Wildlife Grows Bolder In Urban Habitat

By Claire Trageser

TIM QUINN had been tracking a coyote through Seattle, WA for a year when it began behaving suspiciously.

The coyote always stayed near its den. But one night, radio signals from a collar around the animal’s neck showed it heading in a new direction. For the next five nights, the coyote made the same trip. Finally, Quinn, who was tracking coyotes for his University of Washington doctorate, was able to follow it.

Watching from a distance, Quinn saw the coyote approach a security guard stationed outside a building. The guard tossed the coyote a sandwich, and the coyote ate it up.

“The coyote was traveling all that way for a corned beef on rye,” said Quinn, who is now the Habitat Program chief scientist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “He was making that trip daily for a food source because he had learned quickly that’s what would happen.”

That was 20 years ago.

Now stories of coyotes attacking pets and small children, crows dive-bombing pedestrians, bears walking into homes and, in one case in Florida, a bobcat making off with a small dog while he was on a walk with his owner seem all too frequent. For many, it seems that wild animals have ditched their traditionally submissive roles and have gone on the offensive.

To some degree, Quinn agrees.

“There’s a lot of speculation about whether or not coyotes are adapting their behaviors to be more tolerant and less afraid of humans, and evidence suggests they are,” he said.

Since Jan. 1, the Mill Creek branch of the wildlife department has received about 440 reports of coyote sightings in King County, compared with 93 in 2006. While these calls come from every part of the Seattle area, Quinn said that his study, which also used a hotline to report sightings, found coyotes mostly in a few concentrated areas in North Seattle.

Quinn said that as urban areas expand, coyotes must either move farther away from humans or learn to live with them. The growing number of coyote sightings suggests that they have chosen the latter and have become bolder, hunting and traveling in daylight. This means animals may not just be learning to survive in urban areas, they may be thriving on them.

Smaller urban animals, including raccoons, squirrels, rats and crows, have been less wary of humans for a long time.

But the Seattle Animal Shelter received about five calls in the past two weeks from people who were hit by swooping crows, said Ann Graves, an enforcement supervisor there. The divebombing birds are probably protecting a young crow resting on the ground while it learns to fly, but “it gets a little scary when a large crow is coming at you,” Graves said.

Just as the sandwich-loving coyote learned where to find its midnight snack, urban animals learn that with humans comes food, even if people are only feeding them accidentally through left-out garbage or pets. One of Quinn’s studies found that the items that appeared most often in urban coyotes’ diets were apples and house cats.

And it’s not just coyotes. In 2007, 578 King County bear sightings were reported to the Mill Creek wildlife office, up from 110 in 2003. Cougar sightings went from 76 to 148.

Stuart Breck, a research biologist for the Department of Agriculture said that bears are also becoming much more comfortable with people.

“They’re incorporating urban environments into their home range so that they’re regular visitors, and it’s not some anomaly that they come in,” he said. “Evidence suggests that some urban environments may provide them with food during bad food years, which then supports the bear population.”

As animals learn these lessons, they become bolder, which Quinn thinks could explain attacks.

“When you feed coyotes, you’re asking for trouble because then they associate humans with an eating opportunity,” he said. “Then all bets are off. Since small humans are not predators, they might as well be food.”

But Quinn points out that cases where coyotes attacked humans are rare. The only documented time that a coyote attacked people in Washington was in 2006, when two young children were bitten in Bellevue.

Bob Everitt, the regional director of the Mill Creek wildlife office, said the coyote responsible for these incidents seemed to be sick and was killed by wildlife officers.

Coyotes’ recent bad press may mean people blame them more for missing pets, when raccoons, owls or cars could also be responsible. Everitt also said that more attacks always happen at this time of year because animals are trying to feed their young.

But it does seem that wild animals, especially coyotes, are becoming more aggressive, which some see as reason for controlling their populations. They blame a 2000 ballot measure that banned trapping wildlife for fueling the coyote population, but Everitt disagreed.

“In the city, the trapping ban would have no effect,” he said. “There’s no effective way of trapping coyotes without endangering other pets.”

Killing coyotes will also not lower the overall population, said John Shivik, a researcher for the Department of Agriculture.

“It’s not possible to get rid of them altogether because they are really resilient,” he said. “They produce more pups than could ever survive, so if conditions are created that make more space, more pups will survive and fill that space. It’s like digging a hole in the ocean.”

All the experts interviewed agreed that the best way to handle problem wildlife is for people to change their behavior. Garbage and compost should be secured, and pets should be fed inside and kept indoors, especially from dusk to dawn. If food becomes less available, animals will move away.

But no matter where they go, it seems likely that urban wildlife, especially coyotes, will continue to thrive.

“Coyotes are very much the wily coyote that you hear about,” said Gary Koehler, a researcher with the wildlife department. “They may not be able to catch a roadrunner, but they do catch anything else.” –Seattle Post-Intelligencer