Quirks & Quarks

How coyotes have managed to find success in the city like no other predator

Coyote sightings are up during lockdowns. But ecologists say that the urbanization of coyotes is a larger story that's been unfolding over several decades. 

Urban coyotes are filling an important ecological niche. But can they coexist with humans?

Coyotes move into cities in part because it gives them the best chance at survival. They do a good job of staying out of the way of people, but once they stop looking at humans as a threat, it can cause problems. (Shutterstock/Tory Kallman)

While out for a lunchtime walk with his mom in downtown Toronto's Trinity Bellwoods Park, 11-year-old Kien Nguyen spotted something he'd never seen before.

"We saw that on a slope with trees, there was a coyote, camouflaged near a log," he said. "People didn't even notice that there was a coyote less than 20 metres away from their dog."

In cities across North America, sightings like this one are becoming more common. Most of the time, the interaction is peaceful. However, sometimes, it can escalate, as with the spate of recent coyote encounters in Vancouver's Stanley Park. 

It's possible there are more coyotes around because of pandemic-related lockdowns. But ecologists know that this isn't the full picture. The urbanization of coyotes is a larger story that's been unfolding over several decades. 

"They've become extremely widespread," Dennis Murray, associate professor of biology at Trent University, told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald. "It's been a longer term phenomenon, but it's been, I would say, more aggravated in the last 20 or so years."

A coyote walks through downtown Toronto's Trinity Bellwoods Park. (Kien Nguyen/Nicky Poole)

And that expansion of habitat alone makes them an anomaly among predators.

"This is the one animal that has been able to expand their range, and increase their numbers in the face of tremendous amounts of persecution by people," said Stan Gehrt, director of the Urban Coyote Research Project at Ohio State University.

"So they've been successful without any help from us. And they're pretty much the only wildlife species that you can really make that claim."

Fewer wolves, less snow, and more green spaces

According to Murray, the rapid rise in the coyote's range and urban population is due to the intersection of many different ecological issues.

Climate change plays a part. Coyotes do better when there's less snow, and so have been able to expand their range northwards.

The absence of bigger predators like wolves has meant less competition for prey animals. And, Murray adds, the way we've built cities has changed to incorporate more parkland and green space, which is ideal coyote habitat.

"Coyotes are an extremely plastic species that's well adapted to colonizing these new environments that we've created, such as urban-suburban green spaces," he said. "They can adjust to different habitats, different species, and that's allowed them to colonize these new areas."

Murray suggests that coyotes in the east might also benefit from interbreeding with eastern wolves, making the coyotes around Ontario and Quebec much larger than in the western provinces. 

"So the eastern animals are considerably larger than their western forebears, and that's also allowed them to kind of colonize new areas and to be a little bit more competitive in the ecosystem."

A coyote peers down from a backyard along the Neville Park ravine in the Beach neighbourhood in Toronto. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Silvio Santos)

But elsewhere, coyotes are still thriving even without the influx of wolf genetics.

In Edmonton, Colleen Cassady St. Clair runs the Edmonton Urban Coyote Project with the University of Alberta, where she has been fielding an increasing number of coyote reports since the project began 10 years ago. 

"Coyotes are more successful in urban areas than the surrounding rural areas. They sometimes reproduce at younger ages, they have larger litters, higher survival of those youngsters," she said.

She points to cities giving the animals an overall better chance at survival.

"They are more successful at finding resources, both food and shelter in cities, relative to the surrounding rural areas where they are also quite heavily persecuted."

Playing an important role in the ecosystem

Many ecologists see the addition of coyotes to the urban ecosystem as ecologically positive. Functioning ecosystems need a balanced predator and prey dynamic, even if that ecosystem is urbanized. 

"It's positive ecologically because they're performing a service — that would be predation — that was really missing from the urban system for quite a while," said Gehrt. 

A coyote runs on the sidewalk in midtown Sacramento, California. Urban coyote populations have been on the rise across North America. (Xavier Mascarenas/The Sacramento Bee via AP, File)

By keeping species like white tailed deer, rodents, and Canada geese in check, coyotes help prevent an overabundance of those species and in turn, protect green spaces. A recent six year research project by Gehrt's team showed that coyotes also protect species like songbirds and small mammals from another voracious urban predator — outdoor cats.

"What we found was that coyotes essentially protected green spaces from the negative impacts of cats by forcing cats to avoid those areas," he said.

Coexistence is possible — if humans stop feeding them

While negative interactions with humans do happen, Gehrt says that typically it's because of human behaviour.

"In our case, any time there's been an incident with a coyote, it's usually been because of feeding occurring ahead of time," he said.

Signs at the entrance of a park warn of the danger of coyotes in Montreal. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz)

His advice is for humans to remove all potential food sources, such as garbage, and practice something called coyote hazing: making loud noises to scare the animals away from populated areas.

That means keeping a sharp eye out like Kien Nguyen did in the Toronto park when he spotted one, and not getting too close.

"The best way for us to coexist with coyotes, and for coyotes to coexist with us, is that coyotes need to have a healthy fear of people," said Gehrt. "We have a huge impact on coyote behaviour. We can either teach them the right things to do or we can teach them the wrong things to do."

Produced and written by Amanda Buckiewicz