As wild coyotes turn up everywhere from Central Park to Queens, one band of ecologists armed with tree-mounted cameras and cheese-scented lures seeks to understand just what these carnivorous canids are doing here.
When people call New York “the city that never sleeps,” they’re usually referring to the bars and nightclubs that serve alcohol until four a.m. (and sometimes far longer), or to the darkness-chasing lights of Times Square. But in the city’s quieter, shadowy places, a more feared animal is also keeping awake. The coyote has firmly established itself in communities across North America, leaving a trail of missing dogs, cats, and livestock in its wake. Over the last few years it’s set out to make New York City its home.
Lately, coyote spottings in the city have become a form of entertainment. In 2006, a coyote affectionately dubbed Hal was the focus of a Central Park chase involving dozens of police officers and even a helicopter. Though the coyote was the first to be seen in the Manhattan park since 1999, the gates to the city seemed to have officially opened to the animals. By 2010, local publications like Gothamist, New York magazine, and The New York Times were regularly reporting the newest coyote sightings in Stuy-Town, Chelsea, Central Park, and even the Holland Tunnel. Though a decade ago, a coyote in Manhattan might have been a fluke, today it’s an established — if still somewhat unusual — occurrence. Within the last few weeks, a coyote was sighted on the roof of a Long Island City bar in Queens and another was tranquilized in a Battery Park sidewalk café. But when the coyote invasion began, no one knew why they were in a city of eight million people or where they might go next. Until a group of ecologists put themselves on the case.
In 2010 residents of Rye, a city roughly an hour north of Manhattan by car, became wary of coyote sightings after discovering a poodle that appeared to have been killed by one. Within a few months there were reports of attacks on people in the area too — a two-year-old, her father, and a teenager. Authorities later confirmed that the coyote responsible for the attacks had been infected with rabies, making it abnormally aggressive. The community stepped up its trapping program and the police chief, William Connors, urged parents to keep their children inside on summer evenings. Connors even told a reporter for the Associated Press, “We are presuming at this point that all coyotes are dangerous animals that may harm our children, and we will treat them as such.”
Chris Nagy, thirty-seven, co-founder of the Gotham Coyote Project, has become something of a coyote detective. When the media began regularly covering coyote sightings in the Bronx and Manhattan in 2010, Nagy and a couple of other ecologists decided to use their weekends for coyote research. “Nobody really had any idea where they were or how spread out they were,” he says. So he started a project that would discover where in the five boroughs coyotes had made their home and why. The original team consisted of three main researchers — Nagy Mark Weckel, and Anne Toomey — who took to the city parks looking for paw prints. Soon afterward, they started putting camera traps in the forests near Westchester to catch images that could tell them where the coyotes were — and where they weren’t. Eventually the threesome obtained permits from the Parks Department to work in New York City parks.
At first, Nagy and his pack could only find evidence of coyotes dwelling in the far northern edge of the Bronx. In the years since, Nagy has seen coyote families complete with pups at locations further south including Queens and small parks near the Whitestone Bridge at the southern end of the Bronx. “Coyotes are doing fine as a species,” he says. It may take time before they saturate the five boroughs but the fact that they’re here at all points to the fact that they can adapt to any environment. Though their numbers might be fewer in the New York metropolitan area than out West, the coyote species has been able to find comfortable new homes in urban areas.
Anne Toomey is no longer directly involved in the Gotham Coyote Project, but she was, in a way, its catalyst. She stumbled across signs of migrating coyotes during a project tracking urban wildlife and brought Nagy and Weckel on board. Nagy brought the coyote project to his employer, the Mianus River Gorge, a nonprofit conservation and educational institution headquartered in Bedford, New York. “They allowed us to make this one of their projects as long as we put their students on it,” Nagy says. One of the organization’s goals is to get school-aged children interested in science and ecology. Coyotes are a huge draw. Weckel, who works at the American Museum of Natural History, also recruits students to work on the coyote project when possible. Nagy admits that it’s hard to fund straight research these days. Without a business or educational component, many ecologists are on their own.
Eventually Toomey left to work in the United Kingdom, leaving the coyotes behind. Today, Nagy and Weckel split up the fieldwork and data interpretation, though both of them have full-time jobs. For them, coyotes are a labor of love. “On a mushy level, I like coyotes and I think they’re really cool for their ability to make it anywhere,” Nagy admits.
Twice a year, Nagy finds a few spots hidden in large green spaces like the Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park and Pelham Bay Park and sets up camera traps. At first, the group could only find evidence of coyotes dwelling in the far northern edge of the Bronx. “Since then we’ve seen them breed at two other parks further south,” Nagy says. “They roam furthest in the wintertime.” He confirms their new locations with the summer cameras, which often capture photos of coyote pups.
While there are no official numbers on the coyote population, one thing is certain: these canine cousins are on the move. Their destination? Wherever other coyotes aren’t. In the case of New York’s canine immigrants, that means Long Island.
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“There’s never an opportunity to see coyotes or take pictures of them,” Nagy explained over the phone, making sure I wasn’t going to get my hopes up prior to a trek through Van Cortlandt Park with them this past February. “We might find some poop though,” he added hopefully. Weckel knows a place where he frequently finds coyote feces in the wintertime. So there was that to look forward to.
While stockpiling scat may not seem as exciting as capturing images of coyotes in their natural habitat, it’s actually the key to a new area of research for Gotham Coyote Project. Currently Nagy knows that the New York City coyotes are both picking up new territory and becoming stronger in numbers. Their eastward-spreading locations and the consistent sightings of pups each summer confirms that. Unfortunately the cameras alone can’t give the Gotham Coyote Project an accurate count of the coyote population since it’s very difficult to tell one coyote from another on film.
For Nagy and his crew, it’s not enough anymore to know that there are coyotes simply living in an urban area. They want to know: Are certain coyote families spreading out farther than others? Do they each follow the same routes or is every pack creating their own path? Having gone as far as he can with photos alone, Nagy is hoping he can turn to the poop for more answers.
Jason Munshi-South is a geneticist and a professor at Fordham, as well as the head of the Munshi-South Lab, a project that studies the evolution of animals in New York City. Some of their most recent research is based on the urban mouse population whose genetics, as it turns out, aren’t the same as their laboratory-raised siblings. Both the crowded populations and the soil-quality of the nooks and crannies they live in have tweaked their DNA over generations. While it’s unlikely that mice are the only urban animals to have adapted to their environment, coyotes, Munshi-South says, don’t need to change in this manner. “They’re pre-adapted to thrive in urban environments, behaviorally intelligent, and can solve problems and use a broad range of food types and den sites.”
The more interesting question for Munshi-South isn’t whether city coyotes have some genetic variation that makes them better suited to dealing with factors like urban pollution, but why they’d migrate to such a heavily populated area in the first place. As a comparison, he points out that scientists have speculated about whether the first people to colonize a place like Polynesia — which involved thousands of miles sailing across the uncharted ocean — might have had a genetic aberration. “Were they particularly bold individuals?” he wonders. So far these are questions that have gone unanswered, for both humans and coyotes. For now, the genetic markers Munshi-South will be using won’t give the Gotham Coyote Project too much detail, but just enough to tell one coyote apart from the other. “It’s the same markers you use for crime scene analysis in humans,” he says.
They’ll use these DNA markers taken from samples of coyote scat to put together a more complete picture of coyote families and where they travel. This means that Gotham Coyote Project might finally get solid population estimates of coyotes living in the Pelham Bay neighborhood versus Van Cortlandt Park and other hot-spots — something that’s impossible to do with camera traps alone. “There’s a lot of mythology about how many coyotes there are,” Munshi-South says, explaining that regular sightings of coyotes might lead people to think they’ve overrun a location when there might only be three or four of them. “It feeds into fear and concern that isn’t really warranted.”
Understanding what coyotes are doing in New York City is important for us and for them. As a top-of-the-food-chain predator, they’re a good marker of how well the urban ecosystem is doing. While human habitats may be tiny apartments rather than city parks, nature that’s inhospitable to animals is unlikely to be enjoyable for us either. In Chicago, where coyote research is better funded, scientists use everything from genetics to radio-collars to track the coyotes’ movements. “But we’re not to that level yet,” says Munshi-South, adding that the Gotham Coyote Project team and resources simply aren’t big enough to conduct such massive research.
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Nagy packs his knapsack for our slog through Van Cortlandt Park on this bitter February day. He’ll need cable locks to attach the cameras to the trees, the cameras themselves — camouflaged boxes each filled with twelve AA batteries — and a Tupperware containing the coyote lures, which are little round pellets called “fatty acid scent discs.” In the early days of the Gotham Coyote Project, their cameras had shutter speeds too slow to catch a passing coyote. The lures keep the canids interested and sniffing around long enough to take a few good photos. I ask who came up with this coyote-friendly bait. “The USDA,” Nagy says, giving a half-smile, half-grimace. “The government uses those lures to trap and kill coyotes out West.”
In general, coyotes and humans have a troubled relationship. Among the canines, we love our dogs and fear wolves — though we have spent the last thirty years trying to protect the latter. In the ranching West, coyotes aren’t so much killed as wiped out by ranchers, hunters and the government, utilizing taxpayer money in the process. In 2013, the taxpayer-funded — and ironically named — US Wildlife Service killed 75,217 coyotes in forty-four states. This is not an anomaly. Between 1916 and 1999, the Federal Cooperative Animal Damage Control program killed nearly six million coyotes. Because coyotes are responsible for one-third of all cattle killed by predators and don’t go easy on sheep or other livestock either, they’ve become public enemy number one to ranchers. So for generations, ranchers, hunters, and the Wildlife Service have been banding together to hunt, trap, poison and starve the coyote population. Critics have often accused the federal Wildlife Service of animal cruelty for letting their prey wither away in unchecked traps or allowing their dogs to attack coyotes that are stuck in snares. In some areas, people still hang coyote carcasses from their fences. (It’s unclear if that practice is meant to warn off other predators or simply unnerve passersby.) Yet according to Nagy, coyotes are here to stay — in New York City and across the rest of the United States. “We’ve shocked, trapped, gassed, and shot them from helicopters for hundreds of years and nothing has happened except they’ve become more prolific.”
Outside the city, non-lethal methods like using fences, guard dogs, and even llamas — that, like dogs, also have a natural protective streak — to keep coyotes out are slowly becoming more popular. But extermination is still the knee-jerk response to predators. “It’s this old-fashioned rule of predator control and game management that’s still surprisingly prevalent,” Nagy says. Over the years, ecologists studying the effects of mass coyote extermination have found the practice to be harmful to the ecosystem and even livestock. Whether in a city park or a national forest, fewer coyotes mean more deer, rabbits, and other animals that compete with cattle or sheep for food in addition to disease-carrying rodent species. Despite the American history of Manifest Destiny and attempts to conquer the wilderness, people in the U.S. haven’t had much success with coyotes. As Nagy puts it, “We’re not masters of the world.” Attitudes, especially in urban areas, are changing to reflect that knowledge. In New York City, where few people have the luxury of letting their dogs run loose and cattle aren’t fixtures of the landscape, coyotes are simply an urban curiosity. Mankind has conquered a wild island and tamed it into miles of concrete and steel, and a few animals can’t do much to change that. Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean that they’re risk free. New Jersey has seen two coyote attacks on people in the last month. At least one of them was rabid — the other’s status yet to be determined. Nagy doesn’t want to downplay that wild animals can be unpredictable but wishes people would keep the danger in perspective. “There are more dog attacks than coyote attacks,” he says, adding, “If you don’t wear seatbelts or you smoke, [that’s] riskier than a coyote.”
Ultimately, while the Gotham Coyote Project may develop a greater understanding of coyote movement or behavior patterns, their research may not be transferrable to other cities. Even if one could find a coyote-friendly park surrounded by a similar population density, factors like how many cars versus pedestrians are on the road make a big difference in a coyote’s behavior. The area where they’re truly successful is as scientific PR for a traditionally hated species. “Every day of life is has risks,” Nagy says, “and coyotes are very far down on the list.”
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Nagy liked animals from a young age, although he never dreamed of becoming a veterinarian. Many ecologists — including the project’s co-founder, Weckel — study animals in remote areas, trekking through the Amazon in search of leopards or rare tree frogs. Not Nagy. “If I was in the rainforest, I’d be miserable,” he says, adding, “I like animals but I don’t like bugs.” So he fell into urban ecology instead, an area where he could do fieldwork during the day but go home to sleep at night.
In his Master’s thesis, Nagy studied screech owls, then focused on urban owl populations for his PhD. There are some obvious similarities between owls and coyotes — they’re largely nocturnal and can live almost anywhere. They also aren’t animals regularly associated with city life.
Yet there are wild animals spread across the city, and not just coyotes either. Circling the most densely populated area in the United States are seals and dolphins, beavers and flying squirrels, even flocks of green parrots nesting throughout Brooklyn. The type of ecology Nagy focuses on concentrates on finding ways to allow human development and a natural ecosystem to coexist. It’s not all altruistic either. “I want animals to be around because I like them and they’re nice, but other parts of it are very selfish,” Nagy says.
I see now why something as small as camera traps and scat collection would matter. We’re not just studying the coyotes; we’re researching ways to allow us to better live in the world around us.
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As we near a clump of trees, Nagy puts down his GPS and announces that this will be the first camera location of the day. We’re only fifteen or twenty feet from a trail and attach the camera so that it’s blocked from view by the tree trunk. “Mainly, we choose locations simply based on hiding it from other people,” Nagy explains. Unlike rural coyotes, their urban cousins aren’t scared off by human scent. “In avoiding the people we’re also avoiding the paths that animals might take.” Animals don’t often see the point in scrambling through thorny underbrush when there’s a clear trail nearby. That’s another reason why the cheese-scented lures come in handy. They pull coyotes off the paths and into the trees where the camera can catch them.
Making sure the cameras are at the right height to get a good photograph is a complicated dance. Gesturing to the multiple feet of snow on the ground, Nagy worries that when the snow melts the camera will be pointing too high. But there’s nothing he can do about that now. So he aims the camera and tests it by dropping down on all fours and lumbering across the ground. “I’ve gotta crouch down like an idiot,” he says sheepishly, though this really is just another day at work. From the time we find the tree, the process of setting up one camera takes about fifteen minutes.
I ask him if coyotes will wait until our scent wears off before coming close to the camera.
“There are people here every day. If they were that wary, they’d go crazy,” he says.
Coyotes have an innate ability to habituate to any situation. Much like the kid who moves to New York City from a small town in the Midwest, it feels like they shouldn’t belong here — but coyotes always find a way to fit in. “The coyote is a paradox where they seem to do well in urban areas but are always avoiding direct contact with people,” Nagy says. Coyotes don’t move to an area because they prefer it; they simply find themselves in a new location and adapt. “They live in the forest, in the grasslands, in the deserts, in subtropical areas,” Nagy points out. “The two places where they’re not are Long Island and the High Arctic but someone is trying to track them onto the sea ice now.”
If Nagy is correct about the direction the coyotes are moving, it won’t be long until they’re established on Long Island. Recently, a citizen science project called Wild Suburbia, which Nagy helps run, has added New York City and Long Island to their places of note. There, residents can report sightings of coyotes and a few species of fox. “We’re mainly looking for coyotes,” Nagy says, “but foxes are something interesting and we have to make sure people get something.” Realistically, it could be years before coyotes make Long Island their permanent home. Once they reach it, there will be few places left in North America that they haven’t colonized.
“Maybe they’re just the ultimate adapters,” he says.
Coyotes can eat anything and survive anywhere. They’re nocturnal but are active during the day when it suits them. As a top-of-the-food-chain predator, their existence is a clear sign that the rest of the ecosystem can’t be doing too poorly — a fact that humans increasingly need assurance of. By accepting them into the city, people are taking a step towards opening the door for every other important species we are a little leery of. As Nagy says, “The coyote is this ambassador to a new way of thinking about cities and where we live.”