Thursday, July 16, 2009

Cook County research provides perspective on coyotes among us

Cook County research provides perspective on coyotes among us

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I was saddened to learn recently that an Urbana family had lost a beloved pet dog to a coyote. As a father and a pet owner I understand the pain of such a loss. Unfortunately for our community, the news coverage of this incident tended to be heavy on sensational misperceptions and light on the sort of information that would help people make sense of it.

I took this as an opportunity to revisit the findings of the Cook County Coyote Project, the largest study of urban coyotes in the world. Scientists with the project have been gathering information about coyote behavior in the Chicago metropolitan area by a variety of methods for nearly a decade now.

One of the most important things they offer is perspective on the threat that coyotes pose to humans. They point out that although Cook County is home to large populations of both people and coyotes no case of a coyote biting a human has been documented there. The researchers compare this to the number of dog bites reported annually in Cook County, which ranges from two to three thousand. The point is not that coyotes pose no threat to people, but that from a broad perspective bites by domestic dogs present a far greater risk.

The researchers in Chicago have found that most urban coyotes are able to live among people without drawing much attention to themselves. Of the 175 animals they tracked using radio collars, only five were removed after being deemed nuisances by the local community. The trouble with these individuals typically began after they became habituated to human settings through food made available by people, whether it was intended for the coyotes or not.

Studies of what coyotes in Cook County eat suggest they play a positive role in urban ecosystems, where the shortage of predators otherwise favors undesirably large populations of some too-familiar creatures. Coyotes feed heavily on small rodents, and so help to keep their populations in check. Coyotes also help to slow population growth among white-tailed deer by taking fawns, and help to limit numbers of Canada geese by feeding on their eggs.

The Cook County researchers note that the greatest controversy over the presence of coyotes in an area is often generated by the fact that they kill free-ranging domestic cats, either for food or for the purpose of eliminating a competing predator. Where people stand on this issue is typically determined by whether they value cats being able to roam or the health of songbird populations, but I’m not going to go down that road today.

Whether people like them or not, coyotes are among us to stay. We can best coexist with them by recognizing the need to remove individuals that present an immediate threat, and the opportunity to appreciate the rest of them.

For more information:

The Cook County Coyote Project

U of I Extension "Living with Wildlife in Illinois"

Environmental Almanac: Appreciating Illinois Coyotes