Their howls pierce the night air in a declaration of wildness. This call, when it sweeps across the rolling hills of Appalachia or the Mojave flats, resonates with the romance of the backcountry. But when it's heard by someone walking down Broadway, it seems eerily out of place.
Opportunities to experience nature are not usually why people choose to live in New York City, but that's what many New Yorkers have been experiencing now that coyotes are taking their best shot at adopting the cosmopolitan lifestyle of the Big Apple. This past spring the canines were spotted atop a Long Island City bar, strolling down the Upper West Side and through Battery Park, and even at LaGuardia Airport.
The sightings spurred something of a coyote frenzy in print, with articles appearing everywhere from National Geographic to The New Yorker. Not because this is the first time the species has ventured into cities—in fact, just about every city in North America has a population of coyotes within, including an estimated 2000 that now call downtown Chicago home. But if there’s a symbol of the concrete jungle, it’s New York. The fact that carnivorous wildlife is making its home on the mean streets is like taking down the fence posts of the constructed boundary between what we consider manmade and what we consider wild. If the coyotes can make it here, they'll make it anywhere.
Why are they here?
How coyotes have found themselves in urban environments has as much to do with us as it does with them. These new city slickers are not returning to reestablish residence in their natural homelands. In fact, while the species can now be found in all corners of our continent, 1000 years ago coyotes were only found in the deserts and prairies of the West.
Coyotes came to the big city via a path that we laid out for them, driven by the perpetual search for a niche to fill. Our development of prime coyote habitat around New York happened over the last 200 years, as human inhabitants first cut down broad swaths of forest and then, more recently, began to let some of that forest regrow. “We’ve created a landscape that—other than the roads—is perfect for deer, raccoon, fox, and coyotes,” Chris Nagy, a wildlife biologist with the Gotham Coyote Project, told mental_floss. “It’s a young forest, with lots of small mammals." And those small creatures are the perfect coyote food.
We’ve also done coyotes a big favor by practically wiping out their chief competitors: wolves. Through hunting and development, people killed off the local wolves and other large carnivores in the northeast. With the apex predator niche now left open, over the same time frame that humans expanded westward, coyotes expanded to the east, traveling north through Ontario, where they interbred with gray wolves, and later, dogs. This means that the coyotes that are making appearances in New York are in fact a different subspecies called the coywolf.
“There’s always this pool of roaming wanderers looking for an opening,” Nagy explained. As young coyotes go out to find a slice of land they can call their own, they go from the forest to the suburbs, from the suburbs to the city parks, and then, before you know it, you start to catch glimpses of them scurrying downtown.
For most of their existence coyotes have been the underdog, which has only made them more resilient, earning them a reputation for being crafty and versatile. “Their entire evolutionary history has been under the tooth of wolves, and then under the poison and bullets of people,” Nagy said. “They’re super smart, super adaptable, and they can figure out a way to make it work.”
The new neighbors are here to stay
Of course, not everyone appreciates the animals as much as Nagy does. “People will say to me, ‘they don’t belong here,’” he said. “And I’m like, ‘According to who?’ The coyotes are here."
Even though researchers stress that coyotes present minimal threat to people—and even possibly provide some benefits, by keeping rodent, deer, and goose populations in check—some suburban residents have asked for tighter coyote management, because of worries about their pets becoming coyote chow or suffering a rabid bite. And then there’s the fact that the USDA kills thousands of the animals a year, to protect ranchers’ interests.
But Jonathan Way, author of Suburban Howls, points out that the past 150 years during which most humans haven’t lived side-by-side with predators is the anomaly. We’re just not used to it because we haven’t seen it in our short lifetimes. “But it’s not the norm, and it’s not going to stay that way,” Nagy said.
“If you want to manage it, it’s kind of like putting your finger in the dike,” Nagy continued. “The resources you’d have to deploy to eliminate coyotes from suburbia—and to keep the populations of raccoons and small mammals down—it’s impossible.”
For now, New York City wildlife officials have taken the stance that it is we who need to adapt to them by following simple common-sense measures like keeping an eye out for our pets and not approaching the coyotes, which are, after all, wild animals.
Anyway, if we tried to prevent them from living among us, the coyotes would likely just find another way in. They have proven themselves to be a rather wily bunch.