Coyotes Are Here to Stay. Can Columbus Adapt?
Even before the intruder arrived, Suzanne Kloss was alarmed. Earlier in the month, a dog had been carried off from its owner and killed a few streets away. Then, on Jan. 16, Kloss was in her home in Berwick when she heard her pet barking up a storm in the back yard.
“So I went out, and right smack dab on the other side of the chain-link fence was a coyote, nose-to-nose with her,” she recalls. “If the chain-link fence weren’t there, and I hadn’t gotten out in time, there’s a good likelihood the coyote would have gotten my dog.”
The previous pet attack had worried Kloss, and she’d been researching coyotes before her brush with one. She wanted to alert her neighbors and give them advice, so she posted a warning on Nextdoor, a social networking website. That same evening, only a couple of miles away, a coyote bit a Columbus police officer on an I-70 exit ramp near Hamilton Road. To Kloss, the message was clear: Coyotes on the East Side were becoming brazen because they were habituated to people. She formed the Berwick Area Coyote Coalition to share information online with residents.
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Such groups are crucial in dealing with coyotes because they can communicate sightings among members and report incidents to officials, says Stanley Gehrt, an Ohio State professor. Gehrt has been studying coyotes in cities for two decades, ever since they began appearing in Chicago, where he’s a wildlife expert. His Urban Coyote Research Project investigated the phenomenon as the animals proliferated in the Windy City and elsewhere, including Columbus.
The reason for their metropolitan migration is still something of a mystery. Gehrt says the best guess is that a severe drop in hunting and trapping rural populations caused their numbers to grow; because they’re territorial, some were pushed toward cities. Coyotes, at about 4 feet long and averaging 25 to 35 pounds, thrived in urban areas. Their diet is broad—rodents, deer, fruit—and they’re opportunistic, so they sometimes take advantage of human sources, like wasted food or the occasional small family pet. They’re quick to adapt, and Gehrt’s research has documented them crossing roads—the most challenging city problem for terrestrial animals—by learning traffic patterns.
Now that coyotes have staked a claim, people are unlikely to force them out. If a solitary coyote is killed, another fills its territory in short order. They can increase litter sizes dramatically, so relocating a group will just have a temporary effect. “The only option would be to somehow introduce wolves and get them established, and I don’t think that’s a viable option for cities,” Gehrt says with a laugh. “So we can’t change their numbers, but what we can do is we can change their behavior.”
His research has focused on ways to reduce conflicts, which are very rare, he says, and even sightings aren’t frequent despite the coyotes’ growing presence. The most common cause of conflict is humans providing food. Some people feed coyotes directly, but it’s unintentional for many homeowners. They leave pet food out or set up bird feeders, which also attract squirrels and small rodents, bringing coyotes into proximity with people and pets when they come looking for a meal.
Kloss believes a neighbor’s compost pile—stocked with leftover fruit from the person’s catering business—may have attracted the coyote to her fence. She has been using the Berwick Area Coyote Coalition’s social media accounts to provide tips for deterring them and to warn others about providing food sources. As she realized early on, the underlying problem is that some urban coyotes have become comfortable, undaunted by their human neighbors. She made her back yard inhospitable, removing the type of brush where they sometimes like to make dens and adding blue strobe lights, which she moves periodically to keep them uneasy, as well as motion-sensor sprinklers and lights.
If coyotes are spotted near homes, Gehrt recommends yelling and making noise—a coffee can filled with coins works well—to scare them away. To live in close quarters without conflict, they need to be afraid of people, he says. In other words, the most neighborly gesture is to be (mildly) menacing.
“Coyotes are here to stay,” Kloss says, and her coalition aims for peaceful coexistence. She notes that the interlopers do provide some benefits, like keeping rodent populations in check. “They’re not bad animals, and they can’t help that they’re coyotes.”
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