UPTOWN — It's mating season, folks, so be on the lookout.
For coyotes, that is.
That means the increasingly urban animal could be especially agitated this time of year, experts said.
Stan Gehrt of Ohio State University, who directs the Coyote Research Project for Cook County, said that alphas in coyote packs breed in February and give birth in April, putting them on edge.
Keeping dogs leashed helps prevent hostile encounters with ornery coyotes, a lesson North Sider Karen Kinderman learned Sunday morning.
Kinderman was walking her dog near the lakeshore when a coyote loped across her path and headed into the Montrose Bird Sanctuary. Two big huskies were chasing it through the snow, headed toward the tree-filled, icy expanse of the sanctuary.
"The coyote was just keeping ahead of them," said Kinderman, who described the coyote as medium brown with thick, healthy-looking winter fur. “It wasn’t an aggressive run, it wasn’t in the way a dog chases a rabbit. The huskies just kind of chased along.”
That encounter is an example of both good and bad dog owner behavior, Gehrt said. Kinderman’s dog was leashed, but the huskies she spotted were free. Gehrt said that could put a single or smaller dog in harm's way — or in this case, risk the safety of the coyote.
“Especially this time of year when it’s mating season in full force. ... In a couple of months when [coyotes] have a litter, it’s especially important to keep dogs on a leash," he said.
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But that doesn't mean all dog-and-coyote encounters are a bad thing. Gehrt said peaceful run-ins reinforce a healthy sense of fear for the coyote. Coyotes will typically not challenge a dog close to their size.
The Chicago area has 1,500-2,000 coyotes. Most are 30-35 pounds, though some can reach up to 40. Typically, they'll avoid the risk of injury in a dogfight and run away, Gehrt said, but reinforcing that need for distance can help teach them to avoid humans and dogs.
“Coyotes are always learning from people,” said Gehrt. “Sometimes we unintentionally teach them the wrong things. Where people get in trouble, sometimes they start backing away, or if they ever turn and run — you’re inviting more aggressive behavior.”
Gehrt said he thinks he might know the pack Kinderman spotted last weekend. Places like bird sanctuaries and cemeteries serve as important oases for urban coyotes, where they can find both protection from the environment and prey, the most important elements in their dangerous, mostly nocturnal lives within the city.
“The first one we radio-collared used the Loop and traveled over Navy Pier. She was heavily urban, and she’s still out there four years later,” said Gehrt. “Over at Montrose, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was her pack; they definitely get over to bird sanctuaries.”
For Kinderman, the whole incident “was just sort of a cool personal National Geographic moment.”
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