The following was provided by Margareta Larsson of Georgia State University.
Chances are you’ve yet to see a coyote or hear them howling at a full moon. More likely, though, you’ve heard neighbors talk about coyote sightings and of cats gone missing. Coyotes have lived here for a while. In Druid Hills, for instance, over a period of several months within the past few years, the saddest of signs seemed posted everywhere: “Missing Cat.” At first, neighbors didn’t realize what was happening. But, at night, as coyote packs became established, their unmistakable howl could be heard around the Druid Hills golf course. Recently, two coyotes were spotted walking through the Frazer Center forest, in Lake Claire.
Efforts to limit coyote and wolf populations by killing them using various methods over the past hundred years have had an unintended effect: coyotes have now expanded beyond their native territory, the western prairie, to every state in the U.S. (except Hawaii), including all major metropolitan areas. One explanation of this amazing expansion is found in coyote social organization. Coyote litters, which can range from one to twelve pups, increase in proportion to the availability of food.
In short, more food, more coyotes.
Counter-intuitive as it may sound, the act of killing coyotes— in effect, leaving more food for those remaining—results in more pups being born. Moreover, killing coyotes disrupts pack hierarchies. Normally, only the alpha pair reproduces in a coyote pack. But if the alphas are gone, several pairs may be allowed to reproduce; and again, more coyote pups will be born the following season. And that, in turn, leads to new packs and a need for new territory; if the alphas are gone, their absence opens up a territory that can be claimed by a transient individual.
The coyote is said to be among the smartest of wild animals. Native Americans call it the trickster or God’s dog. Although not native to the Southeast, coyotes now fit into our local ecosystem and help keep rodent populations in check. They are monogamous and loyal to their pack. The males help feed and raise pups. They can recognize individual people within their territory. So there’s a good chance that some of them living amongst us already have us and our habits figured out.
But now the burden falls on us to understand them. More specifically, we need to understand that if they find food in an area, they will return for more. This is no small matter: although attacks on people are rare, a correlation has been established between the number of coyote attacks and the amount of human-related food in their diet. *
Coyotes have been the topic at several recent neighborhood meetings. At one, an animal trapper (who, by state law, must kill any coyote that is trapped) explained that although he can remove unwanted animals, in time, other coyotes will move into the area. In early March, Fernbank Science Center hosted: “Fact and Fiction – Coyotes: How can humans and coyotes coexist?” Dr. Chris Mowry from Berry College presented his research about coyotes, and along with the evening’s host and fellow wildlife biologist, Dr. Larry Wilson, talked about best practices for coexisting with coyotes. They stressed the importance of eliminating all intentional and unintentional feeding, keeping pets safe, and the need for education and cooperation among neighbors and municipalities. Dr. Lowry also explained that established packs with large territories, “low density coyotes” who hunt wildlife, are more desirable to have around. If those coyotes are removed, the “transients” that move in might be more undesirable, since they aren’t as good hunters, and go for easy prey—i.e. small pets.
Dr. Mowry expressed his desire to raise money for a research project to put GPS collars on our local coyotes in order to identify where they get food, and he suggested that this could be a great project for local schools.
A coyote pack in its native habitat needs a big territory to feed itself on its natural prey, small animals. However, if abundant food from other sources is available, packs require smaller territories, which leads to denser, increasingly urban, coyote populations and more interactions between them and humans.
So what can we do?
Along with the rest of the country, we have little choice but to learn how to coexist. More specifically, if coyotes do not associate us with food and, in the process, maintain their fear of us, we can coexist. Conversely, a coyote that associates people with food and, as a result, loses its fear of humans, becomes a problem. A coyote that shows aggression toward humans needs to be removed. However, if the cause that led to the aggression in the first place is not corrected, it produces an endless cycle.
Coyote puppies are born starting in late March. Parents need to provide food for their hungry young, and they are on the prowl. Chances are they are checking out our neighborhood. Please don’t let them find a fast-food outlet in our neighborhood.
Project Coyote (at projectcoyote.org) an organization which “promotes educated coexistence between people and coyotes” has a wealth of information on-line based on current research and practices. Urban areas around the country from Calabasas, in Los Angeles County, California to Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, and the City of Decatur have coyote management plans encouraging co-existing with coyotes. The goal in urban coyote management is to limit the expansion of coyotes and to keep coyotes fearful of humans instead of them expecting us to provide dinner and getting mad at us if we don’t.
The following advice is compiled from the sources listed below. A consensus among wildlife managers suggests the following actions:
Don’t feed coyotes!
If encountering coyotes, stand your ground. Make noise: act scary. Do not run away. Protect small children and pets.
Eliminate all unintentional feeding including
- pet food, (don’t feed pets outside)
- open and accessible garbage containers
- open compost piles
- bird seed on the ground, as well as pet food, attracts rodents, which attracts coyotes
- water sources in yard
- fallen fruit from trees
- road kill
- open dumpsters
- rodent populations (any outdoor food source will attract rodents, which will attract coyotes)
Encourage your neighbors to follow the advice. Only when all of us comply will these measures be effective.
Keep pets attended. Don’t let pets roam, especially at night. Unattended cats and small dogs—as well as pet food—attract coyotes. Coyotes may see pets as competitors as well as prey.
- Chickens, rabbits, goats and their food need to be enclosed within heavy-duty wire cages. Coyotes can break through chicken wire.
- Coyotes can climb over or dig under fences.
City of Decatur- Coyote Fact Sheet
The Cook County, Illinois, Coyote Project
Living with Coyotes in Calabasas, California
Narragansett Bay Coyote Study
* White, L.A. and Gehrt, S. D., Coyote Attacks on Humans in the U.S. and Canada, Human Dimensions of Wildlife, Vol. 14, No. 6, October 2009