Kings of the Concrete Jungle
By day, thoroughbreds thunder around the grassy track of the Arlington International Raceway as a stadium full of spectators lays bets and cheers. At nearby Woodfield Mall, shoppers bustle in and out of the parking lot jangling keys and swinging bags. Neither place on the outskirts of Chicago conjures images of nocturnal carnivores. But after dark, when the horses are bedded and the edges of the parking lot fall into shadow, grayish, collie-sized creatures with slim snouts, pointy ears and bushy black-tipped tails come out to hunt -- romping on the track, chasing rats near the stables, haunting the outskirts of the bustling mall mere feet from unsuspecting pedestrians. Their mournful howls once issued only from the deserts and plains of central North America and Mexico. But increasingly, across the most of the continent, coyote calls are echoing in cities.
Stan Gehrt, a professor at Ohio State University and the lead researcher for the Cook County Coyote Project, has spent more than a decade tracking the growing number of urban coyotes that make their home in and around Chicago. "The first surprise we ever got," he says, "is how much coexistence is going on between coyotes and people" and how close the two species are living to each other. As many as 2,000 coyotes may be living in the Chicago metropolitan area, and Gehrt and others have seen them everywhere -- Navy Pier, Lakeshore Drive, the drinks cooler beside the register at a downtown Quizno’s. The Windy City’s urban coyote boom is part of a larger nationwide explosion that began roughly 20 years ago -- a result, researchers think, of a drop in prices for Canis latrans pelts that led to fewer of the animals being trapped and killed in rural areas. As the coyote population increased, they expanded into cities, where they’ve unexpectedly thrived. Though the canids have long been a part of the landscape in western cities like Los Angeles, they’ve now established themselves in midwestern and eastern cities, too, among them Boston, D.C., Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, St. Paul, and Tampa. But if urban coyote populations continue to grow, how long will they be able to coexist in relative harmony with humans?
Eager to answer that question, the Cook County Animal and Rabies Control agency began funding the Cook County Coyote Project in 2000. For the first time, Chicagoans were calling to complain about more coyotes than the office had the resources to trap and relocate. Gehrt and colleagues began collaring and radio-tracking the animals largely to determine how many there were, where they lived, and how they behaved in order to figure out how best to manage the problem. Over the past decade, their efforts have evolved into the most comprehensive urban coyote study in the country -- and have upended some of the misconceptions that still stalk the species. "The general perception is that coyotes are thriving in the urban landscape because they’re feeding on our pets," Gehrt says, but that turns out not to be true. Though urban coyotes do occasionally attack cats and dogs, far more often they avoid them. (Coyote attacks on people are even less common.) They also don’t rely on garbage, as urban scavengers like raccoons do. Instead, their diet seems heavy on rabbits, rats, mice, fruit, and goose eggs (geese being a surprisingly common pest in many big cities). Though rural coyotes hunt day and night, urban coyotes are completely nocturnal -- taking cover during the day in parks and other slivers of urban greenery where humans and their dogs won’t detect them. At dusk, they rejoin their packmates and begin hunting, searching for new hiding places and marking their territory. Coyotes are extremely territorial -- in rural areas each one requires about 10 square miles to itself. But in cities they can make do with as little as one square mile, maybe less. Survival rates for coyotes also seem to be higher in urban areas, where cars are their only "predator." In rural areas, hunting and trapping is typically the biggest killer of coyotes. Most wild coyotes don’t live past age 3, but urban pups have a 61 percent chance of reaching their first birthday, compared to a 13 percent chance for rural newborns. And urban litters -- which sometimes contain a dozen pups -- are nearly twice the size of rural ones, a likely indication that city dwelling is actually less stressful than making a go of it in the sticks.
Researchers from the Cook County project have also recently discovered that urban coyotes are completely monogamous. Monogamy is rare among mammals -- since female mammals produce milk, they don’t have to depend on a committed mate to help them feed their young the way, say, birds do. And among the 3 percent of mammals that do choose a single partner, such as Ethiopian wolves, African wild dogs, and swift and gray foxes, "there’s always a little bit of cheating going on," which makes urban coyotes’ fidelity even more unusual, says study author Cecilia Hennessy, a recent doctoral graduate from Purdue University. Scientists aren’t sure exactly why urban coyotes don’t stray, or how their sexual behavior compares to that of their rural counterparts. Their steadfastness could be a sign that the consistent bounties of urban life bring with them social stability (though other canids tend to cheat more during boom times, when they can afford to support another family on the side). And it would almost certainly be impossible for female coyotes to care for those larger city litters without the help of a devoted coyote dad.
It’s still hard to predict what will happen as coyotes continue to adjust to urban life. As they get used to people and pets, will they become less reclusive? More aggressive? "The jury’s still out on that. That’s why we’re monitoring," Gehrt says. Meanwhile, he says, the ability of coyotes to flourish in urban centers may be a positive sign that "reflects the success we’ve had in greening our cities" by carving out wildlife corridors amidst streets and buildings. In fact, in Chicago, so many coyotes are now born and raised in the city that some are taking the risky step of relocating to the country, complicating the question of whether "nature" is really their most natural habitat.