Call of the Not-So-Wild: Coyotes Thriving in Big Cities in the East and Midwest

ile E. Coyote, as a comically ineffective predator, is always good for a laugh. The antics of his real-life kin provoke a different kind of reaction as cities and suburbs in the East and Midwest find themselves in unfamiliar territory.

Wile E. Coyote, as a comically ineffective predator, is always good for a laugh. The antics of his real-life kin provoke a different kind of reaction as cities and suburbs in the East and Midwest find themselves in unfamiliar territory.

Some naturalists suspect the ranks of urban coyotes may be swelling as the animals migrate from the open spaces of the West and Southeast.

In recent months, coyotes have shown up on the streets of Detroit, in a Quiznos sandwich shop in the heart of Chicago's business district and at a mattress store in Kansas City, Mo. A 5-year-old boy in Middletown, N.J., about 40 miles from New York City, was bitten by a coyote and needed 46 stitches to the head. Police shot one coyote in the area but warned that at least four others were roaming nearby.

Coyotes are remarkably adaptive animals, mostly eating rabbits and rodents, including mice and squirrels. They also eat fruits, especially persimmons, when available.

In more heavily populated areas, with a smaller supply of rabbits or groundhogs to feast on, the animals will go after small house pets that are easy pickings compared with running down a fawn in the forest. Parks, golf courses and well-tended residential areas provide a good food source and cover. Throw in dog food left outside or food scraps in trash cans, and you sweeten the chance a coyote comes calling.

"If there's a way for them to live there, they will," says John Shivik, a National Wildlife Research Center supervisory wildlife biologist. "People have it in their minds that we're invading coyotes' territory; that may be part." But, he adds, the sprawl actually may be creating alluring habitat for coyotes.

No one knows for sure how many urban coyotes there are, partly because the cousin of the gray wolf is so stealthy it eludes head counts. But experts say the animals' U.S. population has risen steadily over the past decade or so, noticeably in the Midwest and East.

Some point to a presidential executive order in the 1970s that outlawed use of poison bait out West, in effect protecting coyotes. Others cite the recovery of coyote-attracting deer herds in the Midwest and eastern U.S.

Around Chicago, the coyote presence is unmistakable. Of the 541 coyotes removed on average across Illinois over the past three years by specialists licensed in dealing with animals deemed nuisances, 312 were from the Chicago area, the state Department of Natural Resources says.

That's very different from the late 1980s, when perhaps a dozen coyotes roamed the Chicago area, mostly along the agricultural fringes, says Stan Gerht, an Ohio State University assistant professor of wildlife ecology. Gerht's group estimates there may be as many as a couple thousand Chicago-area coyotes.

"The trend is definitely upward," state DNR wildlife biologist Bob Bluett says. "As long as they dodge traffic, they're pretty safe."

Some make themselves right at home. The Quiznos coyote plopped down in a cooler inside the sandwich shop in the middle of a workday. It was captured and eventually released on a suburban estate.

For decades, coyotes have been associated with the West. By Department of Agriculture estimates, they did $47 million in damage to the cattle industry in 2005 and caused $10 million in sheep losses the year before that.

But city coyotes have been in the news lately. The Washington Post reported recently that the first coyotes arrived years ago in the suburbs of the nation's capital, and biologists estimate there are at least 1,250 today in northern Virginia alone.

Such proliferation -- and the prospect of human-coyote conflict -- has wildlife enthusiasts preaching that people have little to fear.

"Most coyotes are good coyotes; they live their lives and they leave us alone," Bluett says.

Even so, people need to be careful around the wild animals. Avoid leaving pet food outside, keep cats indoors and dogs on a leash, secure garbage so coyotes can't access it and keep yards clean of trash and brush.

Still, experts urge perspective. In Cook County, which includes Chicago, some 3,000 dog bites are recorded on average each year, with a few hundred serious enough to require hospital care, Gerht says. Yet he's unaware of any reported coyote attacks.

Since 2000, Gerht has steered one of the nation's most comprehensive studies of urban coyotes, focusing on their existence around Chicago. Along the way, he has attached radio collars to two-thirds of the 300 or so coyotes he has trapped, then tracked them.

His findings so far? Around Chicago, coyote densities are three to six times greater than what might be expected in rural areas, partly because their deadly foes in the country -- hunters and trappers -- aren't around. And there's no shortage of dinner for urban coyotes.

Lately, Gerht has been testing repellents to see whether they would be beneficial in keeping coyotes out of certain areas. But experts say don't expect the creepers to disappear from cities and suburbs any time soon.

"People have been trying to wipe out coyotes for 200 years," Bluett says, "and they've failed miserably."

Source: Associated Press

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