Environmental Almanac | Thriving coyotes are getting a bad rap

Environmental Almanac | Thriving coyotes are getting a bad rap

NOTE: In the environmental writing class I teach at the University of Illinois, I emphasize that to connect with people, it's important to anticipate some of their responses to a topic. In this commentary on coyotes ("Your Neighbor the Coyote"), undergraduate April Wendling shows how that's done.

By APRIL WENDLING

If you google the word "coyote," the first return, unsurprisingly, is the coyote Wikipedia page. The second result you'll get is "What do you use to kill a coyote?" and the third is "How do you fight a coyote?"

Googling "wolf" doesn't return similar results, in spite of the ecological similarity between the two species. Why does the general public harbor such a negative perception of these canids?

Before European settlers arrived in North America, coyotes could be found mainly in areas that are now northern Mexico and the southern U.S. However, with ongoing human development and the decline of wolves, a species that competes strongly for food and territory with coyotes, the coyotes' range has greatly expanded — they can be found in most parts of Canada and as far south as Panama, making them the most widely distributed large predator in North America.

It's well known that human development has caused the decline of many wild species, yet coyotes are thriving alongside us.

I spoke with Jean Mengelkoch, an associate mammologist from the Illinois Natural History Survey, and asked her why this is. She explained that developed areas have abundant food, and coyotes are great habitat generalists that can eat almost anything. They often form packs that consist of a breeding pair plus a few nonbreeding individuals that help feed and raise the breeding pair's young. Coyotes generally hunt alone, however, unless pursuing particularly large prey. In this way, they're very adaptable.

Owners of cats and small dogs often worry for the safety of their pets, knowing coyotes are so abundant. My mom is one such pet owner with quite a few coyote-related concerns. She tells me of her many coyote run-ins, of all the times she's taken our dogs out in the middle of the night, only to see a coyote in the distance "just waiting to gobble up our puppy." Several years ago, when our outdoor cat went missing and was never seen again, she immediately blamed coyotes for it, in spite of the fact that he could have just as easily become roadkill.

The truth of the matter, however, is that coyotes very rarely eat cats or dogs. In a study by the Urban Coyote Research Program in Cook County, it was found that cat remains were only present in 1 percent of urban coyote feces. The vast majority of their diet consists of rodents, fruit, young deer, rabbits and goose eggs.

In this way, coyotes can actually prevent rodent, deer, rabbit and goose populations from growing uncontrollably. Additionally, on the occasion that coyotes do kill cats, it's worth noting that reducing the number of feral and outdoor cats leads to increases in songbird abundance. Moral of the story? Keep your cat indoors.

Even if it was the case that my mom was correct and that our favorite feline was killed by a coyote, I couldn't bring myself to be particularly upset. Let me clarify — of course I loved our cat, but I certainly can't blame a coyote if it had killed him. Coyotes, like any other predator, have no malicious intent when they kill prey or a competitor — they're just doing what they need to do to survive.

Another common fear of those living near coyotes is attacks on humans. However, according to Urban Coyote Research Program, there have been no coyote attacks in Illinois for more than 30 years.

To put that in perspective, there are around 2,000 to 3,000 recorded dog bites, some of which are fatal, each year in Cook County alone. Unless given reason not to be, coyotes are fearful of humans and rarely react to us with aggression.

In an attempt to control coyote populations, people shoot some 500,000 of them each year. It seems that this effort is mostly in vain, however, because coyotes have a fascinating adaptation that causes their litter sizes to increase when their numbers decrease.

Coyotes use their yips and howls to determine how many other coyotes are in the area. Normally, litters will be five or six pups. However, if other packs don't answer their howls, it triggers a biological response that produces litters as large as 12 to 16 pups.

Given how vocal they are, it makes sense that the coyote's scientific name, Canis latrans, literally means "barking dog."

Coyotes are handling urbanization and living alongside humans exceptionally well in other ways, too. Urban coyotes have become more active at night in order to avoid run-ins with humans. They're incredibly good at hiding, as well — one pair of coyotes in Chicago infamously raised a litter of pups inside a den in the parking lot of Soldier Field. No one would have even known said coyotes were there had it not been for the fact that the pair wore GPS collars.

Additionally, urban coyotes appear to have learned to observe traffic patterns in order to avoid being run over. Even if you're not ready to join the coyote fan club, I hope you can admire that.

Rob Kanter is a clinical associate professor with the UI School of Earth, Society and Environment. You can reach him via email at rkanter@illinois.edu. Kanter shot the accompanying photo in Vermilion County.

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