Tracking city-dwelling coyotes at night

Apr 3, 2012

Coyotes have been making themselves at home in cities all over the country.    They’ve been showing up in big cities like Chicago and Detroit, and in a lot of suburban areas. 

But we don’t know a whole lot about Michigan’s urban coyotes.

A small research team from Wayne State University is trying to find out as much as they can.

But to do this... they have to act like urban coyotes... and become nocturnal.  Bill Dodge is a PhD candidate at Wayne State.  He heads up the research team. 

“They’ve found in other studies that coyotes especially around humans become much more nocturnal than say, out West.”

Dodge invited me to tag along on their 6pm to midnight shift one Friday night a few weeks ago. 

I met up with the group in a parking lot in northeast Oakland County. 

Bill Dodge puts on a headset and pulls an antenna and a mess of cables out of his trunk.

“I’m getting a signal on him but it’s really weak...”

They’re tracking a radio collared coyote that they trapped last summer.   

“We’ll go down the road a ways and take a listen to see if he’s closer.”

The team takes precautions to keep from being spotted by other people... as they cruise around these neighborhoods.

Holly Hadac volunteers with the coyote study.  She’s also a retired sheriff’s deputy.  She points out the red cellophane covering her car’s interior lights.

“My interior lights don’t go on when I start the car up.  I’ve got all the lights in my car blocked out, and that way keeps me incognito with what I’m doing.  So we keep our coyote safe so nobody knows where he is.”

“If someone doesn’t like coyotes, they might look for him.”

She says they’re worried someone might kill their research subject.

We drive around for a few hours... stopping to listen.

Usually... you’ll hear scientists refer to their study subjects by number.  But they’ve given this coyote a nickname.  They call him Lance.

When they get a clear signal from Lance’s collar they take compass bearings.  When they have three good points they can triangulate his location.

The team rarely sees Lance... and they don’t hear him very often either.  But halfway through the shift... we’re out in a big open field... when we hear him.  And he’s not alone... he has a mate.

“Yeah those are coyotes.  That’s definitely them.”

We listen for a long time, out in the dark. 

The night turns quiet again and we pile back into the cars.

We stop at a fast food restaurant and Bill Dodge pulls out his tracking equipment.  They’re mapping Lance’s movements to get an idea of what kind of habitat he likes.  So far, he moves around a lot at night... crossing a backyard here or there to get to a wooded patch or a wetland.

“We have found that he does cross major highways.  He has also used quite a few power line corridors.  So there’s a lot of connectivity in this area between these different habitat patches that he’s been using.”

And Dodge says urban coyotes spend a lot of the night hunting for food.  But he says they’re finding coyotes are not eating pets (but he does recommend keeping an eye on cats and small dogs when you let them outside, especially at night).

“Most of their diet consists of small rodents such as mice and voles they also eat rabbits a lot and we have found deer hair.”

And he says in Michigan, coyotes tend to be afraid of people.

“The ones we catch are just so afraid of us that they fall over when we approach them.  They’ll stay away from people.  Nobody has to worry about their small children.”

After my visit, the team caught and radio collared three more coyotes.  They’re hoping to get a better handle on how coyotes are surviving in the city... because like it or not, they’re part of urban life.

You can learn more about urban coyotes in this report on the "Ghosts in the Cities," a large long-term study of coyotes in the Chicago area by Ohio State University.