What do I do if I see a coyote in the park?
Coyotes are native to North America but originated in the southwest United States. Their adaptability, along with the regional decline (extirpation) of larger predators, has facilitated a dramatic range expansion over the last century. Coyotes are now found all across North America and have established themselves in every major city continent-wide.
The coyote (Canis latrans) is a member of the canid, or dog—family. In Wisconsin, other members of the canid family include the gray (timber) wolf (Canis lupus), the red fox (Vulpes vulpes), and the gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus). Domestic dogs (Canis spp.) are also members of the canid family. Coyotes often resemble a small German Shephard with their grayish coat, pointed ears, long and slender snout, and bushy, black-tipped tails. Adult coyotes weigh between 25-40 pounds, but their thick coats often make them appear much larger, especially during winter months.
Coyotes are habitat generalists, meaning that they can inhabit a wide variety of land uses (e.g. agriculture, urban, undeveloped) and covers (e.g. woodland, grassland, shrubland). This adaptability has allowed coyotes to successfully move into and live in (colonize) urban areas where food and shelter are seemingly abundant. It is important to understand that coyotes were not forced to move into urban areas and it is not necessarily because urban areas have expanded into less developed areas; rather, they moved into and adapted to human-dominated ecosystems like they have adapted to many other North American ecosystems because of the availability of suitable habitat (e.g. food, water, shelter, and space). Research has shown that in urban areas, coyotes spend the majority of their time in green spaces such as parks, golf courses, and cemeteries, but will move outside of and between these green spaces during dispersal periods and when they are hunting (Gehrt et al. 2009).
Despite living in urban habitats, urban coyotes still maintain a predominantly natural food base to their diet. Urban coyotes feed heavily on rodents and other small mammals, with deer (primarily fawns) and geese serving as some of their secondary food sources. Research has shown that urban coyotes are the number one predator of urban geese. Overabundant goose and deer populations can negatively impact the ecosystem in urban areas. By being the top predator in urban areas, coyotes are a keystone species in helping to maintain healthy functioning urban ecosystems. Urban coyotes are also known to consume fruits, berries, seeds, and corn. It is very important to not feed urban wildlife (raccoons, squirrels, deer, ducks, geese, fox, coyotes, etc.). The urban ecosystems in Milwaukee County provide plenty of natural food sources to urban wildlife.
Coyotes are naturally secretive and skittish creatures. In rural areas coyotes are active mostly during the daytime and during dawn and dusk. Contrastingly, research has shown that urban coyotes have adapted to focus most of their activity to night when the likelihood of encountering humans is much lower. While primarily nocturnal, urban coyotes may still be seen during the day when they have either been flushed out of an area or when they need to continue hunting to feed pups.
January – May: Adult coyotes typically mate in February prior to searching for dens in April. It is during the breeding, denning, and pup rearing season that coyotes can become aggressive towards other canines within their perceived territories and/or near dens or pups. Coyotes will only use dens during an approximately eight week period during spring when pups are first born. Dens are usually inconspicuous and typically placed in areas secluded from human activity. However, in urban areas some coyotes may attempt to den underneath decks or patios. June – August: After the pups are approximately eight weeks old coyotes will begin to leave the den sites and travel their territory searching for food. During this time the adult coyotes are still extremely protective of their young. September – December: Coyote pups grow into young adults rapidly, and by the fall of their first or second year of life they will begin to disperse from their natal territory in an attempt to establish a territory of their own and/or find a mate. With fall comes a natural peak in coyote activity.
Coyotes may be host to parasites such as mites, ticks, and fleas. Additionally, coyotes may carry diseases such as canine parvo virus, canine distemper, and Lyme. The coyote-strain of rabies is restricted to southern Texas but coyotes can be infected with rabies from other species. If you are a pet owner, keep your pet's vaccinations up to date to avoid complication from contact with an infected wild animal or its secretions.
Coyotes are intelligent, highly adaptable animals that have co-existed with humans for many years. Naturally, coyotes are very skittish and weary creatures that will avoid human contact by either running away when encountered and/or restricting their activities to nocturnal hours. In some circumstances however, often in urban and suburban environments, coyotes may lose their innate fear of humans, also known as "habituation". Habituation may result from food attractants in backyards or neighborhoods (such as pet food, unsecured garbage, fallen fruit, etc.) and/or repeated exposure to humans without negative reinforcement. A coyote may appear to be habituated or exhibiting bold behavior if it is observed doing things such as languishing in parks during the daytime in close proximity to humans, following humans and their pets, or not leaving the area upon encountering people. These bold behaviors associated with habituation are what can ultimately lead to human-coyote conflicts in urban areas. In order to proactively manage coyote behavior for a safe, sustainable, and long-term coexistence with our wild urban neighbors it is of the upmost importance that we all understand how human behavior/actions can reinforce and reshape coyote behavior. To deter repeated coyote visits in your yard use the yard audit form to assist in identifying potential attractants. Be sure to remove any food sources like bird feeders for 2-3 weeks and begin hazing the coyote(s) to make visits to your yard a very unpleasant experience for them.
Hazing is a form of behavior modification that involves using scare tactics to deter a wild animal from frequenting an area. There are several techniques that can be used to haze coyotes, but in order to be successful in re-instilling their natural fear of humans the hazing must be consistent (until the nuisance behavior stops) and on a community-level. Hazing should not be done when an active den or pups are present because adult coyotes will defend their young. Hazing also should not be done on an animal that is visibly sick or injured (acting restless or agitated, making choking motions, drooling excessively). For more information and a demonstration on hazing, watch this video developed by Public Health and Dane County in collaboration with the UW Madison Urban Canid Project.
Reporting Coyote Observations
Residents of Milwaukee County are encouraged to join the Milwaukee County Coyote Watch page on iNaturalist and add their coyote observations. This information assists researchers and wildlife managers in understanding urban coyote behavior and activity patterns within urban areas such as Milwaukee County.
Living with Urban Coyotes 101 – Things to Remember:
- Do NOT feed coyotes – in your yard or on parkland!
- Do respect coyotes as wild animals – they will lose their instinct to be fearful of humans if they begin to associate food with a human presence.
- Learn more about keeping urban wildlife wild by visiting the Wisconsin DNR webpage.
- Abide by Milwaukee County leash ordinances (47.06) when on parkland and natural areas with your pet.
- If you see a bold coyote, haze it! (Watch this video to learn more about it)
- Feed your pet indoors – or if you do feed your pet outdoors, promptly remove the food dish after the feeding.
- Remove your bird feeders and outdoor pet food containers – coyotes will prey upon the small mammals that are attracted to them.
- Store pet food indoors.
- Put trash in barrels with tightly fitting lids.
- Accompany your pet outside and speak loudly to warn/scare off coyotes.
- Be extra watchful between dusk and dawn.
- Provide secure shelters for outside pets such as poultry and rabbits.
If you see a sick or injured animal. . .
Please contact the Wisconsin Humane Society's Wildlife Rehabilitation Center (414) 431-6204.
For more information
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has a detailed coyote webpage or speak with your local county biologist by calling 1-888-936-7463. Urban coyote research is a relatively new branch of wildlife research, but several projects in the Midwest and around the country are leading the way to explore the ecology of urban coyotes and understand ways to live with them. View a research project summary here.
View the full Milwaukee County Urban Coyote Management Plan here.