You can almost set your calendar by the perennial debate about coyotes in residential neighborhoods.
Last May, several Nextdoor.com discussions bubbled over when a coyote openly camped out near a school in Skokie’s Devonshire Park, possibly guarding her den of pups. Neighbors from Skokie and Evanston traded fears, opinions, admiration and even some barbs and snark about coyotes, and Nextdoor users from Rogers Park, Uptown, Northbrook, Park Ridge, Highland Park and Bannockburn also weighed in.
One Devonshire Park neighbor said her dog was “snatched” by a coyote, while another launched an online petition demanding that Skokie trap and relocate the wild canines. Some described being watched, escorted down the street, and chased by the coyote. Others praised their beauty and posted links to educational information. No one was injured and within a few weeks the coyote was gone.
The debate, however, continues. And despite abundant research about coyote behavior, people may never agree about whether they should be feared or revered.
Coyote attacks vs. dog attacks
For years, people all around Cook County have come face-to-face with coyotes at parks and golf courses, on nature trails and in their yards. Probably the most common fear is of coyotes attacking humans and their pets, and the truth is it does happen. Several years ago, northwest Evanston residents reported a number of missing pets and attributed the losses to a coyote family living at the tumble-down Hoffmann property across from Lovelace Park. In January 2020, a coyote bit a six-year-old boy several times on the head in Lincoln Park.
Over the past four decades, coyotes averaged about eight attacks on humans per year in the United States and Canada, according to a 2016 paper authored by agricultural biologist Rex O. Baker and wildlife specialist Robert M. Timm. The majority of attacks happened to children and occurred between March and August, when coyotes are likely to be raising their young. Two people have died: a 3-year-old California girl in 1981, and a 19-year-old Canadian woman in 2009.
By contrast, 4.7 million dog bites are reported each year with about 800,000 requiring medical care, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Family and neighbors’ dogs account for most bites. Around 16 to 18 people die each year from domestic dog attacks. Some sources claim that number has doubled in recent years.
Responding to human behavior
Reassuring statistics aside, people still worry for their safety when coyotes are around. Sightings appear to have increased, with people often noting that coyotes don’t seem afraid of humans. Are there more — and more aggressive — coyotes in the area? The answer is no, according to Chris Anchor, Senior Wildlife Biologist at the Forest Preserve District of Cook County and a researcher with the Cook County Urban Coyote Research Project since its inception in 2000. The coyote population hasn’t changed, he said, but over the past 10 years or so their behavior has, largely because of easy access to human-provided food.
“It’s people either purposefully or unknowingly, unwittingly feeding them,” Mr. Anchor explained, as when families leave food outside for their pets, or bird seed spills to the ground and attracts other animals. Coyotes become used to finding that food in people’s yards, and start to view other small animals as prey or competition, leading to unpredictable and potentially dangerous behavior. “That breaks down their normal social behaviors and they become a problem, so it’s not the coyotes’ fault, it’s our fault,” he added.
Coyotes eat the kind of small rodents and other wild animals that many home and business owners don’t want on their property. They also eat fruits, vegetables, insects, frogs, snakes, lizards and carrion.
Acting on parental instinct
Like many human and animal parents, coyotes — who often mate for life — instinctively protect their young. “Pupping” season occurs from about mid-April to late May, so a coyote guarding its hidden newborns would be watchful and likely to “escort” passersby away, as the Devonshire Park coyote did.
“It’s very, very consistent with normal coyote behavior for the adults to try and lead you away from the den,” Mr. Anchor said. “In other words, look at me, look at me, look at me while it walks away, to keep you from discovering the den.” It may go on for a few weeks and when the pups are finally mobile, he said, they all leave the area.
As unnerving as a coyote escort might be to the average dog walker, Mr. Anchor said that in 21 years of coyote research he has never seen aggressive behavior even from new coyote parents.
“We go into coyote dens all over Cook County, remove the pups, take blood tissue samples, weigh and measure them, tag them and put them back in,” he explained. “The parents complain that we’re doing it — they whine and cry and bark and howl — but none of them, not a single one of them, has ever gotten aggressive or tried to attack one of us,” he said. Even on his own, without the “safety in numbers” that his colleagues might provide, he said he has never had a problem.
Relocation does not work
Coyotes (Canis latrans) are native to North America and have inhabited this region since the 1700s, but land development, habitat loss, food scarcity and extermination programs led to their disappearance. They returned about 50 years ago and adapted well to the cities and suburbs. Now roughly 2,000 coyotes live either solo, in pairs, or in packs around the Chicago area, plus thousands more throughout the State. People who think coyotes don’t belong in residential neighborhoods may wonder why they aren’t being relocated.
During the Devonshire Park episode, numerous complaints prompted the Skokie police department to set up live traps, and some neighbors hoped the trapped coyotes could then be taken to a better home far away. But as Skokie resident and animal activist Kimberly Polka learned, that’s not how it works. Traps are meant for “nuisance” animals that are causing damage or harm – such as human-fed coyotes who become dangerously aggressive toward animals and humans – and any coyote caught in such a trap would be euthanized.
“These live traps make people feel okay about calling to get a coyote relocated, thinking that it’s going to some coyote utopia,” Ms. Polka said. “If they knew that the coyote was going to be killed it may make them think more, because I have to believe nobody wants that unless they really do feel there’s a danger.” The traps were eventually removed – without coyotes in them.
Coyote relocation, or translocation, has long proven to be a fruitless effort: there aren’t many places in Cook County to take them, and more often than not coyotes instinctively return to where they were living. In the 1980s and 1990s, Mr. Anchor helped translocate local coyotes.
“We were releasing them as far away from people as we could, thinking they would have every opportunity to stay out of trouble, and we put collars on them,” he explained. “What we found was in every single case they either went right back to where they were captured or they died trying to get there.” Another problem is that many logical places for coyote release in Illinois already have an established pack, which often savagely bullies any newcomers, he added.
Killing contests set their sights on coyotes
Coyotes have become the target of events referred to as wildlife killing contests. Often sponsored by gun shops and manufacturers, the contests offer prizes such as cash or weapons for killing as many coyotes as they can in a set period of time. Eight states have outlawed wildlife killing contests, but they remain legal in Illinois. Benicio Becka, a rising sophomore at New Trier High School and member of the school’s Animal Protection Club, is working with State representatives to stop the contests in Illinois.
“Something that really shocked me about the wildlife killing contests was the pure cruelty behind it – the whole purpose is just to kill,” Benicio said. “Banning these killing contests would be a huge step in the right direction and greatly beneficial to the animal population, even if normal hunting of coyotes continues.”
Participants in wildlife killing contests often don’t have to hunt for their quarry, according the national non-profit conservation group Project Coyote, whose website hosts a petition to end the contests on federal public land. Instead, they use calling devices that sound like prey animals or one of their own young in distress to lure coyotes so they can be shot practically at point blank range. The heaps of dead animals left over from such contests aren’t used for meat or their pelts, so they are discarded. Some contests even invite young children to take part.
“I think it’s a terrible idea because you’re basically training kids to become violent people when they grow up,” the rising sophomore Trevian said. “It’s teaching kids from a young age that it’s OK to kill as many coyotes as they can, and really the best way that I can put it is that it’s glorifying violence.”
Benicio recently met with State Representative Daniel Didech, who introduced a bill that would make it illegal to hunt or trap bobcats in Illinois (HB 1827). He also met with House Representatives Robyn Gabel and Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, as well as the Illinois Environmental Coalition, in the hope of adding language about wildlife killing contests to that bill.
Tips for living with coyotes
Wildlife Illinois (wildlifeillinois.org/sightings/coyote-in-my-neighborhood-or-yard/) and the Cook County Urban Coyote Research Project (urbancoyoteresearch.com/coyote-info/how-avoid-conflicts-coyotes) offer numerous tips on how to manage coyote encounters and to “haze” or scare a coyote away, such as:
- Do not run if a coyote approaches you. Make eye contact, stand up straight, yell and wave your arms, a stick or a jacket over your head to make yourself appear larger, or throw something in its direction, but not at the coyote, to make it move away (but not to injure it). Keep hazing until the coyote has left the area.
- Teach your kids what to do if they see a coyote. Have them throw their arms up in the air and yell “like a monster” to scare the coyote away.
- Do not leave small pets unattended when they are outside, especially at night. Consider high fences, remotely activated lights, or sound-making devices to help keep coyotes out of your yard.
- Do not feed coyotes directly and monitor unintentional food sources such as bird seed, pet food, ripe fruit or trash.
- Do not haze a coyote that appears sick, is protecting its young or is already at a comfortable distance from you.
- If a coyote shows unusual signs of aggression – agitated barking (unprovoked), raised hackles, snarling, growling and lunging – call animal patrol or the police immediately.
One significant thing we can do is to simply leave them alone, according to Mr. Anchor, the Forest Preserve wildlife expert. Many of us will never encounter a coyote anyway because they move almost invisibly through their territory. As we go about our daily lives, they hunt, play, mate and raise their future generations like phantoms in the urban landscape.
“Most people have no idea how many coyotes are actually living in their neighborhood because they never see them,” he said, adding that they are innovative and very adaptable. “They’re not just surviving, they’re thriving, and the more we study them the more we learn about how incredible they are in their abilities. It’s amazing how well these animals are able to live amongst us and they’re not even noticed.”