NYC Coyote Existential: Where do they come from and where are they going?

Central Park Coyote, 2010 by Bruce Yolton. Visit UrbanHawks.com

Across the continent, interaction between wildlife and humans is on the rise, as urban and suburban sprawl eats up ever more habitat. Stanley Gehrt, director of the Urban Coyote Project, maintains there are more than 2,000 coyotes living, often out of sight, in the Chicago metropolitan area. Biologist Jonathan Way of the Eastern Coyote Research is studying coyotes in the greater Boston area.

But Manhattan? Surely Manhattan is exempt from sharing its paved-over, built-up streets with wild predators.

No more. Our island status and a relative paucity of desirable habitat has made us late-comers to the wildlife party sweeping the country.  But the guests, predators and prey, welcome or not, are arriving.  We can kick them out, but, as we have already seen, others will arrive to take their place.

So, New Yorkers and city dwellers around the country, it’s time to open up a public discourse about our changing relationship to nature and urban wildlife in the new century.

Coyotes in Manhattan: In 1999, a young coyote turned up in Central Park. Nicknamed Otis, he was captured and taken to the Queens Zoo (yes, Manhattanites, Queens has a zoo) where he lives today.

In 2006, another young coyote turned up in Central Park. Called Hal after the Hallett Nature Sanctuary where he made his base, he too was captured. After a brief stay with experienced NYC rehabilitators, Hal died just as he was about to be released on private land outside the city. His death was variously attributed to an underlying heartworm condition, poison from a consumed rat, stress from the chase and capture, and injuries sustained in the capture.

In the winter of 2010, a coyote again made its home in the Hallett Nature Sanctuary, where it was regularly sighted over a two month period. In early March, a young 30-pound female coyote, probably the Central Park coyote, was captured in downtown Tribeca,. She was taken to Animal Care and Control for observation and assessment, and was later released in an undisclosed location within city limits, possibly Van Cortland Park in the Bronx.  (Some NYC coyote watchers believe the animal captured in Tribeca is a different animal from the Central Park coyote; however, no new Central Park sightings have been reported since the capture.)

Between January and March 2010, other Manhattan coyote news included the capture of a young female coyote in Harlem, a coyote killed on the West Side Highway, the sighting of three coyotes on the Morningside Heights campus of Columbia University, a near-capture of a coyote in Chelsea, and a sighting by walkers in northern Manhattan’s wild Highbridge Park. While the total number is in dispute, it is safe to say there have been at least three, and quite possibly four, coyotes in Manhattan this winter.

Unlike the falcons, hawks, bald eagles and osprey that have returned to the city in recent years, coyotes are newcomers to the eastern seaboard.  The first coyote sightings in New York state date from the 1920s. Originally a western species that thrived across the open territory of the Great Plains, coyotes  have successfully colonized every county in the state except Long Island and, until recently, New York City.

Coyotes are one of the few large carnivores that have responded to human manipulation of the environment by expanding their range and numbers.  Most large North American carnivores, including the coyote’s close cousin, the wolf, suffered dramatic declines after the arrival of European settlers, four hundred years ago. But coyotes, like humans, are an extraordinarily adaptable species. Opportunistic omnivores, they can eat just about anything from carrion to berries, can scavenge, forage or hunt, and can live just about anywhere from the southwestern desert to northern forests. To avoid contact with humans, coyotes in highly developed areas shift from their usual diurnal schedule to become successful nocturnal hunters. And if the population dwindles due to hunting or natural environmental cycles, coyotes simply produce more pups. Despite decades of relentless hunting, poisoning and trapping, the coyote is thriving.

As human development changed the face of the Great Plains, the adaptable coyote gradually extended its range north and east into the Great Lakes region of the U.S. and southern Canada. In Canada, they interbred with the remnants of an eastern wolf population before moving south into New England. Recent DNA testing confirms that many eastern coyotes have a significant portion of wolf genes, resulting in a hybrid animal that is larger, on average, than western coyotes.

The disappearance of large carnivores throughout most of the northeast created an imbalanced ecosystem in which rodents and deer populations grew unchecked by the wolves, mountain lions, bobcats and bears that were once their natural predators. Coyotes moved easily into this prey-saturated predator void, hunting rodents and other small animals, and scavenging deer carcasses. Wildlife ecologist Justina Ray calls the coyote “the most successful colonizing mammal in recent history.”

Late winter is the normal time for adolescent coyotes to venture away from their parents in search of new territory. This annual pattern led coyotes to colonize Westchester by the 1990s, and the Bronx in the late 2000s. As of 2010, according to Sarah Aucoin, Director of the Urban Park Rangers, two coyote families are breeding successfully in Van Cortland Park, leading some officials to suspect that Manhattan’s young coyotes may be Bronx juveniles seeking new habitats.

Scouting Territory? Bruce Yolton/UrbanHawks.com

Gordon Batcheller, a wildlife biologist with New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, says, “Looking at the Manhattan landscape, it’s not hard to see where they could live. They are very adaptable to a variety of conditions.”

To get from the Bronx to Inwood Park in northern Manhattan requires nothing more than an easy trot across the Amtrak railway bridge, or, possibly, a short swim battling the Hudson River’s notorious currents. From Inwood Park, an enterprising coyote can head south through a system of greenways and beautifully restored parks with only occasional necessary forays into the streets. At Riverside Park and 116th Street, they can move east through the Columbia campus to Morningside Park, which is, at its southern end, just one short block from the great wooded expanse of Central Park. The most recent coyote was first spotted several times in Central Park’s wild North Woods before settling on the protected four acres of Hallett Nature Sanctuary as her home base.

Leaving Hallett. Bruce Yolton/UrbanHawks.com

The appearance of coyotes in Manhattan has inspired a wide range of responses in New York residents. One long-time New Yorker said, “It’s the end of civilization,” while others thrilled to the idea of a large wild creature in the heart of the city and wondered, perhaps naively, as the days of residence turned to weeks and the weeks to months, whether long-term co-existence just might be possible.

While Manhattan may be coyote-free at the moment, they’ll be back. If not next year, then the year after. How should we respond? Reader, what do you think?

Visit the archives of Out walking the dog for other posts on Manhattan’s coyotes, including NYC Coyote Dreams: Worlds Within Worlds.

Note:  Ravens, which traditionally scavenge alongside western coyotes, appear to be following the coyote’s track into the northeast. A raven that haunts Marble Cemetery, an old graveyard in lower Manhattan, may be a released captive, but a pair of wild ravens is nesting, as I write, in Queens.

Thanks to the Urban Park Rangers for hosting a talk last weekend, entitled “NYC Coyotes: Return of Native Wildlife – Balancing Urban Ecology, or Conflict in the Urban Jungle?” The speaker was Frank Vincenti of the Wild Dog Foundation, a “coyote advocacy group” eager to educate the public about eastern coyotes and wild dogs around the world.  Thanks also to Matthew Wills of Backyard and Beyond for pointing out the coyote-raven connection, which is also discussed in Hope Ryden’s book, God’s Dog: A Celebration of the North American Coyote.
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30 Comments on “NYC Coyote Existential: Where do they come from and where are they going?”


  1. […] by (some might say, obsessed with) the urban coyote phenomenon and bowled over by the extraordinary story of migration as these highly adaptable wild dogs have spread out of their native home in the Great Plains, […]

  2. Jenny Says:

    I really enjoyed this entry – especially the paragraph in which the coyotes’ possible route(s) into the city are considered. I went to a lecture this past summer on “nonnative” urban plants (renamed “spontaneous cosmopolitan plants” by the lecturer). He spoke of railways as entryways for not only wildlife, but also plants such as the ubiquitous kudzu. (Railside plantings of kudzu were actually subsidized by the US government through the mid-40’s. Very good idea.) Anyway, I just love thinking of wild things (and naturalized things, in the case of kudzu) using railroad tracks for their own, personal travel.


  3. […] the coyote is a wild thing.  A highly adaptable omnivore, Canis latrans is evolving before our eyes, having expanded its range eastward into parts of the continent where it has never been seen. In […]

  4. CGJ Says:

    Isn’t this wonderful? Something is going on… subtle evolution, maybe? Wild animals are establishing themselves in urban areas all across the country. Coyotes may not be that surprising considering the special historical relationship between humans and canines. Perhaps this is the early stages of self domestication? One thing I don’t buy is the urban sprawl argument. The percentage of urbanized land is still miniscule compared to the percentage of rural land available. There are plenty of options for these animals other than living in the heart of the city. They are there because they want to be. The concern is, though, when an animal is particularly successful living among humans their status often quickly changes from novelty to pest (think Rock Doves, Grackles, Rats). I hope this doesn’t become the case with Coyotes, and some of the other medium sized mammals we have in our midst.

  5. barbara Says:

    Eastern Coyote Research up in Mass. is Dr. John Way not Wray. http://www.easterncoyoteresearch.com/

    The Wild Dog Foundation on Long Island is a local coyote organization. http://www.wilddog.org

  6. sue.butler Says:

    where did they come from and what did they tiey to do from giting attact by a coyotes and if i get into a pack of them what do i do


    • Experts say the best thing to do if you see a coyote is to wave your arms, shout, and generally make yourself appear large and unpleasant. Most coyotes are not a threat to humans and will keep their distance from you. If you live in the country or suburbs where coyotes are seen, be sure your garbage is secure, don’t let pets wander unattended and don’t feed your pets outside.

  7. Frank Ogno Says:

    Approximately 30 yrs. ago I was hunting in what was then “rural” Long Island in the area of Coram. My dog who had first started wimpering, shortly began growling, her hair sticking straight out. In a moment we came upon a carcass of a large raccoon, it’s arms, upper torso, and head the only thing remaining. As I bent down to investigate it more closely, I heard what I thought was a human cough to my right. I turned to get a perfect sideview of a coyote! No “wild” dog, German shephard etc. In the split second of “processing” the image, I thought it wounded (moments later the realization that the blooody muzzle only meant I interrupted his/her meal) In seconds it bounded over a huge tangle of briar and was gone. My dog just couldn’t seem to let the situation “go”, and spent the rest of the day with her hair sticking out like her nose got caught in an electric socket.

    • Andre Says:

      Frank – I believe your story… Usually by the time scientist observe something – it’s been going on for a while. It’s just like the mountain lion that was spotted only 20 miles from the Bronx in Greenwich, CT. All the scientists said “oh it must be a pet let loose because no wild ones are around here”. A couple days later it was killed further into CT… and they found that it was indeed wild and had travelled hundreds and hundreds of miles to get here. So I don’t doubt there have been others. For instance I saw a coyote along the Bronx River Parkway at least 6 years before the scientists said they were breeding over in Van Cortlandt Park.


      • The more I look into the Queens coyotes, the more I suspect that Frank is right – that there may indeed be a small resident population. There are sightings in non-contiguous neighborhoods throughout the borough. Coyotes do travel, so it’s possible one animal is moving around and popping up here and there. But it certainly seems, to this untrained observer, quite likely that there are several animals. I’d love to find and talk with a NYC researcher dedicated to urban coyotes. Chicago has a huge on-going research study of their coyote population, and Boston’s is also being studied. I’d love to know more…

        • eLiz Mcqueen Says:

          i’ve seen them in riverdale. 2 yrs ago i saw 4 of them on a lawn west of independence ave. last night i saw 1 around the same area. but i wonder where do they go and why don’t we hear them. i thought coyotes howled.e


          • Wow, very interesting sightings, eLiz. I believe coyotes are often quiet in urban areas, which helps them live undetected. I hear this is the case in parts of Chicago and Boston as well. I’ll see what more I can find out about howling, which is a communication tool, and report back!

          • Andre Says:

            The ones you see probably live in Van Cortlandt Park… they’ve been living there since the late 90’s… I wouldn’t be surprised that if they had motion cameras in Wave Hill at night – that coyotes would be spotted on the grounds. Or they could live in the wooded area near to the Riverdale – Metro North Station… or over the line in Yonkers. The authorities tend to not want to let ppl know where they live in the fear that ppl will try to disturb them – and then cause problems.

            As to the howling – coyotes have a diff sound than wolves. It could be that ppl hear them but mistake them for dogs. I can’t say for certain… but keep in mind they don’t like being noticed by ppl.


          • Hi Andre, Thanks for your insights on the Bronx coyotes – very interesting. I know there have been a breeding pair living for some time in Van Cortland Park. It occurs to me that pups that are now young adults – last year’s litter, for example – may now be on their own and seeking a new territory. In late winter/early spring, as the parents prepare for a new litter, some of the previous year’s litter (usually the females, I believe) may stay around to help bring up their younger siblings while others leave the family to strike out on their own. An alternative scenario, given that eLiz reports seeing 4 in the same spot a couple of years ago, is that a family has been living there in the area all along, and is just highly at not being detected. As Andre points out, they don’t want to be noticed by people.

            A wonderful California blog that documents and discusses all kinds of coyote behavior as well issues surrounding coyote-human interactions is Coyote Yipps. I highly recommend it.

          • Andre Says:

            yeah it could be… I can remember a few years ago they found a young one on the property of Horace Mann school in the area. they caught it easily as it didn’t run away or resist. they just took up to another wooded area and let him go.

            there are also probably some living in or near Wave Hill.


          • Thanks, Andre. I’d guess you’re right about Wave Hill. Nice location!


  8. […] for most of their lives, until diverging in old age. Meanwhile, at Out walking the dog, Melissa investigates the appearance of coyotes on Manhattan and says the time has come to accept their presence, and start discussing what to do about […]


  9. […] they are an “extraordinarily adaptable species,” which allows them to live near humans. Melissa’s fascinating post tracks the history of coyotes in the city, and how they got […]

  10. Melissa Says:

    What a beautiful sight that must have been. Cape Cod apparently has quite a coyote population, and even has its own coyote researcher. I think he’s based in Chatham or Barnstable – can’t remember. He radio-collared & tracked Cape Cod coyotes for years – don’t know if he’s still studying them. He’s also conducting research on coyotes in Boston area.

  11. pat hoey Says:

    Recently there have been coyotes on Outer Cape Cod in MA and at least one family headed by a female in Provincetown. (She was traced to the dunes after many sightings, but as far as I know, let be.) One winter night four years ago I sighted her at the far end of deserted Commercial Street, just moseying along ahead of me in the snow: a profoundly moving sight.
    And we heard ‘em howling for a while in hamlets adjacent to the National
    Park…
    I say, keep cats inside at night and small dogs on a leash, and let ‘em be–they’re far less trouble than drunk drivers.

  12. angel Says:

    please keep us posted on those wild dogs. I wish we had such wild life in Milan parks (Italy). The stories you tell are timeless.


  13. Thanks for putting together all this great research

  14. Charlotte Says:

    Being here for just one night makes me all the more amazed that a coyote could find its way down to Tribeca! It’s not unusual to see them in the canyons of LA, but here? Mind boggling.

  15. mthew Says:

    This is a great piece. Thanks. Hadn’t known about those wolf genes in the mix. Long Island will be the last place to fall, and it will probably happen soon.

    • Melissa Says:

      Thanks, Matthew. It’s such fascinating stuff. You hear stories about big 50-pound, wolf-like New England coyotes, but I’m pretty sure our NYC dogs have all been lightweights, like the most recent 30 pounder. They’ve all been young, so maybe they don’t yet have their full weight. But still, it makes me wonder. Will try to find out more about the hybridizing in coming weeks. I did read somewhere that Pennsylvania has two different populations of coyotes: “pure,” smaller coyotes that came in from the west and larger hybrids that came down from the north. Maybe they’ll meet in the middle of the state and mix it up again!


  16. Not living in Manhattan, I can’t say what it means for residents. On the whole, where I live, I am always torn when I see coyotes. I usually see them closer to urban areas than I would like – but for their sake, not mine. I worry they will get hit by a car, and worry that they would not be so close to people if they had anywhere else to go. However, it is a thrill to catch a glimpse of a coyote or two from time to time.

    Hope the coyotes can find a niche in Manhattan, especially since they appear to be on their way to stay.

    • Melissa Says:

      That’s a very good point that they “would not be so close to people if they had anywhere else to go.” I think you’re exactly right. The reading I’ve done indicates coyotes are naturally very shy and secretive.


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