My first coyote experience was courtesy of Looney Tunes and the iconic adversaries Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner (scientific name Tastyus Supersonicus). Even as a small child, I was delighted by Coyote’s admirable persistence and creativity, even if every single one of his ideas failed — defeated by gravity, falling rocks, glue mishaps and, most commonly, the misuse of dynamite.
Later, when I first heard Joni Mitchell sing, “No regrets, Coyote, we just come from such different sets of circumstance,” I suppose I began to form some ideas of what an actual coyote was like (“Coyote” being allegedly about the actor/playwright Sam Shepard). Even later, when I studied Native American literature, I learned that the coyote is a major mythic figure for native people of the American west and is often portrayed as a trickster — insatiable, lustful, greedy and clever — a kind of anti-hero, and I thought back to my childhood exposure to Wile E. Coyote himself.
I did assume, however, that the coyote was a resident of the wild west. After all, Wile E. and Road Runner engaged in their shenanigans in the desert! My thinking about these interesting and very successful animals has changed. As it turns out, Looney Tunes didn’t get the coyote right.
In 2002, a photo of a coyote riding the train in Portland, Oregon went viral and raised awareness of urban coyotes and other wildlife. In the past two decades, several cities have begun coyote projects which undertake the study of wildlife in the city. Portland, Chicago and Los Angeles, among other cities, have projects underway which seek to learn more about the ways humans and coyotes are coexisting. In the Twin Cities, researchers at the University of Minnesota have been engaged in coyote research since 2019.
I live in St. Paul’s Shadow Falls neighborhood, and on my walks along the Mississippi River gorge, I have occasionally seen coyotes (as well as red foxes). We once saw one come up Dayton Avenue from the river, run up the neighbor’s front steps and boldly lope across our front yards, in the middle of the day. Often on a summer night when the windows are open, we can hear their howls.
But coyotes have many fans in the Twin Cities — notably, the over 2,000 members of the Facebook group “Highland Park Coyote Fan Page” (#Hiyote) from which several of these photos came.
To learn more about the Twin Cities’ coyote population, I spoke with some of our local experts, including from the state Department of Natural Resources and the Twin Cities Coyote and Fox Project (TCCFP). There have also been some good articles in the Star Tribune including this one which claims that there has never been an instance of a coyote attacking a human in the state of Minnesota.
In spite of that, our attitude towards coyotes isn’t entirely positive, according to a 2022 report from the TCCFP: “Many residents expressed positive attitudes about foxes in their neighborhood but attitudes were mixed with respect to coyotes. Oftentimes negative attitudes centered on fears that coyotes will attack pets and people, and perceptions of coyotes being ‘wolf-sized’ or ‘at least 100 pounds.’ Our results, in combination with those from many other urban studies, shows that coyotes are much smaller than many residents believed.”
Undoubtedly humans have a deep, perhaps instinctual fear of wolves that adversely influences our attitudes toward coyotes (which typically weigh only 20 to 40 pounds).
How Many Coyotes Are There?
Determining the actual number of coyotes in our area involves smart estimating. Jason Abraham at the DNR sent me the results of a “scent post” survey in which fatty acid scents are applied to posts surrounded by sifted soil, and tracks are identified and counted once a day for several days (old tracks are smoothed out at the end of every day). These surveys show that coyote visits to the posts (in the part of the state including the Twin Cities) increased dramatically between 2000 and 2010 and have stabilized since then.
So, why the increase? Alexander says coyote habitat has improved in urban places. Coyotes are interested in an “easy meal,” which often might involve a garbage can, and in cities they have no predators (other than humans in cars). Urban coyotes have become the “apex” animal in the city environment. As the coyote population has grown, the number of red foxes has declined. Coyotes — territorial and competitive — and foxes (or any other canines) do not get along. A study of collared foxes in the Twin Cities found that aside from “unknown” causes of death, more foxes died from attacks by other canids (presumably coyotes) than any other cause. Coyotes and foxes compete for habitat, and since both are denning animals, they will sometimes move into and take over the other’s living spaces. Coyote dens are often “found” rather than made and tend to be hollowed out spaces like tree trunks, underground burrows and even culverts or under little used buildings. (The TCCFP is interested in knowing where dens are, and provide an opportunity to report any sightings of coyotes coming and going from a den.)
Geoff Miller, the Ph.D. researcher (in the University of Minnesota’s Ecology, Evolution and Behavior program) for the TCCFP, says project staff estimate that about 400 individual coyotes live in an area between downtown St. Paul and the western suburbs. That estimate is based on the size of the pack’s home ranges, which are roughly 2 miles by 2 miles square. Within that home range, coyotes really don’t want any other canines, including foxes or dogs.
Miller and his crew have, over the past three years, used GPS-enabled devices to collar 17 coyotes and have identified the home ranges of some of the packs. The “Add Observations” tab at the TCCFP site gives citizen naturalists a place to document their own coyote sightings and helps to see where they are living.
The collaring process is interesting, and challenging — it is “devilishly difficult” to live trap a coyote, according to Jason Abraham. Geoff Miller says coyotes are “super smart” (Wile E. Coyote being an apparent exception). They’ve learned not to walk into boxes or cages, so humane snaring methods have been developed. Once caught, the coyote gets anesthesia, and researchers take blood and fecal samples (from which they can learn about diet) and put on the collar. The coyote wakes up in about 40 minutes, so it is a quick and labor-intensive process. The battery on the GPS unit dies after about a year, so currently only one of the 17 is still being monitored. The good news is that increased funding will allow more collaring to happen next spring and summer.
We think of wolves as living in “packs,” and Geoff Miller also referred to coyote packs (for instance the group walking across the frozen Mississippi River shown above). But the coyote pack is more likely a family unit rather than a group of unrelated animals, with a mating male and female and their pups, who live with the parents up to about a year, when they are sent off to find their own home range.
Researchers have learned that most of the coyote diet is natural (as opposed to human castoffs and leftovers), carnivorous and includes smaller animals (voles, shrews, mice, squirrels, rabbits) as well as roadkill. Of course, free-roaming chickens, cats and smaller dogs might be at risk of ending up as a coyote meal, too! Cristine Almeida has posted some great photos of coyotes and deer peacefully dining on apples. It should go without saying, but I’ll say it: It is always a bad idea to feed wild animals; doing so leads to increased human/wildlife conflicts, which end badly for the wildlife.
What Is Nature? What Is Wild?
Coyotes are not “managed.” They are, in the words of the state DNR, an “unprotected” species and can be “taken” or “harvested” anytime without limits. Of course, in an urban area, firearm restrictions and other laws preclude hunting. Local animal control units may get involved if a coyote needs to be relocated. But it is important to note that in St. Paul, Animal Control “does not respond to calls about animals behaving normally in outdoor spaces” — a polite way to say that we intend to live with these animals peacefully.
So, are there “problem” coyotes? In the view of Geoff Miller, the answer can be yes, but he rephrased it as a human rather than an animal problem. We tend to get excited when we see a wild animal in the city, and because it is cool, of course, we have to take a picture which may involve getting closer to the animal. Rather, or maybe in addition to doing that, we should be “hazing” the coyote, scaring them away by yelling at them or throwing something at them. When we stop and look and take pictures, the coyotes learn that humans needn’t be feared, and that can lead to bolder behavior on their part. However, given their intelligence it can also be the case that the coyote may start to call our bluff, making even hazing lose its effectiveness. Miller suggested that we need to be very serious with our hazing, including even using pepper spray or bear spray on them, so that they know we mean business. We don’t want confusion about who is the apex animal.
Readers may have seen the story from California that broke over the past weekend (December 4, 2022) about a small child being attacked by a coyote in a suburb of Los Angeles. The coyote was attempting to drag the child away by her coat and ran off only when the father rescued her by throwing things at the coyote.
Geoff told me it highlights the need for people to be very serious about our hazing of the animals. “This incident looks even more interesting than a simple lack of that coyote being hazed. This looks to me like a product of ineffective hazing rather than no hazing…. The coyote doesn’t respond to yelling, and really only retreats after having something thrown at it. This suggests to me that this animal became habituated to some forms of hazing, and other methods — throwing objects in its direction, possibly pepper spray — would be necessary to have any effect on it. It clearly didn’t think that much harm was going to come to it from being within a few feet of an adult person.”
This type of incident is extremely rare, though it will certainly draw attention when it does happen. (The coyote subreddit I follow has had thousands of visits in the past few days.)
Miller says “coyotes are here to stay” and that efforts to remove them have been a disaster, as displaced mature and wary coyotes get replaced by younger and more “naive” animals, leading to increased negative interactions with humans. We need to learn to coexist in a way that is healthy and safe for everyone.
In fact, we might want to rethink our notions of what a healthy urban ecology looks like. What is nature? What is wild? Emma Maris, author of Wild Souls: Freedom and Flourishing in the Non-Human World, has suggested that a too-narrow definition of nature and the wild can prevent us from having a full relationship with the natural world and its animals, wherever we live (This is a deep and fascinating discussion, and if you are interested in Maris’ ideas, check out her TED talk, “Are Wild Animals Really Wild?“). Further, she says, since humans have affected every part of the natural world, we have an ethical responsibility for the health and safety of other creatures.