Coyotes have been spending more time in NYC, specifically in Long Island City and around the Upper West Side, and no one is sure how to react. The Parks Department is urging peaceful coexistence, while police break out the helicopters and tranquilizer guns. We rang up conservation biologist Mark Weckel, an educator at the American Museum of National History, and co-founder of the Gotham Coyote Project, for enlightenment on what these wild animals are up to, where we can expect them to pop up next, and how to distinguish their poop from dog poop. (The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
As far as all the recent coyote sightings go, is there more coyote activity in Manhattan than usual, or is there just a media frenzy going on? The last time we had this many coyotes, spotted by the public, was 2010. This time of year it's possible that we're seeing dispersing individuals trying to find new territory.
And where would they have originated from? I know there's a more established population in the Bronx. Is that where these coyotes are coming from? It's possible, and most probable. If you were to look at the northern part of Manhattan compared to the southern, there's a considerable amount of wooded parkland. So coyotes are maybe following wildlife corridors from the Bronx into Manhattan.
As far as this most recent sighting, there was a coyote seen at West 60th and West End, near Lincoln Center. When a coyote is between green spaces, what is its reaction? How is it feeling when it's surrounded by cars and buildings? This is a good question. Urban coyotes tend to avoid this at all costs. They want to spend their time in wooded areas, away from us. With that said, some urban coyotes may occupy fragmented woodlots, in which case they have to cross more densely developed areas. If this was part of its territory, if this was a different situation, they would probably learn to do that at night, when there was nobody out.
When we're seeing these coyote sightings, especially in Manhattan, it's a coyote unfamiliar with the landscape, probably looking to set up a new territory. If you think about it, up into the 120s, there's a considerable amount of green space that it could hold tight.
Like on the West Side. Correct. But it doesn't take very long to realize that there's nothing further south. We're perhaps seeing a coyote making a mistake. I think that's important for the public to realize—the Bronx, while not as urban as Manhattan, is an exceptionally urban area, and we go months without hearing about anyone seeing coyotes. And they're found all throughout the Bronx.
In a DNAinfo story on this issue, the hypothesis was put out there by your colleague Chris Nagy that coyotes could end up in Brooklyn and Queens, that it would be a natural migration for them. Could you explain more about that idea? Basically, Long Island is the last large landmass in the United States without a breeding population of coyotes. That puts the New York City metropolitan area at the edge of this range expansion. There are going to be parts of Long Island, including some parts of Queens, where there might be suitable coyote habitat, meaning areas where coyotes could exist with minimal interactions with the public.
However, getting there from places like the Bronx, New Jersey, or Connecticut, where we know there are coyote populations, requires going through the urban landscape that is New York City. And individual coyotes, not knowing the greener pastures beyond, may not always make the right moves getting there. Those are the ones we're seeing.
Should people be concerned? Are coyotes particularly aggressive when they're disoriented in this way? No. As you can see from all the videos, they run from all the authorities and the public, in almost all cases. The secret to the coyote's survival is truly, somewhat counter-intuitively, being able to live beside us and avoid us at all costs. We're talking about an animal that's persecuted throughout most of its range. Despite that, it's expanded its range, but they've done so in such a way that they have learned to avoid us.
Can you give me a rough overview of what the Gotham Coyote Project does? We have three main objectives. First and foremost is to understand more about the ecology of coyotes in the New York City area. To that end, we have relied on noninvasive methods such as camera trapping to understand where coyotes can be found, their activity, and where they're breeding. We're moving on to more sophisticated genetic techniques to understand how many there are, and relationships across parks. But also, part of our mission is to educate the public on the wildlife of New York City, principally coyotes, and to provide opportunities for high school youth to engage in authentic research on wildlife.
To backtrack a little bit, can you confirm this estimate of about 15 coyotes permanently settled in the Bronx? Those estimates are loosely based on how many breeding groups we have documented at one time. But in order to come up with more precise estimates—the camera traps that we use have their limitations—we will rely on methods such as testing genetics we get from scat, or poop, to really get at that question of how many coyotes there are.
Is it difficult to differentiate coyotes from photos? Very difficult.
If a coyote is traveling from the Bronx to Manhattan, how would it get there? That's the million dollar question: how do they get around the urban landscape? With camera traps, we only know what's going on in front of the camera. What we can tell you is based on the distribution of our camera traps, and some citizen science data, coyotes may be comfortable using infrastructure like railways. It's a great way for them to connect park-lands while avoiding interaction with the public.
We're talking about, like, Metro-North trackage, in a ditch? That is exactly right. That's, we hypothesize, one of the main ways coyotes get around the landscape. And in fact we have had camera traps that are feet from railways, and we almost always get coyotes on those cameras. And what a great story to tell for New Yorkers. This is how they get around the landscape. By utilizing a corridor that has very, very little humans on it, outside of the ones traveling at 60 miles per hour.
They're good swimmers, so it's not out of the question that they could swim between the northern tip of Manhattan and the Bronx. The East River is quite a barrier. So that's probably why we're not seeing a lot of coyotes in Long Island yet. They have to use either a very large bridge, such as the Hell Gate Bridge, where our Amtrak runs over, or they're swimming the notorious Hell Gate waters.
These coyotes really challenge New Yorkers to look at our landscape from the perspective of the wildlife that we didn't even realize we share with it.
Have there been sightings on Long Island? There have been a few confirmed sightings. One of the first resident coyotes was in 2009, and the coyote is still alive out in Queens. That, it should be noted, gets very little publicity, which is the kind of story we want. It lives in a park in a residential area, and has minimal interaction with people. There was a sighting out in Suffolk County in 2013, and there have been recent sightings as late as the end of last year. But there is no known breeding population on Long Island. [Editor's note: The Queens coyote was first spotted "near" Saint Albans and Rochdale Village, according to a scientific report Weckel co-authored.]
One more thing. If you are on the lookout for coyote poop, where do you most often find it? Coyotes will, most often at night, use trails in parks. That's a great place for us to find it, because it's easier to see. But in New York, it's a bit challenging because we have so many dogs.
Does it resemble dog poop? Not quite. You'll often see the remains of whatever it was eating. That might be a lot of seeds if it's summertime. You might find hair from rabbits, deer fur. All this is an indication that it's coyote. I know it sounds a little gross, but dogs are eating things like Alpo, so there's a very even consistency to their poop.
We have so many dogs, and dogs pooping, that it's a little more difficult to pick out coyotes. When we're talking about perhaps one or two coyotes that are in northern Manhattan, and we're trying to find their poop, that is not easy.