COLUMBUS, Ohio—Increasingly drawn to life in and around cities, coyotes might be losing their tendency to be reclusive and their fear of the neighbors.
A researcher with The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) is trying to find out: Has city life changed coyotes?
Wildlife biologist Stan Gehrt, who has researched coyotes in the Chicago area for the past two decades, recently began a study on the personality of coyotes in Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati, in addition to those in Chicago. Gehrt will explore whether coyotes living in or around cities are becoming more bold, and if so, what’s causing the change in their disposition.
If these wild urban dwellers have become more audacious, was the change a result of nature/genetic changes, or nurture, what they’ve learned in their environment from being around people?
“Coyotes spend a lot of time watching us,” Gehrt said. “They’re learning from us. We know that they are always in close proximity to people even though people might not know it.”
A change in personality might explain the occasional coyote attacking someone, or it might be that the coyote acted out of the norm, possibly because it was rabid.
Consider some recent run-ins. On a freeway ramp in January, a coyote darted toward a Columbus police officer and bit him while he stood outside his patrol car. A little over a week later, a coyote bit a 6-year-old boy in the head near a downtown Chicago park, and that same night, also in Chicago, a man reported that a coyote bit him on the back side. In all three cases, the coyote struck—apparently unprovoked.
“The vast majority of coyotes in cities have a healthy fear of people—as they should,” Gehrt said. “But when they lose their fear, that’s when you might find someone being bit.”
Long inhabitants of West Coast cities, coyotes have moved eastward into the Midwest and East Coast. And in the past two decades, they’re not just drifting through cities, they’re moving in, having babies, and setting up territories, Gehrt said.
“They found the life was pretty good,” Gehrt said.
In cities, coyotes can thrive. Their survival rate is significantly higher in a city than in a rural area, where the wild animals are more likely to be trapped or hunted, Gehrt said.
And food abounds in cities: squirrels, rabbits, mice, trash people leave behind, pet food for dogs and cats.
“What we find is coyotes are taking advantage of all of those,” he said.
What little time coyotes sleep, they aren’t fussy about where.
“They can just curl up under a bush or behind a building or in the tall grass, if there is tall grass,” Gehrt said.
Even with more coyotes living in cities and suburbs, they rarely injure people because, for the most part, coyotes prefer to avoid people, even if they’re nearby, he said.
Occasionally coyotes will step out in an area with people—just to see if they can. How people respond can determine whether the coyote feels it can claim the area, Gehrt said. Running back into the house teaches coyotes that it’s OK for them to be in that area.
“You should scare them away. You have to teach the coyotes where they can and cannot be,” he said. “To a large extent, they are not dangerous, but you do need to be vigilant.”
It’s unclear how many coyotes are living in Ohio or in the United States, Gehrt said. Despite the federal government’s many efforts to reduce their populations by killing some of them, coyotes have doubled their geographic range over the past 50 years, spreading in every direction.
“What’s really remarkable about their expansion is that people have done everything they can to try to exterminate them,” Gehrt said. “Despite our best efforts, they’ve increased their range and their abundance.”