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How did coyotes become regular city slickers?

A photo of a coyote at night above Santa Monica Beach in California.
A coyote above Santa Monica Beach in California (Image credit: Jason Klassi via Getty Images)

You're walking down a city street at dusk when you spot movement in a nearby alley — a rush of gray-brown fur and pointy ears rooting around for dinner. As you get closer, you realize it's a coyote. But coyotes are larger than the average city creature, such as mice, squirrels and pigeons, so what are these predators doing in big cities from Los Angeles to New York City, and how do they manage to survive?

Coyotes (Canis latrans) used to be found only in the prairies and deserts of central and western North America. But in the 1800s, the amount of open land ballooned as European Americans and other settlers transformed the landscape through widespread logging and agricultural development. This created more open habitats in eastern states, and coyotes moved in, expanding their home range. At the same time, humans tried to exterminate wolves and cougars, which decreased food competition for coyotes, according to Kathleen Kerwin, a program associate at the Wildlife Conservation and Management Program at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Coyotes spread across the U.S., and as humans expanded their cities, coyotes learned to adapt to their newfound urban digs. It's hard to estimate how many coyotes are living in a given area at any time, as they are generally elusive, Kerwin told Live Science in an email. "But we know that some coyotes are thriving in urban environments because they can take advantage of small patches of habitat and they are not picky about what to eat." 

Related: Why are there so many pigeons?

Kerwin and her colleagues recently published a report about New Jersey's coyotes. These eastern coyotes are sometimes called coywolves or coydogs, as they once interbred with wolves and dogs. However, this mixing happened many generations ago, and today the coyotes keep to their own kind. 

Coyotes are part of the Canidae family, which includes wolves, dogs and foxes. Coyotes can grow to about the size of a medium-size dog, weighing about 20 to 50 lbs. (9 to 23 kilograms), Live Science previously reported. Coyotes are extremely versatile, a valuable asset when trying to make it in a big city. 

In urban environments, coyotes seem to prefer fragments of woody and shrubby habitat, as well as parks and golf courses, where they can find shelter away from people, Kerwin said. They’re normally not particularly fussy about where they bed down for the night, sleeping out in the open or under vegetation cover.  

Coyotes are social animals and can be found in pairs or family groups known as packs, even in cities. Packs are typically made up of an alpha male and female pair and their close relatives, according to the Cook County Coyote Project in Illinois. However, coyotes typically travel alone or in loose pairs, unlike a wolf pack, and can also be solitary. 

During coyote breeding season, from January to March, a mated pair will retreat into a den to raise their pups. "Den sites are usually found in pre-existing spaces such as in a hollowed out log, an abandoned burrow from another animal, or a rocky crevice, and can be very difficult [for humans] to find even in urban areas," Kerwin said. Coyotes may even use den sites close to buildings and roads, or in parking lots, according to the Cook County Coyote Project.

Urban environments often provide coyotes with the same types of food that are available in more natural settings. Most of their diet is made up of rodents, rabbits, fruit and deer, according to Kerwin. However, urban coyotes may also take advantage of food left out by humans, which can lead to conflict. 

"Coyotes will lose their fear of people if they start associating people with access to food such as garbage, small pets or livestock, or outdoor pet food," Kerwin said. These easy meals can make the naturally shy coyote become bolder and show aggression toward people. 

Related: Why can't all animals be domesticated?

Coyote attacks on humans are uncommon, but they do sometimes occur. For example, one coyote attacked and injured five people in the San Francisco Bay Area, including a 3-year-old girl in February, before the animal was captured and euthanized on March 12, the San Francisco Chronicle reported

People are often divided about whether to coexist or terminate these wild predators. For instance, one neighborhood in Seattle was torn after three members of a coyote family (a mom, dad and three pups) were killed by the Wildlife Services, a federal agency, in 2016, according to the Seattle-based radio station KUOW

Coyotes will go out of their way to avoid people. They are naturally most active at dawn and dusk. However, the Cook County Coyote Project and others have found that coyotes in urban areas increase their activity at night when there are fewer people around. Many urban species do this to avoid humans and traffic. Coyotes will take advantage of daylight hours too, though, so city dwellers should not be alarmed to see them during the day, according to Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. 

The easiest way to stop coyotes from becoming too familiar with people, and therefore reduce the chances of aggression, is to stop feeding them intentionally or unintentionally, Kerwin said. "Also, if you see a coyote in your neighborhood that does not run away, it's a good idea to wave your arms or shout loudly at it, to reinforce their fear of people." 

Kerwin added that if a coyote does become aggressive, then you should immediately call the police or animal control. 

Originally published on Live Science.