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Coyotes are already among us. In fact, they may be Toronto’s most successful urban invader since the squirrel
Aug. 3, 2021
Tom Spears

If a bushy-tailed dog down the street is watching you from behind some bushes, and it is off-leash, that’s possibly because it is not a dog.

You’ve just met your neighbourhood coyote, Toronto’s most successful urban invader since the squirrel a century ago.

Don’t go near it. It’s wary, and it will likely coexist with you, but it’s 20 kilograms of muscle and not your friend.

That said, it really likes to be your neighbour. (Especially if you have a bird feeder. Bird feeders draw squirrels, so they are also coyote feeders.)

We have an odd relationship with urban coyotes, starting with the fact we often fail to realize they are near us.

Coyotes are part of cities all over North America -- but go mostly unnoticed because they are masters of camouflage.

A coyote warning sign is posted near the Humber river in Etienne Brule Park.

“They live very well with humans. They learn to adapt around the activities of humans,” said Carolyn Callaghan, a wolf and coyote biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Federation.

“Coyotes figure out when people are active, when they are not active. They are studying our behaviour even before we know they are there,” and emerge to hunt in the twilight and at night.

“They are designed to be camouflaged, and Mount Pleasant Cemetery (one area where they are often spotted) is like an arboretum -- beautiful old trees -- and they can blend into the background pretty darn quickly.

“To me they are a species to be greatly admired because they have such great adaptive capacity. They can eat mice and they probably eat rats. That’s a service to people in Toronto.”

However she keeps her cats indoors during twilight hours.

Coyotes’ success takes the form of huge expansion. They once lived only in our southern Prairies and south through the western states to Mexico. But in the late 1800s they expanded west to the Pacific, and in the 1900s they moved east to our Maritimes and the U.S. Atlantic seaboard, and up to Alaska. Even the Roman empire couldn’t match that speed.

And they did it quietly. Hated and hunted by farmers, the coyote learned to infiltrate cities without setting off many alarms. It has made itself a top predator, unbothered by humans.

Numbers are almost impossible to come by because the creatures are so elusive. But radio tracking in and around Chicago indicates a population of 2,000 to 4,000 there.

The influx of coyotes parallels the case of grey squirrels (which are officially grey even when they are black.) Rare in Ontario through the late 1800s, they eventually immigrated here from New York and adapted to city living with gusto. It’s hard to imagine Toronto without them, but in 1901 the Canadian Field-Naturalist magazine reported that nature lovers were making special trips to Leaside where a single grey squirrel had been reported “in the hopes that the animal might again be seen.”

City living is easy for squirrels. They eat acorns, beech nuts, maple seeds, and your garbage. Red-tailed hawks and Cooper’s hawks will hunt them, but not in large numbers. Dogs bark and act tough but can’t catch them. In the country fishers and weasels climb and catch them, but these are not urban threats. Result: This is Squirrel City. And the coyotes are happy with that.

Humans are not always happy, however.

Toronto has had 10 reported coyote attacks on dogs this year, five fatal. Macy the Yorkie from Scarborough fought the good fight against one coyote in July, resisting and shaking free until the attacker ran off. Other cities report occasional attacks on dogs and humans as well -- rare, but dangerous.

When Toronto officials wanted to learn about urban coyotes several years ago they called in Stan Gehrt of Ohio State University, who has studied these animals in and near Chicago for 21 years. He tracks them with radio collars.

“One of the very first things we discovered ... was that there were more living among people than what we expected,” he said. “And most of them are able to go about their business, even in the most populated areas, without people even noticing them.

“They go to great efforts to remain hidden and obscure. It’s the exceptions that pop up every now and then that do become obvious.”

In extreme cases they need to be killed.

“They have already determined without any help that they can live there (in cities) and there’s nothing you can really do about it.”

Coyotes prefer suburbs but some do live in built-up downtown Chicago -- and, Gehrt believes, in downtown Toronto. He even found one pair with a den on the top level of a parking garage across the street from Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears.

“Toronto has a significant amount of green space. The ravines serve as excellent travel corridors for the animals, but also habitat for them to hide in,” he said.

Coyotes may visit your home at night as they search for food, but they won’t live that close, Gehrt said. They retreat to wooded areas in the daytime.

(That’s a difference from their country cousins, which like open spaces.)

“They mostly eat rodents and rabbits, and there are some coyotes that eat human foods” that people throw away. Generally however, they won’t go through your garbage.

And urban coyotes are thriving. They grow a little heavier in cities and suburbs, likely because the urban food supply is better. They also live longer in cities because urbanites rarely shoot them.

Coyotes are also really smart about crossing streets, which they do often in their search for food. They learn to use culverts and bridges to cross expressways.

“They know how traffic patterns work,” Gehrt said. Cars are the primary cause of death for urban coyotes, but an animal can survive for years in the city before it finally makes a mistake. He has found their average life expectancy in the city is 12 years.

Coyotes like to hide their pups underground. The female digs the den but she can’t dig downward. Instead she tunnels sideways into the side of a hill where there is good cover. (Again, Toronto’s tree-covered ravines are ideal, Gehrt said.)

But in areas where there’s no place to dig he has found them in human surroundings, such as the floor of a shed or the space under a deck.

On his Toronto visits, “I give them advice on trying to minimize the conflict” with humans and our pets.

“It comes down to reducing the amount of food that they are getting from people, so trying to have them not associate people with food, or your property with food.

“And then sometimes you do have to lethally remove an individual that has become aggressive.”

Callaghan added, “We need to be always respectful” of the coyote.

Watch for strange behaviour, she advises. “If they are behaving boldly, if they’re approaching people with dogs on a leash (or) approaching little kids, we should very concerned about that.

“But a lot of them are fine, and they have generations of puppies and teach them how to behave.”

The City of Toronto gives advice, including:

“Never feed coyotes. Do not approach coyotes, their dens or their young. Keep your dog on a leash. If you see a coyote, do not run but make some noise to scare it away.”

Get to know your neighbour

Some common facts about coyotes: