The long persecuted coyote is not vermin, after all. Researchers are now discovering that it's a resilient, adaptable predator that's not just surviving in U.S. cities but playing a valuable role in restoring the food chain for the benefit of birds and other species.
Based on scat studies, coyotes mostly eat rodents, like voles and rats. Gehrt points to anecdotal evidence that when coyotes are removed from a golf course, rodent numbers skyrocket. "Some golf course owners actually like coyotes because they control rodents naturally, rather than having to poison them," he says. The scat also revealed that coyotes eat rabbits, fruit, and raccoons, plus some birds and cats. "On average, one percent of scat is cat hair," says Gehrt. "There are a few areas when cat is 10 percent of scat. They may be important in keeping down numbers of feral cats"--a lethal foe of birds.
The same holds true nationwide. "Most of our results are similar to what Stan has seen," says Paul Curtis, who oversaw Cornell University's coyote behavioral ecology study, which radio-collared 40 animals in New York's Westchester County from 2006 to 2010. "Their diet is primarily a natural diet. We found very few anthropogenic sources--a few scraps of garbage, bits of plastic, cigarette butts. A lot of white-tailed deer." Capturing and collaring coyotes has been essential to gaining these insights into their diet and behavior; after a decade, Gehrt's team has it down to an art.
The coyote is surprisingly calm. Curled up in a metal cage on the tailgate of a white pickup, her rust-colored legs tucked beneath her, she sniffs the breeze blowing through Busse Woods. Lean muscle ripples across her haunches as she shifts. She tracks me out of the corner of her yellow eye as I move around her cage, refusing to meet my gaze as I lean in for a closer look. "She'll stay calm, unless you stick your finger in there," says Chuck Rizzo, a researcher with the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. He smiles, but I step back. I'd rather keep my digits.
This is Coyote 427, a two-year-old female trapped in Busse Woods this morning. Before releasing her on this sunny afternoon in late May, Rizzo and his colleague Mike Neri sedated her, gave her a thorough physical exam, and attached a radio collar and ear tag.
"All right, let's let her go," says Gehrt. "You don't know how they'll react when you open the cage. Sometimes they shoot out, other times they hang out for a while before finally sauntering out."
Coyote 427 springs from the cage before the door hits the grass. Her silver-white coat glistening in the sun, she shoots effortlessly across the meadow and into a thick stand of cottonwoods quivering in the breeze. The coyote stands behind a tree, still except for the slight twitching of her rust-tipped ears, watching us for several moments. Then she turns and melts into the woods.
We stare after her. "Wow, she's beautiful," breathes Gehrt. While the others start packing up, I keep watching, hoping for another glimpse I know I won't get.
This was my closest brush with a coyote. For two days we tracked a dozen ghost dogs from mid-morning until late into the night. The chirping signal often told us they were hidden in vegetation mere feet from us. But we caught sight of a pack only once, as it slipped onto a golf course at dusk: Coyote 1--the one Gehrt thought he'd lost all those years ago--with her mate and three offspring. During the hours we'd spent together, Gehrt related watching her grow from a "scrawny teenager" to a healthy adult who had litters every year starting in 2002, earning her the nickname Big Mama. Gehrt's respect for her is obvious as he recounts how she outsmarted the researchers numerous times before they finally recaptured her--just once--to replace her collar battery.
While Big Mama died of natural causes in April 2010 at the ripe old age of 12, her legacy lives on. A young, 38-pound male that appeared this year may challenge her son's territory. Her mate's departure from their territory following her death raises all kinds of questions. Who will move in? Has he taken a new mate elsewhere? Will they have a litter? "After all these years, they still surprise us," says Gehrt. "We're not nearly done understanding coyotes."