Urban Coyotes: Meet the neighbors

Keeping coyotes at bay without messing with the ecosystem

Urban Coyotes: Meet the neighbors
Illustration by Craig Staggs

At a recent meeting of the Allandale Neigh­borhood Association to discuss the presence of coyotes, a frisson of fear ran through the room when someone asked what would happen if one showed up at a school. Naturally, residents are concerned about children's safety. But coyotes may be getting a bad rap. During the 11 years my three children attended the local elementary school, they were never an issue. But we did deal with a large, aggressive dog on the playground once, and a troubled resident had to be banned from setting foot on the property.

Coyotes can cause problems in urban neighborhoods, but there is little evidence that they deserve to be vilified as dangerous beasts. When more Allandale residents began to notice the animals' presence some months ago, tales flew of disappearing cats and stalked dogs. Before long, a mild panic was in the air. A general mentality that divorces us from the environment around us and the animals in it doesn't help, says Allandale resident and biologist John Lindsey. "We want to control our environment, and we can't," he says, adding that when emotions run high, people tend to lose perspective.

No human has been killed by a coyote in modern times, says Texas Parks & Wildlife Department mammalogist John Young. Meanwhile, according to the Centers for Dis­ease Control, every year 4.7 million dog bites send 386,000 people (half of them children) to emergency rooms and cause 16 deaths. Not to pick on dogs, the CDC also reports that on an average day, four children die in automobile accidents. Obviously, dogs and cars are a much greater risk than coyotes to children and pets, yet no one is suggesting that we get rid of either of them.

What makes better sense is changing our behavior to keep coyotes in their appropriate place, according to Dorinda Pulliam, director of animal services for the city of Austin. For the past three years, the city has operated a coyote management program in cooperation with Travis County and Texas Wildlife Services. The program doesn't seek to remove coyotes from the planet – which Pulliam says would be neither successful nor smart – but to teach people not to provide resources that attract coyotes and can cause them to overpopulate and lose their natural fear of humans.

The program tracks coyote encounters, reported via 311 calls, assigning them a score of zero to seven. Normal coyote behavior, such as howls emanating from the green belt or sightings of them prowling the creek at night, score a no-threat zero. A coyote on your porch gets a higher score. Randy Farrar, a biologist with TPWD, traps high-scoring coyotes and euthanizes them. (They cannot be relocated due to a rabies quarantine in Texas – and before the "R" word sets off another panic, skunks and bats are greater rabies threats than coyotes.) Coyotes acting the way a coyote should are not removed, Farrar adds, because others would simply move in to replace them.

When coyote reports increased in Allandale earlier this year, Farrar found that coyote scat in the area was composed of 100% pet food. This readily available smorgasbord of chow was understandably attracting the animals. Coyotes are territorial, and territory size depends on three basic resources – shelter, food, and water. "Unless we want to pave over Austin, it is impractical to limit shelter," Young says. "Where humans can have a huge effect is with food resources." Without pet food, pets, or trash on the menu, a coyote diet is primarily small mammals – squirrels, rats, raccoons, plus the occasional insect or lizard. This rather paltry fare will naturally limit their numbers.

Removing coyotes altogether would require a sustained, ongoing effort of trapping and killing to even come close to complete eradication. And, Lindsey points out, such a campaign might even create greater threats. "Without coyotes, we'd have a greater population of small mammals, including skunks, possums, and raccoons, and the issues they bring." A big raccoon can kill a cat, for example, and they certainly make a mess of your trash. Skunks are potential rabies carriers.

Cats are not much bigger than jackrabbits, and anything that would eat a rabbit – a coyote, yes, but also hawks, owls, snakes, dogs, bobcats – will eat a cat. The statistics are stark: The average life expectancy of an outdoor cat is two to five years, while indoor cats may live 17 or more.

At the Allandale meeting, one resident commented that her outdoor cats keep rats and squirrels from wreaking destruction on her property. But it is a misconception, Lindsey says, that cats control mice and other nuisance animals. "If you get a mouse or rat infestation, there's not a mouser out there that could keep up with the reproductive rate of a rat." Foxes and other small predators with roles in a healthy ecosystem would be happy to eat pesky rodents if cats aren't around, Farrar pointed out. Humans have altered the entire natural world, some places more drastically than others, and a truly healthy, balanced ecosystem is hard to find anywhere, much less within the Austin city limits. But the less we mess with the natural balance, either by introducing outside influences or removing natural players, the better.

Removing top predators from an ecosystem, whether deliberately or inadvertently, throws the entire system out of whack. In a natural world, coyotes wouldn't be in Austin at all, and wolves would be at least part of the reason. But coyotes are here now, and even if removing them were possible, more than likely those 311 operators would then be answering complaints about raccoons and other wildlife getting into trash, destroying property, and even eating small pets. There is simply no way to get rid of all wildlife, nor would most of us truly want the sterile and less diverse natural world that would result. A much better solution is for humans – in Allandale or anywhere else – to accept and even enjoy that wildlife is part of our environment and to behave accordingly.

Coyote 101

These members of the canine family stand less than 2 feet tall and weigh between 22 and 45 pounds. Their color tends to be brownish-gray with a lighter belly, ears are erect and pointed, muzzle slender, and tail bushy. Coyotes breed in January and February, and the average litter is five or six but varies according to population density. Average life span in the wild is six years. Home ranges in the wild are 3 to 16 square miles but in urban environments may be as small as a quarter to half a square mile, thanks to ready supplies of food and water. Coyotes are normally active at night and early morning. They are naturally fearful of humans but can become less fearful in urban populations.

Human Behavior 101

Do not put feed or water out for coyotes or for wild animals that are their prey (deer, rabbits).

Construct and position bird feeders so that coyote prey (squirrels and rodents) can't get to them.

Secure garbage and compost so coyotes cannot get to it. Use tight-fitting lids on trash cans and fix them so they cannot be turned over.

Feed pets indoors; if feeding outdoors, pick up any leftovers.

Do not allow pets to run free. Bring them in at night, walk your dog on a leash, and accompany your pet outside. Walk small dogs in open areas.

If you see coyotes around your home or property, throw rocks or sticks at them and make loud noises; if you're in your car, honk the horn. Report coyote sightings and behavior by dialing 311. If you feel threatened by a coyote, call 911.

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coyotes, Allandale Neighborhood Association, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, Dorinda Pulliam

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