Photo courtesy of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County

When police and fire sirens ring through the air, domestic dogs often howl in response. In neighborhoods that skirt the Evanston canal, an additional chorus of high-pitched barks rises exuberantly from the thicket of trees along the North Shore Channel. The source is Western coyotes, wolf-like members of the dog family that live, hunt, and raise their young throughout Cook County. Normally invisible to their human neighbors, Evanston’s north side coyote population does not seem shy about being seen or heard.

“We often hear them without seeing them, when a siren sets them off and they howl and scream and yip,” says Ellen DePodesta, a marketing and PR consultant who lives near the Canal Shores Golf Course. She has seen coyotes in her neighborhood since 2013, mainly at dawn and dusk.

“The usual sighting is a solo coyote walking or standing along the fringe of the woods,” she says. “In the summer I see them just about every day. I’ve seen pairs walking down the sidewalk in front of our house on numerous occasions at about five in the morning.” She says golfers often walk right past a well-camouflaged coyote standing just inside the trees on the course.

Reoccupying their Native Territory
Coyotes (Canis latrans) may seem out of place in a busy metropolitan area, but in reality this is their home turf, explains Chris Anchor, senior wildlife biologist with the Forest Preserve District of Cook County (FPDCC). In the 1700s, coyotes expanded their territory eastward from the western United States and settled throughout the midwest. By the 1930s they had all but vanished, he says, due to habitat alteration and human persecution of predatory animals. In the 1970s, coyotes repopulated Illinois and the Great Lakes Basin on their own, settling in both rural and developed urban areas.

“There is nowhere you can live in the Chicago area and not have coyotes in your neighborhood,” says Mr. Anchor. “They have learned to occupy habitat and re-exploit resources in and amongst the third largest metropolitan area.” Anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 coyotes inhabit Cook County, according to the Urban Coyote Research Program, a long-term study of Chicago area coyotes initiated in 2000 by Stan Gehrt, PhD, a wildlife biologist and associate professor at Ohio State University. Mr. Anchor has been contributing his wildlife expertise to Urban Coyote Research since its inception.  

Coyotes cut a distinctive silhouette, with their narrow triangular faces, long snouts, pointed upright ears, and yellow eyes. Their coloring can range from silver-gray to grayish-brown tinged with red, with a black-tipped tail; some coyotes are all black. Averaging 30-35 pounds, coyotes are larger than red foxes but smaller than gray wolves, and their long legs give them a tall, square appearance.

Suburban Life Suits Coyote Families  
Urban coyotes make their homes in parks, golf courses, cemeteries, and other green spaces where trees and shrubbery keep them hidden. A typical family group might consist of four to 10 coyotes led by a mated alpha pair, explains Mr. Anchor, along with several young coyotes born the previous year to help rear the next litter. These urban packs establish and defend territories of up to two square miles, cruising them under cover of darkness to forage for food. Solitary coyotes – those who have not yet joined a pack – can cover even more territory: Early in the program, Urban Coyote Research tracked a coyote roaming 30 to 40 square miles in a single night.

Coyotes appear to mate for life, according to Urban Coyote Research, whose observations have found that bonds between alpha pairs were broken only after one of the pair’s death. Females bear their litters in spring after a two-month gestational period, and they sequester the pups (usually four to seven per litter, sometimes more) in a freshly dug burrow, an existing burrow, or even a hollowed-out tree stump. Pups venture out of the den after six weeks, and by summer’s end are already practicing their hunting skills.  

Adventurous Eaters
Mr. Anchor describes coyotes as “incredible opportunists” who will adapt their diets to whatever is available, whether it is roadkill, mice, meadow voles, or other small rodents, Canada goose eggs, a seasonal abundance of fruits such as apples or grapes, or even a surplus of periodic cicadas.

“That’s part of the formula of their success,” he says. “They can exploit. They’re not competing directly with other animals, and there’s so much food here.”

Assessing the Threat to Pets and People
Coyotes have been known to prey on feral cats and have occasionally injured or killed pet cats and dogs, so residents might worry about their pets (and themselves) when they spot coyotes in the neighborhood. Coyote attacks on Chicago area pets ranged from six to 14 per year between 2000 to 2005, and Urban Coyote Research notes that of the 446 radio-collared coyotes in a variety of urban habitats, only 14 (about 3%) have been reported as “nuisances” by members of the community. According to their website, “That number is likely a good indication of what the majority of coyotes are doing, which is staying out of our way.”

By contrast, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that 4.5 million people were bitten by dogs in 2015, from a population of 70 million canine pets — about a 6% incident rate. The CDC also reports that 15 people per year died from dog bites between 1979 to 1996 compared with two human deaths caused by coyotes since 1981. Urban Coyote Research analyzed coyote attack incidents (usually involving a bite) across 14 states between 1984 and 2006 and found an average of six coyote attacks per year on adults and children. The program reports that there have been no cases of rabid coyotes in the Chicago area, but a person bitten by a coyote that is acting aggressively may be treated for rabies as a precaution.

If a coyote approaches, the FPDCC advises to yell, put your arms above your head to look large, throw objects in its direction or wave a stick in the air. Conflicts and injuries use up energy that can threaten an animal’s survival, so this will send nearly all coyotes on their way.

Please Don’t Feed Coyotes
Mr. Anchor offers some straightforward advice on how to keep local coyotes from exhibiting nuisance or aggressive behavior: Do not feed them.

“It’s very important that people not feed coyotes,” he says emphatically, adding that the majority of attacks have occurred in areas where people were actively feeding coyotes. Often feeding happens unintentionally: When people leave food outside for their cat or dog, or have multiple bird feeders, it can attract other animals including coyotes. As a result, explains Mr. Anchor, unrelated groups of coyotes come together and they become more competitive for food. Coyotes may then start viewing pets and children as a potential food source. He reiterates that only a small percentage of the coyote population ever behaves aggressively or uncomfortably around humans.

Matt Poole, Program Director at the Evanston Ecology Center, says the staff rarely receive calls or complaints about coyotes, and concurs that the local population does not pose a threat.“

I wouldn’t consider them a problem or nuisance in town,” says Mr. Poole. “They are native animals that aren’t doing anything to be combative to the area, or to our habitat. And they are very adept at living in an urban setting.”

Living in Peace and Harmony
Several winters ago, two coyotes chased and confronted Ellen DePodesta’s dogs near the footbridge that crosses the canal. Although she made a commotion, she says the coyotes did not appear to be afraid and left only after the greenskeeper chased them off with his golf cart. Ms. DePodesta called 311 to report the incident, and says the operator basically told her that the City’s approach is to peacefully coexist.

“Stay clear, go elsewhere, keep pets inside or on leash, that kind of thing,” she says, and so far she hasn’t heard that any of her neighbors have complained. “I think most of the neighbors like the coyotes. They’re interesting to watch and cool to hear. Those with small dogs keep them leashed, and we all live in harmony together.”

Meg Evans

Meg Evans has written science stories for the Evanston RoundTable since 2015, covering topics ranging from local crayfish, coyotes and cicadas to gravitational waves, medical cannabis, invasive garden...