The Coy Coyote: Learning to Coexist with an Adaptable Carnivore
by Camilla Fox
Coyotes and humans have shared the same environment since long before European settlers arrived in North America. To many Native American cultures, coyotes were powerful mythological figures endowed with the power of creation and venerated for their intelligence and mischievous nature. The Aztec name for the coyote was "coyotyl," which loosely translates to "trickster," while Navajo sheep and goat herders referred to the coyote as "God's dog."
European settlers, however, viewed coyotes as a threat to livestock and a competitor for game species - an attitude that unfortunately still persists in many areas of North America. As a result, the coyote remains the most persecuted native carnivore in the United States.
Despite over a century and a half of extermination efforts, coyotes have expanded their range threefold since the 1850s, largely in response to human alterations of the environment and the eradication of wolves, which left a vacant niche. At least 19 subspecies of coyote now roam throughout North and Central America, from California to Newfoundland, and Alaska to Panama, occupying a broad range of habitats: grasslands and deserts, eastern woodlands and boreal forests, and agricultural lands and urban parks.
Even in fragmented and urbanized landscapes, coyotes can play an integral role in their environment by helping to maintain healthy ecosystems and species diversity. One way they do this is by helping to regulate mesocarnivore populations, which consist of mid-sized predators like foxes, raccoons, opossums and skunks. In an important study conducted in Southern California, it was shown that the decline and disappearance of the coyote, in conjunction with the effects of habitat fragmentation, affect the distribution and abundance of smaller carnivores and the persistence of their avian prey. The increase in mesocarnivores in turn negatively impacted ground-nesting bird populations. Similar findings involving coyotes have been made elsewhere in North America, revealing both direct and indirect effects on waterfowl, songbirds and rodents. So, in addition to providing free rodent control services, coyotes help maintain avian diversity by keeping bird-eating predators in check.
As opportunistic omnivores, coyotes feed on a wide variety of mammals, insects, vegetables and fruit, though rodents are often their main food source. Indeed, the success of coyotes is a testament to their ability to survive and even thrive on whatever food is available. This remarkable adaptability has allowed them to adjust to and tolerate humanized landscapes, bringing them into greater contact with people in the expanding cities and suburbs of North America. For example, in recent years, several coyotes made their way into New York City's Central Park—likely crossing highways, bridges and other densely populated residential neighborhoods on their journey. A nine-year urban coyote ecology study in Chicago, Ill., has shown that not only do coyotes exist in almost all green spaces and patches within the city limits, but they often live in large family groups - sometimes in close proximity to people using fire roads, aqueducts, flood control channels, freeways, erosion gutters, city streets and sidewalks - but travel and forage at night to avoid human activity. Stanley Gehrt, lead researcher of the Chicago coyote study commented,"…it was obvious almost immediately after starting the fieldwork that we had underestimated the ability of coyotes to exploit an urban environment, and they have shared a story with us that continues to amaze us."
The urban/wildland fringe offers an abundance of food, water and habitat to coyotes and other urban wild animals who thrive in fragmented, humanized landscapes. For a coyote, such landscapes are the perfect haven, particularly if interspersed with protected green spaces. While coyotes have little trouble living in human-dominated areas, some people show little patience for coyotes in their neighborhoods. Many people who move to the outskirts of urban areas forget that with wild lands comes wildlife. Most people are unaware that there are coyotes in their midst, as coyotes tend to keep a low profile and avoid humans. The vast majority of human-coyote encounters are therefore mere sightings. When conflicts do occur between people and coyotes, intentional or unintentional feeding of coyotes (and other wildlife) is most often at the root. Coyotes may prey on unsupervised cats and small dogs, since these animals are similar in size to their natural prey. Solutions to these conflicts can frequently be found in simple alterations of human behavior; for example:
- Keep cats indoors and livestock protected in predator-proof enclosures, especially at night
- Walk your dog on a leash, particularly during coyote pupping and denning season (spring) when adult coyotes may be more territorial and protective of their young
- Don't leave pet food outside
- Secure garbage cans and compost piles
- Put garbage out the morning of scheduled pick-up instead of the night before
- Pick up fallen fruit (coyotes eat fruit!)
- Ensure that bird feeders don't overflow (coyotes are attracted to both the birdseed and the rodents who are attracted to the birdseed)
- Landscape to reduce hiding and denning areas around homes
- Keep a clean yard and neighborhood
Coyotes are smart and they can easily become habituated to human environments. Therefore, in addition to removing the things that will attract coyotes, we must try to outwit this intelligent and adaptable animal. For example, motion-activated sprinkler systems can help keep coyotes (and other unwanted wildlife) out of gardens. Installing coyote-rollers (www.coyoteroller.com) along perimeter fencing can also be very effective at keeping coyotes out of places where they are not welcome. It is crucial that every person take responsibility to keep our wild neighbors wild. Remember: A fed coyote is a dead coyote!
Time and again, coyotes have proven themselves remarkably resilient animals; it's little wonder that the Navajo called this cunning and resourceful species "God's dog." If we're smart, we'll recognize that coyotes have much to offer us, not only by keeping ecosystems healthy and diverse, but also by providing inspiring examples of ingenuity and adaptability in an ever-changing world.
For more information about coyotes and how to coexist with them, visit Project Coyote (www.ProjectCoyote.org), a new national project founded by AWI wildlife consultant Camilla Fox.