As a species, coyotes are living the American dream. After humans wiped out most U.S. wolves last century, coyotes began expanding from western North America to seize new opportunities all over the continent. And beyond filling an empty ecological niche, the wily entrepreneurs have shown further savvy by moving into cities, settling down in human neighborhoods and raising pups under our noses.
Once known as "ghosts of the plains," coyotes now inhabit rural towns, suburbs and even major cities across North America, from Los Angeles and Seattle to Chicago and New York (further proof they can make it anywhere). They're known to deftly hide dens in places like golf courses and city parks, where monogamous couples typically raise four to seven pups per litter. Although they adapt to whatever prey is available, research suggests they mostly eat rodents like squirrels and rats.
Coyotes can capitalize on a human-altered landscape because they know how to keep a low profile, living surprisingly near us yet staying just out of sight — most of the time. For all their legendary stealth, even coyotes make mistakes. Their instincts may tell them to avoid people, but years of living in our midst can create a false sense of security. Why slink through the shadows if you don't have to?
The problem is partly just miscommunication: Humans use lots of physical and visual boundaries to mark territory, and coyotes use scent-based borders. But our mixed signals are also to blame. While people have a long history of demonizing and brutalizing coyotes, we also sometimes err in the other direction by giving them free food. Even if no one in a neighborhood directly feeds coyotes, they might accidentally provide meals via unsecured trash cans or outdoor pet food. Any of this can erode a coyote's natural fear of humans, leading to cavalier behavior that raises the risk of conflict.
Rather than trying to get rid of urban coyotes — culling programs are often expensive, inhumane and ineffective — we can get along by following a few basic guidelines. Here are five tips to help you coexist with coyotes, including the deterrence strategy known as "hazing":
1. Don't tempt them.
The first step in avoiding trouble with coyotes is to not ask for it. Feed pets inside if possible, or at least bring in the bowl after they eat. Tightly close lids on outdoor trash cans or compost bins, and don't leave dirty dishes or food outside after a cookout. You may need extra fencing to protect things like vegetable gardens, fruit trees and chicken coops. Odor repellents and motion-detecting deterrents might help, but the Urban Coyote Research Program (UCRP) notes they "have not been tested thoroughly for coyotes."
Small dogs and cats do sometimes fall prey to coyotes, especially if they're off-leash and alone after dark. That said, research indicates even urban coyotes still eat far more wildlife than pets. In a study of 1,429 scat samples from coyotes around Chicago, researchers found that 42 percent contained small rodents, 23 percent had fruit, 22 percent had deer and 18 percent had rabbit. Only about 2 percent of Chicago coyotes have human garbage in their scat, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and just 1 percent seem to have eaten cats. Coyote diets are highly flexible, but similar results have been found in scat samples and autopsies of coyotes living elsewhere.
2. Don't mess with pups.
Coyotes usually mate in February and give birth in April. Pups stay in the den for about six weeks, then start to join their parents for brief outings by June. This is a risky time for pups, and adults know it. As seen with Chicago's Coyote 748, parenthood can seem to change a coyote's personality overnight.
Coyote 748 was caught, radio-collared and released in February 2014, allowing UCRP researchers to track his movements. At first he behaved like a typically cautious coyote, but in April he began showing unusual aggression toward dogs being walked by people in a specific area (although he never actually attacked). Researchers found a den hidden nearby, indicating 748 was merely a protective father.
The researchers used "calculated hazing" on 748, eventually convincing him to move his den to another, quieter location. While that apparently worked, however, it's often wise for people to avoid confrontational coyotes in spring and early summer. Defensive behavior could be a normal part of parenting, so hazing might just stress the adults and scare the pups without teaching them anything useful. And with parents already on edge, even careful hazing could make things worse.
"If a coyote seems intent on defending a certain area, particularly around pupping season, your best bet may be to alter your route to avoid conflict with a normally calm animal," the UCRP suggests.
3. Don't run away.
One of the easiest ways to intimidate a coyote doesn't require any hazing at all. By simply standing in place, you convey a lack of fear that most coyotes will recognize. Running or briskly walking away could ruin your mystique, making you seem like prey or at best a pushover. It's OK to back away slowly if the situation becomes too adversarial, according to Coyote Coexistence, but running away should still be avoided "as this might incite a chase."
Standing your ground can still be too subtle for some habituated coyotes, though. If they keep lingering — and it's not pupping season — you may need to put your foot down.
4. Be large, loud and scary.
A coyote rests in an urban park. (Photo: Dru Bloomfield [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
When urban coyotes become too comfortable around people, experts advise an approach known as hazing. The idea is similar to tactics for scaring away black bears: Give the impression humans are noisy and unpredictable maniacs, something many of us already practice routinely anyway.
Here are ideas for hazing a coyote, as recommended by the UCRP, the Humane Society of the United States, and various cities, counties and conservation groups across North America:
- Yelling. The phrase "go away, coyote!" is a common example, but it obviously doesn't matter what you yell — except maybe to sleeping neighbors.
- Waving your arms. As with black bears, you're just trying to seem larger. Wielding an object like a rake or broom might help.
- Noisemakers. Aside from yelling, you can alarm a coyote by whistling, ringing bells, stomping your feet or shaking a can filled with coins.
- Projectiles. If yelling and waving don't work, the Humane Society suggests throwing sticks, small rocks or tennis balls "toward, but not at" the coyote.
- Water. Spraying problem coyotes with a garden hose or water gun is another option, although it could be a little harsh in freezing temperatures.
If a coyote hasn't been hazed before, the Humane Society warns yelling might not immediately work. The next step is to maintain eye contact and approach the coyote — still making noise, waving your arms and possibly throwing things — but without getting close enough for contact. As Coyote Coexistence explains, "one of the best ways to show a coyote that his proximity is not welcome is a multi-sensory one." The UCRP suggests carrying noisemakers when walking a dog at night.
Hazing coyotes isn't without risk, although it's worth noting that coyote attacks on humans are rare, averaging about six per year in the U.S. and Canada from 1985 to 2006. Only two fatal attacks are known in modern history: a 3-year-old in California in 1981 and a 19-year-old in Nova Scotia in 2009.
Again, hazing should be reserved for overly adventurous coyotes, not just any coyote we see. Most are already skittish enough, and there are some situations when hazing is unnecessary or unwise. Coyote parents probably won't back down if someone tries to haze them away from their den full of pups, for example, so in that case it's often better to leave them alone.
5. Rat them out.
Regardless of whether you haze them — and especially if it doesn't work — any aggressive coyotes should be reported to animal control or other appropriate authorities. Signs of aggression in coyotes resemble those in domestic dogs, such as barking, growling, snarling and raised hackles. Coyotes behaving aggressively could be rabid, although only 7 percent of coyote attacks reported between 1985 and 2006 were attributed to rabies. Most were classified as predatory (37 percent) or investigative (22 percent), suggesting the animal was too habituated to humans. About 6 percent were pet-related, 4 percent were defensive and another 24 percent couldn't be classified due to a lack of details.
Hazing is considered a good way to deter coyotes in general, but they are sometimes relocated as a last resort. Research shows coyote removal just opens territory for other coyotes to fill, yet while it's not effective at reducing overall populations, it can help when a specific coyote becomes incorrigible.
Coyotes are just one of many wild animals shrewd enough to live in cities. Along with more familiar urban creatures like squirrels and pigeons, they're also sometimes joined by fellow predators such as hawks, owls, bears and foxes. In fact, many "eastern coyotes" are actually coyote-wolf hybrids (or coyote-wolf-dog hybrids) known as coywolves. And despite their occasional faux pas, coyotes, coywolves and other predators can potentially play a beneficial role in urban ecosystems.
Rodents are almost always coyotes' main prey, and research has linked coyote removal to a "dramatic increase in rodent abundance and a decrease in rodent diversity," according to the UCRP, meaning hardier rodents like rats thrive and outcompete other species. This effect has been studied mostly in rural areas but also some urban sites, including golf courses and cemeteries where coyotes may help control nuisance woodchucks. Chicago's coyotes are also thought to regulate urban populations of Canada geese and white-tailed deer, which might otherwise become too abundant.
Coyotes often seem destined to test limits and make enemies. But with the right combination of tolerance and distrust between our two resourceful species, there's no reason any town in North America can't be big enough for the both of us.