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City Coyotes Way More Mobile Than Suburban Ones ... And They Look Both Ways

By Kyla Gardner | December 2, 2014 5:30am
 New research shows that many coyotes live in the city.
Coyotes in Chicago
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CHICAGO — New research into Chicago's coyotes — yes, city coyotes — shows they are far more mobile than their suburban brethren, they walk around neighborhoods freely at night ... and they're getting good at crossing streets, including looking both ways.

Chicago coyotes have adapted well to city life, trotting from Lincoln Park or Bronzeville to the Loop in the dead of night, scrounging for rabbits, rats or human food.

And there are coyote-mounted "CritterCam" videos to prove it.

Stan Gehrt, a professor at Ohio State University who has been studying coyotes around Chicago for 15 years, said he didn't expect to find coyotes living so well in the U.S.' third largest city.

"There's basically no part of the Chicago area that they can't exploit," he said.

Kyla Gardner says they even have adapted to crossing busy streets:

Gehrt has tracked 13 coyotes with radio collars, a fraction of those living in the city. GPS maps show their territories spreading across neighborhoods like Lincoln Park, Bronzeville, Pilsen, McKinley Park, Hyde Park and Woodlawn.

National Geographic, which is funding Gehrt's new city-focused study, recently released video captured by cameras strapped on coyotes, including footage of two coyotes strolling through a Chicago neighborhood and carefully crossing streets.

The research found a coyote's territory in the city is more than four times larger than that of a suburban coyote: an average of 6.6 square miles compared to about 1.5 in suburbia. And suburban coyotes forage for many more hours.

"It's pretty amazing that they have these large territories and travel longer distances than suburban coyotes, and do it in shorter amount of time," Gehrt said.

Coyote 441, for example, usually uses Lincoln Park as her home base but travels as far north as Rogers Park and as far south as Grand Crossing.

Life is tougher Downtown for the animal as it's up against more people, traffic and concrete. Gehrt and his team expected to find decreased health levels and higher mortality rates, which anecdotal information so far shows them just isn't true: The city's coyotes are smart and they're thriving.

One way they've overcome obstacles is to only forage during the night.

"They're pretty secretive and shy around people," Gehrt said.

Gehrt estimates about 2,000 coyotes live in Chicago and its suburbs, but doesn't know yet just how many live in the city.

They can be difficult to track.

During the day, the small animals usually weighing between 25 and 35 pounds can easily camouflage themselves in bushes or behind Dumpsters to rest. One coyote Gehrt and his team tracked made a den on top of a parking garage in a gap between where trees had been planted. Another, Coyote 748, made his den near Soldier Field. One mother never even used a den — how she did it remains a mystery.

"It doesn’t take much for a coyote to stay hidden," Gehrt said. "They just have to be willing to tolerate a large number of people walking within a few yards from where they're resting, and trust their cover, and trust that we’re pretty oblivious to them."

Gehrt is also impressed by the traffic savvy of city coyotes. As it waits to cross a street, a coyote will look for traffic from both directions, and either dart across when there are gaps or when a traffic signal has turned red and cars are stopped. Sometimes, they give up and find another way to where they're going if the street is too busy.

With more traffic and busier roads than in the suburbs, it's surprising more aren't hit by cars, Gehrt said. (Though Coyote 748 was euthanized after being hit by at least one).

"We are constantly making coyotes smarter and smarter because they learn from us," he said. "They're the one animal that has been so successful without any help from us whatsoever."

Though it varies from coyote to coyote, most have a diet that consists of some natural prey, like rabbits or rats, and some human food.

Seth Magle, the director of the Urban Wildlife Institute at the Lincoln Park Zoo, has done research in Denver that shows coyotes attack pets when their natural food source, in Denver's case prairie dogs, is scarce.

Coyotes commonly make the news for those pet attacks, but such attacks are actually pretty rare, Gehrt said.

Still, some residents see coyotes as a threat. When a coyote was spotted along the Edgewater lakefront in the spring of 2013, Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) warned constituents to be careful.

"It's understandable for people to be concerned because it's not an animal that’s been there for a long period of time," Gehrt said. "There's an adjustment period."

It was rare to see coyotes in the suburbs before the 90s, and more recently than that the territorial animals have been pushed further into metropolitan areas as they fight for more space, Gehrt said.

Still, the gradual shift of coyotes into cities themselves wasn't studied, Gehrt said, so not much is known.

He hopes to answer more questions with his research as it progresses, like what exactly coyotes eat, how many live in Chicago, what their reproductive rates are, and how they mark and patrol their city territories.

Magle doesn't think city residents should feel negatively about coyotes — they mostly stay away from people, keep pest populations down, and simply try to survive, as many forms of urban wildlife do.

"It's inspiring to remember that we live in an ecosystem that's every bit as complex ... as the Amazon or Outback of Australia," he said. "It's just more familiar to us."

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