for National Geographic News
June 8, 2006
On a September night in 2004 Ken Ferebee trudged through Rock Creek Park, a nearly 2,000-acre (810-hectare) expanse of meadows and woodlands in the heart of Washington, D.C.
Armed with a spotlight, the National Park Service biologist and his colleagues had set out to count deer. Instead they stumbled across an animal never before seen in the city.
"That's when we saw the first coyote," he recalled.
The nation's capital joins a growing list of cities—including Boston, Massachusetts; Detroit, Michigan; and New York, NewYork—that these highly adaptable canine predators now call home.
The urbanization of coyotes in the East and Midwest is a phenomenon that started in the 1990s, says Stan Gehrt. The wildlife biologist studies coyotes in the Chicago, Illinois, area, where some 2,000 of the animals are thought to live.
"The amount of coexistence between coyotes and people is much, much, much greater than we ever thought," he said. "People are literally walking by coyotes every day, and they don't know it."
Historically found in the Great Plains of North America, coyotes started to expand their range eastward about 70 years ago when wolves, their main competitors, were eradicated in the eastern United States.
Deforestation along the East Coast also opened up large tracts of land filled with small prey, making the area even more inviting.
Today the slender doglike creatures with pointy ears and bushy tails can be found in every state except Hawaii.
One of the keys to the coyote's long-term success is its ability to eat just about anything.
But contrary to popular belief, Gehrt said, the canines don't devour large amounts of garbage or vast numbers of family pets.
Gehrt analyzed 1,500 scats, or droppings, from Chicago area coyotes that showed the bulk of the animals' diet consists of small mammals, such as rodents and rabbits, white tail deer, and fruit.
Today coyotes live in every park across the Chicago region, Gehrt says, even in the downtown area.
When he first started radio collaring and tracking the animals six years ago, he thought they'd avoid busy city streets and stay within park boundaries—they didn't.
A young female coyote once led Gehrt 20 miles (32 kilometers) through five different cities within a six-hour period.
"This was over by O'Hare [International Airport]," he said. "It was extremely developed and [there was] tons of traffic. She was crossing roads. I realized that night I had underestimated their ability to move across that."
As part of an agreement with Chicago city government, Gehrt puts tracking collars on captured "nuisance" coyotes and then releases them on the very edge of the urban sprawl.
"Basically they have a choice," he said of the coyotes. "If they take a left, they can go out into rural areas. If they take a right, they're going to head back into the city.
"In every single case they've always chosen to go back into the city, so those particular coyotes view this urban area as a favorable kind of habitat."
Gehrt's research has shown the survival rate of urban coyotes is twice that of their rural counterparts.
Already the relatively recent eastern coyote population is showing signs of genetic divergence from their cousins that stayed out West.
In 2001 DNA samples from a hundred coyotes killed by hunters in Maine showed only four had ancestry similar to western coyotes.
"What that indicates is a degree of isolation between the two populations," said the study's co-author, Walter Jakubas with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
"Our eastern coyotes are kind of becoming their own distinct population, if you will."
What's more, 22 of the 100 coyotes had more than 5 percent wolf ancestry, and 5 had more than 30 percent wolf genes.
Jakubas believes the hybridization occurred when western coyotes began migrating east but took a detour into Canada, where they mated with wolves.
These hybrids now live in Maine, New York, and New Jersey.
Mating between eastern Canadian wolves, red wolves, and coyotes is possible, he said, because they share a common ancestor.
While coyotes help control populations of geese, rodents, and white tail deer, in many parts of the country they're still considered pests.
"For better or worse, most people view coyotes as trouble makers," said Jakubas. "Some of your western states do not even protect them as a wildlife species. They're just considered vermin. You can do anything you want to them."
Coyotes have been hunted and trapped for more than 200 years, and the largest killer is the U.S. government.
Through its Wildlife Services program, the federal government kills hundreds of thousands of coyotes that are deemed a risk to people and livestock (related news: "Coyote-Kill Programs Don't Protect U.S. Farms, Study Finds").
Attacks on humans have been reported in Arizona, California, North Carolina, and Massachusetts.
Last month five people, including two young boys, were reportedly bitten by coyotes in Bellevue, Washington.
But even as coyotes move into more cities and suburbs throughout the country, experts say attacks on humans are fairly rare.
"You're not about to be jogging through [New York's] Central Park and be attacked by a coyote. It's not very likely," John Shivik, a biologist with the National Wildlife Research Center.
"But they are wild animals, and we should respect them as wild animals."