The message light was blinking on my phone when I arrived at the office this morning. As a wildlife damage biologist working in the metropolitan area of St. Louis, I receive hundreds of calls every year about wildlife, including problems with deer, raccoons in the garbage, bats in the attic, geese, skunks, rabbits, squirrels, foxes … the wildlife seen in urban areas seems to increase every day. In fact, before the day was done, I would take a report on feral hogs in downtown St. Louis!
The message was from a man reporting coyotes howling in his subdivision the night before. He wanted to know if he should be concerned. Calls like this are not unusual, as coyotes are becoming more and more common in urban areas all across North America, and Missouri is no exception.
Historically, these adaptable animals lived in open grasslands and prairies, but they have flourished in the habitats that humans have created. In urban and suburban areas, many people enjoy their encounters with coyotes and, by taking a few common sense precautions, avoid the negative impacts coyotes might otherwise cause.
Education is crucial to human and urban coyote coexistence. When coyotes begin showing up in your backyard, managing potential problems should begin with untangling facts from myths. People should become aware of basic coyote behavior and biology, and understand the differences between true threats and coexistence. Our relationship with coyotes is directly affected by our behavior. Coyotes react to us, and we can choose to foster mutual respect or a lack of respect.
One of the keys to the coyote’s success is its diet. A true scavenger, the coyote will eat just about anything, including: foxes, groundhogs, mice, rabbits, squirrels, fruits, vegetables, birds, insects, carrion (dead animals) and common household garbage. Although coyotes rarely kill adult deer or take enough Canada geese to impact those
urban wildlife numbers significantly, their predation on fawns and depredation of goose nests may help slow the growth of those populations. Under normal circumstances it appears that coyotes cause little conflict in urban landscapes and can even be viewed as an asset instead of a liability.
A high reproductive rate and rapid growth of offspring is another reason for the coyote’s success. They breed in February and March, and after about 60 days females give birth to four or five pups, which are born in some type of den. In urban environments, dens can be in storm drains, under sheds, in holes dug in vacant lots or parks, golf courses, or any other dark, dry place. Pups are cared for by both parents and can eat meat and move about well by the time they are a month old.
Because food requirements increase dramatically during pup rearing, April through May is when conflicts between humans and urban coyotes are most common. If food is deliberately or inadvertently provided by people, the adult coyotes and their pups quickly learn not to fear humans and will develop a dependency on these easy food sources.
In areas where coyotes are hunted or trapped, they are wary of human beings. In urban areas where they are more likely to associate people with an easy and dependable source for food they can become very bold. They may frequent backyards, porches, or come right up to the door of a house if food is regularly present. Because of this some coyotes have also learned that unattended small dogs and cats can be easy prey as well. This behavior and the lack of fear of humans is where most of the conflict lies when it comes to urban coyotes.
Another concern Missourian’s may have about coyotes in their backyard is the risk of disease. While no incidence of rabies has been detected in Missouri coyotes in recent years, canine distemper virus does occur and mimics some of the neurological symptoms of rabies (convulsions, tremors, loss of fear). Canine distemper is not transmissible to humans but pets should be vaccinated to prevent this disease. Sarcoptic mange outbreaks are common in coyotes and cause the animal to lose patches of fur resulting in an overall “mangy” or poor appearance.
Coyotes can also suffer from other common parasites and canine diseases. In order to minimize transmission of any wildlife disease wear protective gloves when touching a coyote carcass and wash after any contact.
When I returned the phone call from that concerned St. Louis-area resident, I assured him that having coyotes in his neighborhood or backyard was not necessarily cause for alarm. Coyotes should be treated like any other animal that could potentially become a nuisance. We briefly discussed the biology and habits of coyotes and what he could do to prevent the coyotes from being a problem.
I advised him not to intentionally or unintentionally feed coyotes by bringing in pet food, securing garbage, and keeping his yard clean and free of refuse. While coyotes are usually not interested in bird food, bird feeders attract rodents, especially squirrels, which in turn attract coyotes, and cats or small dogs should not be let out at night unless personally attended. I told him how to make coyotes feel unwelcome in his neighborhood by harassing them with loud noises (shouting, beating on pots/pans, using an air horn), or throwing rocks and sticks. Also, if it is handy, spraying them with a garden hose is effective at maintaining the coyote’s natural fear of humans. We then discussed the importance of informing others in his neighborhood about how to coexist with urban coyotes and to work together to solve conflicts.
He thanked me for the advice and seemed much more at ease about the coyotes he heard howling the night before. He even seemed a little excited about the possibility of seeing a coyote in his urban neighborhood.
Seeing wildlife, such as coyotes, in an urban setting might seem a bit unusual at first. However, coyotes are not the only wild animals to find the urban lifestyle accommodating. Foxes and even bobcats are starting to show up in towns. As with coyotes, learning how to coexist with these new neighbors is fairly easy, and having the opportunity to observe what once was only possible in rural areas can be exciting.
The phone is ringing again… wonder what it could be this time?
To learn more about nuisance animals, visit the links listed below, or contact your regional Conservation office. For a free brochure, write to Controlling Conflicts with Urban Coyotes in Missouri, PO Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.