Coyotes more common than you think

Robin Goist - (TNS)

BAY VILLAGE, Ohio – Bay Village residents have raised concerns on social media about recent sightings of coyotes in their neighborhoods, but wildlife experts say they have little to worry about.

Humans are more likely to spot coyotes in the wintertime, but the canines are around all year throughout Ohio – and, in general, are actively trying to avoid people.

“It’s very, very unusual for a coyote to even come close enough to a human to attack, let alone actually attack,” said Jamey Emmert, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

But should people be concerned for their pets or small children? What should they do if they encounter a coyote? For answers, and The Plain Dealer spoke with Emmert and Jon Cepek, a wildlife ecologist with the Cleveland Metroparks.

Like dogs and wolves, coyotes are members of the canine family. They mate for life, give birth in the spring and raise their pups in dens. They typically roam about three to four square miles.

“They’re arguably a non-native species,” Emmert said. “They were virtually non-existent, according to historical records, several hundred years ago, but with the clearing of land for agriculture and the elimination of predators with over-hunting and habitat loss, they were able to move across the country eastward and were able to embrace opportunities presented to them.”

Coyotes are established in all 88 counties in Ohio. The state does not track them, but they are considered “common” and live in rural, suburban and urban areas.

They occupy a very important role in the food web, Emmert said. They’re “mousers,” so they eat plenty of rodents, small birds, insects and vegetation, but they have a wide range to their diet.

“Coyotes can survive on anything,” Cepek said. “They can eat birdseed or dog food. They’re only 35 pounds – it’s not like a 100-pound wolf that needs to take down large game to survive. They really can act like an omnivore, but even if they’re hunting chipmunks or squirrels, there’s a lot more of them in backyards than in natural areas.”

Coyotes can also yelp, howl and bark – “so, they can make a racket,” Cepek said. He said some studies have played coyote calls to participants who would overestimate how many coyotes they were hearing by at least twofold.

“Sometimes people lose their mind because it sounds like there’s plenty of them in the backyard, when we typically only have one or a pair,” Cepek said.

Why do we see more coyotes this time of year?

In the winter, coyotes are typically more active because they are finding partners and seeking out territory.

“Offspring from last year are looking to establish space, maybe look for a den site where they’ll give birth to pups come springtime,” Emmert said.

Also, in the wintertime, people aren’t out as much, so coyotes may feel more comfortable moving around.

“We’re not mowing lawns, we don’t have barbecues,” Cepek said. “When it gets cold, we’re looking out the window, and all of a sudden we see a coyote during the daytime, when the days are shorter. It may be more likely that you’ll see a coyote because it’s not seeing you.”

Another contributing factor could be what Cepek refers to as “the juvenile effect” – when young coyotes are more exploratory because they haven’t learned to avoid people yet.

“Just like human teenagers, they’re doing their thing and exploring the world,” he said. “We may see juvenile coyotes out there that either the parents are kicking them out of the territory or they’re trying to define their own territory or find their own mates.”

Coyotes in the winter can also appear much larger than during the rest of the year, because their fur puffs up, so onlookers may think they are much more dangerous than they really are, especially if they have wolf-life colors. But coyotes are not as dangerous as wolves — and Ohio does not have any wolves, according to Emmert.

Should people be concerned about coyotes?

“The neat thing is that much of the time, coyotes will change their behaviors in order to avoid humans,” Emmert said. That could include going nocturnal – many coyotes are more active between 2 and 4 a.m. – or finding new routes that avoid people.

Cepek and Emmert could only think of two or three instances of dangerous interactions between coyotes and humans in their decades-long careers, and each situation involved a coyote who was sick with rabies or distemper.

But it’s unusual for a coyote to be sick, Emmert said, since they’re not as social as other animals known to carry diseases, such as raccoons.

Occasionally, people unwittingly create situations that give rise to conflict between humans and coyotes, Cepek said.

People might be attracting coyotes by supplying food – or food for their prey – in the form of gardens, landscaping, birdseed, pet food or garbage. Or, one of their neighbors could be doing the same, so they’re roaming the territory in hopes of finding more.

If a resident calls animal control about a coyote in the area, the officer will most likely run through a checklist of what’s potentially attracting the animal. The agency would not seek to euthanize a coyote unless it has confirmed the animal to be sick or injured, and therefore cannot be relocated.

A call about a coyote simply walking through a neighborhood or park would not be as worrisome as a call about a coyote following people for extended periods of time, Emmert said.

“We would get more concerned because that coyote is becoming more emboldened,” Emmert said. “A coyote may do that, especially a young one, just trying to figure out if a person or a dog walking through a park is a threat, especially if it is close to a den site.”

In that case, you should clap your hands, shout at it and wave your hands above your head – “things that make you appear scarier and bolder and bigger, to scare off the coyote and make it known that it’s not welcome,” Emmert said.

What steps should be taken to prevent issues with coyotes?

Remove “attractants” from your property, including unsecured garbage and pet food, and clean grills properly. The state also recommends keeping pets inside.

“Coyotes don’t seek out to attack pets,” Emmert said. “They maybe will prey on a cat, misidentifying it as just another prey species on the landscape.

“I’ve been with the agency for 18 years, and one of the number-one reasons that we speculate when dogs are attacked, it’s because that dog was off-leash,” she continued.

Signs at the trailheads of Huntington Beach and Reservation in Bay Village also warn hikers that they are entering a coyote habitat and should keep their dogs leashed and close. Cepek said those signs went up a few years ago, and initially some people were alarmed to know there might be coyotes in the area.

“But everywhere is a coyote habitat,” Cepek said. “We may not see them, but they’re everywhere.”

Robin Goist (TNS)

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