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The Evolution of the Urban Coyote

The daily routine of a predator-hunter revolves around odor-free existence.


Mark Jacklich believes the basis for being a successful coyote hunter centers on eliminating the human scent. The daily routine of the self-proclaimed predator-hunter revolves around odor-free existence. All soaps and detergents are fragrance-free, and even dryer lint is meticulously removed to prevent scent contamination. Instead of toothpaste, Jacklich uses only baking soda, and he takes daily chlorophyll tablets to reduce body odor. On the day of a hunt, he also, of course, wears a scent eliminator.

"Coyotes have noses second to none," says Jacklich, who adds one must also wear full camouflage. "You can fool their eyes and ears, but you can't fool their nose. An analogy I heard one time was when a human goes into McDonald's and sniffs the air, he smells a Big Mac. When a coyote smells a Big Mac, it smells the whole thing--two patties, special sauce, cheese, pickles and a sesame seed bun. The coyote can individualize every scent. They can even smell through a coyote cover scent, like a skunk scent. If you put skunk oil on you to try to cover your human odor, it really doesn't even work."

Coyote hunting is legal 365 days a year within counties zoned for hunting in Illinois. Jacklich has been studying coyotes for most of his life, but started hunting them only four years ago and is now president of the Illinois Coyote Club Chapter, which has about 30 members. His hometown of Elwood, Ill., some 50 miles southwest of Chicago, is "loaded with coyotes," he says. Carnivores notorious for eating anything, coyotes typically feed on the tomatoes and raspberries in his backyard.

It's best to go coyote hunting alone, and it can be especially exciting to be out at night, Jacklich says, when you can see their eyes glow in the spotlights you use to shoot. The hunters use different kinds of calls, both electronic and mouth blown, during different times of the year. For example, during the mating season, starting around February, they might use a lone female coyote howl. As the coyote circles downwind to try to pick up the possible odor, the hunters release a scent to correlate with the call.

"They're the hardest furbearing animal to hunt in the nation," says Jacklich, who often goes out to his back deck to call to the coyotes, who in turn typically howl back. "It exceeds deer hunting probably tenfold. Deer are somewhat predictable--coyotes are continuously adaptable." He won't say how many he kills in a year, but in Illinois, the average number of coyotes harvested annually is usually around 7,000. About 75 percent of those are killed by hunters, and 25 percent by trappers. The trapping season, however, is limited to fall and winter months. The rationale behind year-round coyote hunting is to give landowners the ability to kill troublemakers without obtaining a special permit. Coyote pelts, similar in texture to that of a Collie, are typically sold for $25 to $35. Jacklich says his motivation for hunting is to help replenish the pheasant, rabbit and red fox populations, all which appear to be dented due to the coyotes' presence across the state.

Hunting, however, doesn't seem to put a significant dent in the coyote population. The animal occupies virtually every habitat in the state, and when one is killed, another moves in to claim its territory. "You can't kill them off," even Jacklich admits. "They made it through the Ice Age--they can make it through everything." The coyote is also one of the few animals to adjust reproduction rates to changes in mortality rate.

"We're waiting for a study done by the University of Illinois to be published," says Bob Bluett, Illinois' furbearer biologist. "They noted periods of very high mortality caused by hunting during the winter, especially when there was snow cover and it was easy to see the coyote. However, coyotes are known for their ability to overcome high

mortality through increased reproduction. They'll have larger litter sizes and more females will breed at a young age. You see it in some other types of mammals, but it would be safe to say they've pretty well mastered it."

No one can really estimate an exact size of the coyote population in Illinois. An indicator of their increased presence might be in the number that have been removed by Nuisance Wildlife Control. In northeastern Illinois, from Lake and McHenry counties to Grundy and Kankakee counties, 56 coyotes were removed in 1993, according to Bluett. In 2003, 357 coyotes were removed. This vicinity is not rural--it includes Chicago and all the surrounding suburbs. The Chicago area actually has a higher coyote density than rural areas. A conservative estimate of their population is three to six adult coyotes per kilometer, more than three times the rural estimate.

"Coyotes are everywhere among us," says Chris Anchor, a wildlife biologist with the Cook County Forest Preserve District. "People are completely unaware of it, but coyotes are living out their lives in backyards. I'd be surprised if anyone could give me an area where they don't live or pass through. They are the dominant predator in urban and rural areas."

Local newspapers run stories when there is the occasional sighting or when a domestic cat or dog falls victim to a prowling coyote. Last summer several cats and dogs were killed on the North Shore, and although police set up traps with bait, none of the wily coyotes were caught. In the spring, another coyote was seen wandering through Lincoln Park Zoo, but also evaded capture. A year ago, a live coyote was fished out of a drain in the Chicago River near Jackson Boulevard. But despite the cluster of incidents, the urban coyote has been a Chicago reality for years. In 1999, a coyote was found hiding under a taxi on Michigan Avenue. Reports of howling in Lincoln Park are explained by packs clustered in territories throughout the city. One of those territories is said to be Navy Pier.

"A couple of years ago a few coyotes got onto the ice [around Navy Pier], and people were making a big deal out of it," Anchor says. "We all had a chuckle about it because we had known for years that they were there. They're living in the riprap along the shore. Most of the cemeteries also have them. They actually burrow underneath the crypts."

Scott Holingue, Chicago resident and author of Tales from an Urban Wilderness, has heard many stories about coyotes in the city, including an account of one being captured in Lakeview. A friend of his also rescued one that was encased in ice on the Evanston shore. "Joggers discovered the coyote one winter five to seven years ago," Holingue remembers. "It was living in a cave on the shore, and the waves kept lapping up on it and freezing. All you could see were its paws sticking out of the rocks. The coyote lived and was released in a forested area."

The coyotes' omnipresence in the Chicago area may alarm some, triggering a nearly instinctual animosity toward the animal. The creature is one of the most vehemently hated and persecuted animals in U.S. history. Native American folklore mythicizes the creature as the trickster, sometimes the buffoon, in comparison to the noble wolf. The Aztecs called the animal "c?yotl," which evolved into our word "coyote." Territorial prey to the wolf, the coyote was native to Illinois--historically, they were most prevalent on the Great Plains. Documents show that when the settlers arrived, they immediately despised the animal because it would eat their crops and livestock. So began a war between man and coyote. "Without question, there is no other wild animal in North America whom humans have tried so fervently to eradicate--and who have been so remarkably resistant. Coyotes have been pursued, brutalized, shot, poisoned and trapped in untold numbers. Despite all this, coyotes have survived, expanding their range with a remarkable resistance," according to The Humane Society of the United States.

"The people who don't like coyotes hate them," says Stan Gehrt, a wildlife biologist and assistant professor at Ohio State University. His study, the extensive Cook County Coyote Project, is in its sixth and final year. "It's a sentiment that's brewed over history. The government has spent a lot of money trying to eliminate them. In fact they still spend a lot of money trying to reduce their numbers and eliminate them in certain areas. Our war with them, to a certain extent, is still continuing."

Despite being hunted and trapped for more than 200 years, coyotes today reside in every state except Hawaii. There are also more right now than when the U.S. Constitution was signed. "There was a [coyote] population wave that came from the west, washed over the Midwest and went all the way to the Atlantic coast," says Bluett. "It was a geographic and population phenomenon that wasn't limited to Illinois. Probably there are a couple of different explanations for why that have been proposed. One is that the ban on use of poison baits, which took place in 1972 under presidential order."

The reality is the coyote is a resilient and adaptable creature, probably more so than any other mammal, and as humans have encroached upon its land, it has adapted to ours. These animals have the ability to live in swamps, deserts, tundra, grasslands, brush and forests, from below sea level to high altitudes. Chicago isn't alone--coyotes have learned to live in New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Atlanta. The coyote is not going to go away, and people must learn to coexist with its inhabitance.

"There's no question that we're going to have to learn to live with them," says Dan Thompson, animal ecologist with the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. He sees coyotes frequently, especially in forest preserves. The coyotes, typically very shy of people, have always kept their distance. "We get calls from people saying they want them trapped or shot, but they're doing extremely well. It's very costly and inefficient to trap and shoot them because other coyotes will just come back and fill the void. They're also important because they're our top predator. They keep the ecological system in balance."

Scientifically known as Canis latrans, which means "barking dog," the coyote is closely related to the wolf and the domestic dog. All members of the genus Canis are able to interbreed, and coyotes, wolves and dogs have exchanged genetic material over time. To what degree they have crossed genes remains somewhat of a scientific mystery. The term "coydog" is used to refer to a suspected mix between coyote and dog.

Many people have likely spotted a coyote without knowing it. The animal's coat is usually light gray to dull yellow, but can vary from almost all black to white. A coyote can be easily mistaken for a small German shepherd if not for the fact that it carries its tail below the level of its back rather than curved upward. With a distinctive long, narrow muzzle and sharp teeth, the average coyote weighs about 20 to 45 pounds--smaller than a wolf but significantly larger than a fox. Coyotes have triangular, erect ears and slanted eyes with yellow irises. With extremely keen senses of sight, hearing, smell and even touch, coyotes are intelligent animals. They tend to become nocturnal in populated areas, doing most of their hunting and scavenging at night and during early morning hours. Infamous for eating everything, coyotes serve the public by keeping the rodent population in check. They eagerly devour rats and mice. Coyotes also eat fruit, like berries and apples, rabbits (the booming rabbit population has been an ample food source), insects, domestic pets, carrion (usually roadkill) and simply garbage. Coyotes also aid in controlling the deer population by eating fawns. In some areas, they prey on as much as 80 percent of the fawns each year.

"They'll live on deer fawns in the spring to raccoon pups to June bugs to wild plums," says biologist Bob Bluett. "And they've always been that way. When you can eat that variety of things, if one fails, it's not gong to hurt you too much."

Research has also shown that local coyotes are also thwarting the takeover of Canada geese. The goose population exploded during the 1980s and early 1990s, and their abundant presence became a pesky mainstay, especially in the suburbs. Their population consistently remained at about 300 throughout the '70s, but by 1993, it totaled more than 9,000. Then around 2000, researchers noticed the population growth had reached a plateau. The only explanation was that something was eating the goose eggs, and after a study that included infrared surveillance, they realized that coyotes were preying on area nests.

"I've been really surprised recently in findings regarding their ability to depredate Canada goose nests," says Gehrt, who also assisted in this recent study. "We realized that they were getting into nests occasionally, but had no idea that it was on the scale that it appears to be. The fact that they are taking eggs out of goose nests and opening up predation opportunities for other predators like raccoons and skunks to move in and also take those eggs was something that until we put little spy cameras on them, we had no idea how often that was happening. In other words, they're performing positive services for people, and that really hadn't been suggested before for metro coyotes."

Some coyotes will mate for life, however, that's not the norm. They do often form packs, but they're not as pack-oriented as wolves. Extremely territorial, coyotes will typically attack other coyotes that come into their home ranges. Members of one pack rarely wander into the territory of another pack. If the coyotes from one territory are removed, other coyotes quickly realize they're no longer there and take the territory. Transient coyotes, which move region to region, are often found with bitten ears and chewed up muzzles.

"Their ranges are much smaller," Gehrt says of urban coyotes. "When coyotes are in an urban area like the Chicago area, they have the advantages of a lot more food sources, which allows them to have a much smaller home range and survive. Out West they have home ranges of 40 to 80 square miles. In some of the places in Cook County they have home ranges that are a mile or less. They eat whatever is available. If it's a house cat, it's a house cat. If it's road kill, it's road kill. Their life strategy is completely opportunistic."

Barks, yips and howls make up an intricate communication system that incorporates more than 11 different kinds of vocalizations. Coyotes also use facial expressions and body positioning to communicate. "They have a highly organized, evolved communication system within their own group and a warning system to others to keep out," says biologist Chris Anchor. A coyote sounds like no other animal. "They do a lot of different types of yips and barks," says Rob Carmichael, curator of The Wildlife Discovery Center in Lake Forest. "It's very distinctive and unlike anything else."

Howling can often be heard during February and March, the coyotes' mating season. Pups are usually born about 60 days later, blind and helpless. Both parents care for the litter, which is kept nestled in the den. City litters are typically larger than rural litters due to the abundance of food--around 8 pups versus 4 to 5. In the city and suburbs, coyotes often make their dens in storm drains, under storage sheds, in parks, golf courses or in holes in vacant lots. The pups don't emerge until they're about 21 days old and start staying outside for longer periods when they're 5 to 6 weeks old. It's not unusual to see an adult coyote out with pups, teaching them to hunt. Typically by fall, the young coyotes venture out to find their own territories, which are usually within 10 miles. Fifty to 70 percent of the young coyotes die before adulthood, usually as a result of human trapping, shooting, poisons or other control methods.

"Coyotes have strong parent-infant bonds," says Gehrt. "The parents are able to teach the pups not only hunting, but also things to avoid and how to exploit and use certain habitats. So they're actually able to transfer knowledge from one generation to the next. The trend right now is that each generation of parents is teaching pups how to live in urbanized areas of the landscape."

It isn't known exactly from where the local coyotes have migrated. "The assumption always was that they were coming up the major river courses, like the Fox, but no one really knows," Anchor says of the coyotes, which are universally excellent swimmers. "No one has studied it. We started noticing them in the late '70s, and in the '80s, they pretty much occupied all available habitat. In the '90s, we realized they were starting to get into the true urban areas and into people's back yards, essentially."

"During the 1990s, the reported conflicts between people and coyotes increased dramatically," says Gehrt (Only about 16 cases of coyotes attacking humans have been documented over the last 30 years, most initiated by human provocation and none resulting in death, according to IDNR statistics). "During a 10-year period, [the number of reported conflicts] increased more than 3,000 percent in the Chicago metropolitan area, including Cook County. This reflects the number of coyotes trapped and removed as nuisance coyotes. Those coyotes may have really been causing problems or maybe they

were just seen in the wrong place at the wrong time." Although it's possible that the coyote population is expanding, research has shown it's fairly stable. It's more likely that their presence is simply becoming more obvious. With no licensed hunting or trapping in Cook County, coyotes have adapted to not really view humans as a threat.

"We're seeing a trend," says animal ecologist Dan Thompson. "They're more bold and less fearful. They're being spotted more frequently, even in subdivisions."

Stan Gerht's six years as researcher of the Cook County Coyote Project has changed the way he once looked at possible coyote habitats. "As wildlife biologists we're trained to think of habitats in a certain way," Gehrt says. "We drive by little nooks and crannies every day, like a retention pond or easements between the interstates and neighborhoods, that coyotes use all the time. At 290 near Woodfield Mall, there are retention ponds right near the interstate, completely surrounded by the mall, hotels and stores. Yet we've had coyotes use those retention ponds to hide in during the day and then they come out at night. We've had coyotes hide under the decks in people's backyards. There have been cases of coyotes hiding in parking lots in the middle in those little islands of shrubbery, curling up underneath the bushes. One of my favorite coyotes that we ever caught, a Schaumburg female, eventually settled in downtown Schaumburg. They have a post office in the downtown area that has a small pond, and that was one of her favorite resting sites as well as her pups during the day. So you'd have a family group of coyotes resting in the cattails around the pond, where hundreds, maybe even a thousand people a day, walk by on their way to the post office."

The Cook County Coyote Project began in 2000 when Cook County Animal and Rabies Control wanted to know more about why reports of conflicts and complaints were increasing and what the coyote population was doing. They decided to fund the project and have since spent close to $2.5 million, according to Dan Parmer, D.V.M., administrator of Cook County Animal Control. That money comes from the sale of rabies tags for pets. Parmer says, along with finding information on coyotes, he was interested in information on the spread of rabies. Raccoon rabies, which appears to be traveling from the East Coast, could make coyotes susceptible as they prey on raccoons. The local raccoon population is the largest in the Midwest. However, no coyotes or raccoons have been identified with rabies here yet, Parmer says.

Some 200 coyotes have been tracked over the course of the study, which is set to report final results in the spring. The coyotes have been tagged with orange or yellow ear tags and are wearing one of three different kinds of tracking collars. Both Anchor and Gehrt say the coyotes are surprisingly passive when processing them. They typically just rest in the kennels like well-behaved dogs. They have been collared in four different areas--O'Hare, Schaumburg, Dundee and Tinley Park. They were first outfitted with radio collars, but when no-fly regulations emerged after 9/11, tracking became more challenging. The researchers then started using satellite collars to study the coyotes' patterns and build a model, and most recently they've been employing contact collars. Made in Australia exclusively for this project, contact collars are an innovative way to track animals because it tells researchers when coyotes are associating with each other. Eighty to 100 of the tagged coyotes are still trackable. Many of the tagged coyotes have traveled huge distances, going so far as Michigan, Indiana, southern Wisconsin and northwest to the Mississippi River.

"Initially it was a one-year study, but then we realized it needed to be longer because the results were not what we expected," says Anchor, who's worked with Gehrt on the project. "There's been a lot of research done on rural coyotes--those that are hunted and trapped in agricultural areas, but there's been little to no research done on urban coyotes--areas where they're not hunted and trapped and they have no access to agriculture. What we've found is that their behavior and survival strategies are completely different."

"On the very first night I radio tracked a coyote, and I realized I had completely underestimated them," Gehrt recalls. "She covered an area of about 20 miles--five different cities--in one night. This was in one of the more developed areas, just south of O'Hare. I realized they were moving across the landscape unlike any other animal in the Chicago area. I also realized my budget had way underestimated the amount of traveling we were going to have to do to keep up with these animals."

The scale and complexity of the Cook County Coyote Project is not likely to be mimicked anytime soon. "No other states are doing anything that would hold a light to what's being done here," Bluett says. "In recent years, there's been more work being done on urban wildlife, but certainly nothing on this scale, especially given the difficulty of working with an animal that can cover a lot of ground."

An urban coyote of 3 to 4 years is considered an old coyote, although they have been known to live into double digits. The number one killer of the local coyote is heartworm. "It debilitates them and decreases the blood flow throughout their body, so they're not as fast and not as strong," says Anchor. "We speculate that they spend more time eating roadkill, which makes sense because the expenditure of energy would be very low. Then they tend to get hit by cars. When we pick them up, the immediate cause of death is trauma from being hit by a vehicle, but during the necropsy, we find the heart is totally loaded up with heartworm. If they didn't get hit by the car, they would have eventually succumbed to something from the heartworm."

On the streets and in the parks, in the city and in the suburbs, coyotes have secured a niche in the Illinois ecosystem and are thriving. The only way to peacefully coexist is for people to always keep their distance. If not, coyotes will quickly learn, as they have masterfully adapted in other ways, not to fear people. People must always clean up after bird feeders, not leave any food outside and bring cats and dogs in at night. Biologists recommend that troublesome coyotes be reported and removed. "When animals come in contact with humans, the animal ultimately loses," Anchor says.

Gehrt suggests that we continue to instill a respect and fear in the coyotes toward humans. "We've been struck by two things that we try to get out in the message to people," he says. "One is that coyotes are living with or near people every day. The majority of the time, this causes no problem whatsoever. Two, we have a huge influence as people over coyote behavior. We can either help keep them acting appropriately, or we can help them cross the boundary into becoming a nuisance animal. With the radio collars, we've been able to see they're living near people on a nightly basis and are not causing any problems at all. We have to maintain that relationship with them." o

Published: October 01, 2005
Issue: November 2005