A coyote took up residence in Chicago's Norwood Park neighborhood this spring. It's hard to say how long it was there before anyone noticed it, but once someone did all hell broke loose. In mid-April Chicago television cameras and newspaper reporters descended, and the coyote graciously cooperated, posing with alert ears and bright eyes in the backyard of a white house.
The media reported that the city's Animal Care and Control officers intended to capture and relocate the coyote, or the family of coyotes if there were more. But though every news hound in the city seemed to have snapped a dazzling photo of the animal, by the time the animal-control officers arrived the coyote had disappeared.
Then the story vanished. I perused the Chicagoland section of the Tribune each day, wanting to learn if the hunt had been successful and hoping it hadn't. I'm encouraged when I hear about a wild animal that finds the human habitat hospitable enough to move in of its own accord, and I believe shipping it out again sends the wrong message. Still, I haven't been elected official species spokesperson, and as if this weren't perfectly clear to me, some teenagers supposedly went looking for the coyote with clubs in their hands.
Chicago's Animal Care and Control office handles 30,000 animals every year, only about 2,000 of them wild animals. The rest are dogs and cats, about 85 percent of which are put to sleep. So Peter Poholik, the office's executive director and a 12-year division veteran, is happy to have a chance to talk about live coyotes and not dead pets.
It turns out that despite repeated searches and the setting of a live trap, the coyotes were never caught. Poholik's guess is that with everybody and their brother out there looking for them, they made themselves scarce, perhaps moved out of the hood altogether.
The migration of coyotes into urban areas is part of a national trend. In the past 12 years they've moved in all over Cook County, raising families on land their ancestors likely never saw. Sizable populations are now found in the New York City suburbs and other cities throughout the eastern U.S. Yet most biologists believe that before Europeans settled in America coyotes weren't found east of the Mississippi River, though some believe they may have been seen occasionally. In Chicago the dominant predators were bears, cougars, and wolves, animals large enough to kill a deer, elk, or bison once in a while. Unable to compete with the big boys in such lush habitat, coyotes contented themselves with landscape leftovers--dry western lands with smaller prey.
When settlers first moved into the west, they tolerated the coyotes because there were so many more threatening beasts. But by 1915 wolves and bears had been mostly eradicated, allowing coyotes to move to the top of the food chain, where they would never have dreamed of being. With larger carnivores out of the way, ranchers turned their attention to destroying coyotes that were eating their lambs. The government was only too happy to help. Between them, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, private citizens, and state and local agencies have killed approximately 20 million coyotes over the years. And today they continue the campaign to "control" coyotes by killing them--even though the monetary value of grain eaten by rodents is much greater than the value of livestock eaten by coyotes, which happen to be excellent mousers. If mice were all it subsisted on, a coyote would consume 10,000 a year.
Coyotes are classic opportunistic animals. They will eat almost anything: roots, grubs, acorns, watermelons, birds, snakes, turtles, garbage, things other animals have killed. When they go for larger prey they study it carefully, waiting for an advantage. This habit of keen observation was part of the reason Native Americans called coyotes God's dogs, believing the canines were sent to watch what was going on in the world and to report back to the great spirits.
If coyotes observe a sick fawn left by its mother, they may go in for the kill. But if the situation isn't perfect, they don't hang around salivating and risking their luck. They trot away and eat bugs. It's all food to them.
Just as coyotes kill the animals that are sick, weak, or dumb enough to get caught, the government's blundering has exterminated the coyotes that are least savvy about human tricks. Biologists believe those that survive teach their pups how to stay out of harm's way. Through experience, and perhaps natural selection, the coyotes alive today know enough to move out of "control" areas. Some go away for short periods and return when the pressure is eased, others split altogether.
The coyotes we have in Chicago are believed to be descendants of ones that never returned to their country homelands, but decided to try their luck in the big city. Coyotes were first reported in Cook County in the early 1980s, and in 1983 Poholik caught his first coyote on the city's far south side, near Dolton. In 1985 a wolf was reported in Humboldt Park. It turned out to be a coyote and was pursued by a police squad car and an animal-control unit to the corner of Sacramento and Division. Desperate, the coyote darted through the open door of a storage room in a gas station, where it was finally caught. In 1991 three coyotes living in Lincoln Park were captured, one at the corner of Chicago and State streets. Of the half dozen coyotes caught in the city, all were relocated to the forest preserves except one, which was hit by a car and had to be euthanized.
Poholik believes many more coyotes live in Chicago than the few Animal Care and Control is ever called about. Most are probably never seen, hunting mice at night and lying low by day. Others are probably passing themselves off as dogs to the casual observer.
Chris Anchor, wildlife biologist for the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, says that by the late 1980s coyotes could be found in every preserve in the county except a few small isolated sites. He estimates that here they need a range of 1,500 to 2,000 acres to survive.
While coyotes in the west typically weigh 20 to 30 pounds, Chicago's coyotes weigh 30 to 40. This is common for the new super race of coyotes east of the Mississippi, which are also darker in color. Some attribute the size increase to interbreeding with dogs, which seems to be reasonably common; others suggest that wolves in northern Michigan, pressured by the scarcity of mates, might have bred with the coyotes, something unthinkable in ordinary circumstances. Anchor believes the larger size is simply the result of the abundant food supply here. Some eastern coyotes live very well on road kills, and the rodent population in urban areas is high. And garbage isn't exactly scarce.
A class at Oakton Community College has been studying coyote scat and tracks at Somme prairie grove in Northbrook since last February to determine what coyotes here eat and do. (Terry Trobeck intended to have the students study the coyotes themselves, but in all their visits none of them has seen a coyote in the flesh.) Perhaps the coyotes were studying the students; their tracks and scat were plainly visible in the snow. Poking around in the coyote crap back in the laboratory, the students determined that field mice and voles made up the bulk of the coyotes' diet at Somme.
Coyotes are not alone among animals that have chosen to migrate into urban areas. Opossums, skunks, and foxes are fairly common in Chicago. Beavers, which had been exterminated in Illinois by 1900, now build dens along the Chicago River within the city limits. White-tailed deer populations have boomed in the suburbs, though they panic about traffic and tend to get killed when they venture into the city.
Human beings have ruined the habitat for so many animals that it's amazing we aren't left entirely alone in fields of concrete and Kentucky bluegrass, with only roaches and pigeons to keep us company. Welcoming God's dog into our homeland seems like the least we can do to help end our self-imposed exile from the rest of the world.