Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “Northwood News”

Northwood News ♦ December 2020

Nurturing Nature

The Rise of the Suburban Coyote

By Jennifer McGuire Cox

The increased presence of coyotes over the last several years has generated some alarm within local suburban communities.  Historically a species of the western United States, they have gradually expanded their range to the east coast as competing predators, such as wolves, have been eliminated from the ecosystem.  First spotted in Maryland in 1972 in the areas of Frederick, Cecil, and Washington counties, coyotes have since expanded their range statewide.

Coyotes have been present in Montgomery County since the late 1980s and sightings were relatively low through the 1990s.  In the last ten years or so, the number of sightings has increased dramatically, indicating that coyotes are now established in the area.  Coyotes are rumored to now be found in Wheaton Regional Park and even perhaps the Northwest Branch.

The introduction of coyotes has led to negative effects on native animal populations.  The red fox, especially, has suffered declines in population and has been forced to less desirable habitats as a result of the much bigger coyote.  Impacts, although smaller, are also anticipated for other local predators, including the gray fox and bobcat.

Coyotes are true generalists and can thrive in a variety of different conditions and terrains, including forests, wetlands, open fields, and the greenways and lawns that surround, or are in, many suburban environments.

How do you tell though if you’ve spotted a coyote, and if one might be frequenting your yard?

Coyote Versus Fox

Coyotes and foxes are similar in that they both are in the Canidae, or canine family, the same family that includes domestic dogs.  While the two are generally nocturnal (active at night), they can sometimes be seen during twilight hours as well.  As a result of broad physical similarities and active hours, coyotes and foxes are often mistaken for one another.

Red Fox
The most common of the two that you’ll likely see in your yard is the red fox (Vulpes vulpes).  Found across much of North America, the red fox is a very adaptable animal, having easily moved into the suburban environment.  Common characteristics include rusty red sides and back, black ears, black lower legs (as though they’ve wearing dark stockings), and a long tail with a white tip.  Their length, without tail, is about 18–35 inches.

While there are gray foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), they tend to be shier, sticking to their forest habitat, and are rarely seen.  Roughly the same size as red foxes, common characteristics include a peppery gray back that can be red around the legs and head, no black lower “stockings,” a black stripe that runs along the length of the tail, and a black tip to the tail.  They are also the only canine in our area that can climb trees!

Coyotes (Canis latrans), on the other hand, are much larger than red and gray foxes, with an overall heavy-looking build and length that can exceed 60 inches.  Their color can vary but is usually gray to cinnamon gray, with long legs, and a tail shorter than a fox’s with a dark tip that tends to hang down when it runs.  Some say they can resemble a German shepherd dog.

Should I Be Worried?

While the population, and range, of coyotes is expected to continue to grow, there is little cause for alarm to people.  Coyotes are rarely seen and will likely continue to roam unnoticed by residents as they have for years.  Despite their larger size, a coyote’s natural reaction to humans is to run away.

Gray Fox

Those that do not shy away have grown accustomed to humans, often as a result of being fed by them.  It’s never a good idea to feed, pet, or otherwise care for a wild animal.  In that case, “hazing” can be used to rehabituate an animal to fear humans, such as waving your arms, using noisemakers, and spraying them with water.  Coyote attacks on humans are quite rare.

While there have been stories about coyotes attacking pets left unattended at night, statistics are hard to pin down.  It can be hard to prove a coyote attack occurred based on just injuries alone.  Coyotes are omnivores, eating a mixture of plants and animals.  Their preferred diet includes rodents, including squirrels, rabbits, insects, birds, deer, snakes, berries, and even roadkill, not your pets.  If you’ve seen a coyote in your yard, make sure all left-out food, including in your trash, is safely secured, as that is a main attractor.

Tips for Avoiding Conflict with Coyotes

[Jennifer McGuire Cox is a naturalist at Brookside Nature Center and Maydale Conservation Park. She is also a certified Maryland Master Naturalist; she lives on Belton Road.]   ■

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