Coyotes in the City: What You Need to Know
Published on July 09, 2014
If you live in a city or suburb, the only canines you expect to see are people’s pet dogs. But more and more, one of their wild relatives is enjoying the benefits of urban living: Coyotes have been sighted in Boston, New York and San Francisco; they’ve become common in Los Angeles; and a long-term study in Chicago has radio-collared at least 250 of them and estimates there may be up to 2,000 in the metropolitan area.
Chances are that there are coyotes near you, too, even if you’re not aware of them; they’re smart, adaptable and good at not being seen. "They’ve figured out living in close proximity to us that people are potentially dangerous," says Gina Farr of the nonprofit Project Coyote. "They travel at times when there are not as many cars out. They figure out the best survival routes through our cities and the times when they can avoid people."
Given the risks presented by humans, why would coyotes want to live in a city? For the same reason we do: Everything they need is easy to find there, especially food. "Coyotes can eat everything from roots and berries to leaves and fruit — they can even climb trees to get at fruit at the top of trees — but their favorite food is rodents," Farr says. "So it’s not a long stretch to imagine what they’ve managed to find as delectable in our cities."
Coyotes do eat a certain percentage of our trash, and you can’t blame them — Farr remembers a phone call about seven coyotes who had found a supermarket dumpster full of rotisserie chickens — but they’re mostly in cities because there’s no shortage of their preferred prey: rats and other rodents. "There’s an unending supply of their favorite treats," she says. "We actually provide quite the smorgasbord for animals that are smart and evolutionarily fit enough to take advantage of what we create."
Historically, humans have also done coyotes another favor: We eliminated the competition. Wolves prefer forests, and because they kill coyotes, wolves kept the coyote population mostly confined to the plains. But then ranchers and farmers started to exterminate wolves and cut down trees. "As we killed the wolves and cleared the forests, we opened an expansion of opportunities for coyotes," Farr says, including a move into more urban areas inhabited by humans.
Coexisting With Coyotes
Though they like what our environment provides, coyotes don’t have much reason to like us. In rural areas they’ve long been exterminated as vermin, and encountering a city slicker who panics can have the same result. But Farr says that killing or removing coyotes isn’t the solution. Instead, she says, humans and coyotes need to learn to live together.
First, Farr says, remember that coyotes are not as big and scary as you probably think — they’re leggy and tall, but weigh only 18 to 35 pounds. "Some times of year they might have 5 inches of hair, but get them wet and they’re just a little sliver of an animal," she says.
Though coyote attacks get a lot of publicity, they are rare given the size of the coyote population. But to successfully coexist, we need to make sure coyotes don’t get more comfortable around us, for both our safety and their own. "They’re very smart and trainable. Every encounter trains them how to act around us," Farr says.
In order to avoid dangerous encounters, experts recommend "coyote hazing" — knowing how to scare coyotes off so they learn to avoid people. According to the Humane Society of the United States, hazing consists of using deterrents, such a noisemakers, small projectiles or a hose, to move the coyote out of a specific area (your yard, for example).
Project Coyote’s Coyote Hazing Field Guide, which offers detailed instructions for hazing, recommends that you stand your ground, make eye contact and "advance toward the coyote with your hazing tools if there is hesitation on the part of the coyote." Make yourself as big and noisy as possible, and don’t stop until the coyote is gone."The coyote may run away but then stop after a distance and look at you," the Humane Society literature advises. "It is important to continue to haze the coyote until he completely leaves the area." Farr adds that the goal is to teach the coyote that he is not welcome in a particular space. "We want to reinforce boundaries between what’s acceptable coyote behavior and what isn’t."
Good Coyote Neighbors
Teaching the local coyotes to avoid us is more effective than trying to eliminate them for a number of reasons. "You kill the stable resident population, and transients come into a new territory where they don’t know to stay away from people," Farr explains.
In fact, given the coyote’s social structure, killing can actually increase their numbers. Coyotes normally live in groups in which just one pair reproduces once a year, but if one of that alpha pair is killed, all the rest of the adults in the group may breed. "Leaving everything alone and learning to coexist, we have a more stable population," Farr says.
A coyote who has learned to avoid humans can actually be good to have around. One reason for this is that they’re territorial. "If that coyote is trained to avoid people, that coyote is going to keep other coyotes away from you," Farr says. They also provide other benefits. "We don’t have to be using poisons when an unseen coyote can be out there controlling the rodents," she says. "Save money, don’t poison the environment, and let nature in the city do its magic."
Don’t Add to the Smorgasbord
Another key to coexistence is not to tempt coyotes closer with dumpsters full of delicacies and other edible attractions. "Secure your garbage and clean up underneath bird feeders, which attract rodents," she says. "If you have fallen fruit — they love fruit — clean it up." And never feed coyotes on purpose; this increases the likelihood of conflict with humans.
It’s also important to remember that hazing won’t keep coyotes away from another temptation: your wandering cats. Cats are not a major prey item for coyotes — a researcher with the Chicago study analyzed 1,429 coyote scats and found domestic cats were only 1 percent of the diet — but if it’s your own cat, even one is too many.
Though we can’t control wildlife, we can control our pets, so that’s the only sure solution. Farr observes that coyotes are only one danger that can be avoided by keeping cats indoors, including cars, poisoned prey and other predators. "When we open the door, we are letting our cats out into an ecosystem — even if it’s urban or suburban, it’s still an ecosystem — that operates under different rules than inside our own house."
Know When to Leave Well Enough Alone
Though hazing can teach coyotes to keep their distance, there are situations when the best choice is to do nothing. Don’t haze a coyote that’s cornered, injured or with its pups. Coyotes breed in spring, and Farr says problems can arise in spring and summer, especially when people allow dogs to harass coyotes with young. "With any animals with babies they are protecting, they’re going to be less tolerant of intrusions," she says. "Give them space in breeding season and don’t trigger protective behaviors."
And if a coyote is in a park and not bothering anything, treat it like any other wildlife. "If it’s minding its own business, leave it alone, don’t approach, don’t feed, don’t do anything to engage, just appreciate it," she says. "If it’s in your driveway or someplace else where a coyote ought not be, for the coyote’s safety and your comfort, then you want to teach boundaries. Staying out of our neighborhoods is an important message for coyotes to understand."
For more information on coyotes and coyote hazing, check out Project Coyote’s hazing field guide or the Humane Society of America’s guidelines for coyote hazing.