It's A Wild World: Coyotes Are Metro Area's No. 1 Nuisance Animal
Mike Arduser is used to hearing coyotes at home. "They're in my backyard in Webster. Deer Creek runs through there, and that part of Deer Creek is wild," says Arduser, an urban wildlife biologist and educator for the Missouri Department of Conservation.
January-March was mating season, and the coyotes were more vocal and visible.
"They're pairing up. You hear a lot more music (howling) in the winter months," he said, before pups are born, usually in April.
Arduser is used to talking to people about coyotes. The grayish-brown, yellow-eyed members of the dog family can be found all over the St. Louis area -- in Ladue, Creve Coeur, Calvary Cemetery, Bellefontaine Cemetery, Ruth Park, Algonquin Golf Course and in all the large county parks -- and they are expanding their territory, to the detriment of foxes.
"They're in the city. They like edgy, shrubby habitat that's near an open area. Golf courses, park land, cemeteries," said Erin Shank, also an urban wildlife biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation.
"I won't say they're everywhere. I can't think of one instance where anyone has found a den. That tells you how secretive they are," said Arduser.
Dennis Hogan, resource specialist for St. Louis County Parks, agrees. "They're pretty secretive animals, and most of the time they're afraid of humans," he said.
Secretive or not, coyote sightings (or hearings) constitute the No. 1 nuisance call for the Missouri Department of Conservation, mostly by those startled by the wild canid. Some people, such as those who "liked" the Tower Grove coyote on Facebook last year, are thrilled by their presence, while others are frightened. "Given their abundance and proximity, they are not a threat to people," Arduser said.
Coyotes, though, have been known to eat cats and small dogs, sometimes even from the backyard. Since cats kill songbirds, songbird populations increase when coyotes are present; fox and cat populations drop.
Because they hunt mostly at night, people are often surprised to encounter one. But coyotes are perhaps just one of urban and suburban wildlife, which includes red fox, raccoons, skunks, mink, opossums, voles, shrews, groundhogs, beavers and even bobcats in some places.
"All those things that are in the wild have been able to fit into suburban life," said Arduser.
Along with hawks and owls, coyotes and foxes are attracted to the abundant prey here. Plantings in urban gardens and parks attract rabbits and rodents, the staples of any medium-sized predator's diet. Moreover, nesting Canada geese provide fresh eggs. And, of course, there are always road kill and garbage.
But why are they here? Known as "prairie wolves," coyotes were originally a Western species.
"It goes back to this empty niche that we've created by removing the top predators from this ecosystem," said Steve Buback, resource ecologist for Forest Park Forever. Without the cougar and wolf, a niche opened up for a medium-sized predator. And much open land has been developed, removing habitat or changing it and filling it with people.
Moreover, the coyote is extremely adaptable, says Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus at the University of Colorado Boulder, author of "Coyotes: Biology, Behavior and Management" and board member of Project Coyote, a nonprofit organization promoting peaceful coexistence with the wild canid.
"They just adapt really easily to wherever they go. They eat anything. They can live alone, they can live in pairs, they can live in packs." Coyotes are better suited to urban life than wolves because, unlike wolves, they have the flexibility to thrive both solo and as part of a pack. Since they defend their territory, excess population gets pushed out of the original home range, expanding their presence.
They're extremely intelligent, says Gene Jezek, operator of Critter Control, a pest-control business. "We get a lot of calls. The coyote is a very difficult animal to trap. You're going to have to use a foot trap. Any animal that comes along that is not as smart as a coyote will get caught."
Jezek said he traps several nuisance coyotes each year. Based on the number of calls he has received in the 23 years he has been in busines, coyotes have definitely expanded their range into the city over the years. "Over the years, it's become farther and farther to the east. There weren't coyotes 15 years ago in north city," he said.
Furthermore, people in the city don't hunt. Coyote season in rural Missouri lasts 11 months of the year, with no limit on the number of animals taken.
"The average city person doesn't look out the window and say, 'Look, there's a coyote in the yard, get your shotgun,'" said Jezek.
Jezek agrees that coyotes are generally not a threat to people. "There's more people struck by lightning every year than coyote attacks," he said.
However, because of their large home ranges (recorded at up to 25 square miles), their secretiveness and mobility, traveling along creeks, train tracks, underground culverts (such as the River Des Peres) and through underground drainage pipes, it is difficult to determine how many actually live in the St. Louis area. "I would be surprised if there were more than 100 in St. Louis County," said Arduser.
Buback maintains that the five or so coyotes in Forest Park not only are welcome but extremely useful.
"Coyotes play an important role in the park, and we'd like to keep them there," he said. "They're scavengers. They help to clean up road kill. They also help to keep squirrel, mice and rodent populations in check so we can have ornamental plantings in the park."
Foxes are welcome at the Missouri Botanical Garden for the same reason.
"From our standpoint, they're always welcome here." said horticulturalist Chip Tynan. "I look forward to their arrival from a horticultural standpoint. They're very efficient predators of nuisance pests in the garden."
Foxes, Tynan said, travel back and forth between the Botanical Garden and Tower Grove Park and have ranges up to 40 miles. Tynan said that there haven't been fox sightings in the Botanical Garden for the past two years, perhaps because they'd been chased away or killed by the Tower Grove coyote.
Whether or not coyotes are good for humans is beside the point, said Arduser. They're part of nature.
"People should leave them alone. They're just out there making a living like anyone else."
Credits: By Hilary Davidson - St. Louis Beacon