by Aisling Murray
“A coyote is seen wandering on Riverside Drive,” and “Coyote eludes NYPD from top of a bar in LIC, Queens,” and “Coyote is captured in Middle village Queens”: these are headline news stories that flashed across our TV screens and appeared in the New Yorker and National Geographic during spring of 2015. It seems as though coyotes are all over the city. Like most New Yorkers, I have asked myself why coyotes have chosen New York City as their destination. Coyotes, I soon discovered, are highly intelligent mammals that learn quickly through their keen observational skills, just like dogs. The Eastern coyote has the immense capacity of adapting to a multitude of different environments from suburbia to densely populated cities, therefore the likelihood of coyote sightings may become more common as they continue to thrive and create new territory in and around the New York City metro area.
Beside wild black bears, coyotes have become New York State’s largest carnivore. The mystery of the coyotes’ arrival in NYC has grabbed the attention of media outlets everywhere with headlines such as the ones above. But to understand this amazing mammal I traced backed its heritage to Algonquin park in Canada, where many generations ago the western coyote interbred with the eastern wolf; this created the Eastern coyote or coy-wolf. Humans have played a role in bringing the Eastern coyote to New York State because its number one competitor, the wolf, has been wiped out. The coyote has taken up residence from Maine down the Eastern coastline to Van Cortlandt Park and Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx. According to Dr. Chris Nagy, a wildlife biologist and Director of Research and Land Management at the Mianus River Gorge and co-founder of the Gotham Coyote Project in 2006, “The coyotes that have made New York State their territory are thirty percent wolf,” by which she means that they are coy-wolves, also known as Eastern coyotes.
Mainly carnivores, coyotes eat small mammals such as rodents, squirrels, and cottontail rabbits. They rarely kill healthy deer but will eat road kill, as they tend to be opportunistic scavengers and eat vegetation such as mulberries, leaves and grasses. The first coyote sighting in NYC since 1946 occurred in February 1995. She was killed on the Major Deegan Expressway and a bronze statue in her honor sits at the southwest entrance to Van Cortlandt Park. Otis arrived in central Park in 1999 and was taken to the Queens Zoo to live out his days. Then in 2006, Hal appeared in Central Park and was captured. Unfortunately, Hal died right before his release. There are reasons why he died, but one of the big factors is that he had eaten a rat that had ingested rat poison. Poor Hal, who was just trying to create his space in Central Park, died from internal hemorrhaging caused by the poison along with the stress of captivity and heartworm. In 2010, three coyotes were spotted in and around Columbia University. When a coyote has evaded being captured, just like a ghost, it maintains the ability to disappear into the landscape, whether it’s a concrete jungle or a forest.
After I spoke with Nagy about the breeding patterns of coyotes, it made sense to me that March and April might become common times to spot a coyote somewhere beyond the borders of the Bronx. Couples mate for life and breed in January and February with gestation lasting approximately sixty-two days after which a litter of four to six pups are born. Coyotes have the incredible ability to reproduce only as many pups that can be sustained in regards to the availability of food and territory. This may be why the coyote population has only slowly increased in increments over the past decades. The pups stay with their parents for nine months with dispersal occurring between late October and January. Similarly to wolves, coyotes are very territorial and will not encroach on other coyotes’ territory. They signal to each other in a string of short and quick yips and through scent markings and scat droppings if a piece of territory is taken. The young coyotes will travel between 50-100 miles in search of new territory. After doing the math, I came to the conclusion that the coyotes showing up in Chelsea, Battery Park City, Middle Village Queens and Long Island City may have been coyotes looking for new territory and mates—except for the fact that the coyote that was eventually captured and taken to Animal Control was a four-year-old female. Nagy says that now, “any coyotes captured in the metro area are micro chipped and moved to a coyote green area where they can be somewhat monitored.”
When I asked Nagy how and why coyotes are migrating from upstate NY to Manhattan, he responded that “They are doing really well as a species and because of this each younger generation needs more territory and coyotes are adapting to our ever changing environment.” Looking at a map of the outer boroughs, one can easily figure out that coyotes travel along the corridor of train tracks and green areas in a straight line from the Upper Bronx into Queens and Manhattan. They walk over and under bridges and swim. Nagy also pointed out to me that downtown Chicago has a thriving population of coyotes. According to National Geographic, an estimated two thousand coyotes have adapted to urban living in the greater Chicago area. Many of the Chicago coyotes are equipped with GPS’s and critter-cams, which give us a view into the secretive lives of these resilient and adaptable mammals. What I find of particular interest is that initially the people of Chicago were not welcoming to coyotes, but now most have accepted the fact that coyotes are not going anywhere; they are there to stay.
When I pose this question to Nagy in regards to NYC becoming a territory for coyotes, he explains that “With the gradual increase of human structures and green areas coyotes will do fine. The Bronx and Queens are suitable for coyotes, Manhattan is only eleven miles long, and so that’s the big question.” Nagy along with co-founder of the Gotham Coyote Project Dr. Mark Weckel have set up motion sensor cameras in wooded areas around the metro area to learn more about these very shy animals. Next, they would like to gather DNA and scat samples so as to track the coyotes’ whereabouts and pinpoint exactly what their urban diet consists of. Only time will tell if coyotes can set up home in NYC, as their windy city counterparts have done in Chicago.
The village of Pleasantville in Westchester county is about thirty miles north of Manhattan. Chris Straface, a Chiropractor who works in midtown Manhattan, lives in a house built in the mid-60s, which is situated among other houses in adjacent lots, all of which are surrounded by wooded areas. One spring evening in April of this year at around nine-thirty, Straface was walking his 108 lb. Rottweiler, Koda. He felt Koda tense up on the leash and realized there was a coyote a few yards from them. He described the coyote as “about thirty pounds, greyish and tan color.” As soon as the coyote saw Koda it scampered away pretty fast towards the back of his house where more bushes and tall trees grow. On another occasion while walking Koda in the evening, a coyote surprised them by running right out in front of them into the wooded area opposite his home.
Straface stores his garbage in a trash bin outside and has never had a problem with coyotes rummaging or making any kind of mess. When I asked Straface about the rodent population he said, “I never see any rats in the neighborhood.” This might indicate that the coyotes are keeping busy and well fed by eating rodents in the area, although there have been instances where coyotes have taken unsupervised small pets in and around Pleasantville. Further south, closer to Kensico Reservoir, Straface’s parents live with their three German shepherds. The Great Island and Cranberry Lake Preserve border the reservoir. During spring and summer evenings they often hear loud yips and howling from coyotes coming from the vicinity of the reservoir. They have never had any conflicts with coyotes, though the “sounds can be a little creepy,” Straface tells me. Though Canis Latrans translates to “barking dog,” many actually call the coyote the “singing dog,” for it is known to have “thrilling nighttime choruses and howls.”
Speaking with Frank Vincenti, the founder of the Wild Dog Foundation based in Long Island, it’s obvious he has a passion for coyotes. He claims, “Coyotes often get a bad rap in the media and by people who don’t understand them.” Vincenti wants to educate people about coyotes and explains how coyotes easily adapt to their environment and are an important part of the ecosystem from Canada to NYC. He says, “Coyotes keep rodent population down, which is really good PR for them as no other predator is doing that.” Later, I discovered that coyotes are Canadian geese number one predator; they steel eggs from the nests. (Personally I think this is better than gassing geese, which happened to four hundred geese in NYC a few years ago).
Vincenti told me a story about his encounter with a coyote. “If you don’t allow a coyote to get comfortable, they will move along to the next place.” He explains, “I chased a coyote out of NYC botanical gardens up and down rocky crevasses all the while making loud noises…the coyote ran like a mountain goat…up and down always looking behind at me and eventually running into the woods.” The coyote has yet to return to the gardens or has not revealed itself since. Coyotes can live in an area anywhere from .5 square miles to 5-15 square miles. Vincenti tells me that humans can live on top of each other as in big cities, but few if any other animals are capable of that; so maybe the coyote will be the next mammal to live in tight living quarters, just like us New Yorkers!
On an overcast morning in March of this year, Birk O’ Halloran, originally from Fort Collins, CO, was working at his desk in an office above the LIC Bar in Queens. At around eleven, something drew his attention to the small roof opposite his office window. A coyote was on the roof. O’Halloran knew it was a coyote because he had often seen them on his camping trips in Colorado. And, similar in temperament to the coyotes in CO, this one seemed “pretty relaxed and was trying to figure a way off the roof.”
I asked O’Halloran about the coyote’s behavior that morning. It turned out that the coyote was up there for a few hours resting in the shade of a HVAC and never showing any anxiousness. O’Halloran made a video and took many photos of the coyote that day, which he has shared with me for the purpose of this essay. The NYPD showed up and soon enough the coyote escaped from the roof through the opened window which led into an abandoned warehouse, never to be seen again. “Locals were mostly amused and surprised” is how O’Halloran described the reaction from the community.
I asked O’Halloran, if he would mind if coyote sightings became a regular occurrence in the NYC area. “I think it’s testimony to how adaptable the species is, but no I wouldn’t be an advocate for them moving to the city. My sister’s cat was torn to shreds by a pack of coyotes during a long cold winter in Colorado about 6-7 years ago. They had come down from the mountains looking for food. I don’t really blame the coyotes…Just having them in NYC is a recipe for a lot of conflicts.”
When I spoke with Nagy, he talked of the human and pet interaction with coyotes in urban areas. “There are worst things that can happen to a pet whether in the woods or the front yard and coyotes pose no real threat to people and that dogs should always be leashed even when in forested areas.”
It seems that coyote sightings will continue to rise in urban areas and with this, conflicts might ensue, but if everyone is educated on what to do and how to behave if they ever come face to face with a coyote then there will be fewer problems. Coyotes are very shy and have a natural aversion to people. If a person leaves food for a coyote they will associate food with people and lose their fear of people. This is a sure way to guarantee conflicts between coyotes and people. This is the number one reason why we should never feed wild animals. Coyotes have survived for a really long time without our help and they do not need us to feed them. In regards to cats, who are pretty smart animals, I nevertheless would not allow them—or at least my own—to roam outside without supervision if I suspected that coyotes were in the area.
On a chilly winter evening in February, Laurie and her boyfriend Eric were walking around Van Cordlandt Park in the Bronx. Fire trucks with sirens blaring were heard from the parkways that surround the park. Within moments Laurie heard howls and yips, maybe 40-50 feet away. “We couldn’t see the coyotes, but are pretty sure they were watching us, their sounds take you back to the wilderness.” The wide range of vocal sounds that a coyote creates is very impressive and are often compared to Jazz music variations. When heard in the wild it’s as if there are many coyotes singing, when in fact there might be just two. Coyotes are always watching their surroundings. This is why they have become New York State’s top dog and why they are surviving even when they are continually hunted throughout North America.
It has become a fact that coyote sightings and stories are on the rise in communities from all over NYC. As Nagy says, “Coyotes are incredibly intelligent animals and are extremely adaptable.” They have become a regular four-legged bushy tailed pedestrian in suburbia and might become as regular on the streets and in green areas in and around NYC. They arrived here on the eastern side of the US because they are explorers, opportunists, and adapters, just like New Yorkers. This is finally a “Good conservations story,” as Nagy states. They have proven over time that they are survivors and if we try to prevent them from moving south they will find other ways. The bronze statue of the coyote standing on a boulder in Van Cortlandt Park has become an sign for others to follow in her paw prints, for it is positioned looking south towards NYC. She didn’t make it south, but many of her relatives have and will continue to because coyotes are here to stay.
Gotham Coyote Project http://www.gothamcoyote.com
Wild Suburia Project http://www.wildsuburbiaproject.com
Wild Dog Foundation http://wilddog.hypermart.net/
Dan Bogan, Ph.D. “Rise of the Eastern Coyote Understanding coyote ecology will allow us to coexist.” Conservationist. NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation. June 2014.
Meet the Coywolf. Documentary. Nature. Thirteen. Public Broadcasting Service.
Dell’Amore, Christine. “Downtown Coyotes: Inside the Secret Lives of Chicago’s Predator.” nationalgeographic.com. 21 Nov. 2014.
Morais, Betsy. “Wily.” newyorker.com. 13 April 2015
Jen Kirby. “Why coyotes are flourishing in New York City.” nymag.com. New York Magazine. 20 May 2015
Keller, Mitch. “Coyote Adorable.” nytimes.com. The New York Times. 30 April 2006