Coyotes look like scrawny German sheperds and move like wind, swiftly and everywhere. They are tawny, ragged, and slim, with a quick and clever gaze and gaits from trot to gallop. A coyote’s sound is a shrill, scratchy laugh or bark, often mistaken for a child screaming. Sometimes, early in the morning, or for pure joy, a coyote will howl. The high-pitched howl is another song entirely. Maybe you don’t hear it where you live, on a city block wrapped in pavement. Maybe the silence is not for lack of coyotes.
The more of their territory we take, the larger their territory grows. Two hundred years ago, coyotes kept to the Great Plains. Today, Canis latrans is the top terrestrial predator in North America—and its range is no longer confined to the countryside. Coyote families are colonizing L.A. and Chicago, settling into the suburbs, quietly claiming territory and making their rounds in the privacy of night.
In 2002, a coyote casually boarded a MAX train at the Portland, Oregon airport and curled up in a corner seat. In 2007, one walked into a Quizno’s downtown Chicago and headed for the soda fridge. And they keep coming, careful and curious. “We built civilization,” wrote Craig Childs in The Animal Dialogues, “and they are doing a better job of using it than we are.” Coyotes have been spotted in city parks, crossing eight-lane highways, strolling across the Harvard Quad. And for every time a coyote is seen, there must be a million times it isn’t.
They’re good at staying in the shadows. Urban coyotes are more nocturnal than their rural counterparts. Unless fed by humans, they tend to avoid us. They grow strong on rats, mice, and the eggs of Canada geese. Still, the average city-dwelling coyote is probably smaller than it looks. Shaggy fur can bulk up a wiry frame like unfamiliarity feeds fear. In all of U.S. history, coyotes have killed two people. Six times that many people are killed each year by vending machines. Coyotes are not a danger to us; neither, try as we might, do we pose much of a threat to them.
There are more coyotes today than any time past. One hundred years ago, Wildlife Services was the Bureau of Biological Survey, and brochures urged hunters to “bring them in, regardless of how.” An article that ran in the April 29, 1917 issue of The Oregonian boasted the headline “Federal plan to wipe out predatory beasts succeeds.” Over the decades, bounties on the scalps of coyotes, bears, wolves, and mountain lions brought down predator populations. Government-salaried hunters and trappers slaughtered carnivores, “regardless of how” or how many, without regard to the ecological impact. Wolves vanished. Mountain lions retreated. Coyotes remained.
This is how it works: when we kill coyotes, new ones move into their territory. When population density is low, female coyotes find more food and have more pups. Trapping and killing coyotes only leads to larger litters and broader range for them.
Craig Childs explains the phenomenon of population resilience:
Coyote numbers, by nature of female biology, are designed for rebound. Coyotes are the first species to occupy a devastated area in the way evening primroses grown in the turned sand of roadways.
The response of coyotes to predator control is not just in litter size but in the number of females giving birth. When the population is stable, half of the female coyotes in an area will ovulate. When the pack is drastically pared down, all available females will ovulate, including the yearlings, who would normally not ovulate for another year. In a closely related pack where the lead female is usually the only one to bring a litter, the second and third females will mate and dig dens. Field biologists have estimated that if three-quarters of the world’s coyote population were destroyed at once, within a year or two their numbers would return unfazed.
Coyotes are as irrepressible as we are. And, like some of us hope to, they mate for life.
Canis latrans means “talking dog.” According to a report from the Columbia Slough Watershed, coyotes have more vocalizations than any North American mammal except humans. Mark Twain called the coyote “a living allegory of want,” “spiritless and cowardly.” “He is always poor, out of luck, and friendless… even the fleas would desert him for a velocipede.” Mark Twain, it seems, was wrong. The creature may be despised or illegitimately feared, but today, he is not poor or friendless. He is winning.
Navajo sheepherders knew him as “God’s dog.” West Coast indigenous people revered him as the bringer of fire and the creator of civilization. Coyote, some say, has always taken an interest in human affairs. There will never be a coyote infestation. These animals are too territorial for that—if their populations became overcrowded, they’d sort it out themselves. But their numbers are rising, their range is widening, and, increasingly, our cities are their territory. They come of their own volition and stay despite our violence and worry. They have proven they can live with us. We have no choice but to live with them, and our lives might be richer for it. Keep your pets inside if you have to; keep an eye on your children, and listen, at night, for an eerily human chatter or song. Coyotes live in a language that is different from ours, but we hear them, nonetheless.
From Craig Childs’s Animal Dialogues:
Coyotes move within a landscape of attentiveness. I have seen their eyes in the creosote bushes and among mesquite trees. They have watched me. And all the times that I saw no eyes, that I kept walking and never knew, there were still coyotes. When I have seen them trot away when I have stepped from the floorboard of my truck, leaned on the door, and watched them as they watched me over their shoulders, I have been aware for that moment of how much more there is. Of how I have seen only an instant of a broad and rich life.
Natasha Balwit is an undergraduate student in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT.