In a previous post ( Eastern Coyote Myths and Reality | The Animal Nerd ), I discussed eastern coyotes and their habits – and tried to dispel a few misconceptions about them. Since then, I have spoken with a number of people who have encountered coyotes in suburban communities and are somewhat apprehensive about their proximity to their small children and pets. Based on these concerns, I would like to offer some guidance on how to manage interactions with coyotes and how to discourage them from approaching people or residences.
A few facts about urban coyotes:
First, they are predators and opportunistic feeders. And they’re omnivores. They will hunt and forage either in small family groups or as individuals. As individuals, they will hunt small animals or forage for fruit and tasty vegetables, and will scavenge human food sources. If you leave food out for neighborhood cats or desirable local wildlife, you can expect to get a visit from a coyote. They will also prey on any small feral or domestic animals that they can catch, including small dogs and housecats. Individual coyotes do not chase or try to catch deer, but will do so in family groups.
Second, although they are semi-social animals, they do not form “packs”. Coyotes live as individuals or in small family groups consisting of a breeding pair and their pups, possibly including young coyotes from a previous litter or a bachelor that they allow in their group. Large packs of coyotes are simply not a thing. And they do not always stick together in groups, when you see an individual on his own, he could simply be doing his coyote business away from his family and will return to them later.
Third, they are vocal. When you hear an individual coyote howling, he is generally trying to get a response from his pack/family in order to have them join him, or to establish a territory for himself. When you hear a group howling together, it is generally a greeting behavior. People generally wildly overestimate the number of coyotes involved in a group howling session, three or four of them can sound like eight or ten. What they do NOT do is howl during hunting or to “celebrate” a kill. They have no wish to warn prey that they are in the area or to attract other predators to any animals that they have successfully hunted.[i]
Fourth, eastern coyotes are genetically distinct from the ones found in western states, particularly so in the northeast states. While their population expanded eastward from the upper mid-western states, they intermingled with a hybrid wolf population in Ontario and picked up from grey wolf and dog DNA along the way. This does not mean that they are “coy-wolves” or “wolf-hybrids” or any such scary mutation. They are about ninety percent coyote and have not become a new species. They are, however, slightly larger and have more variation in their coats. The coyotes in the southeast
states did not expand through areas where they could pick up any wolf DNA, however that population did pick up a very small amount of dog genetic material. They are not interbreeding with domestic dogs – there is no need for them to do so as their population isn’t under any pressure.[ii]
Fifth, they are becoming more common. Over the past several decades, coyotes have established themselves along the east coast and in the New England states. Urban and suburban areas have abundant food sources for them and they are thriving in our neighborhoods. They have established themselves as apex predators, filling the niche that we created when we humans exterminated other predator species in the east. They have become part of our urban landscape, much like deer, foxes and other native species. Over the years of human contact they have become a primarily nocturnal predator, although they are also commonly seen during daylight hours. [iii]
Which brings us to the topic at hand: As they become more common, people are encountering them more often in locations that coyotes were not expected to be found. And, being humans, we often respond to unexpected events with alarm or by behaving inappropriately. So, I’d like to offer some advice and guidance on how to act in the presence of coyotes and how to be a good neighbor to them.
First and above all: We want them to be shy and wary of us. They are not tame or backyard animals and, for their own benefit, coyotes should be fearful of humans. They are wild animals and we need to keep them wild.
Second, if you see a coyote at a distance, going about its business, there is no reason to do anything except say “Huh, a coyote.” and go back to what you were doing. if you find that a coyote is watching you or even appears to be following you at a distance, there is no cause for alarm, and you don’t need to do anything. He isn’t stalking you, he’s just wary and curious. In fact, if one is “following” you, it may be that you have wandered closer to his den and pups that he would like, and he is escorting you from the vicinity.[iv]
However, if one is closer to you or your home than you would like and does not seem to be avoiding contact with you; you can engage in “coyote hazing” to discourage him from human contact.
Note: Before engaging in any hazing, take a minute and think. Are you possibly near his den? Is it possible that there are pups nearby? Coyotes have one breeding season, in late winter, and pups are born in the spring, maturing over the next several months[v]. You don’t want to engage in any threatening behavior to any animal that is protecting its young. Second, take a minute to observe the coyote. Does it appear to be generally healthy and alert or is it acting as if it is ill or suffering. If so, just leave the area and notify local wildlife authorities.[vi]
If the coyote appears to be healthy and you are in an open area where dens are unlikely to be located, you can discourage him by hazing. This consists of making yourself threatening to the coyote, taking advantage of their natural fear of humans. Make yourself big, wave your arms and shout at it. Take a couple of threatening steps towards the coyote while you’re doing this. Noisemakers such as whistles or shaker cans, or bright flashlights are also helpful. Hazing generally works, but might not be effective if the coyote is already habituated to human presence.[vii] If it doesn’t cause him to flee, then you should simply leave the area. Remember, the point is to keep him wary of humans and help prevent him from becoming accustomed to being around people.[viii]
In addition, you should discourage them from being near human homes. There are several simple steps you can take to accomplish this:
First, do not put out feeding stations for any wildlife, including feral cats. They are prey animals and their presence will attract coyotes to you home. It is never a good idea to feed wild animals, regardless of how cute they are.[ix]
Second, if you have bird feeders, regularly clean the area around them to discourage any rodents from feeding on fallen birdseed. They are also prey for coyotes and will encourage them to hunt in your yard.
Third, if you have a cat do not let them roam outside. They are prey for coyotes, hawks, large owls and other urban predators. In addition, they are active predators of desirable wildlife, including songbirds. [x]
Fourth, if you do not have a securely fenced yard, don’t put your dog outside without y
ou being present and in control of his movements, even if he is on a tether – particularly if your dog is not spayed or neutered. And if you have an invisible fence, remember that it will keep your trained dog in your yard, but does nothing to prevent predators from entering.[xi] Also, do not allow your dog to interact with coyotes during walks, and keep your dog leashed if you are in areas where coyotes tend to be found.[xii]
Summing it all up: Coyotes are here and they’re here to stay. They are adjusting to our environment and are thriving, and its up to us to live alongside them and to act responsibly. We can do this by limiting our interactions with them, discourage them from getting accustomed to us and helping them to stay wild.
[i] Fergus, C. (January 15, 2017). Probing Question: Why do Coyotes Howl? Penn State News. Retrieved from Probing Question: Why do coyotes howl? | Penn State University (psu.edu)
[ii] Nagy, C., (2017) New York’s Newest Immigrants: Coyotes in the City. Anthrozoology Graduate Program, Canisius College
[iv] What to Expect During Coyote Pup Season. March 22, 2021. Wolf Conservation Center. Retrieved from What to Expect During Coyote Pup Season | Wolf Conservation Center (nywolf.org)
[v] Bradford, A. and Pester, P. April 02, 2021. Coyotes: Facts About the Wily Members of the Canidae Family. LiveScience. Retrieved from Coyotes: Facts about the wily members of the Canidae family | Live Science
[vi] Coyote Hazing Field Guide. Project Coyote. Retrieved from CoyoteHazingBrochureFieldGuide.pdf (projectcoyote.org)
[vii] Bonnell, M. A & Breck, S. W. (2017). Using Resident-Based Hazing Programs to Reduce Human-Coyote Conflicts in Urban Environments. Human Wildlife Interactions 11 (2).
[viii] Coyote Hazing: Guidelines for Discouraging Neighborhood Coyotes. The Humane Society of the United States. Retrieved from Coyote hazing: Guidelines for discouraging neighborhood coyotes | The Humane Society of the United States
[ix] How to Avoid Conflicts with Coyotes. Urban Coyote Research Project. Retrieved from How to Avoid Conflicts with Coyotes | Urban Coyote Research
[x] The Case for Indoor Cats. The Wildlife Center of Virginia. Retrieved from The Case for Indoor Cats | The Wildlife Center of Virginia
[xi] Derrick (March 9, 2021). Coyote Behavior – Fascinating Facts About Coyotes. Wandering Outdoors. Retrieved from Coyote Behavior – Fascinating Facts About Coyotes (wanderingoutdoors.com)