Environmental Almanac

Cook County research provides perspective on coyotes [from the archive]

Long-running studies of coyotes help people know how best to respond when these adaptable carnivores come to town.

Rob Kanter

When was the last time you saw a coyote? Such a question would have seemed ridiculous to most residents of east central Illinois in the not-too-distant past. But in recent years these adaptable carnivores seem to have filled in every niche available in the landscape that we humans have developed. 

Unfortunately, news stories about coyotes often give voice to sensational misperceptions about them at the expense of providing information that would help people make sense of them as neighbors.

The best place I know to go for answers to questions about coyotes is the Cook County Coyote Project, the largest study of urban coyotes in the world. Scientists with the project, headed by professor Stan Gehrt of The Ohio State University, have been gathering information about coyote behavior in the Chicago metropolitan area by a variety of methods for nearly 15 years now.

One of the most important things they offer is perspective on the threat that coyotes pose to humans. They point out that although Cook County is home to large populations of both people and coyotes no case of a coyote biting a human has been documented there. The researchers compare this to the number of dog bites reported annually in Cook County, which ranges from two to three thousand. The point is not that coyotes pose no threat to people, but that from a broad perspective, bites by domestic dogs present a far greater risk.

The researchers in Chicago have found that most urban coyotes are able to live among people without drawing much attention to themselves. Of the 446 animals they have tracked using radio collars, only 14 have been deemed nuisances by the local community. The trouble with these individuals typically began after they became habituated to human settings through food made available by people, whether it was intended for the coyotes or not.

Studies of what coyotes in Cook County eat suggest they play a positive role in urban ecosystems, where the shortage of predators otherwise favors undesirably large populations of some too-familiar creatures. Coyotes feed heavily on rabbits, mice, and other small rodents, and so help to keep their populations in check. Coyotes also help to slow population growth among white-tailed deer by taking fawns, and help to limit numbers of Canada geese by feeding on their eggs.

The Cook County researchers note that the greatest controversy over the presence of coyotes in an area is often generated by the fact that they kill free-ranging domestic cats, either for food or for the purpose of eliminating a competing predator. Where people stand on this issue is typically determined by whether they value cats being able to roam or the health of songbird populations, but I’m not going to go down that road today. 

Whether people like them or not, coyotes are among us to stay. We can best coexist with them by recognizing the need to remove individuals that present an immediate threat, and enjoying opportunities to appreciate the rest of them.

On the Web: The Cook County Coyote Project

The Cook County Coyote Project offers the following steps for avoiding conflict with coyotes:

1. Do not feed the coyotes.

Intentional feeding, such as bait stations in yards or parks, should be avoided. However, many people unintentionally feed coyotes by leaving pet food or garbage out at night or having large bird feeders. Coyotes are usually not interested in bird food, but bird feeders often attract rodents, especially squirrels, which then attract coyotes. Although coyotes seem to have a natural inclination to avoid human-related food, this can change when prey populations are low, or if the coyotes are young and haven’t yet learned to hunt effectively. 
2. Do not let pets run loose.

If coyotes live nearby, do not let pets run loose, especially domestic cats. When hiking in urban parks, keep dogs on leashes.

3. Do not run from a coyote.

When you encounter a coyote, shout or throw something in its direction.

4. Repellents or fencing may help.

Some repellents may work in keeping coyotes out of small areas such as yards, although these have not been tested thoroughly for coyotes. Repellents may involve remotely activated lights or sound-making devices. Fencing may keep coyotes out of a yard, particularly if it is more than 4 feet in height with a roll bar across the top.

5. Report aggressive, fearless coyotes immediately. 
When a coyote fails to exhibit fear of humans or acts aggressively by barking or growling in the yard or playground, the animal must be reported as soon as possible to the appropriate officials — usually an animal control officer or police officer.