By Michele S. Byers
Have you followed the recent coverage of coyote sightings in New Jersey? Have you seen a quick flash of a mysterious canine-like animal moving across the landscape, ducking into the trees or perhaps behind a building?
If it was carrying any product marked ACME, or dropping anvils from hot air balloons, or carrying giant magnets, putting up detour signs, detonating TNT , or cruising around on roller skates with attached rockets, it was undoubtedly a coyote!
All joking and Looney Tunes characters aside, no matter where you live in New Jersey – rural area, suburb or city – coyotes are likely there, according to Christian Crosby, a Ph.D. candidate in the Rutgers University Department of Ecology.
“They are in Jersey City, they are in Hoboken, they are everywhere,” said Crosby, who has been researching coyote movements and behaviors.
Coyotes have been seen in 98% of New Jersey, and in Central Park and the Bronx in New York. Their highest New Jersey concentrations are in the northwestern counties and in the Pine Barrens in the south central part of the state.
“Coyotes are here to stay, so it’s important that we learn how to live with them,” he emphasized. “They are really easy to get along with if you know what you are doing.”
Coyotes were originally found in the deserts and prairies of the American west and southwest. They began migrating eastward in the late 1800s and were first seen in New Jersey in 1930.
DNA evidence shows they bred with gray wolves and domestic dogs to create what is now known as the Eastern coyote.
Eastern coyotes differ from their western cousins, said Crosby, in that they are larger, but more docile because of their dog DNA. It is also thanks to these canine ancestors that eastern coyotes are so well adapted to living in forested areas and in areas inhabited by humans.
They get about as big as a medium sized dog, with males ranging between 30 to 45 pounds and females slightly smaller. They are predominantly gray in color, but can sometimes be black, brown or blond. They are often confused with two other canid species in New Jersey, the red fox and the gray fox.
One easy way to identify Eastern coyotes is by their drooping, bushy, black-tipped tails, often seen tucked between their hind legs. They also have large pointed ears and bright yellow eyes.
Red foxes, in contrast, are smaller and distinctive for their black “socks” and ear tips, and white tips on their tails.
Gray foxes are even smaller and are rarely glimpsed outside densely forested areas.
Crosby describes coyotes as “opportunistic omnivores” who will eat just about anything – including rodents, young or injured deer, rabbits, raccoons, insects, frogs, fruits, nuts, eggs, livestock, feral cats or the contents of garbage cans.
But they are wily, wary and secretive.
“They don’t want to be near humans if they don’t have to be,” said Crosby. “They just want to find food and breed.”
Contrary to popular belief, coyotes do not form large hunting packs. Social units consist of a mated pair, their pups, and possibly “teenage” offspring from the previous year’s litter.
Crosby offered the following advice to avoid conflicts with coyotes:
• Don’t feed them. If you do, they will become habituated to humans and lose their natural fear;
• Secure garbage cans, restrict access to compost piles and do not leave bowls of pet food outside. Be aware that coyotes might try to raid bird feeders;
• Keep cats and dogs indoors, and make sure livestock like chickens and lambs are in a secured area;
• If you see a coyote in your yard or near your house, use “hazing techniques” like shouting, waving your arms, throwing objects at it, spraying it with a hose or sounding an air horn to scare it, but be sure to leave it an escape route.
• If you encounter an aggressive coyote – which is extremely rare – call the police or animal control;
• Seal off areas under decks and porches to prevent coyotes from establishing dens there;
• If you have a fenced yard, make sure the fence is at least 5 to 6 feet high and buried at least 6 inches underground.
Here is what not to do, according to Crosby:
• Do not trap coyotes and bring them to places like the Pine Barrens.
Relocating coyotes is “usually a death sentence” for the animals because they are being dumped in an unfamiliar environment where other coyotes have already established territory. And it does not solve the problem; removing coyotes from your neighborhood just allows others to move in.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be contacted at email@example.com