With the coyote’s grayish yellow fur and distinctly canine conformation, you could be forgiven for mistaking one for a scrawny German shepherd—especially in some of its current haunts, which include the grounds of Chicago’s O’Hare airport and New York’s Central Park.
During the 19th century, Canis latrans resided solely in the relatively depopulated American west. It embarked on a massive range expansion during the mid-20th century, migrating east and north. Today, packs reside in every state except Hawaii and sightings are common in suburban Atlanta, Boston, and Los Angeles.
Unlike its larger cousin the wolf, extirpated as human development encroached, the adaptable coyote—which feeds on rodents and birds, carrion, fruits and berries, garbage, and the occasional pet—thrives in close proximity to humans. Suburban margins and abandoned agricultural parcels, with their open fields, thickets, marshes, and woodlands, make especially fine habitat for the creature also known as the American jackal or the prairie wolf. Although coyotes tend to avoid human contact, on rare occasion they have been known to attack.
With the expansion of coyote populations, the risk of potentially dangerous encounters with humans and domestic animals only increases. Feeding coyotes—whether on purpose or inadvertently by leaving pet food or garbage unsecured—only exacerbates the hazard.
“People have to treat these animals with respect,” says Cornell University wildlife expert Paul Curtis, Ph.D. Curtis notes that conflicts spike in early summer, when people head out into nature and coyotes become more territorial due to the breeding and pup-rearing season. “If the animal starts to become too comfortable in suburban areas, you have to enforce that humans are the predators—shout, throw sticks, and wave your arms, and they’ll get the message that they don’t belong.”
Originally published in Organic Gardening magazine, February/March 2014