For many people, their closest encounter with a coyote is hearing its howl curdle the night from afar. But coyote sightings are now on the increase across New York, meaning greater potential for attacks, say Cornell University researchers, who are launching a five-year study of why the once-wary creatures are becoming more aggressive toward humans.
ITHACA, N.Y. For many people, their closest encounter with a coyote is hearing its howl curdle the night from afar. But coyote sightings are now on the increase across New York, meaning greater potential for attacks, say Cornell University researchers, who are launching a five-year study of why the once-wary creatures are becoming more aggressive toward humans.
"There is a progression of behavior, and what we are seeing right now is the last step before we start seeing attacks on people. Clearly, we are seeing coyotes grow more bold," said Paul Curtis, an associate professor of natural resources.
There have been no human attacks in New York. But while the state is only now beginning to track aggressive coyote sightings, there have been several reported attacks on small pets, said Gordon Batcheller, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which is assisting in the study.
New Yorkers are likely to see coyotes more frequently during the spring and early summer because they are raising their litters and are out often hunting for food for their pups.
However, increased sightings alone should not be construed as aggressive behavior. A coyote seen in overgrown fields, brushy areas or woodlands is normal, Batcheller said. It is the growing instances of coyotes appearing in daylight, chasing joggers and bicyclists or confronting people walking their dogs that concerns scientists.
With a $428,000 grant from the DEC, Curtis and his colleagues will study coyote ecology and behavior in both urban and suburban areas of New York. A second phase of the study will survey public attitudes and behaviors relating to coyotes.
"We have to instill fear of people back into coyotes," said Curtis, noting that humans, too, need to change their habits.
Coyotes once ranged primarily in the northwest United States, but they are quick learners, resourceful and have adapted readily to the changes caused by human occupation. Coyotes have the breeding habits, diet and social dynamics to survive in a wide variety of habitats -- everywhere from deserts and mountain tops to golf courses and city parks.
As a result, coyotes have steadily spread throughout the United States and Canada, replacing exterminated wolf populations in many places. Coyotes first showed up in New England and the Northeast in the 1930s and 1940s.
State officials estimate there are between 20,000 and 30,000 coyotes in New York. Coyotes live everywhere in the state -- including New York City's five boroughs -- except for Long Island, Batcheller said.
Fearful of being hunted and trapped, coyotes have typically stayed in wooded areas and away from humans, rarely presenting a danger. But in recent decades, coyotes have started foraging in suburban areas throughout the country, and attacks on people have been on the increase.
In California, researchers documented 89 coyote attacks on people between 1978 and 2003. One study estimated that there are 5,000 coyotes living within the city limits of Los Angeles, an area of 469 square miles. That's an average of about 11 coyotes per square mile.
Suburban sprawl has pushed residential developments to the brink of many wildland areas, giving coyotes a convenient place to find an abundance of rodents and rabbits, as well as a place to find water sources, pet food, household refuse -- and occasionally, cats and small dogs as prey, Curtis said.
He added the frequency of conflict has coincided with a decline in control and harassment programs, either because of a lack of funding or for protection of the animal. Meanwhile, sport hunting and target shooting activities have disappeared as regions become increasingly urbanized, he said.
The combination has allowed coyotes to lose their fear of people and come to associate people with safe resource-rich environments, Curtis said.
"It's a serious problem when animals become habituated to people. As they lose their fear of people, they will become bolder in approaching people and may put themselves in hazardous situations they would normally avoid," Curtis said.
Source: Associated Press