Hot on the Trail of Nomadic Urban Coyotes

By Ted Gregory, Chicago Tribune staff reporter May 12, 2002

As development has destroyed their habitats, coyotes are thriving in subdivisions, office parks, airports and shopping mall grounds, researchers have found.

Wildlife biologist Paul Morey roams through late nights and early mornings in a battered pickup with an antenna on the roof that he uses to track coyotes wearing radio collars.

Some people have called police, fearing he is a government spy. Others mock-howl at him when he plays recorded coyote distress calls in suburban prairies.

Morey isn’t bothered. He knows it’s essential work in the nation’s most exhaustive study of coyotes living on the fringes of big cities, a study being undertaken in the Chicago area.

“I get a lot of strange looks when I’m collecting scats,” said the soft-spoken Morey, who has analyzed 600 coyote droppings in about 18 months to help explain the animals’ eating habits. “One lady said to me, `So, my child can get paid for doing that?’ I just shook my head and said, `Yeah.'”

Like raccoons and foxes, deer and peregrine falcons, coyotes have carved out a healthy existence in metropolitan areas across North and Central America. In the Chicago region, the number of coyotes caught as nuisance animals totaled 320 in 1999, up from 17 in 1990.

Sprawling development has destroyed coyotes’ natural habitats but created congenial, if artificial, alternatives–subdivisions and office parks, airports and shopping mall grounds. The rise in their population is almost imperceptible to humans who literally live among the coyotes.

The unsettling aspect of that arrangement is that although coyotes eat plants and scavenge other meals, they also hunt. They are known to attack pets and–rarely–humans.

Morey and Stan Gehrt, the wildlife biologist coordinating the three-year study of metropolitan coyotes, plan to ease those fears by getting a clear picture of the lifestyles of the oft-maligned animals famous for their adaptability and resilience.

Gehrt, who works at the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation in East Dundee, said the study, which is being funded by the Cook County Department of Animal and Rabies Control, is expected to be completed late next year.

Two years into it, researchers have trapped, ear-tagged and collared almost 60 coyotes, a surprisingly large number that indicates the population is higher than originally thought. Morey, Gehrt and three other researchers are examining the coyotes’ reproduction, survival rates, deaths, social systems and diseases.

They also will try to compile an accurate census of coyotes in the area. “But it’s going to be the part of the project that I’ll be least comfortable with,” Gehrt said.

That’s because, much to Gehrt’s surprise and in contrast to their rural counterparts, preliminary research shows that metropolitan coyotes roam widely, shifting alliances and territories, making them about as easy to trace as the wind. Radio tracking suggests the animals can wander 25 miles in 24 hours.

One coyote, originally caught near Medieval Times theme restaurant in Schaumburg, was last tracked to Illinois State Beach Park near Zion. One caught in Poplar Creek Forest Preserve near Hoffman Estates was tracked to Northwestern University in Evanston and later found dead from a gunshot in a parking lot near O’Hare.

Another coyote picked up in Poplar Creek roamed about 100 miles of trails to a rural area northwest of Rockford, where a hunter shot the animal. Last week, a coyote turned up dead in a Winnetka back yard after traveling from far west suburban Wayne.

Being shot is the third leading cause of metropolitan coyotes’ demise, Gehrt said. The No. 1 cause is being hit by cars and trucks, followed by overall deteriorated health caused by disease, physical injury or starvation. Yet about 65 percent of the animals survive their first year, much better than rural coyotes’ survival rate, Gehrt said.

The beginnings of the coyotes’ urbanization date to the late 1800s, when the federal government began vigorous extermination of them in states west of the Mississippi River, largely to curtail their threat to livestock. Today, they are found from Alaska to Costa Rica, in all habitats from remote rural locales to dense urban centers like Los Angeles and New York.

When coyotes arrived in the farm fields of Illinois, they became a target of farmers and hunters. Forest preserves in the Chicago area began to expand in the 1950s, and the animals found sanctuary there. As the forest preserve populations of coyotes grew, some moved out of the woods and into neighborhoods, Gehrt said.

“They’re being forced back into the cities because there’s no place for them to go,” said Marc Bekoff, an author and environmental biology professor at the University of Colorado who has been studying coyotes for nearly 30 years. “Their populations get compressed and as they get compressed, they go where they can find space. Coyotes are like water. They will fill any niche and likely succeed.”

They have thrived in urban areas because they have a smorgasbord of rodents, deer, rabbits, geese, even pheasant to dine on and no natural predators such as wolves and mountain lions.

Coyotes are opportunistic predators. A handful of the scat samples Morey has analyzed contain traces of cat. Last month , Bartlett police received a complaint that a coyote ate a Yorkshire terrier.

In southern California, generations of coyotes have been raised around humans and become more confident. Last year, the California Department of Fish and Game recorded 17 coyote attacks on humans in the southern region of the state. Eight resulted in injuries that required hospitalization.

But the animals in Illinois, according to Gehrt and Morey, seem to avoid humans.

“They have plenty of opportunities to attack, but they show no interest,” Gehrt said one recent night tracking coyotes in Streamwood, where he once found a coyote den on a bushy, cul-de-sac island. “This neighborhood has a pack of coyotes living right next to it and the people have no idea.”

The animals being tracked in Gehrt’s study roam in packs and alone, he said. They live at O’Hare International Airport and subdivisions in Barrington, Inverness, West Chicago, Carol Stream, Winfield and Geneva. One resides in a patch of marshy brush surrounded by a church, park and subdivision in Streamwood.

They routinely roam the parking lot of Woodfield Mall and rest behind the Schaumburg post office. They cross I-290 and busy Roselle Road in afternoon traffic. They chase planes at Schaumburg Airport and roam the golf course next to DuPage Airport, Gehrt said.

Yet not one has attacked a human.

Gehrt also noted that scat samples show that coyotes in the Chicago area are finding enough deer and geese and other animals to eat without, for the most part, having to forage through restaurant trash bins or residential garbage cans.

All those observations suggest to Gehrt that coyotes are coexisting peacefully with humans.

Dogs killed more than 300 people in the U.S. between 1990 and 2000, he noted.

By comparison, Gehrt has found only one report of a coyote attacking a human east of the Mississippi River, and that was in the Boston area.

“They can’t escape people,” Gehrt said of coyotes, “so they have to live with them. And, some of the coyotes are very, very good at that.”

Copyright (c) 2002, Chicago Tribune