Wild in the 'hood
Coexisting with North America's most resilient predator, the coyote.
By Dale Weisman
Whether you live in the boonies, the ’burbs or the heart of a city, you’ve likely seen or heard America’s wild dog, the coyote. They are the most commonly encountered large predator in the United States. Coyotes seem to be everywhere and nowhere at once, howling unseen at night, prowling our neighborhoods or standing across the yard, staring back in canine curiosity or defiance.
I’ve heard coyotes yipping, yowling and yodeling in the arroyo behind my home on the edge of Austin’s Zilker Park. I’ve seen them trotting through my yard and down the block.
“Missing kitty,” “Dead cat” and “Coyote sighting” neighborhood listserv messages make the rounds. Sadly, too, I’ve found cat body parts in my yard. While cats also fall prey to dogs, raccoons, raptors, speeding cars, poisons and human cruelty, coyotes often get the blame.
Coyote encounters are playing out in cities and towns across America. With sightings on the rise, hardly anyone feels neutral or indifferent about coyotes living among us.
“Few animals evoke as wide a range of feelings in humans as the coyote,” says Camilla Fox, executive director of Project Coyote, a predator advocacy organization. “To some, coyotes are icons of American culture, ecologically important and worthy of respect and protection. To others, they are dangerous, despised vermin who are better dead than alive. Most people likely have a view somewhere in between.”
Coyotes are arguably the most polarizing animal in America. A 1985 Yale University study revealed that coyotes ranked below rats, skunks, vultures, rattlesnakes, mosquitoes and cockroaches in popularity. Dogs rated most liked, even though coyotes and dogs, along with wolves, all belong to the canid or dog family and are so closely related they can interbreed.
“Opponents/proponents of coyotes represent a classical rural versus urban struggle, and the coyote offers a masterful performance of both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” says Dale Rollins, retired Texas A&M University professor and wildlife expert.
Some people perceive coyotes as menacing, cunning, slinking and cowardly creatures. Even Mark Twain gave this disparaging account: “The cayote is a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray wolf-skin stretched over it, a tolerable bushy tail that forever sags down with a despairing expression of forsakenness and misery, a furtive and evil eye.”
In traditional Native American storytelling, the coyote appears as a cultural icon endowed with supernatural abilities and revered as God’s Dog, Medicine Dog, Song Dog and Old Man Coyote, impersonating the Creator to bring fire and other gifts to humans. Countless tales portray the coyote in a variety of ways: shapeshifting trickster, buffoon, thief, lecher and wise counselor.
“The coyote is our classic totem animal in America,” says naturalist and historian Dan Flores, author of Coyote America. “It’s the animal that produced the oldest body of literature in North America in the form of Indian coyote deity stories from 10,000 years ago.”
Early explorers of the American West, including Lewis and Clark, called coyotes “prairie wolves,” believing them to be a diminutive type of wolf. In 1823, the naturalist Thomas Say classified the coyote as a unique canid species with the Latin name Canis latrans, “barking dog.”
A native species that evolved solely in North America more than 5 million years ago, coyotes originally inhabited the central plains and arid lands, from Canada to central Mexico. The coyote’s steady continental expansion and growing numbers, along with America’s westward march, put them into conflict with Western cattle and sheep ranchers.
Coyotes became the target of an extermination campaign that began in the late 1800s and received government approval with the passage of the Animal Damage Control Act of 1931.
U.S. Department of Agriculture agents killed 6.5 million coyotes between 1947 and 1956. By some estimates, state and federal agents, hunters and ranchers killed more than 20 million coyotes in less than a century. According to Flores, intensive poisoning caused a near regional collapse of coyote populations in the Texas Hill Country in the 1950s and ’60s.
Today, about 500,000 coyotes are killed each year in the United States. Most states, including Texas, classify coyotes as non-game animals, with no protection or regulatory oversight. While most are killed to protect livestock, coyotes are also targeted because of their growing presence in cities and suburbs.
“Coyotes are one of the most hunted species in the U.S. in the past 100 years,” says Kelly Conrad Simon, an urban wildlife biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “There may be a limit to coyote resilience, but we haven’t reached it.”
Because of their biological resilience and adaptability, it’s nearly impossible to eradicate coyotes from a given area. Despite all efforts to wipe them out, the irrepressible coyote continues to thrive. Their numbers are at an all-time high, and they have expanded their range in North America threefold since the 1850s. Coyotes have spread coast to coast, from Alaska south to Panama, and they inhabit every state in the U.S. except Hawaii, including almost every city. Large populations numbering in the thousands inhabit cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Portland and Denver, as well as Texas’ metro areas.
“The coyote is an incredibly adaptable animal, and seems to be able to find suitable habitat whether they’re in the Panhandle or the center of Houston,” says Conrad Simon. “Coyote food preference studies show that they adjust their diet depending on what’s available, though coyotes everywhere prefer rodents and rabbits as their primary prey. Coyotes are even able to eat the trash that humans leave behind, especially in parks and other green spaces.”
Although classified as carnivores, coyotes are opportunistic omnivores with a varied diet. A coyote will eat “anything he can chew,” quipped writer J. Frank Dobie. The urban coyote’s buffet also includes compost piles, unsecured garbage, overflowing bird feeders and occasionally cats and small dogs. However, anthropogenic food sources including pet cats were found in the scat of just a small percentage of urban coyotes, according to extensive studies conducted by urban coyote expert Stanley Gehrt. In fact, the diet of urban coyotes is similar to that of their wild counterparts.
Not just villains, coyotes (and other large carnivores) play a vital ecological role in maintaining the biodiversity, stability and integrity of native ecosystems. For example, coyotes help control the populations of rodents, which are carriers of Lyme disease, hantavirus and bubonic plague. Mice were found in more than 40 percent of the scats of urban coyotes; a single coyote can eat up to 1,500 rodents per year. Coyotes also counterbalance the ecological impact of other small predators, including feral cats. Research shows that areas harboring coyotes as top predators have larger populations of scrub-nesting songbirds.
Habitat loss and hunting pressures may be driving coyotes into our built environments, which offer a big welcome mat of abundant food and water. Coyotes find shelter in our fragmented “edge” spaces: greenbelts, parks, vacant lots, cemeteries, golf courses, utility corridors and rail lines. Urban coyotes are growing more human-tolerant and passing along their survival skills to new generations. They have longer lifespans than those in the wild; their territories are much smaller and up to six times denser.
While coyotes have no trouble adapting to human environments, city dwellers have little tolerance for coyotes roaming their neighborhoods.
“People often have a ‘not in my backyard’ attitude toward coyotes,” says Adrienne Clark, an animal protection officer for the Austin Animal Center. “They generally accept coyotes but believe they should be out in Big Bend.”
Urban coyotes generally keep a low profile and are most active from dusk till dawn. The majority of coyote encounters in our neighborhoods are merely sightings.
“Coyotes adapt well to cities, and have changed the times they are most active, seemingly to avoid encountering people,” says Conrad Simon. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 4.7 million dog bites occur annually in the U.S., resulting in about 16 deaths a year. However, there have been only 160 recorded coyote-on-human attacks in the U.S. in the 30 years preceding 2006, and two documented coyote-caused fatalities in North America.
Most conflicts arise when naturally wary coyotes become habituated and lose their innate fear of humans, a consequence of people inadvertently or intentionally feeding them. Wildlife biologists warn that “a fed coyote is a dead coyote,” meaning habituated coyotes often must be killed. In Texas, problem coyotes cannot be relocated due to a statewide rabies quarantine.
When coyotes are eliminated from an area, transient coyotes or “floaters” quickly fill the void. Coyotes have fluid social structures, living as monogamous pairs, small packs or transients.
While it may seem like coyotes are overrunning our neighborhoods, their natural biological systems prevent overpopulation.
“The mantra ‘Keep the Wild in Wildlife’ by not feeding or trying to pet or tame wildlife will help keep us — and our local wildlife — safe,” says Conrad Simon.
Most major U.S. cities now have a coyote management program in the works. Austin, for example, implemented a management policy in November 2014 based on Gehrt’s urban coyote research and best practices pioneered in Chicago.
“Austin has shifted to a no-kill city,” says Clark. “We now focus on education and monitoring the behavior of individual coyotes. People shape coyote behavior, so you have to look at human behavior as well. Coyotes learn our habits, and they are good at detecting patterns and will know when we put out food for pets and animals living outdoors.”
Austin’s coyote program emphasizes humane, non-lethal management techniques and public education to encourage people to keep their pets indoors at night, obey leash laws, eliminate potential food sources and prevent coyote habituation by scaring them away through persistent, consistent hazing techniques.
If we can accept foxes, raccoons, opossums, armadillos, deer and raptors in our neighborhoods, then why not coyotes?
“Coyotes are here to stay, and we need to learn ways to live with them and take steps at an individual and community level to mitigate concerns about coyotes,” advises Fox of Project Coyote. “The reality is coyotes are incredibly adaptable, intelligent, resilient animals, and they have learned how to coexist with us. But we’re still trying to figure out how to coexist with them.”