In the 12 years that Stan Gehrt has been tracking a population of coyotes on the Northwest side of Chicago, living not far from O’Hare International Airport, he has watched them adapt to the city in some pretty stunning ways. For one thing, they understand traffic patterns – in fact, better than some people do.
As best as Gehrt and other researchers can tell, these coyotes have learned what cars are and can understand which direction traffic flows. Coyotes crossing a one-way street know that they need to look in only one direction. They've even embraced medians. Coyotes crossing large roads in the city are prone to dash across one direction of traffic and sit waiting on the island in the middle for the other lanes to clear.
“We have one animal living in downtown Chicago, and we’ve watched her cross intersections,” says Gehrt, an associate professor of environment and natural resources at Ohio State University. “She’ll sit on the corner and literally wait until the cars are all stopped at the red light. She’ll wait until she’s sure that vehicles aren’t going, and once everyone stops, then she darts across the road. She’s been able to live in that downtown area now for three years without getting hit by a car.”
All of this is remarkable not just for what it tells us about coyote cunning (and the interspecies communicative power of well-placed traffic lights). Coyotes have adapted to the city in ways that scientists never thought possible. And their impressive survival in urban settings suggests we could soon be coexisting with even larger carnivores.
Coyotes occupy a kind of carnivore niche, Gehrt says: They’re the biggest predators we have living in our cities so far, but they also sit at the bottom end of a much more imposing range of meat-eaters. “Now coming behind coyotes,” he says, “we have in North America mountain lions, bears, and wolves.”
Try to picture an urban future where truly everyone wants into the city: aging baby boomers, exurbanites, Millennials, wolves.
“It’s going to be an interesting thing to watch over the next decade or so, how do people adjust to these larger carnivores?” Gehrt says. “How much are we going to let them live among us, and where are we going to draw the line? Coyotes have forced us to move that line more than we would have 20 years ago.”
Would you be willing, for instance, to give up your neighborhood green space for fear that a coyote pack may settle in? Chicago’s experience tells us that human attempts to keep these animals out may not be that successful anyway.
In more rural settings, a group of coyotes typically requires a territory of 10-12 square miles. In Chicago, these animals have been getting by within two or three square miles, in part because the city offers a lot more coyote food than you might think (small rodents, etc.). This coyote population in Chicago has been growing not because new coyotes have been coming in to join them, but because these animals are actually thriving.
In Chicago, coyotes face none of the predators that exist in the country: namely, hunters and trappers (the top killers of coyotes). Hunters in most states can kill however many coyotes they want, on whatever day of the year suits them, unlike other game like deer. Oddly, this makes the city a pretty safe place for them to live.
Gehrt isn’t sure exactly why this group of coyotes moved into Chicago in the first place. “No one saw it coming,” he says. But coyote populations have generally been increasing as societal attitudes toward them have changed over time. They may have been forced to expand into new types of habitat (it’s also indisputably true that cities have been simultaneously expanding into formerly rural areas). In Chicago, they’ve learned to coexist with us and our cars. Gehrt now wonders if we may even be effectively breeding a different kind of coyote in the city than exists in the countryside.
In some ways, all of this suggests a kind of irony. One of the reasons we created cities in the first place, Gehrt argues, was to get away from carnivores.
“Historically, we’ve always considered cities as being carnivore-free, that we don’t really have to share that space with animals that can kill and eat things that we hold dear to us,” he says. (He is talking about your house pets.) “The coyote is the first animal to penetrate that.”
Already there's no shortage of reports of sporadic urban black bear sightings in Western mountain cities, or mountains lions in downtowns. Bears adapt pretty easily to human food out of your trash can. But wolves and mountain lions, Gehrt says, will face one challenge that coyotes haven’t. Their diet requires a lot of straight-up meat, of the kind that may be harder to find in, say, downtown Chicago. As for whether or not these other species will be as clever at navigating traffic patterns?
“We didn’t know that coyotes could do a lot of these things 20 year ago,” Gehrt says. “We never gave them credit for being able to live in downtown Chicago. No one thought they could do that.”
And so maybe we shouldn’t underestimate the adaptability of their larger brethren, either.
Top image: A bear runs between cars near Madison in Yellowstone National Park. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)