coyotes in our midst

| 04 May 2015 | 04:19

New Yorkers thought they had seen it all. Until this year.

Since January, four coyotes have been spotted in Manhattan, and wildlife experts say that number is likely to rise. While the wild dogs are likely a novelty to typical city dwellers, Dr. Chris Nagy, director of research at the Mianus River Gorge in Bedford, N.Y., isn't surprised with the fusion of wildlife and the city.

“Recently we've learned a lot about coyotes living in parts of the Bronx, they've been breeding there for a while,” said Nagy, who also works with the Gotham Coyote Project.

Both Nagy and Dr. Mark Weckel, another researcher with the project and a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Biodiversity & Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History, have been tracking down Eastern coyotes since 2006 in Westchester and New York City as part of a citizen science project.

“Progressively since 2011, they've kind of moved into new parts and started breeding in new places and we have been expecting them to kind of eventually make their way into Queens and then Long Island, which Nassau and Suffolk resemble,” Nagy said.

The first documented coyote sighting within New York City was in 1994, at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, according to The New York Times. Since then, the coyote population outside of the city has only grown.

Nagy says when coyotes enter a new area, they take over — making homes in different niches until the juveniles leave the family and make their own, typically a year at most after they're born.

The eastern coyote can grow to about 50 pounds and 60 inches long, snout to tail end, about the size of a medium-sized dog. Although wild, they avoid people. Their diet consists of small rodents, deer, rabbits, fruit, raccoon and birds, according a study of coyotes in Chicago cited by the Gotham Coyote Project.

Much is still unknown about why coyotes are house shopping in the city, but Nagy suggest that they have emigrated into New York because of overcrowding in their more native habitats.

“That pressure sends them to empty places and right now those empty places are Manhattan, Queens and Long Island,” he said.

To learn more about their behavior, Nagy and Weckel along with other researchers and high school student have been tracking them in various locations.

“The best way to find out about animals, if you don't have that much time and they're sort of sizable and they live on the ground, is by using camera traps,” said Nagy.

Camera footage is reviewed by the researchers to better understand where and how the coyotes are traveling. These are just tentative first steps to understanding how they survive. Through genetic testing of their fur, Nagy, Weckel and their research colleagues also hope to determine whether the coyotes who have travelled into Manhattan are related to those seen in the Bronx.

Leslie Day, the author of “Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City,” has a different perspective on the increase in wildlife in athe city. Like Nagy, she was not surprised by the recent coyote sightings. And instead of being alarmed, she embraced their appearance. “They're shy of humans, they're not like feral cats or dogs that have been domesticated, they're wild and they stay away from humans,” she said.

As top predators when it comes to animals, coyotes are “opportunistic omnivores,” Day said. Because coyotes have that varied diet, they could be seen as having direct benefits locally. “In many ways, they're kind of a gift to have here," she said.

Nagy said the increased prevalence of the animals in New York and elsewhere, including in Chicago, throughout Canada and even in Washington, D.C., suggests they're very adaptable.

“It's very hard to make predictions about what coyotes are going to do because they appear to be able to do almost anything and live almost anywhere,” he said.