IN the months leading up to the Master of Fox Hounds Association’s biennial hunt staff seminar, we’d already heard a lot about Dr. Stanley Gehrt and his urban coyote presentation. He’d done this presentation at an MFHA meeting in January that had everyone talking, so we were especially curious to hear it ourselves. And, boy, was it worth the price of admission.
Gehrt is an assistant professor and extension wildlife specialist at Ohio State University. His urban coyote study in Chicago started in 2000 and is the longest-running coyote research project in North America. Using radio tracking collars, the study has followed 440 coyotes in 10 packs and revealed fascinating details about their lives, including how they form packs, which ones don’t pack up, how they develop their territories, what they hunt, and how they adapt to living in an urban environment. The results, as presented in his lecture “Uncovering Truths and Debunking Myths about City Coyotes,” were eye-opening.
The first startling fact: coyotes, once found almost exclusively in the southwest as a prairie animal, has spread throughout North America, Central America, and up through Canada and Alaska in the last 60 years or so. That rapid, widespread expansion tells you something important about the coyote: it is a highly adaptable animal that can adjust to rapidly changing environments. And they don’t just adapt by, say, changing their hunting habits or other behaviors. They adapt in more surprising and fundamental ways, like by producing larger litters in time and places where food is readily available and smaller litters when coyote populations are peaking and food is in danger of running low.
Keep in mind that the American coyote’s expansion in population and territory since about 1945 has taken place even as urban areas, highways, and development have also been expanding.
“Coyotes could handle everything thrown at them, and all they did was increase their population and increase their range.” Gehrt said.
As a result, Gehrt said, the coyote is the nation’s “most unprotected game animal,” and many states allow year-round hunting of them because their populations tend to increase so quickly. “They don’t need much protection,” Ghert explained. “They are built to withstand that kind of pressure. And because of that, they view us as their predator. And we are their pretty much only predator.”
We should note here that even though coyotes can be hunted in many areas year-round, the foxhunting season still attains. Foxhunters only chase game, whether fox or coyote, from early fall to spring, and do not hunt year-round.
Ghert’s study area in the Chicago metro area covered 300 square miles and included such seemingly un-coyote-friendly areas as the O’Hare airport, the Navy Pier, and the Sears Tower. The area encompasses about 18 cities in the Chacago metro area and contains about 1.5 million people. And yet Gehrt and his team found coyotes almost everywhere. One, a near-legendary female that is one of the study’s oldest at age 10 and was the first Gehrt put a radio collar on, has her main hiding place immediately behind a local post office. Another managed to get through three sets of fences and into a county jail, where “it scared the crap out of the prisoners,” Gehrt said.
Coyotes mate only once a year, in February, and they are monogamous for life. When one mate dies, the survivor generally will take on a new mate, but only then. The resulting litters typically range from four to seven pups that usually are born in April (which is one reason foxhunters who chase coyote generally have wrapped up their season by then), but litters can range up to 15 pups; in ghert’s study area, the urban Chicago coyote litters averaged eight.
Most coyotes, he found, are killed before their third year, and in urban and suburban ares, not surprisingly, the chief cause of death is the automobile. In rural areas, hunting and trapping are the leading cause of mortality.
But coyotes can live much longer if they are crafty or in safer environments, and Gehrt still has one of his original radio-collared coyotes in the study at age 12. Another significant cause of death: sarcoptic mange. Ghert noted that mangy coyotes are seen more often near houses, usually because they are attempting to stay warm.
Packs typically number anywhere from two to eight coyotes, but–and here’s a surprise–coyotes, or at least urban ones, rarely hunt in packs unless the environmental conditions demand it.
There are three main types of coyote:
- The resident, who remains in its particular territory, usually covering about seven to eight square miles in rural settings (and less than five square kilometers in urban settings);
- The solitary, often seeking its own territory, that is just passing through and is not yet settled in a location, and
- The disperser, a coyote that has left its natal territory and is roaming over long distances.
A solitary’s regular roaming area runs between 30 and 100 square kilometers, while dispersers, the great long-distance travelers among the coyotes, have been known to travel within a space as large as 352 square kilometers. And as hunters well know, coyotes will jump fences if they need to, but they prefer to cross man-made boundaries–fences, in other words–by going under them.
And how about that howling? It’s a chilling sound when you hear a pack of coyotes singing together with yips, barks, and long sustained notes. Gehrt says coyotes howl primarily to determine how many other coyotes are in an area but also as a way to call a pack together, usually to defend a territory. Unlike wolves, he says, they aren’t known for carrying a tune or holding notes for very long.
“They’re the rappers of the canid world,” he said.
Here’s an especially interesting thing Gehrt and his colleagues found. When only two coyotes are howling, it tends to draw alpha pairs from other ares in, as if for an “alpha meeting.” But if five or more howl together, coyotes in the area tend to run the opposite direction, away from the howlers. That suggests that large groups in concert are advertising their readiness to fight any invaders in their country.
According to the Chicago study, packs do tend to respect each other’s territories, as marked by scat or by the howling described above.
Coyotes are mostly nocturnal, and their diet, even in urban ares, reveals that they scavenge from human garbage less than you might imagine. Studies of coyote scat show that their preferred food items are rodents, especially meadow voles, which make up about 42% of their diet,. “They really are rodent-catching machines,” Gehrt said, recounting that he once found nine rodents, including several large rats, in the belly of a coyote that had been killed by a car. Coyotes also seem fond of goose eggs.
“The eggs are basically McDonald’s meals,” Gehrt said. “It’s something you can pick up and take with you, and they are loaded with fat, which is good for these animals.”
Fruit (23%), deer (22%), and rabbits (18%) are also common components of the coyote menu card, but human garbage accounts for just 2% of the diet, which might say more about us and our eating habits than we’d like to know. Interestingly, Gehrt said rural coyotes do not rely heavily on deer in their diet, again preferring small rodents and rabbits, but they will eat fawns in spring.
Easy prey is appealing to any predator, but that doesn’t mean coyotes aren’t afraid to tackle larger potential food items when they need to, and they can be surprisingly clever at this. Gehrt recounted how one pack in his study repeatedly would herd healthy bucks onto an iced over pond, harass each buck until it fell and could not get up on the slick ice, and then killed it.
People living in rural communities have long known that coyotes will kill cats and dogs. Gehrt confirmed this but noted that, except in unusual circumstances, coyotes rarely eat the cats and dogs they kill. But keep those pets locked up, all the same, as coyotes present a real danger to them.
Foxhunters who have seen coyote populations take over in former fox territories have long suspected that the coyote has a negative impact on local foxes. Gehrt confirmed that popular assumption.
Citing a study in Illinois from 1980 to 2000, Ghert said, “They saw coyotes increase dramatically during that time. Red foxes, as you might imagine, decreased but then rebounded a little bit in recent years, but not to their previous levels. Gray foxes crashed. Gray foxes seem to have crashed in a number of states, and we think that’s due to coyotes.”
To find out, Gehrt’s team also put some radio tracking collars on some of the few remaining Chicago-area gray foxes.
“It took us quite a while just to find them, and, when we did, we found that coyotes did kill over half the animals that we monitored, and the other half died from distemper,” he said. “Basically, in two years, all the animals we had radio-collared were gone and we couldn’t find any more.”
The study area’s last group of fox holdouts retreated to a cemetery and made dens there. “It was a Jewish cemetery in a pretty rough area on the south side,” Gehrt said. “The headstones are really close together, and the foxes could run in between the headstones but we couldn’t. They burrowed in those places, but eventually coyotes found their way to that and ended up wiping out that family. So coyotes do have an impact on foxes.”
Gehrt said red foxes, strangely enough, seem to survive coyote predation better than grays–and that’s another surprise, because, unlike reds, grays are known for their ability to climb trees. But Gehrt said red foxes tend to live “in the cracks between coyotes territories,” or, in rural areas, by getting as close as possible to human habitations, where healthy coyotes are less likely to appear.
In fact, at least one of the “old guns” on the older huntsman’s panel at the MFHA seminar, Marty Wood of Live Oak, confirmed this finding in his own experience in the Live Oak country in Florida. Once a fox-chasing pack, Live Oak has been pursuing coyotes increasingly since the mid-1980s and now only finds some red foxes in its country, particularly in areas close to houses, Wood said.
Part of the coyote’s ability to survive and even thrive in conditions that have decimated less resilient animal populations comes down to one character trait: paranoia. That extends to an unwillingness–except when chased or when giving birth and nursing young pups–to go into their own underground dens.
“We have video of mothers coming to their own den with their own pups inside,and it takes them forever to go in, to work up the courage to go inside their own den,” said Gehrt. “When you think about it, coyotes have incredible senses of hearing, sight, and smell, even touch. Those senses are of no use when they are underground.”
A single mating pair might have four or five dens. “The mother likes to have those different dens as an option, because if she thinks you know where that litter is, she’ll move them. And she moves them all the time. We often go through a game of multiple dens trying to find that litter.”
“One thing I hope you take away from this is that there’s still a whole lot of stuff that we don’t know about this animal, and I mean a whole lot,” Gehrt concluded. “They remind us of this every day. Every day they do something that we didn’t think they could do or didn’t think they would want to do.”
For more information on Gehrt’s research, check out the book Urban Carnivores (which also includes information on foxes). It’s published by Johns Hopkins Press and is available on Amazon.com (click to book title above to go directly there). You can also find out more online at http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/urbcoyot.htm.
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