An eerie, predatory vibe resonates through the air when the coyotes of Connecticut communicate with one another in a series of yips, barks and howls. It’s hair-raising and, today, a regular occurrence. Coyotes are highly intelligent, agile, astute hunters that have found a glitch in the system, figuring out a way to not just live with us, but in spite of us, and prosper in our urban and suburban ecosystems.
Although coyotes were first reported in Connecticut in the 1950s, the realization that they live among us didn’t become a reality until the ’80s and early ’90s when the number of sightings began to swell. Now, with an estimated population of 3,000 to 5,000, coyotes are seen in every town in the state and every continental state in the union.
While there is disagreement over how much the population is rising, there is no dispute that coyote sightings, as with bears, have spiked in recent years. And similar to bears, residents of the state’s densely populated suburbs and even its cities are increasingly coming into contact with coyotes. Coyote attacks on people are extremely rare, but a few scary encounters have been reported and pets have been lost to the predators, causing some towns to issue kits to residents to scare the animals away. There have been calls to increase hunting of the animals. Others say coyotes are here to stay, even helping to keep the state’s wildlife populations in balance, and residents need to learn to live alongside the creatures.
Last year saw an increase in reports of coyotes threatening people, with most incidents involving dog owners being approached while walking with their pet or defending their pet during aggressive confrontations or attacks. There have been three “flesh to flesh” coyote-human incidents in Connecticut in the past decade, says Chris Vann, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and a coyote expert. Of those three documented cases, one involved a rabid coyote, another involved a coyote that was being fed at a rest stop in Branford and the last occurred when an owner tried to intervene in a dog-coyote altercation.
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“For the most part, coyotes want to stay clear of humans as much as possible. It’s only when they are ‘food conditioned’ that they become bold and then can be problematic to humans,” Vann says.
Known as “tricksters” in the mythology of the indigenous peoples of North America, coyotes have become adept at aligning their lives with ours. The colonists wiped out wolves as apex predators in Connecticut. For the past seven decades, the non-native coyote has filled the position with ease, taking up permanent residency in the fabric of our wild tapestry, as well as our backyards, green spaces and city enclaves.
“They are telling a contemporary evolution story that is happening right under our noses,” Vann says. “Coyotes are resilient and better at surviving than most.”
The coyote moved west to east, learning to alter its lifestyle according to the environment. They expanded their territory and diversified their DNA, intermingling with wolves and domestic dogs, giving them larger frames, longer legs and darker coats, differentiating them from their western relatives.
Dining mainly on mice, squirrels, rabbits, rats and chipmunks, coyotes also consume skunk, opossum and raccoons, which make them a critical component in the food chain. Studies have shown an increase in rodent populations in areas where coyotes have been removed. In addition, coyotes help keep the number of feral cat colonies in check. They also prey on fawns, helping to do the same for deer numbers, and according to Vann, they will sometimes “pack up” to take down an adult deer.
Allyson Halm, animal control officer for New Canaan, praises coyotes for being what she calls natural remedies. Driven by a primal need for increased protein power during key times of the year, coyotes have gotten a bad rap for occasionally preying on our beloved cats and dogs. In 2017, seven dogs and six cats were killed by coyotes, according to state records. Vann believes actual numbers of pet attacks and injuries are higher, as many pet owners fail to report incidents.
High caloric need for coyotes is from late September through April — late September through December while “dispersal” is taking place and young coyotes search for territories and mates of their own, in January and February during courtship and mating, and again in March and April, during birthing time. A lull comes in May through August, when pups are reared.
In an effort to inform residents of her town about how to live with these wily carnivores, Halm hands out “coyote hazing kits,” which include reusable air horns, mini air blasters, bear bells, whistles, reflective tape and soda cans filled with pennies to be thrown at the animals. “I think the kits are the first step in the humane treatment of coyotes,” Halm says.
She adds, “It falls on us to keep our pets safe. Don’t let them roam free, make sure dogs are on leashes and paid attention to, cats are inside, especially at night. And invisible fences are not a defense.”
Vann agrees, and says, “The best way to keep pets safe is to haze coyotes using loud noises and lots of movement and put up structural fences in yards.” Connecticut allows trapping and hunting of coyotes on private land, but not at night. Coyote night hunting is permitted in states including Maine, New Hampshire, New York and Pennsylvania.
A bill that would have allowed Connecticut’s first night hunt of coyotes came before the General Assembly’s Environment Committee this spring, but was not voted on amid vigorous debate from both sides of the issue. It’s unclear whether the measure will be reintroduced next year. “We need to realize that, like it or not, coyotes are our wild neighbors,” Halm says.