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April 20, 2012

Coyotes Among Us, Page 2: Urban Legends

While coyotes thrive in urban areas, less than one percent of them come into conflict with humans

All Animals magazine

  • Dawn Macheca

by Karen E. Lange

It used to be that city folks didn’t need to know much about coyotes. But over the last few decades, the animals have quietly slipped into the backyards of most of America—every state but Hawaii, every major population center except Long Island (which they are now starting to colonize, after passing through Manhattan). During the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, after the gray wolf had been exterminated, coyotes expanded throughout North America. Family groups had pups who grew up and looked for their own territories, continually expanding the species’ range. As coyotes moved from the Midwest into the Northeast and eastern Canada, they bred with wolves: The resulting coywolves are larger and can appear more threatening to people but actually behave no differently toward humans than their smaller western cousins, says wildlife biologist Jonathan Way, who studies coyotes on Cape Cod and is researching the emergence of what may be a subspecies. Eventually, when coyotes of both types had filled up all the space between suburbs and cities, only urban habitat was left for the taking. So they moved into neighborhoods and became a fact of the city landscape.

They live on the margins, like ghosts—in parks and pockets of forest, in cemeteries, golf courses, and vacant lots, along irrigation ditches, canals, and train tracks. They’re right at our elbows but mostly lurk just beyond our sight, emerging at dusk and disappearing again at dawn, in their own separate world. While rural coyotes are active day and night, urban coyotes alter their schedules to avoid humans. Even wildlife biologists reading signals from tracking collars have a hard time spotting the animals. Because of this, the number of human-coyote conflicts is very low—so small that up until now researchers haven’t been able to collect enough data to figure out why they occur. Stanley Gehrt of Ohio State University, who’s been studying coyotes around Chicago since 2000, says the animals who get into conflicts with people represent maybe 1 percent of the population.

They live on the margins, like ghosts ... They’re right at our elbows but mostly lurk just beyond our sight, emerging at dusk and disappearing again at dawn, in their own separate world.

With access to abundant food and higher survival rates (the most common cause of death is probably motor vehicles), coyote populations in some cities and suburbs have grown denser than in the grasslands where the animals evolved more than a million years ago. Urban coyotes eat small mammals such as rabbits, rodents, and groundhogs, along with Canada geese eggs, road-killed deer, fruit, birdseed, insects, garbage, and every once in a while (just 1 or 2 percent of the time) pets. As the top predator in the urban ecosystem, they actually perform an important role, eating animals whose reproduction might otherwise lack natural controls.

Occasionally, food or the presence of pet dogs attracts coyotes to backyards or parks or trails. They can jump a 6-foot fence and be in and out of a yard in minutes, carrying off unattended pets. They see larger dogs as competition, especially during the December to March breeding season, and will follow at a distance to re-mark territories or, rarely, attack to kill.

Nearly everyone accepts that coyotes who bite people must be euthanized. There’s also agreement that killing coyotes beyond those rare individuals doesn’t reduce their numbers long-term or prevent conflict. The consensus is shared by Gehrt and Way; by Seth Riley of the National Park Service, who has studied them in Southern California; by Numi Mitchell, who has studied them in Rhode Island; and by Paul Curtis of Cornell University, who has studied them in Westchester County, north of New York City.

“It doesn’t really matter what communities think or what people think; coyotes are going to do what they do,” says Gehrt, who calls the animals “the most resilient of all wildlife species.” “People hate them to death, and it doesn’t really matter—if coyotes want to live in cities, they’re going to live in cities. … They always overcome everything we throw at them.”

Research has shown that when coyotes in a given pack are killed, the survivors reproduce at a younger age and have larger litters, with a higher survival rate among pups. Even if more than half of the group is killed, it can bounce back within a year. Meanwhile, new coyotes move into the vacant territory. Way has actually documented increased densities in Massachusetts after killings. Mary Ann Bonnell, lead naturalist for the Denver suburb of Aurora, calls this “coyote math”: 2-2=2, or 3, or even 4.

Coyotes are "the most resilient of all wildlife species. ... They always overcome everything we throw at them."

Regardless of the small number of attacks and the ineffectiveness of killing, some people persist in indiscriminate lethal methods. In some places, they see coyotes as varmints and kill them for sport. Several coyotes Curtis was studying were trapped and shot. He found the radio collar of one under a rock in a stream. Way feared he lost one to a person who set out bait in his yard then shot the animal from his home.

In other places, the relatively sudden arrival of coyotes is perceived as an invasion. Birds and raccoons and opossums are OK. But coyotes just don’t fit the image people have of the wildlife that should appear in their backyards. And if they have mange, which some do, they can look sinister—diseased, missing large patches of fur, moving slowly where a healthy coyote might be trotting or running.

Coyotes Among Us, Page 3: Peace Ambassadors »

Read more from this issue of All Animals »

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