NYC Coyote Existential: Where do they come from and where are they going?
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.”
Mid to late winter is the usual 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.
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.
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?
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.April, coyotes, In the City, Wildlife/Natural History
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