Ghost Dogs

Dylan Menges

Ghost Dogs

The long persecuted coyote is not vermin, after all. Researchers are now discovering that it's a resilient, adaptable predator that's not just surviving in U.S. cities but playing a valuable role in restoring the food chain for the benefit of birds and other species.

By Alisa Opar
Published: May-June 2011

The coyote trots down the street like he owns it, seemingly unconcerned about the cars and people bustling around him on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Alameda, an affluent neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. At about 35 pounds, he's half the weight of a black lab, or one-third that of a gray wolf. But the compact coyote, with its strong, thin legs and sinewy torso under a thick gray-white coat, is the picture of grace. His fluffy, foxlike tail sways behind him as he lopes down the road at an easy clip, one paw on the ground at a time. He stops here and there to poke his slim muzzle into deep-red and golden-yellow leaves. Occasionally he veers off course to investigate a yard. It's not the first time this sleek animal has ventured out in the daytime--decidedly odd behavior for creatures so secretive and glimpsed so rarely that they're like ghosts moving across the nighttime landscape.

Coyotes typically emerge at dusk to hunt, slipping from shadow to shadow, melting into the darkness to avoid drawing the attention of oblivious passersby. They're so good at hiding that most people don't realize the wily creatures moved into Portland--and cities across the country--years ago. They sleep in parks or small snatches of vegetation during the day, stealing out as twilight falls to find rodents and rabbits. So a coyote appearing in broad daylight, unfazed by people and dogs, was a spectacle. "Dozens of people a day called to report a coyote acting strangely this past November," says Bob Sallinger of the Audubon Society of Portland, who went to see for himself. "I'd never seen anything like it," he says of the predator nonchalantly making its way through the neighborhood, sidestepping stopped cars with gawking occupants. "It was insane."

Sallinger usually reassures people that though coyotes are taking up residence in urban areas, they typically avoid people. Not this time. To prevent the emboldened animal from potentially attacking someone who got too close, officials discussed lethal control, or hazing with loud noises to restore its instinctual shyness. Eventually it became clear that the coyote was being fed. "Someone was putting out whole chickens; another was driving around putting food out for them. They thought they were helping, but after talking to them, they realized that they might be signing a death warrant." Audubon and other groups are now pushing for a no-feed ordinance.

Sallinger tries to put the risk coyotes pose in perspective. "More people are injured every year by bees, cows, rattlesnakes," he says. "If you're going to be killed by a large animal in the Northwest, it's probably going to be by hitting a deer with your car." There's been only one recorded coyote-related human death in the United States, and that was 30 years ago. A recent flurry of coyote activity--mostly attacks on off-leash dogs and a handful of people bitten--has spurred Denver suburbs to hire shooters to kill coyotes. Yet experts say culling is futile, because new coyotes fill the gap. "There may be situations in which lethal control is warranted," says Sallinger. "But the sad thing is that communities are killing them for no reason. I think too often the knee-jerk reaction is fear and unnecessary lethal control. The only solution is to learn to coexist."

Over the past decade coyotes have gained a foothold in most major U.S. metro areas, from Austin to Denver, from Los Angeles County to New York's Westchester County. "Cities have put more and more resources toward creating green spaces--butterfly gardens, parks, natural areas in golf courses," says Stan Gehrt, an Ohio State University biologist who leads the Cook County, Illinois, Coyote Project, which has captured, released, and tracked more than 500 coyotes in Chicago since 2000. "They want a sense of nature. But when nature starts using it, some people get upset. We'd argue that coyotes are an important part of the natural world, even in cities." In fact, despite their relative invisibility and shady reputation, Gehrt has found that the canids play a significant role in the urban ecosystem, helping to keep in check populations of everything from Canada geese to deer.

Learning more about coyotes--what they eat, where they live, their social structure--is important both for their conservation and for minimizing human-coyote conflicts, says Gehrt. "If they were really as habituated as people think, they'd see them all the time. If they were as aggressive as they're portrayed in the news, people would be attacked all the time. By and large, they're not changing their behavior."

 

In Native American mythology, coyotes represent everything from trickster to creator. Navajo sheepherders reverently called them "God's dogs," and indeed, as if immortal, the wily creatures are thriving despite a century of persecution. Like wolves, coyotes have long been exterminated by the U.S. government in the name of livestock protection. Starting in 1915, each year tens of thousands--in some years more than 100,000--have been killed. Coyotes are responsible for an estimated $27 million a year in livestock damages, primarily sheep, says the USDA. Since they're considered vermin in some states, no permits are required to shoot or trap them there. As recently as the 1970s coyote pelts were selling for $45. But fashions soon changed, and demand decreased. "Prices dropped around the nation at the same time, so trappers weren't taking nearly as many coyotes," says Gehrt. "That's probably part of the reason so many cities got coyote populations at the same time."

Having long inhabited the western prairie, coyotes began expanding to the continent's coasts about 40 years ago. Their growth has coincided with the disappearance of gray and red wolves, from the Northwest to the Southeast, through decades of trapping, poisoning, and hunting. From 1900 to about 1965, for instance, no wild coyotes were found in southeastern states. By the 1970s, when red wolves were finally eliminated, coyotes had moved in to most parts. "It's a strong behavior in the canid family," explains Gehrt. "When they reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone, coyote numbers dropped. The wolves killed coyotes. Coyotes do the same to foxes." Removing wolves opened up habitat where coyotes could take over as the top predator.

In the late 1990s Cook County Animal Control started receiving calls about coyote sightings. "We thought there were a few coyotes, and they were just moving through the area," says Gehrt. "I thought we would do a one-year study, collar six or seven coyotes, and that would be it." Today, at any given time, his team is actively tracking 50 to 60 animals, though they've likely never seen most of the coyotes that call Chicago home. Thousands live within the county, alongside the metropolis's five million residents, who for the most part don't even realize the animals are there--save the occasional newsworthy pet snatch or visit to a Quiznos sandwich shop, as happened in 2007. In north Chicago, residents report that the blaring sirens of ambulances sometimes elicit a mournful howling chorus from nearby coyotes: ow-ow-ow-rooooo.

In 2000 the biologists placed their first trap in Busse Woods, a 437-acre nature preserve four miles from Chicago's O'Hare Airport, in an area off-limits to the public. "We knew if we caught someone's pet, the project would be over," says Gehrt. They captured a two-year-old female coyote, collared and tagged her, and released her.

That night Gehrt drove to Busse Woods. He turned on the receiver, but instead of the chirp, chirp, chirp of Coyote 1's radio frequency, there was silence. He drove from one end of the park to the other. "At this point, I'm worried we messed up," he says. "She had to be in the park, right?" Finally, desperate, he started searching outside the park. "Sure enough, the signal was coming from the city, from the urban matrix."

He followed the signal, driving along I-90 for more than a mile before turning into a subdivision. "I was amazed at what I was driving through. A highway, busy streets, businesses, homes." The chirping grew faster as he got closer. At about 11 p.m. he stopped in front of an undeveloped lot, his headlights illuminating three men holding leashes. Their dogs were in the field, about 60 feet from Coyote 1. "Three men, three dogs, all that close to a coyote, and none of them knew it. But she knew it. She kept still until they left."

Coyotes, Gehrt quickly learned, are good at navigating the city largely unnoticed, in part because they're mostly nocturnal, unlike rural coyotes, which hunt day and night. They might follow railroad tracks or the linked greenways many cities are creating. They cross frozen waterways and scale fences--one somehow made its way into a Chicago prison yard, over three 20-foot chain-link fences topped with razor wire. "Our knowledge of coyotes is evolving," says Gehrt. "We consistently underestimate how adaptable coyotes are--how quickly these animals can learn."

It's one thing to cross a suburban street; it's another entirely to safely cross I-90, as members of one Chicago pack do regularly. "We've seen them sitting on the side of the highway," says Gehrt. "We think they're listening and looking. When there's a break in traffic, they bolt. If there's a median, we've watched them go to it, stop, watch, and wait for another break, then bolt across."

Cars still account for about 70 percent of urban coyote deaths, but the urbanites tend to outlive their rural counterparts, some living to be 10 or 12 years old. The annual mortality rate for urban coyotes is 35 percent; in rural Illinois it's about 60 percent. Hunting and trapping account for the big difference, Gehrt explains.

 

As other coyotes and development have claimed Chicagoland's less populated fringes, individuals have moved into denser areas. "The increasing availability of green space is giving them territory they didn't have before," says Gehrt. "And their territorial system, their social system, is constantly pushing animals into habitat they would never go in otherwise. Young coyotes are constantly being forced into what we see as marginal areas in the urban matrix."

Solitary coyotes, usually less than two years old, can cover huge areas. One female inexplicably took off on a nine-day, 100-mile trip to Wisconsin and nearly back, at which point she was killed by a car. Another, which Gehrt's team calls the Lincoln Park female, travels up to 20 miles some nights, moving between the posh North Shore neighborhood, south along Lakeshore Drive to downtown Chicago, to Cabrini Green's housing projects. She became a local celebrity when a TV news crew filmed her in Cabrini Green at dusk, likely in search of rodents scurrying about the grassy vacant lots. The Lincoln Park coyote's GPS collar fell off in November, as expected, after giving her exact location for nine months. Now Gehrt hopes to recapture her and attach a smaller radio collar that should last four years. "We'd like to know how long any coyote can live down there and whether any can reproduce." Though she was roaming around "acting like a teenager" early last year, by fall she was sticking to a smaller area. That could mean she'll find a mate. Then she can carve out a territory and begin breeding.

If she does find a partner, she'll likely be true. "They're extremely monogamous," says Gehrt. "In the canid world, with wolves and foxes, there's cheating going on all over the place. Genetic testing shows that's not the case with coyotes." Not that all couples behave the same. "Some are together all the time; others are very independent," says Gehrt. "They're a lot like us in that way."

They're also devoted caretakers, with both sexes tending to the young. While rural coyote packs often consist of an alpha pair and pups, urban coyotes tend to live in groups of five or six adults that maintain a territory of about three square miles. Only the alpha pair mates; subordinates--typically older siblings--help to raise pups. In April females look for existing dens or dig new ones amid bushes or trees, and have litters ranging from four to seven pups. By summer's end the young start hunting on their own or with siblings. (Unlike wolves, coyotes hunt alone or in loose pairs.) "One of the big mysteries is when offspring leave," says Gehrt. "We still don't know whether it's voluntary or whether the parents kick them out."

The biologists have discovered that coyotes have remarkable respect for one another's territories. Yet the boundaries do shift. A couple may lose--or cede, researchers aren't sure--a block to an offspring that becomes an alpha. Development might force a pair from a vacant lot. Prime real estate may open up if one mate dies and the other leaves, or if the inhabitants are culled. In that case, what happens next is predictable: Remove coyotes, and new ones will come in and take their place.

 

Part of what enables raccoons and skunks to thrive in urban environments is their predilection for trash. Coyotes are a different beast. "Before we started our study, it was thought that coyotes are successful in urban areas because they eat garbage and pets," says Gehrt. "Some coyotes do that, but the majority don't." Their burgeoning populations in cities are a testament to their hunting skills.

Fittingly, over lunch in 2003, Gehrt and a colleague, biologist Charles Paine, figured out at least part of their diet: Canada goose eggs. As with many urban areas, geese had moved in and their population was exploding. So Paine was puzzling over why, in the early 2000s, the local growth rate had dropped from 15 percent to about one percent. At the same time, Gehrt had seen coyotes enter tall waterside grasses at night and exit with something white in their mouths. Coyotes, they deduced, were depredating nests.

They set up infrared cameras with motion sensors to test the theory. They were amazed to discover that the fierce birds fled when coyotes approached. If they refused to leave, coyotes would kill the adult, then take an egg. Interestingly, instead of eating the eggs, they buried them, returning for them up to three weeks later. "Coyotes act as a biocontrol on urban geese," says Gehrt. "When coyotes come in, geese nest somewhere else." Such displacement may prevent birds from being crowded out or overcrowded, which can result in avian tuberculosis and influenza outbreaks, while also reducing water pollution from huge concentrations of droppings. (One goose can generate more than a pound a day.) Fewer geese also reduces the need for costly solutions, such as poisoning or roundups.

At the same time coyotes are putting a dent in the deer problem. Whitetails, of course, are a major carrier of the potentially fatal tick-borne Lyme disease. Devouring six to eight pounds of vegetation a day, they're eviscerating native plants and the understory that provides homes to birds like indigo buntings and ovenbirds and small mammals like mice and chipmunks. Coyotes are a natural alternative to expensive and labor-intensive tactics--trapping and relocating, contraception, hiring hunters. Even if, as Gehrt notes, they rarely take down adult deer, they can slow population growth by preying on fawns. Research suggests that in some instances, coyotes take up to 80 percent of fawns, tearing at their throats with inch-long canines before ripping into the flanks.

Based on scat studies, coyotes mostly eat rodents, like voles and rats. Gehrt points to anecdotal evidence that when coyotes are removed from a golf course, rodent numbers skyrocket. "Some golf course owners actually like coyotes because they control rodents naturally, rather than having to poison them," he says. The scat also revealed that coyotes eat rabbits, fruit, and raccoons, plus some birds and cats. "On average, one percent of scat is cat hair," says Gehrt. "There are a few areas when cat is 10 percent of scat. They may be important in keeping down numbers of feral cats"--a lethal foe of birds.

The same holds true nationwide. "Most of our results are similar to what Stan has seen," says Paul Curtis, who oversaw Cornell University's coyote behavioral ecology study, which radio-collared 40 animals in New York's Westchester County from 2006 to 2010. "Their diet is primarily a natural diet. We found very few anthropogenic sources--a few scraps of garbage, bits of plastic, cigarette butts. A lot of white-tailed deer." Capturing and collaring coyotes has been essential to gaining these insights into their diet and behavior; after a decade, Gehrt's team has it down to an art.

 
The coyote is surprisingly calm. Curled up in a metal cage on the tailgate of a white pickup, her rust-colored legs tucked beneath her, she sniffs the breeze blowing through Busse Woods. Lean muscle ripples across her haunches as she shifts. She tracks me out of the corner of her yellow eye as I move around her cage, refusing to meet my gaze as I lean in for a closer look. "She'll stay calm, unless you stick your finger in there," says Chuck Rizzo, a researcher with the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. He smiles, but I step back. I'd rather keep my digits.

This is Coyote 427, a two-year-old female trapped in Busse Woods this morning. Before releasing her on this sunny afternoon in late May, Rizzo and his colleague Mike Neri sedated her, gave her a thorough physical exam, and attached a radio collar and ear tag.

"All right, let's let her go," says Gehrt. "You don't know how they'll react when you open the cage. Sometimes they shoot out, other times they hang out for a while before finally sauntering out." 

Coyote 427 springs from the cage before the door hits the grass. Her silver-white coat glistening in the sun, she shoots effortlessly across the meadow and into a thick stand of cottonwoods quivering in the breeze. The coyote stands behind a tree, still except for the slight twitching of her rust-tipped ears, watching us for several moments. Then she turns and melts into the woods.

We stare after her. "Wow, she's beautiful," breathes Gehrt. While the others start packing up, I keep watching, hoping for another glimpse I know I won't get.

This was my closest brush with a coyote. For two days we tracked a dozen ghost dogs from mid-morning until late into the night. The chirping signal often told us they were hidden in vegetation mere feet from us. But we caught sight of a pack only once, as it slipped onto a golf course at dusk: Coyote 1--the one Gehrt thought he'd lost all those years ago--with her mate and three offspring. During the hours we'd spent together, Gehrt related watching her grow from a "scrawny teenager" to a healthy adult who had litters every year starting in 2002, earning her the nickname Big Mama. Gehrt's respect for her is obvious as he recounts how she outsmarted the researchers numerous times before they finally recaptured her--just once--to replace her collar battery.

While Big Mama died of natural causes in April 2010 at the ripe old age of 12, her legacy lives on. A young, 38-pound male that appeared this year may challenge her son's territory. Her mate's departure from their territory following her death raises all kinds of questions. Who will move in? Has he taken a new mate elsewhere? Will they have a litter? "After all these years, they still surprise us," says Gehrt. "We're not nearly done understanding coyotes."

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Alisa Opar

Alisa Opar is the articles editor at Audubon magazine. Follow her on Twitter @alisaopar.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine