Coyotes

SEATTLE URBAN CARNIVORE PROJECT

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

 

Are coyotes a risk to people?

Coyotes present a very low risk to humans. Although risk can never be completely eliminated with wild animals, the risk of being harmed by a wild coyote is very, very low, and much lower than the risk associated with many other things that injure people (e.g., bees, cars, bathtubs!). Indeed, domestic dogs are orders of magnitude more dangerous than coyotes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that domestic dogs bite more than 4 million people in the US every year, sending 1000 people per day to the emergency room, and killing on average 35 people per year. In contrast, only 2 people in North America have been killed by coyotes in recent history—a small child in California 30 years ago by a coyote that was actively being fed by humans, and a woman in Nova Scotia in 2008. True, coyotes bite approximately two dozen people on average in the U.S. each year, and although these events are no doubt frightening and traumatic, most physical injuries are minor. Further, bites that are first reported as coyote bites often turn out to be from domestic dogs upon closer examination.

 

Are coyotes a risk to dogs and cats?

Although also a rare occurrence, coyotes will occasionally kill small dogs and cats. Interactions between coyotes and people or pets, however, tend to occur when coyotes have been fed, either directly or indirectly (e.g., eating pet food left on a porch, raiding unsecured trash bins and compost bins), and thus getting too comfortable around people. Coyotes can behave aggressively toward dogs for a variety of reasons, including because the coyote feels scared or threatened, or because of a competitive reaction to another canid.

 

How can I coexist with coyotes?

Follow these recommendations and you’ll be better able to coexist with coyotes:

  • Limit human food sources:
    First, and most importantly, we all need to do our best to not make food available to coyotes, and especially not to feed them intentionally. Feeding any wildlife (other than birds, but that’s another discussion in itself) increases the chance that they will become acclimated or habituated to humans, and likely a nuisance.
  • Leash dogs and keep cats indoors:
    Leashing dogs, and especially small dogs, is the number one most effective deterrent for preventing conflicts with coyotes and other wildlife. Keeping cats inside at all times will eliminate the chance of cat-coyote encounters.
  • Avoid prime activity times:
    Coyotes and most urban wildlife are often active between dusk and dawn. Walking dogs during daylight hours will significantly lower the odds of seeing most wildlife. It is, however, perfectly normal to see coyotes during the day, and this does not mean they are rabid or sick, or looking to harass people. Avoid walking dogs off-leash in areas where coyotes have been recently spotted, or in areas with heavy brush where wild animals cannot be seen. Further, coyotes typically den in late spring, so be aware of coyote activity, and try to steer clear of areas that might be den sites.
  • Maximize deterrence:
    In almost all cases, you can deter coyotes without carrying anything; yelling at them aggressively while slapping your hand on your thigh is generally enough to send most coyotes running. If it makes you feel more comfortable, carry a small flashlight or a whistle. For night walks, a small flashlight with a strobe function shined in the eyes of a wild animal is one way to deter an interaction. Good flashlights of this sort can be found online for about $12. Storm whistles are loud, cheap, lightweight and easy to use. They can be put on a lanyard and worn around your neck or wrist and can be purchased for less than $10.
  • Make your presence known:
    Most wild animals try to avoid humans and pets. Coyotes are especially fearful of unfamiliar sights and sounds. Using bells and lights on leashes and collars can help discourage coyotes from approaching pets. (Light-up collars and leashes are also great at helping to prevent car strikes on night walks.)

If you follow all of the suggestions about coexisting with coyotes, but still want the risk of a coyote encounter to be even lower than it already is, explore installing a good fence, with a buried bottom, and a device such as the Coyote Roller on the top.

 

Are coyotes “overpopulating”? Is the loss of their habitat leading to increasing encounters with people?

Like most carnivores, coyote populations are generally limited by available prey and habitat, and don’t require “culling” or management to be kept in check. In all likelihood, the loss of larger blocks of forest habitat could be causing human encounters with coyotes to increase. It’s also likely that coyotes in urban areas are adapting to living closer to humans, which makes it even more important for humans to act appropriately toward these habituated coyotes (see recommendations above). As we continue to fragment the forests, and add trails through larger forest patches, people and coyotes will increasingly come in contact. There is no need to “cull” the population or somehow try to limit their reproduction, but there is a need to learn appropriate ways to discourage coyotes from becoming accustomed to human spaces.

 

What do coyotes eat, and do they decimate deer populations?

Coyotes tend to eat (and help regulate populations of) smaller prey—such as rodents. They are opportunistic and will scavenge or take larger prey such as deer fawns. Although adult deer are usually not targeted by coyotes—it’s dangerous for a small coyote to try to kill a formidable sized animal like a deer—it does occur.

 

Do coyotes live in large packs that are dangerous to people?

Coyotes live in family groups, sometimes referred to as packs. Even if you see a lone coyote, it often has a family with which it spends much of its time. Coyote families typically comprise the parents and the young of that year, so they don't get nearly as large as wolf packs, which often include extended generations.

Coyotes also don’t typically hunt cooperatively in packs like wolves. They may be traveling in a group when they’re looking for food, but they are not usually strategically cooperating to take down large prey, unlike wolves, for example. Traveling in a family group also doesn’t indicate that the coyotes involved are likely to be more aggressive (i.e., operating like a violent gang). Coyotes are on the move quite a bit, so the family group in one area may be the same group seen in another area nearby.

 

Is howling a sign that a “pack” is hunting?

Coyotes produce highly variable types of vocalizations, from barks to yips to howls, and combinations of each of these. Howling is often done by the mated pair to keep in touch and to bring group members together. It can be a sign of agitation or disturbance, for example when a coyote comes upon a dog or person. It can also be used to indicate to other neighboring coyote groups that they’re near the edge of someone else’s territory. We don’t know of any evidence to indicate that howling is a sign that a coyote group is hunting, but if they are spread out for that purpose it may serve to help them regroup. Vocalizing can also occur during the day or night, and we may just notice it more at night when the rest of the world is quieter.

Although a howling group of coyotes may sound like a very large number of individuals, fascinating research from Texas A&M University has shown that when people hear coyotes howling, they often overestimate the number of animals involved two-fold because a single coyote produces a variety of sounds and because of the way their voices carry. In other words, two coyotes howling in your neighborhood woodlot can sound like six coyotes howling in your backyard! And, it sounds like many more than the one, two, or maybe three individuals people often see during the day, but  typically you're probably hearing the same two to three coyotes.

 

I saw a large, odd looking coyote—could it be a coy-dog? A coy-wolf?

Coyotes come in all colors and sizes, and their lankiness can often make them seem much larger than their actual weight, so appearance and behavior are not indicative of any interbreeding. Although some coyotes are larger than others, and food resources will affect size to some extent, most western coyotes are 20-35 pounds—about the weight of a cocker spaniel and quite a bit less than a border collie –and about 25” tall at the shoulder, which is taller than a border collie.

While coyote-dog hybrids can be bred in captivity, the bottom line is that 1) dogs and coyotes are different species, and therefore would not choose to interbreed and 2) research suggests that the only time this would likely occur in the wild is if there were so few coyotes that they couldn’t find suitable mates, and even then, they may interbreed with a dog or wolf only if the situation was just right. This may have been the case when coyotes first colonized this region—and there’s some indication that coyotes interbred with wolves as they spread east—but it’s very unlikely to occur today because there are plenty of coyotes in Washington for mates to be found.

 

Is pepper spray or wasp spray effective at deterring coyotes?

Generally coyotes will run, or at least walk, the other way when they see a person. In the rare event that one doesn’t, follow the suggestions above in the “How to Coexist with Coyotes” section for deterrence options.

In no situations are wasp sprays, bear sprays, or mace generally recommended. In order for a spray to be an effective deterrent, the coyote would need to be very close to the person involved, and the risk of the person being sprayed in the face would be high. Some wasp sprays have very targeted, powerful streams, but the likelihood of someone being able to successfully take off the cap, aim, and shoot a coyote in the eyes is very unlikely (note that this is also true of a firearm). Even if the spray could be discharged successfully, the slightest breeze could cause the person to become a victim of friendly fire. Pepper sprays and mace are intended as  last-ditch efforts to stop a threatening animal (or person) at the point of contact, or when the threatening individual is only a few feet away. Such products are not effective at long distances, and coyotes almost never make contact with humans.

 

If I see a coyote in the daytime, does that mean there is something wrong with it, or that there is cause for concern?

Like many carnivores, coyotes are often more active at dawn and dusk, and clearly can be active at night. And, in urban areas many wildlife species increase their nighttime activity to reduce conflicts with humans and vehicles. Coyotes aren’t nocturnal, however, so seeing them in the daytime should not be disconcerting.

 

Do coyotes lure innocent dogs into the forest where their “pack” is waiting to ambush?

There are valid reports of coyotes approaching dogs and even, in some cases, playing with them in fields, evidently without ill intention. And, coyotes do occasionally approach dogs, possibly triggered by competition and an instinct to defend a territory against another canid. But, more often than not our medium and larger dogs probably pose as much danger to coyotes when they come across each other on trails, and in most situations it’s likely the coyote would run. This could lead to a situation where a dog chases a coyote back to its family group and gets into more trouble, which may be the source of undocumented rumors about coyotes luring dogs into the woods where a larger group of them awaits.

 

Is it possible to eliminate coyotes in places where people live?

Coyote populations are very difficult to control with lethal methods because they are so adaptable. In spite of the fact that they have been one of the most persecuted species in all of North America, with hundreds of thousands of individuals shot, poisoned, or trapped each year, they’ve continued to thrive. Some studies have shown that pregnancy rates and litter sizes increase when coyote numbers are reduced by trapping, so trapping and removing animals can actually INCREASE the population size. Also, trapping usually results in more juveniles on the landscape, and these younger "floaters" quickly fill in any area that is vacant. So, wherever coyotes already occur, they will continue to occur unless they are completely eradicated. This, however, is not realistic. It would require many years of constant, large-scale trapping and possibly poisoning. Coyotes are difficult to trap, and trappers typically use leg hold traps, which could pose risks to cats, dogs, and people. A 2002 investigation by the Sacramento Bee (read the article) estimated that 1100 dogs had been killed accidentally by US federal animal control officers with traps and poison. Compared to the very small risk that coyotes pose to humans, trapping could create much larger risks.

 

Can birth control or sterilization be used to reduce the number of coyotes?

Although this approach has been used in some very specific instances – for example, on the East Coast to limit hybridization of coyotes and red wolves where red wolves were being recovered – it is highly unlikely to work in an urban area (assuming some need was identified). All animals would need to be caught or darted, and this effort would need to be constant, as coyotes travel far and wide, so there would always be immigrants that were not treated.

 

Resources

Project Coyote
Portland Urban Coyote Project
Denver Urban Coyote Initiative