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Courtesy of the Cook County Coyote Project

Way more than just wily

by Lyz Hoffman
Aug 09, 2013


Courtesy of the Cook County Coyote Project


Courtesy of the Cook County Coyote Project

Stanley Gehrt, with a coyote

Did you know that coyotes are monogamous? That they have a sense of humor? Or that, when fashioning their birthing dens, they make sure to create a downward slope for drainage?

As coyote populations increase, and as the animals, seeking new territories, venture out from the wild, we’re seeing them more frequently in our backyards, downtowns, and thoroughfares. Coyotes are more than aware of us, scientists say, and it’s time we learned a thing or two about them.

So, yes, they mate for life, and play practical jokes, and take great care as to where their pups are born. And now wildlife biologists are posing another question to their fellow humans: Did you know that urban coyotes want nothing to do with you?

It’s true. They don’t, the experts say. They’re just trying to live on the land that they’ve inhabited for centuries. And with their strength in numbers, keen observational skills, and quick-to-adapt natures, they’re trying to do that right alongside us.

Many people wonder why coyotes want to come into cities — and acquire that “urban” title — in the first place. Stanley Gehrt knows why.

“The rural population of coyotes has continued to grow, and they are a very territorial species,” Gehrt said, adding that there are no natural predators of coyotes in the area. “As their numbers increase, young coyotes are increasingly having to find new places to live. Their territorial system forces them to explore new areas. It forces them to move into the cities. And once they get there, it turns out that life is pretty good.”

Since 2000, Gehrt, a professor in the School of Environmental and Natural Resources at The Ohio State University, has led the Cook County Coyote Project. Together with many other researchers and agencies, Gehrt has helped trap, radio-collar, and monitor coyotes throughout the region to understand the animals’ habits. (At the start of the coyote project, Gehrt said, he was working as a research biologist for a private foundation in Chicago; he then assumed the Ohio State position.)

Gehrt said that, “so far,” there is no biological difference between coyotes that are deemed “urban” and those that aren’t. The coyotes only become urban, he said, when they walk into and start living in and adapting to an urban area.

In a “conservative estimate,” Gehrt said about 2,000 coyotes reside in Cook County. In comparison, he said, nuisance wildlife trappers remove about 15,000 raccoons — one of coyotes’ food sources — from the county each year.

“You don’t have hunting and trapping going on,” he said, explaining the coyotes’ presence in the city. “All they have to do is contend with us and our cars. The survival rate goes up, the reproductive rate goes up. You have coyotes surviving longer, breeding more, and having larger litters.”

But that is really, truly no cause for alarm, said Gehrt, emphasizing that the instances where an urban coyote has snatched a pet or walked too close to a human are rare. In fact, data collected by the coyote project revealed that, between 1990 and 2004, there were 6-to-14 coyote-on-pet attacks in the Chicago area. A similar analysis of coyote-on-human attacks across the United States and Canada found 142 incidents between 1985 and 2006 — none of which occurred in Illinois.

They may be wily, Gehrt said, but coyotes are also wary.

“If coyotes are really that aggressive, dominant, and interested in pets, we would have conflicts every day and occurring everywhere,” he said. “People are living with coyotes whether they know it or not. They’re really good at hiding, and they’re hiding primarily because of us.”

Coyotes have called North America home for centuries. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that their range started to grow, eventually moving into Central America, according to the coyote project. As members of the dog family, known as Canidae, coyotes have wild relatives like foxes and wolves. But they possess their own unique physical characteristics.

Their eyes are big and yellow, with dark pupils. Their ears are pointed, their muzzles are narrow, and their tails are droopy, bushy, and have a black tip. Although it can vary, a coyote’s coat tends to be grayish-brown, with hints of red behind the ears and surrounding the face.

Their size is also important to know. Whereas a German shepherd can clock in just shy of 100 pounds, a coyote typically weighs an average of 30 pounds, according to a website titled “Living with Wildlife in Illinois,” which was created by the state’s Department of Natural Resources and the University of Illinois Extension. They stand a couple of feet high and about three-to-four feet long. Illinois coyotes, the website also noted, usually outsize their counterparts in western states.

Contrary to what some people may fear, coyotes aren’t that interested in tearing us apart limb from limb or devouring our flesh.

According to the coyote project’s assessment of about 1,500 scat samples, coyotes much prefer (from most to least popular) small rodents, fruit, white-tailed deer, rabbits, birds, raccoons, grass, and invertebrates. Coming in at the bottom of the list are human-associated foods — such as pet food and birdseed — and domestic cats.

Preventing a coyote from taking your pet is “common sense stuff,” said Melina Peters, a wildlife technician for the Cook County Forest Preserve. That means not leaving pet food or birdseed in your yard, which can attract coyotes, putting your dog or cat at risk. That means securing the lids on garbage cans, keeping cats inside if possible, keeping dogs on a leash, especially if out in the woods.

And if people feel at all vested in having coyotes around for future generations, Peters said that the less we involve ourselves in their livelihoods, the better.

“Having them fend for themselves is what’s going to protect them in the long run,” she said.

Although they are not preyed upon — wolves would fit that bill, Peters said, but there aren’t any here — they do a good job of preying on other creatures and keeping the area’s ecological engine running smoothly.

“They actually do people a service,” said Cathy Pollack, a biologist for the Chicago branch of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “They keep rodent populations down. By taking deer fawns — which is horrible, but that’s the way wild animals do it — they keep populations down.”

They also do a good job of keeping their own populations up. They’re quite traditional about it.

“People may be surprised to find that they have a highly structured family life,” Gehrt said. “A lot of people think it’s just this random assortment of animals, that there’s not a lot of thought or process to their social system. It’s the complete opposite. They’re very picky of whom their mate is going to be. They’re monogamous — they don’t cheat on each other.”

Mom and Dad, Gehrt said, are known as the alpha pair. They are (usually) the parents of the other members of the pack and the only ones in the pack in charge of breeding. They take their commitment seriously, according to the coyote project, and only at death do they part.

When it’s cold outside in Cook County, the coyotes make the most of it. According to the coyote project, mating season falls in February, with gestation lasting about 60 days.  The coyote mothers-to-be experience their own form of nesting, which in their case would more appropriately be called “den-ing.”

When the arrival of her pups is near, an expectant coyote will search for a birthing den, or if a suitable one is not available, will make one from scratch, according to the coyote project. Common suites include hollowed-out tree stumps, rocky areas, and burrows, which they then finish with a slope for drainage and shrubbery for camouflage. (Urban coyotes, the research has found, can fashion their dens near buildings or roads.)

Once they’re born, the pups, compared to humans, have a relatively short learning curve from baby to adult, Peters said.

“They’re in the den for about six weeks, then they travel short distances with the adults [in the pack], start venturing away by the end of summer, and by the fall they’re on their own,” Peters said. The mother will always select a couple of her pups to stay with the pack, she added. “They’re the ones that she considers to be the strongest, the most dominant, the most likely to survive.”

Coyotes take most of life seriously, but that doesn’t mean they pass up a good punchline. Trapping, Gehrt said, can really bring out their senses of humor. (Their name does mean “trickster,” after all.)

“They figure out what we’re doing pretty quickly,” he said. “We go to great lengths to try and hide the trap and cover our scent, but sometimes it doesn’t have any effect whatsoever. A coyote will come and dig up the trap and take a crap back on it. In case you weren’t sure they figured it out by digging it up, they take a dump on it.”

Their intelligence extends beyond potty humor, though. They act diligently to protect their packs, Gehrt said, and the first way to do that is to clearly define their territory. From peeing to pooping to howling, coyotes strive to make sure that other packs of coyotes can see, smell, and hear them — and hopefully leave them alone. The urban coyotes are no different in their desire to engineer boundaries, Gehrt added. “They use human-made boundaries,” he said, such as roads or highways.

Coyotes also use their tracks as boundary markers — “like they’re writing notes on paper,” Gehrt said. According to the University of Illinois’s wildlife website, coyote tracks are distinguishable because they follow a straight line, whereas dog tracks are more haphazard.

Whether the coyotes are rural or urban, their tools — including the fact that, according to the coyote project, Chicago’s coyotes have switched from being diurnal hunters to nocturnal hunters to minimize human interaction — further prove their adherence to the Golden Rule.

“They act a lot like us,” Gehrt said. “What do we do when we buy property? We mark boundaries and don’t want people trespassing.”

Legally, coyotes don’t have many allies. According to the University of Illinois’s website, while coyotes in urban areas can only be removed if a wildlife biologist with the state’s Department of Natural Resources issues a special permit, coyotes in rural areas are only protected by the requirement that hunters and trappers be licensed. There is no limit, and the seasons are long. The Department of Natural Resources makes sure the practices don’t affect the population numbers.

“From state to state, across the nation, coyotes are the least regulated, least protected game animal,” Gehrt said. Although he said he isn’t a fan of the hunting and the trapping free-for-all, he also acknowledged, that, so far, the practices haven’t made a dent in the number of coyotes.

The smarter coyotes, though, may be the ones migrating to the city, where those practices don’t exist. Since it started, the coyote project has found that while the age at which most adult coyotes die — two years old — doesn’t vary from rural to urban settings, the survival rate for non-adult coyotes in Cook County is fivefold that of similar coyotes in the wild.

That is not to say that urban coyotes don’t face constant death threats. According to the coyote project, most of the animals die from car accidents, with shootings, starvation, and diseases killing most of the rest. The University of Illinois’s wildlife website states that coyotes can have diseases that can spread to dogs (canine distemper and parvovirus), and they also could possibly transmit rabies and sarcoptic mange (which involves mites burrowing into the skin) to humans.

A healthy coyote, Peters said, would have a healthy coat and clear eyes. If you encounter a sickly coyote — or any coyote, for that matter — Peters advised simple steps: “Make very loud noises, throw things at it, scream at it, make yourself big and loud.”

Coexisting with coyotes — whether in a metropolis or the middle of nowhere — is not that complicated, the scientists said.

For Pollack, it could mean taking a cue from coyotes’ watchful playbook. “Observe from afar and appreciate it,” she said. “Feel honored that you’re able to see a wild animal in your area.”

For Gehrt, it could mean remembering what it was like to be a kid out in the wilderness, with that youthful sense of wonder.

“My father and I would go camping,” he said. “We would sit around the campfire at night, and he would have these contests to howl and see who could get the coyotes to howl back. I would never see them during the day. It didn’t seem like there were any. But at night, I could hear coyotes howling from all over the place.”