The prairie – a habitat which historically covered much of Illinois’ Cook County – is mostly gone, but the prairie wolf, or coyote, is another story.
There are about 4,000 coyotes roaming Cook County – that’s a self-proclaimed “conservative guess” from Stanley Gehrt, a professor of wildlife ecology at Ohio State University who’s been studying coyotes in the area for nearly two decades.
Since 2000, Gehrt and his research partners at the Urban Coyote Research Project have fitted tracking collars on adult coyotes and implanted pups with microchips to better understand their habits, distribution and interaction with humans and animals.
Based on their research, the coyote population in the area has about doubled since 2005. Gehrt chalks that growth up to two factors: high survivability and high reproductive rates.
“The abundance of food is quite high in Chicago and it’s not just human food or garbage, but there’s a lot of natural food available for these animals in many parts of Chicago that you wouldn’t realize,” Gehrt said.
Coyotes are both predators and scavengers, eating small rodents, Canadian geese, rabbits, deer, fruits and more.
Humans pose the only real threat to coyotes in the city, Gehrt said, and since we can’t hunt or trap them here, the animals remain relatively unscathed.
“Outside of the Chicago area they’re hunted and trapped year-round without any limit, but once you get into Cook County, we don’t allow hunting and trapping, so that’s the only limiting factor for the population, “ Gehrt said. “Most people think it’s the opposite, but once they learn how to cross roads and avoid cars – the only real threat to them – they do extremely well in the city, much better than out in the country.”
Coyotes can be aggressive this time of year as their breeding season approaches. A Northfield family recently learned that the hard way when a surveillance camera caught a coyote attacking and dragging the pet dog in their backyard.
Gehrt said peak mating season is, coincidentally, Valentine’s Day – Feb. 14. That’s when most female coyotes are in heat. Starting in December, male coyotes develop higher hormone levels to defend their territory – and mates.
“We do see a spike in coyote attacks on dogs during the mating season,” Gehrt said. “Our research suggests that coyotes are extremely monogamous, so a single pair breeds together. They’re extremely defensive both in terms of getting access to their mates and intruders into their territory.”
The Urban Coyote Research Project’s website lists several steps in avoiding conflicts with coyotes. The two primary warnings are not feeding coyotes and not leaving pets unleashed or unattended.