How Coyotes Conquered New York


For the better part of a decade, a lone coyote named Frankie has made his home in a small patch of forest in central Queens. Wedged uncomfortably between a dense residential neighborhood and the tracks of the Long Island Rail Road, his park is not the ideal habitat. It’s maybe four blocks at its widest. On one side are high-rise housing developments, and on the other, within a block, pizza parlors and corner stores make up a busy commercial district. It’s not much better inside, either. Stands of locust grow thick as cotton batting, and it’s dim even at midday. Thorny branches of barberry and wild rose run along the ground like concertina wire.

For an animal that prefers wide-open spaces — an animal that evolved on the Western plains — Frankie’s park is all wrong. Before 1900, the coyote’s range was limited to a band of territory in the Southwest and Northern Midwest of the continent. They had no use for the raveled deciduous forest of the Northeast.

Over the past century, coyotes have more than quadrupled that original range, colonizing almost the entire continent, from Panama to Alaska. It’s an enormous swath of territory encompassing every kind of habitat imaginable, from Southeastern forests to subtropical jungles and Canadian taiga. In the past, the northern part of this range was patrolled by gray wolves, the coyote’s direct competitor. Part of the coyote’s success comes from the extirpation of the wolf, done in mostly by government eradication programs a century ago.

But the coyotes’ spread also has to do with their staggering adaptability and resilience. Targeted for killing, they quickly learn to outwit traps and sniff out poisons. They can vary their food sources almost limitlessly, from small mammals to large ungulates to fruits and vegetables or garbage. When extermination campaigns thin their numbers, their social structure morphs; packs that might otherwise hang together split up, spread out, and colonize new areas. They even adjust their litter sizes, seemingly at will, giving birth to more pups when population levels fall.

Unlike bears and raptors, which have rebounded in recent decades, coyotes haven’t thrived because of human efforts but in spite of them. In Utah, the state pays a $50 bounty per head. In much of the country, they’re still regarded as pests; at least 400,000 are killed annually. There are all-day contests that end with thumbs-up grins over heaps of bloodied carcasses. Even in New York they’re classified as “nuisance animals.” Under state regulations, hunters can kill as many coyotes as they like, using virtually any method, day or night, for six months out of the year. Squirrels, by contrast, have a daily bag limit of six, and a shorter hunting season to boot.

Still, the coyotes are winning. The first confirmed sighting in New York City came in 1995. In 1999, a coyote showed up in Central Park, landing on the nightly news. There were other early sightings, too. A coyote was spotted on an ice floe in Jamaica Bay in 2004. In 2014 a coyote showed up by the World Trade Center. Last year, one appeared on the roof of a bar in Long Island City.

As it turns out, the coyote’s saga is coming to a climax, right now, in our backyards. Having colonized virtually every square mile of the continent, the only large landmass they haven’t yet settled fully is Long Island. And that is poised to change very soon. Frankie, then, in Queens, is on the farthest leading edge of his species. If past estimates of rate expansion hold up, his kind could reach Montauk in a decade, and the conquest will be complete.

“I used to call it a conservation success story,” says Chris Nagy, co-founder of the Gotham Coyote Project, an ad hoc group of biologists, of the coyote’s advance. “But that’s not really true.” When bears and wolves began to rebound in some parts of the U.S., they came back to places they’d been before, with considerable help from humans.

Coyotes, by contrast, are expanding to places they’ve never been seen. They’re homesteading. And the Gotham Coyote Project, an ambitious research effort now in its fifth year, is hoping to learn how we can live with the new arrivals.

Established in New York by Nagy and two other scientists, the project started with what co-founder Mark Weckel calls a very simple question: “Where do you find coyotes?” In 2010, when the project began, it was obvious the animals were here. But did the occasional sightings in the five boroughs represent resident animals, or just intrepid visitors from outside the city? There have been breeding populations in Westchester County since at least the 1970s, after all, and coyotes can easily travel a dozen or more miles in a day. And come to think of it, how does a conspicuous animal like a coyote travel in a city like New York?

Frankie is known to us, and the scientists who study him, through leftover bits of DNA and fleeting images captured on infrared cameras. None of the researchers have ever actually spotted him face to face, but that’s the way they prefer it; it means he’s staying out of sight. The cameras are part of a motion-activated network of about a hundred set up by Nagy, Weckel, and the project’s third co-founder, Anne Toomey, a researcher at Pace University.

Weckel, who grew up in Brooklyn, liked the idea of being able to study a new population at what’s essentially the dawn of its appearance. And the idea of a large predator managing to survive in a place like New York City carries a certain romance. But there were bigger purposes, too. “Cities aren’t going anywhere,” Nagy says, “and I think it’s valuable to figure out how people and wildlife can get along. How can we design cities to also be healthy ecosystems?” The researchers also hope that, as charismatic newcomers, the coyotes might come to stand as a symbol for urban wildlife: In the same way that polar bears now represent the dangers of climate change, a regard for coyotes might just get people to think more carefully about the natural world around them, even in an urban setting.

When they started placing cameras, Nagy and Weckel were surprised at just how well established the coyotes had already become. Their cameras eventually revealed breeding populations in Pelham Bay Park and areas of Riverdale. They’ve captured individuals on film in Inwood Hills Park in Manhattan, in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge, and at dozens of other sites around the city. The numbers are still small, probably fewer than forty in total. But every year they’re finding more.

In addition to the cameras, in the past year the GCP has embarked on more ambitious avenues of research, most of which revolve around scat, or coyote droppings. Neil Duncan, a biologist with the American Museum of Natural History, has enlisted an army of high school kids for diet research. By painstakingly dissecting the samples, gathered by volunteers in local parks, they aim to find out just what sustains the new arrivals.

Another front in the study is being carried out by Carol Henger, a Ph.D. student at Fordham who has been extracting DNA from scat samples with the goal of creating a unique profile of every coyote in the five boroughs. By seeing where certain genetic lineages show up, she can get an idea of how coyotes in various parts of the city are related, and thus of how the population is expanding. Frankie, for example, seems to be related to a family in Pelham Bay Park.

Weckel and Nagy argued in a paper last year that the present moment represents a “rare and time-sensitive opportunity,” a “natural experiment.” “Anticipating the inevitable coyote colonization of Long Island requires making accurate predictions to prepare for the ecological and social consequences of a novel predator in a new environment,” they wrote. The group hopes to soon expand the project to the Long Island interior, to be there when the coyotes arrive. It’s not often that you get the chance to watch, in real time, as an ecosystem adjusts to a new presence.

Ecosystem, in this case, means “city,” and the natural experiment that the coyotes are facilitating is as much social as biological. When Frankie first showed up in the neighborhood, the parks department got some worried calls. It’s not surprising, really. A large predator in a residential neighborhood is bound to make people nervous. No matter that attacks by coyotes on humans are exceedingly rare; one study found 140 such incidents between 1960 and 2006. There have been two fatalities in that time, one a small child in California and one an adult in Canada. Both are considered extreme outliers. “You’re more likely to be killed by a Champagne cork,” Nagy says.

Yet the interaction between humans and coyotes is, from the human standpoint, defined by a vague sense of menace. When Frankie was first spotted (GCP has asked the Voice not to name the park he appeared in, to avoid a stream of gawkers), some residents of the neighborhood quickly took to feeding him. The city’s Department of Parks and Recreation sent Sarah Aucoin, chief of education and wildlife, to investigate. When Aucoin went out and began talking to residents, she was surprised to hear that, far from trying to make friends with Frankie, residents were trying, in effect, to appease him. If the coyote came to see the neighborhood humans as benign givers of food, they figured, perhaps he’d be less inclined to attack them.

It’s an understandable reaction to an experience that’s destabilizing on a primal level. The idea of a coyote in the city challenges some of our basic ideas about the natural world and tends to blur the boundaries between here and out there. When Stacey Scotland, who lives near the park, saw Frankie for the first time a few years back, he recalls, “I was like, ‘No, my eyes cannot be seeing clearly.’ ” He tried to get a picture, for proof, but it was dark and the animal was moving too fast. It just seemed impossible, like some kind of cosmic mistake.

If some residents of Queens imagine that the coyote’s life consists of looking for chances to bite a human being, from the coyote’s point of view things look very different. Far from seeking out human beings — the ones who don’t feed them, at any rate — coyotes try to travel a path as empty of humans as possible. The path Frankie might have followed from Pelham Bay starts to resolve when you ignore the city streetsand look at the city as a network of railroad tracks that serve as discreet coyote highways. Generally fenced off and ignored by humans, and often lined with vegetation for ready cover, they allow the animals to move about more or less undetected.

“One of the secrets to their success is being able to be around us — and avoid us at all costs,” Weckel says. If you’re in a local park, a coyote may well see you, he says, but you are very unlikely to see it. Scotland has seen Frankie flitting by, only for moments at a time. Aucoin, who spends the majority of her days traipsing through the city’s parks, has never seen a coyote “accidentally,” as she puts it, meaning at a time when she wasn’t actively responding to a sighting. Henger, the DNA researcher, has spent the better part of two years researching coyotes and does regular trips in the field, and she’s never seen one, either.

Hewing to narrow byways in a teeming city necessarily leads to some isolation, and Frankie has suffered from it. Ordinarily, by this point in his life — Frankie is probably about ten years old now, ancient by the standards of the species — he would have settled down with a mate. For that to happen, a female would have had to colonize his little park too. But with such a low population density, New York City is, for now, a place where mates are few.

So it’s an accident of the era that Frankie ended up where he is, stranded, in a sense, by biology and geography. For the better part of a decade, he’s been waiting — watching, one has to assume, the far curve in the tracks, for a companion to come loping out of the distance.

In 1872, long before coyotes made their way east, the New York Times introduced its readership to a “strange beast” of the West, remarkable mainly for its “cunning and thieving propensities.” “The great business of his life is to steal,” the author wrote, “and he will steal anything that comes in his way.”

In the paper’s lurid telling, the coyote — which most of its readership had never encountered — was somehow pathological. A “rogue” of an animal, willing to “gnaw the twisted lariat from the pony’s neck” or enter a barracks at night to swipe “the accoutrements from the soldier’s bedpost, and his shoes from under his pillow.”

“He does not steal these things for food,” the writer added, “but he steals as some men do, because he is a thief by nature.”

If the language of 1872 seems panicked and overwrought now, it’s because it’s an artifact of a time when out there seemed far less remote than it does today; when the wild seemed wilder and closer at hand, before we became so seemingly expert at controlling it. When that story was published, the extermination of purportedly dangerous animals in New York was still seen as a civic priority, a bounty of $10 to $30 for wolves — along with panthers (mountain lions) and other “ferocious animals” — having been in place by the 1870s.

Seeing the natural world as an enemy was almost a reflex. But even then, the portrait of the Times‘ “strange beast” was ambivalent. The story ends with a kind of lament, and a prediction: that like other symbols of a mythic “Wild West,” the coyote would be “fast disappearing.”

If there’s some bigger meaning to the coyote’s rise, then maybe it’s best accepted as an admonition. The animal’s presence is a signal that we’re not quite as capable as we imagine. That there are forces we still haven’t managed to contain.

For Nagy, that’s what makes it so compelling.

“I think I have this thing where I like my own species to be thwarted,” he says with a wry grin. We’ve suppressed the wolf and the mountain lion and any number of other perceived enemies, he says. So “it gives me some amount of glee that we try to do the same thing to them and they — ” He pauses.

“You know. They get us.”