By Amber Volmer
I don’t remember the first time I heard the eerie, piercing yips of the coyote. Maybe it was when my father built a chicken coop at the end of our backyard near the wood line. I was charged with collecting eggs, their warm, hay-crusted surfaces resting gently in my palms as I ran up to the kitchen to present them to my mother. The chickens, heads jerking in time with their steps through the dirt, remained in the coop except during cleaning. It was important, my dad instructed, to keep the door secured. Animals in the woods — raccoons, foxes, the wily coyote — could snatch up roaming chickens as easy prey.
The coyote was no stranger to our wooded west Cincinnati suburb. Many a night, our neighbors would call. A coyote was lingering along their fence line, perhaps, agitating their dogs. They’d warn everyone: “Keep small pets inside; keep chickens secured.” I remember hearing the howls — distinct from the baying of neighborhood canine pets — echoing through the stillness of the night, the coyotes themselves hidden in the darkness. One morning, our coop was nearly empty, feathers carpeting the dirt floor. A hole gaped where the chicken wire had been separated from the beams. A predator had broken in, and all the chickens were gone.
Years later, I was driving home from work at dusk — same neighborhood, different house — when a shape darted out of the trees alongside the road. A lean, furry body halted directly in front of my car, and I jolted to a stop. I swear it made eye contact, relishing its momentary control. I didn’t know what it was at first. Doglike, but not quite a dog — its ears too pointed, its tail too bushy, its snout too narrow. The encounter couldn’t have lasted more than a second before it broke away and dashed across the street into the trees, but it was several heartbeats later before I heard the internal whisper, coyote.
I gave a short, startled laugh, and eased my foot from the brake. I’d made this drive countless times before, never seeing more than a squirrel on the side of the road, or maybe a deer. I never expected to see a coyote so close to the city. I certainly hadn’t thought about them in many years. My mind was occupied with the strangeness of what just happened, before zeroing in on a single thought: Was I really so different from that little girl collecting chicken eggs that I couldn’t recognize a coyote standing directly in front of me?
A Natural-Born Survivor
A hundred years ago, coyotes were a rare sight on the streets of Cincinnati. Further back in time, records from the early Holocene — our current geological epoch — show that the coyote’s native range encompassed much of the arid West and the Great Plains, but not the Midwest. The creatures roamed the West for more than 10,000 years before rapidly spreading across the continent in the early 1900s. What unleashed this sudden expansion?
As American pioneers eradicated forests, fragmentation resulted in more pastures and fields, open areas to which the coyote was well adapted. Even more auspicious, though, was the brutal war declared against apex predators in the 1890s. With the virtual elimination of the wolves and mountain lions that regulated the coyote population, coyotes were no longer confined to prairie and desert. North, east, west, and south, coyotes breached forest habitat, extending their range to include the taiga, deciduous forests, and coastal temperate and tropical rainforests of North America.
Low populations on both sides — the diminishing wolves and the encroaching coyotes — resulted in interbreeding between the two species for survival. With new wolf genes, hybrid coyotes developed an altered, advantageous morphology. Larger body sizes made preying on white-tailed deer much easier, and the coyote’s range expansion accelerated further. Today, the new hybrid coyotes flourish in North and Central America from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from Alaska to Panama, where the Darien tropical forests represent a flimsy last line of defense against a coyote invasion of South America.
Given the ease with which coyotes have conquered the wild areas of the continent, is it a surprise that they have invaded cities just as effortlessly?
Unlike the coyote’s jump from the Great Plains to fragmented forests, the transition into city life was borne from necessity rather than desire. As a child, even I could tell that forest ecosystems — the coyote’s newfound habitat — were being destroyed from under them at a rapid pace.
Living in the wooded suburbs, the short drive to my grandma’s house used to be surrounded by trees. In my young mind, the woods stretched on for miles. I would peer out the car window, eyes straining into the green between the tree trunks, trying to catch sight of a fox, a deer, or some other forest animal hidden in the gloom. When the trees were clear-cut, it was a shock. Those “boundless” woods turned out to be a mere pocket of trees occupying valuable land between the road and the highway — fewer than 100 total acres.
My suburban memory was far from singular. Since 1960, “urban” growth in the United States has mostly been in the form of sprawl — the development of farmland, golf courses, and woods into housing. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that my life over the years became less and less wild, and more and more confined by stores and houses and parking lots. Wooded areas were divided, subdivided, shrunken. Meanwhile roads spread like spider webs, connecting houses and shopping centers, making more room for cars and less for the coyotes that risk their lives crossing in front of them.
When I visit my Cincinnati neighborhood now, all I see is the shopping center, people busily bustling from store to store, annoyed by the traffic of yet another harried day. Today, I can hardly remember the trees at all.
But That Coyote . . .
Cincinnati, New York, Los Angeles, Tucson, Portland, Destin, Denver … coyotes roam across nearly every city nationwide. Their numbers are almost impossible to pinpoint, but the Urban Coyote Research Project, which tracks coyotes in Cook County, Ill., estimated a population of 2,000 coyotes in the Chicago metro area alone back in 2010. Today, the population is conservatively twice that.
Counterintuitively, this is partly due to loss of natural habitat. Increased urbanization and conversion of wild areas into those more suitable for humans have increased wildlife-urban interfaces and forced coyotes to adapt.
Adaptation, though, comes easily for the coyote. They’re generalists: their omnivorous diet includes rodents, rabbits, fruit, and deer. This flexible trait, paired with their small body size relative to other predators, allows them to find suitable habitat nearly everywhere. Coyotes have constructed their dens in large drainage pipes and abandoned buildings, in parks and on golf courses, slinking by unseen in the darkness.
From small areas to networks of green spaces, coyote territories vary greatly depending on the resources present. And cities — with food set out for pets, fallen fruit in yards, stocked bird feeders, and roadkill — offer meals in abundance for this arch opportunist. Urban areas therefore tend to be more densely populated with coyotes than rural ones, where food availability varies seasonally.
City living is so beneficial, in fact, that the survival rate of coyote pups living in urban areas can be up to five times that of rural pups. All of this means that coyotes are very comfortable in urban areas and their surrounding suburbs, as I was surprised to discover that night behind the wheel of my car.
Coyotes and Humans: An Uneasy Pact
Looking back at that moment on the suburban road, looking past my surprise — maybe the encounter was more commonplace than I remember. I left a little late from work that day, the parking lot nearly empty. Maybe I interrupted the coyote in the middle of its routine. Ingrained in habit, it crosses the street. It stops, surprised by my presence. “Oh, what is that? That’s not normally here.” Then, just as quickly, its curiosity expires. It turns away and continues to follow its predetermined path, leaving me shocked in the car seat.
Even my nighttime encounter can be seen through the prism of coyote adaptation. Coyotes are naturally diurnal or crepuscular, active during the day or at twilight. Only when they migrated to cities did they become nocturnal. Like most wild animals, the ever-vigilant coyote seeks to avoid humans as much as possible. Hunting alone or in pairs despite living in small family packs, creating multiple entrances to dens, and relocating at any sign of human trouble — coyotes have roamed darkened soccer fields and parking lots for years without attracting attention.
Over time, however, urban coyotes have become more daring than their rural counterparts, inevitably sparking conflict. Protected from the guns, poison, and traps of rural hunters, urban coyotes have begun to view humans as food-providing allies rather than enemies. As coyotes are increasingly habituated to humans, fear of us is reduced, a boldness that is passed on by coyote parents to their offspring. Coyote conflicts with humans have increased as a result, particularly during winter breeding months, when neighborhood dogs are seen as rivals.
Every day, ordinary citizens call local police and animal control to report coyote sightings like mine. Seeing a coyote wandering about boldly in the daylight brings to mind rabid, feral predators. The mental image isn’t all that foreign: small dogs abducted from their yards, bloody coyote teeth piercing their necks as the formerly oblivious pets are dragged to the woods for devouring. But it’s mostly a lurid fantasy. Pets are not a primary coyote prey, with studies finding cats and dogs in only 1 to 3 percent of scat samples.
In an effort to control the less-desired relative of man’s best friend, hunters in 45 states have participated in coyote-killing contests, competing for prizes by obtaining the most, largest, or heaviest kills. Many states have banned these events, but with cash bounties at stake, hunting contests kill an estimated half a million coyotes annually in the U.S. Nevertheless, the methods used to decimate the wolves will not succeed against the wily coyote. Where coyotes are concerned, indiscriminate killing can actually produce a result opposite of that intended.
According to David Quammen’s book Wild Thoughts for Wild Places, unselective slaughter of coyotes eliminates non-reproductive adults, or monogamous alpha pairs that are no longer having pups. Younger coyotes — more fertile and daring — then fill the new void in territory, while females produce larger litters on the availability of fresh resources.
The result is a temporary increase of the coyote population in the area and of coyotes that are more likely to interfere in human activity, according to Quammen. Tenacious, resilient, cunning — coyotes seem impossible to eradicate. We may demolish trees and erect our buildings, but Nature won’t loosen her grip so easily.
More palatable than merciless slaughter, nonlethal management can be used to discourage coyotes from making themselves at home in residential areas. For communities determined to deter the coyote “menace,” the first step is to eliminate access to trash and food that might attract a coyote — covering compost, cleaning up spilled bird-feeders, and fencing the yard.
Next comes hazing: using deterrents to prevent habituation. These deterrents encompass a wide range of strategies, from installing motion-sensing lights to yelling at and chasing coyotes, throwing rocks, or shooting them with a paintball gun. The city of Denver, in particular, has used hazing with success to reduce aggressive coyote behaviors and citizen complaints. Ultimately, with hazing, coyotes relearn fear of humans. And if a problem coyote can’t relearn that fear, lethal control is viewed as a last resort.
Whether by hunters, city animal control, or car accidents, humans are the cause of most coyote deaths. It wouldn’t have been abnormal, then, for my suburban coyote experience to have had a different outcome.
Stopping for the coyote on the way home from work that day wasn’t my first meeting with wildlife on the road — I’d had near misses with deer and geese and squirrels and once an opossum that didn’t have so fortunate an end — but it was the first to make me view the drive home differently. I perpetually scanned the trees lining the suburban road, peering into the darkness for another glimpse of my wild neighbor, or any other interesting animal. I turned my gaze upward, too, admiring the graceful soaring of long-overlooked birds above. Their silhouettes were black against the dulled colors of the twilight sky, as the sun set long over the horizon.
I drove with the windows down, the gentle breeze carrying the fragrance of local wildflowers, and listened. The chirping of crickets, the odd vibrating croaks of frogs, the hooting of freshly-awakened owls permeated the night — all sounds which I had allowed to become strangers. The coyote, somehow, had brought my wilder senses back to life.
As a child in Cincinnati in the late 1990s, I spent a lot of time outdoors. My brother and I would run through the open grass of our backyard to the woods behind our house, a path well-worn in the dirt down to the creek below. I remember catching crawfish with my dad in that creek, pretending a log from a fallen tree was a giant alligator, making “soup” out of some foraged crabapples and a bucket, and defending our “fort” in the exposed lower-limbs of a giant pine tree. Our summer vacations involved camping and fishing trips.
There was nothing I loved more than hiking through the forest, admiring the leaves glowing bright green in the golden afternoon light that illuminated specks of dust before seeping into the leaf-covered ground. One of my favorite sounds to this day is a late-afternoon bird call from the neighborhood of my youth. I still don’t know which bird creates it, but the sound lightens my soul.
Somewhere along the route of growing older, in focusing on school and jobs and relationships, I forgot all of this. Sure, I still say I love the outdoors. My boyfriend and I go camping every few years. I visited Joshua Tree; I hiked through Yosemite. I follow nature photography on Instagram. And maybe that’s the difference — the idea of the wild is still magical, but it’s no longer part of my everyday reality. The playful rambles of my youth have been replaced with a never-ending list of Something More to Do. Time in nature has been relegated to rare, structured experiences.
Maybe nature, though, isn’t quite what we thought. The coyote, a creature of the wild, is our neighbor. Just like us, he has spread across the continent, taking advantage of the landscape we’ve altered, and not just surviving — but thriving. Monogamous, an omnivore, with an in-born fear of the unknown but also bold instinct for taking his chances, his life, and character, are not so different from ours.
There are doubtless costs to this busy life of the suburban adult, beyond fear of the unfamiliar. But nature, even a patch of suburbanized wilderness, can provide something unattainable elsewhere: the soul-lightening experience of birdsong, the peace of solitude on a sunlit path through the woods… My relationship with nature has changed since childhood, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone — as I was so vividly reminded on that ordinary drive home one evening, when I came eye-to-eye with my neighborhood coyote.
We are the coyote, I thought. He is us. No matter how determinedly we separate ourselves from nature, our buildings will eventually crumble to become dens for wild creatures. Weeds will sprout along our roads, and coyotes will invade the concrete jungle we call home — as they are already doing. Nature will force her way back in.
About the Author
Amber Volmer is from Cincinnati, Ohio. She received her B.S. in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering in May 2019, and is currently pursuing an M.S. in Environmental Engineering. This piece was researched and written for ESE 498, the CEW capstone course, in Spring 2019.
Wild Thoughts from Wild Places by David Quammen