In the City, Coyotes Know to Look Before Crossing the Street

That and other surprising facts about the coyote’s colonization of major metro areas

By: Emily Caldwell

Published on October 28, 2014

Editor's note: Gehrt's work in Chicago was featured on NBC Nightly News on Jan. 20, 2015. See the story here.

COLUMBUS, Ohio – The instruction to children to look both ways before crossing the street is at least partially followed by coyotes living in Chicago.

Stan Gehrt, a wildlife ecologist at The Ohio State University, has videotaped an urban-dwelling coyote glancing in the direction of oncoming traffic before crossing Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. It helps that she waited until dark – that’s one way coyotes have adapted to safely cross streets in cities, by moving only at night, when there are fewer cars on the road.

Gehrt, an associate professor in Ohio State’s School of Environment and Natural Resources, has been tracking urban coyotes in Chicago since 2000. He described the work and new efforts to learn more about the coyote diet and genetics on Oct. 20 during a New Horizons in Science briefing at ScienceWriters2014, hosted this year by Ohio State. His presentation was titled Coyotes in the Loop: A close-up of survival in the urban core.

Stan Gehrt

Gehrt and his team have tagged more than 850 coyotes and placed radio collars on about 400. The researchers follow adults and enter dens to microchip pups, all in the name of measuring the animals’ reproductive rate and success. The scientists also collect blood and hair for genetics studies.

Urban living poses challenges to coyotes – the No. 1 cause of death is the automobile – but the species is surviving and even thriving in America’s largest cities, some in large park areas and others in regions offering zero percent of the natural coyote habitat. Downtown dwellers without access to green spaces share the sidewalks and streets with the hundreds of thousands of humans in their midst.

That number is no exaggeration: Gehrt has documented one female coyote’s coexistence with 750,000 human neighbors.

Gehrt says coyotes have colonized virtually every major metropolitan area in the United States and Canada – but this phenomenon has happened so rapidly that many secrets to their success remain unknown.

Coyotes maintain good parenting habits in their new urban habitats: The average litter in cities comprises nine pups – a higher average than in rural areas – because abundant resources mean bigger litters.

“That tells you right there that life is good in the city,” Gehrt said.

GPS technology has enabled the researchers to track how coyotes carve out their territories within the urban landscape, and images from micro cameras – or Crittercams – are providing scientists with movement information and social dynamics in the urban core. The use of Crittercams, part of a collaboration between Gehrt and National Geographic, shows researchers the coyote-eye view of the world, offering important hints about its survival: what’s attractive to coyotes, how often they rely on sense of smell, how close they get to people and pets, how often they’re scavenging versus hunting prey.

“We estimate that possibly 50 percent or more of the diet is human-related for some coyotes,” Gehrt said. “They’re not always eating the same thing, which we think is a key to their success in urban areas.”

Further studies to detect specific compounds in their diets will help determine the importance of food source variability in coyote city living.

Finally, the team is using genetics to identify different types of coyote personalities and determine whether specific genetic traits can predict a coyote’s urban survival.

“The combination of these technologies is allowing us to uncover the most hidden aspects of coyote behavior, especially for those living among thousands of people,” Gehrt said. “The early returns of these efforts suggest that, once again, certain conventional thoughts regarding how coyotes achieve success are misunderstood.”

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