their own scent by dyeing and waxing their traps and handling them with special gloves. They even avoid kneeling on the ground. "We go through all this effort, and several times last month we've had coyotes come in, know exactly where the trap was, dig all around it, and urinate on it, as though they're saying, 'Ha! You didn't get me.'"

The most extensive study of urban coyotes is in Chicago, where Gehrt has been monitoring up to 40 radio-collared animals at a time. He reports a number of surprises. "People used to think large carnivores needed big tracts of undeveloped habitat to be successful," Gehrt says, "but we found that's not true in Chicago." Those living in packs and defending a territory, he says, use a range of between two and eight square miles. "It can include some of the most urbanized land you can imagine." One group he's monitoring lives at the corner of two major interstate highways, with the country's second-largest indoor mall alongside. Not surprisingly, collisions with vehicles represent a Chicago coyote's number-one mortality risk, accounting for 70 percent of the deaths that Gehrt has tabulated. Still, the animals aren't blundering through the city like disoriented moose. "Coyotes definitely learn how to cross roads," he says. "They have to. Some of these guys cross hundreds of roads every night."

The most impressive example of coyotes making do with scarce urban real estate, Gehrt says, was a pair of animals that dug their den under a single line of bushes between a municipal swimming pool and a day care center. "They were able to raise their young a few yards from where children were playing, and hardly anyone knew they were there," he says. Unless he's aware that a coyote has become a nuisance, Gehrt avoids publicizing den sites.

Indeed, more than a few city residents are uncomfortable with the idea of coyotes in their midst. Once an urban coyote is trapped, some people believe it should be removed to a nature preserve somewhere, not released into the very neighborhood where it was found. Even if a coyote were to be relocated, it might be capable, like Lassie, of coming back home. (A coyote thinks nothing of trotting 20 miles in a night.) And if it didn't, another coyote might well take its place. "No matter what anyone might try to do to remove coyotes from cities and suburbs," says Curtis, "they're going to be there."

Jim deVos is research chief for the Arizona Game and Fish Department in Phoenix, where coyotes are well-entrenched residents. The urban public, he's noticed, is divided in its views about coyotes. "We've held neighborhood meetings where half the group sits on one side of the room and half on the other," deVos says. "One side wants them gone. They say, 'I'm scared to death of them. They're going to eat my children.' The other side says, 'Boy, that's cool! I got to see one.'"

Coyote attacks on humans are extremely rare, but they do happen. In southern California, over the past 25 years especially, some coyotes have become brazen, prowling in the daytime and even openly following people walking small dogs. The only known fatality was a young girl attacked by a coyote in suburban Glendale, California, in 1981. Biologists believe that dangerous coyotes are those that have become habituated to humans. Unsecured trash cans, overfilled bird feeders and outdoor pet bowls have been part of the problem. In many cases, however--including that of the Glendale animal--they are fed intentionally as part of a homeowner's misguided nature-watching strategy.

Gehrt knows that a few Chicagoans have begun feeding the local coyotes, just as some urban Californians have for decades. "When I tell them they need to stop, they get upset," he says. "Not just a little bit. We're talking irate. It will be interesting to see if we can change people's behavior before people change the coyotes' behavior."

Doug Stewart, a regular contributor, doesn't mind sharing his Massachusetts neighborhood with coyotes, but he keeps his puppy inside at night.

Be a Good Neighbor
Urban coyotes are here to stay, so we need to learn how to coexist with them. The predators can make perfectly good neighbors as long as they don't lose their natural fear of us. Some tips:

Don't feed coyotes! Avoid overflowing bird feeders and open compost bins.

Obey leash laws. Small dogs on the loose are attractive prey for coyotes, especially at night. Cats? Keep them inside, along with pet food bowls. In dry climates, even a water bowl can draw coyotes.

Keep all garbage containers closed and inaccessible. Adding ammonia or pepper spray to trash can discourage rummaging by coyotes and other wildlife.

Don't invite coyotes to build dens next to (or under) your home: Seal crawl spaces, close sheds and thin brushy areas.

Even if you love seeing coyotes, don't let them know it. If a coyote visits your yard, wave your arms, shout, spray it with a hose. Be a threat!

Coyotes to the Rescue?
In urban areas throughout the country, populations of Canada geese, benefiting from food and habitat provided by people, have grown rapidly--along with the smell and mess the animals leave behind. In the Chicago area, for example, Christmas Bird Counts conducted between 1972 and 1979 tallied about 300 geese a year. By 1981, the number had jumped to 2,000 and was up to 9,000 geese by 1993.

Recent research, however, suggests that another hearty city survivor, the coyote, is beginning to control the goose population boom. As part of the nation's largest study of urban coyotes to date, biologist Stan Gerht of Ohio State University observed that as the predator's numbers increased in and around Chicago, the goose population growth rate slowed--from between 10 and 20 percent annually just a few years ago to between 1 and 2 percent today. To implicate coyotes in the decline, one of Gehrt's graduate students, Justin Brown, set up infrared video cameras around goose nests, which recorded the canines' nocturnal raids. In addition to consuming goose eggs themselves--as well as caching some to eat later--the coyotes provided smaller carnivores such as raccoons and skunks an opportunity to feast on eggs by scaring away the ordinarily combative parent birds.

At least one company, Renzo's in Milwaukee, is hoping to profit from the coyote's potential to deter geese. It is marketing a life-sized, two-dimensional coyote decoy to golf courses, office complexes and others plagued by problem geese. "The only thing you have to be sure to do is move them around once a week so the geese don't catch on they're not real," reports Julie Pendleton, a Hartford, Connecticut-based school business manager who used six decoys to scare geese off a high school's playing fields.--Laura Tangley

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