Forget Wile E. Coyote's hapless pursuits in the cartoon wasteland. His real-life kin are prowling the country's concrete jungles, and they're anything but a laughing matter.
Tips to keep away wily city coyotes
¢ Position bird feeders to make the feed inaccessible to coyotes, who are attracted by bread, table scraps and even seed. They also may be attracted to birds and rodents that come to the feeders.¢ Don't discard edible garbage where coyotes can get to it.¢ Secure garbage containers and eliminate garbage odors.¢ Feed pets indoors when possible, pick up any leftovers if feeding outdoors and store pet food where it's inaccessible to wildlife.¢ Don't leave small children unattended outside if coyotes have been frequenting the area.Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
In just the last month, coyotes have shown up on the streets of Detroit, in a Quiznos sandwich shop in downtown Chicago and at a mattress store in Kansas City, Mo. A 5-year-old boy in Middletown, N.J., about 40 miles from New York City, was bitten by a coyote last week and needed 46 stitches to the head. Police shot one coyote in the area but warned that at least four others were roaming nearby.
The remarkably adaptive critters, famous for roaming rural stretches, have long been spotted in cities and suburban areas. But some naturalists suspect the ranks of urban coyotes may be swelling as the animals migrate from the open spaces of the West and Southeast toward the East and Midwest.
In more heavily populated areas, they're drawn to the ample rabbits, rodents and small house pets that are easy pickings compared with running down a fawn in the forest. Parks, golf courses and well-tended residential areas provide a good food source and cover. Throw in dog food left outside or food scraps in trash cans, and you sweeten the chance a coyote comes calling.
"If there's a way for them to live there, they will," says John Shivik, a National Wildlife Research Center supervisory wildlife biologist. "People have it in their minds that we're invading coyotes' territory; that may be part. But when we sprawl, we tend to make a better habitat."
No one knows for sure how many urban coyotes there are, partly because the cousin of the gray wolf is so stealthy it eludes head counts.
But experts say the animals' U.S. population has risen steadily over the past decade or so, noticeably in the Midwest and East.
Some point to a presidential executive order in the 1970s that outlawed use of poison bait out West, protecting coyotes and sending them rippling eastward. Others cite the recovery of coyote-attracting deer herds in the Midwest and eastern U.S.
Around Chicago, the coyote presence is unmistakable. Of the 541 coyotes removed on average across Illinois over the past three years by licensed specialists in dealing with animals deemed nuisances, 312 were from the Chicago area, the state Department of Natural Resources says.
That's a far cry from the late 1980s, when perhaps a dozen coyotes roamed the Chicago area, mostly along the agricultural fringes, says Stan Gerht, an Ohio State University assistant professor of wildlife ecology. Gerht's group estimates there may be as many as a couple of thousand Chicago-area coyotes.
"The trend is definitely upward," state DNR wildlife biologist Bob Bluett says. "As long as they dodge traffic, they're pretty safe."
The Quiznos coyote, for example, plopped down in a cooler inside the sandwich shop in the middle of a workday in the heart of Chicago's business district. It was captured and eventually released on a suburban estate.
For decades, coyotes have been associated with the West, by Department of Agriculture estimates doing $47 million in damage to the cattle industry in 2005 and causing $10 million in sheep losses the year before that.
But city coyotes have been in the news lately. Last month, for instance, The Washington Post reported that the first coyotes arrived years ago in the suburbs of the nation's capital, and biologists estimate there now are at least 1,250 in northern Virginia alone.
Such proliferation - and the prospect of human-coyote conflict - has wildlife enthusiasts preaching that people have little to fear.
"Most coyotes are good coyotes; they live their lives and they leave us alone," Bluett says.
Even so, people need to be careful around the wild animals. In addition to the recent New Jersey cases, a coyote nipped two small boys in April 2006 in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue, Wash., leaving them with minor puncture wounds and scratches.
Still, experts urge perspective: In Cook County, which includes Chicago, there are some 3,000 dog bites on average each year, with a few hundred serious enough to require hospital care, Gerht says. Yet he's unaware of any reported coyote attacks.
Gerht should know. Since 2000, he has steered one of the nation's most comprehensive studies of urban coyotes, focusing on their existence around Chicago. Along the way, he has attached radio collars to two-thirds of the some 300 coyotes he has trapped, then tracked them.
His findings so far? Around Chicago, coyote densities are three to six times greater than what might be expected in rural areas, partly because their deadly foes in the country - hunters and trappers - aren't around. And there's no shortage of dinner for urban coyotes; rodents consist of half their diets, while rabbits and groundhogs also are dense in some neighborhoods, cemeteries, parks and golf courses.