Why coyotes are thriving in North Carolina

Coyotes are in all 100 North Carolina counties, but they've only been in the state for 30 years. Why are they doing so well?

Why coyotes are thriving in North Carolina
February 23, 2018

Coyote takeover in North Carolina

Coyotes are everywhere in North Carolina. Originally from the Midwest, they began moving east 30 years ago and eventually made themselves at home in all 100 North Carolina counties. Residents are taking note, especially during the spring breeding season.

Meanwhile, some other species aren't doing so well. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently declared that the eastern cougar is extinct (though it's been rarely sighted in the last 100 years). So why has the coyote triumphed, while other predators have floundered?

It’s partly because top predators like cougars and wolves were hunted to extinction that coyotes were able to survive. Coyotes were preyed on by wolves and pumas and competed with them for food. So as these predators are becoming extinct, coyotes are quickly filling the niches left behind.

Coyotes in the big city

Coyotes are also versatile and adapt well to urban environments. “They’re good at living alongside people,” said Stephanie Schuttler, a mammologist and a research associate at the Museum of Natural Sciences. “They’re in all these cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.”

Coyotes don’t need large swathes of forested land to survive. A study conducted in Mecklenburg County shows that although coyotes prefer natural landscapes, they do just fine on golf courses, cemeteries or slivers of forest along highways.

They also eat everything. If you were to dissect the scat of urban coyotes (which plenty of researchers have), you’d find pet food, trash and cats, in addition to their “natural diet” of rabbits and fruit.

“They’re benefitting from human sources of food like pet food or trash cans and they’re also hunting urban animals like rabbits and yes, even cats,” said Schuttler. “That’s why we encourage people to keep their cats inside.”

Coyotes adapt quickly and hunting doesn’t decrease their numbers

Coyotes can also change their habits quickly to suit their environment. For example, researchers in Arizona found that urban coyotes reach their activity peak during the night, when most humans aren’t around. Coyotes in rural areas, by contrast, are most active at dawn and dusk.

“They remain very secretive,” said Schuttler. “We know they’re there, but we don’t see always see them.”

Although coyote hunting is allowed in all 100 North Carolina counties, hunting doesn’t seem to have an effect on coyote population levels, and researchers still aren’t exactly sure why. According to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, one theory is that when coyotes are removed from an area either through hunting or trapping, a new batch of coyotes moves in and reproduces. Coyotes have large litters, usually with 4-5 pups. Like a game of whack-a-mole, coyotes move swiftly to stabilize their numbers.

“It’s remarkable how well they’re able to survive,” said Schuttler.

Most, if not all of North Carolina’s population growth is happening in urban areas, which means human and coyote interactions will continue to increase. Schutter said if we want to avoid coyotes, we should keep trash and pet food (and the pets themselves) out of reach at night. “The biggest concern we have is educating humans on how to interact with coyotes,” said Schuttler. “There’s no reason to be afraid of them. Dogs are way more likely to bite humans than coyotes.”


- Rossie Izlar

Rossie Izlar is the associate producer of Sci Tech Now North Carolina, a weekly show highlighting the latest science stories from North Carolina and across the nation. 


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