Image © Jean-Guy Dallaire creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/deed.en
Coyotes are yellowish gray with bushy black-tipped tails and whitish throats and bellies. At 20 to 40 pounds they’re larger than 8- to 15-pound foxes but smaller than wolves, which can weigh between 50 and 100. Because coyotes are extremely adaptable, they can survive in many habitats, including cities. They are considered nocturnal but are commonly active during the day. Their barks and yips can carry 2 or 3 miles and make two or three animals sound like six or more. Contrary to popular belief, they don’t howl to announce a pending or successful kill.
Coyotes are vital to ecological balance because they help to keep populations of smaller animals in check. Over 90 percent of their diet is small mammals, but they will eat birds, snakes, insects, fish, fruits, and injured or sick deer.
Their breeding season begins in February and is the only time coyotes use dens, which are often in vacant fox or woodchuck burrows but can be under log or brush piles or in hollow trees or abandoned buildings. Litters are born in April and average six to seven pups. They’re fed by their mother for about a month, but after that, both parents bring food to the den. Male coyotes will continue to care for weaned young even if their partners die.
Young are self-sufficient in six to nine months but remain with their families after they leave the den. Many first-year females stay with their parents through the following summer, picking up valuable mothering skills as they help with the next litter.
Sightings of families may contribute to the idea that coyotes live and hunt as wolves do in packs, but wolf packs can contain unrelated individuals. Coyotes remain in parent-offspring units and usually hunt alone or in male-female pairs; prey in DuPage isn’t big enough to merit a group effort.
Some people believe that populations are on the rise, but there’s no supportive data. It could be that people are seeing the same coyotes more often. During the first half of the year, sightings increase as year-old males start to look for territories to call their own. Year-round, if individual coyotes become more comfortable around humans, daytime activities — and sightings — can also increase.
Coyote or Wolf
Since 2000 there have only been 10 confirmed wolf sightings in Illinois, and none were in DuPage.
From a distance, it can be difficult to tell if an animal is a coyote or a wolf, but there are differences. Wolves can be twice as large as coyotes, as much as 115 pounds. (In winter, coyotes’ thick coats can make them look larger than they really are.) Wolves have large, blocky snouts; coyotes’ are smaller and pointed. Wolf ears are rounded, but a coyote’s ears are pointed and are proportionately larger than its head. The ears on 30-pound coyote can be the same size as those on an 80-pound wolf.
Coyotes avoid people when they can, but loss of habitat makes it difficult. You can prevent problems in your yard, though, by removing two main attractants: food and shelter.
- Never feed coyotes.
- Keep pet food and water dishes inside.
- Keep grills and barbecues clean.
- If possible, keep garbage cans inside.
- Use sealed compost bins, and never add pet waste, meat, milk or eggs.
- Keep the ground below bird feeders and fruit trees clean.
- Protect vegetables with heavy-duty fences.
- Use welded wire to block access to areas under decks, sheds, patios and porches.
- Clear overgrown bushes and dense weeds.
- Use deterrents such as sirens or motion- activated lights or sprinkler systems.
- Install a 6-foot chain-link fence, and bury an extra 6 inches underground. Install rollers at the top so coyotes can’t pull themselves over.
- Encourage neighbors to follow these steps.
Coyotes and Pets
Survival for coyotes is difficult, and some may instinctively see domestic dogs — their close canine cousins — as competitors or threats. This can be especially true if a dog is small (smaller dogs tend to be more aggressive toward larger canines) or if a dog’s yard falls within a coyote’s territory. In some cases, a coyote may try to eliminate a perceived threat or take a smaller dog as prey.
There have been reports of coyotes chasing or attacking dogs during the day, even dogs on leashes, but these confrontations are uncommon and are often initiated by the dog and not the coyote. Still, it’s wise to take a few precautions.
- Always supervise your dog and keep it on a leash — even in a fenced backyard.
- Always keep cats indoors.
- Coyotes can be creatures of habit, so if you see one at the same time and place while walking your pet, change your route or timing.
- If you have a small dog and encounter a coyote, pick up your pet.
Like domestic dogs, coyotes test their limits around humans and learn something from each exchange. Unless they associate people with negative experiences, such as loud noises, they can become comfortable walking down streets or sidewalks or near schools, basking in yards or parks, and shortening the distance between themselves and humans. A bold coyote does not necessarily mean an aggressive coyote, but a coyote that maintains its fear of humans will be less likely to cause problems.
- If you’re on a trail that coyotes often use, carry an air horn, whistle, walking stick, cane or other deterrent.
- If you’re followed by a coyote, don’t panic. It’s likely escorting or “shadowing” you through its territory, keeping a calm eye on you to ensure you don’t bother its den.
- If a coyote approaches you, be big, loud and bold. Wave your hands above your head, or hold your jacket wide open. Shout or use a whistle or horn. Don’t turn your back or run; calmly walk away facing the coyote.
- Keep yourself between coyotes and children.
- If a coyote becomes aggressive — snaps, growls or snarls — throw sticks or clumps of dirt at the ground by its feet. Aim for its body if necessary but never its head.
- Report aggressive behavior on private property to your local municipality. Report encounters in a forest preserve to the Forest Preserve District at (630) 933-7200.
- To watch a Chicago Tonight segment on "Chicago's Urban Coyotes," click here.
- To watch “Being Coyote Wise: Living with Urban Coyotes” from the Colorado Division of Wildlife, click here.
- To watch a Willowbrook Wildlife Center presentation of “Living With Coyotes in DuPage County,” click here.
- To read “Teenage Wildlife,” an article on coyotes from the winter 2014 Conservationist, click here.
Public Health Concerns
There isn’t one documented case of a coyote biting a human in DuPage County. (Domestic dogs bite nearly 900 people in the county each year.) Most cases in other parts of the country occurred after people were feeding the animals.
Coyotes are not considered to be a significant source of diseases that can be transmitted to humans. They may carry rabies, but there have not been any recent reports in DuPage. They may carry distemper, sarcoptic mange, heartworm and other canine diseases, but transmissions are uncommon. Still, always keep pets’ vaccinations current.
What Not to Do
- Trapping and removing a coyote is not always the solution to the problem. Removing the animal is illegal without the proper permits and only creates an open space for another animal. A trapped adult may also leave young behind to die of starvation. Focus on removing the attraction, not the animal.
- Never move young from the den.
- Never use poisons. They are inhumane and may be illegal. They can also result in secondary poisoning of pets, raptors or other wild mammals.
- It’s illegal to keep wild animals, even for a short time. They have special nutritional, housing and handling needs that you likely can’t provide. Inexperienced individuals who attempt to raise or treat them inevitably produce unhealthy, tame animals that cannot survive in their natural habitats.
Willowbrook Wildlife Center
If you come across a wild animal and are concerned, leave it alone. Call Willowbrook Wildlife Center for advice at (630) 942-6200. The center is located at 525 S. Park Blvd. in Glen Ellyn and is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except select holidays. Recorded messages offer general information when the center is closed.