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Urban coyote" contradicts the familiar image of a sly canine howling on a mesa under a full desert moon. But coyotes are showing they're as comfortable on concrete as on the shifting sands of the "wild." In Boston, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Chicago and other big cities, including Pittsburgh, coyotes have become part of an adaptable urban fauna.
"Constantly," Gerald Akrie replies when asked if his agency fields coyote reports. Akrie is supervisor of Animal Control for the City of Pittsburgh and has seen coyote calls leap in recent years.
"Over the past 10 years, there were always rumors," he said. "This year, we've had lots of reports of coyotes or from residents who say they know it's not a dog but it might be a wolf or a coyote."
Urban dwellers wonder why wildlife they would associate with western movies or "nature shows" is showing up now in the neighborhood.
Some sportsmen have embraced a rumor that state wildlife departments "stocked" coyotes to cut down deer numbers. A more informed theory holds that coyotes originally inhabited western prairies and deserts but expanded eastward in the large-predator vacuum left when wolves were wiped out. It took decades, but as coyotes adapted to eastern farms and forests they also probed the new frontier of cities, finding urban life to their liking. Though their past remains obscure, coyotes are now known to inhabit every state east of the Mississippi River, including the most metropolitan haunts.
Little was known about the urban coyote before an Ohio State University research project studied coyotes in Cook County, Ill., whose borders hold the city of Chicago, 130 other municipalities, more than 5 million people and several thousand coyotes. Beginning in 2000, Cook County Coyote Project researchers trapped and put radio collars on 250 coyotes, then tracked the animals day and night, pinpointing their locations more than 40,000 times.
"We did not expect to find so many coyotes living in urban Chicago," said Stanley Gehrt, assistant professor of Wildlife Ecology at Ohio State, who directed the project. "When we pinpointed a coyote's location, we actually watched people walk by those coyotes and never know it. I am sure there are thousands of people walking by coyotes every day in Pittsburgh, totally unaware of this animal, because it is so good at remaining hidden while making a living anywhere it can."
Besides the high number of urban coyotes and their success at avoiding humans, Gehrt and his students learned that, as in wilderness, urban coyotes utilize a diverse diet of rodents, rabbits and carrion but generally avoid trash and garbage unless lured to human-related foods by artificial feeding. Gehrt said urban coyotes also provide "services" by curbing urban deer and Canada goose populations that are difficult to manage through recreational hunting. Radio tracking revealed that coyotes in cities find and use every fragment of habitat available. Gehrt agreed that may explain coyotes' attraction to Pittsburgh with its wooded ravines, hollows and hillsides.
"We found it doesn't matter how small the habitat patch is or how many square miles of asphalt surround it, coyotes will find it and use it to their advantage," Gehrt said. "Even if there is no green space, coyotes will figure out how to exploit the urban downtown. They are going to be successful in any city no matter how the landscape is configured."
Akrie, who knows Pittsburgh well, confirms the Steel City as a coyote haven. "There are woods everywhere here," he said.
Gehrt and other experts say urban residents can coexist with coyotes when knowledge and respect replaces irrational fear.
"We've been studying coyotes in Chicago for eight years and we don't have a single coyote bite on a human during that time or before," Gehrt said. "Yet, people are living in close proximity with tremendous exposure to these animals. So, when a coyote does misbehave, the only information we get is about a nuisance incident."
As perspective on the danger from coyotes, Gehrt points out that Cook County recorded more than 3,000 dog bites in 2005 alone.
Gehrt, however, does not minimize the potential for coyotes to become a problem. "Most of the time fear is not justified. Occasionally it might be," he said.
As with bears, artificial feeding can embolden the animals, with the possibility of aggressive behavior.
"There is a documented case of an urban coyote attack on a human in Massachusetts," said Tom Hardisky, furbearer biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission. "That incident was linked to artificial feeding, which can cause coyotes to lose their natural fear of humans."
One fatality occurred in 1981 in a Los Angeles suburb.
Gehrt also acknowledges that urban coyotes prey on pets outdoors, particularly cats, but not frequently. He studied coyote droppings and found cat remains in 1.3 percent of samples.
"Eliminating them is not going to work," Hardisky said. "We need to learn to live with them. The best thing is to get educated on the coyote, what it eats and why it does things."
Credits: By Ben Moyer - Post-Gazette.com