By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director
Early in my time here at the Schuylkill Center, a neighbor who lives close to our sweeping Upper Roxborough property gave me a call one day. It was not the phone conversation I expected.
“Mike,” he said with concern in his voice. “I spotted a coyote walking down my driveway the other night. “
“Wow,” I stupidly answered, “that’s great. I’m not sure anyone here has seen one yet.”
He wasn’t as excited as me. “What are you going to do about it?” he challenged.
Ah, of course. He’s worried about his dog, as I believe his pet is a smaller-sized animal that might be a tempting target for a hungry coyote. I replied that we’d be on the lookout, but there was little else we could do. Keep the dog on a leash, and keep it near you.
In the couple of years since that phone call, only one staff member has seen one, on our driveway as he headed home one winter evening a few years back. But then, last month, another staff member’s spouse saw one around 4 p.m. on the same driveway. Then an educator saw a road-kill coyote on Ridge Avenue near Friendly’s—he was so startled he stopped to double-check, and there it was: coyote. Others have verified this sighting on Facebook.
And our staff has come across large tracks and droppings that may be coyote as well—we’re not certain. The photo, taken just after last week’s snowstorm, is (for us naturalists, anyway) clearly the paw of a big member of the dog family. But coyote? Well, this track clearly shows two forward toes with claws that point forward and are close together, a diagnostic key separating coyote tracks from dogs, as the latter have front toes that are more splayed and point in different directions.
On Facebook, Roxborough friends have spotted a coyote carrying a groundhog at Shawmont and Umbria in September, some say they have seen a den in Miquon, another saw one loping near Germany Hill, another “back by the creek a lot” (we’re not sure what creek!), and yet another reports hearing them “howl in groups at night.”
I’ve neither seen nor heard one yet, and would love either.
But we are witnessing an evolutionary shift, in plain sight, right before our very eyes. Coyotes were not native to Pennsylvania—these are not wild animals reinhabiting their former home. Rather, their cousins and closest competitors the wolves were literally the top dog in our state, but were extirpated in the 19th century, not just from Pennsylvania, but from the entire Northeast.
Meanwhile, coyotes, a western species more likely found in prairie and desert, have survived 200 years of persecution—outright attempts to exterminate them that continue even today. But the clever beast (way more clever than Wile E. of cartoon fame) somehow outwitted us, and as the wolf disappeared, the coyote extended it range, moving into the Keystone State as early as the 30s or 40s. The PA Game Commission notes “the coyote continued to expand its range during the late 1970s, and occupied the entire state by 1990, with the highest populations across the northern half of the state.”
But what’s different now is that coyotes are acclimating themselves to suburbs and big cities, where they can den under abandoned properties and hunt mammals like raccoons, opossum, rats, and mice, while supplementing their diets with fruits. Chicago has already done a coyote count; they’ve been seen in Central Park.
John Hayes, a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, wrote correctly that “humans didn’t sprawl into their space, coyotes entered ours.”
Coyote biology and history is highly controversial, no two sources agreeing on any one piece of the story, but there seems to be an emerging agreement that the new northeaster coyote is a new kind of dog, bigger than the western coyote but smaller than the wolf. It’s a coyote-wolf-dog hybrid, mostly coyote, yes, but with others mixed in. Some biologists have even suggested it’s a new species, Canis oriens, the “eastern dog,” Canis being the genus name that dog, wolf, and coyote already share.
So a new species may have appeared in our lifetime. Like I said: evolution right before our eyes.
The Game Commission’s website also says the eastern coyote has stirred as much interest and emotion as any other animal in Pennsylvania. No kidding. Just last week, a Lower Merion Facebook page blew up with accounts of a coyote photographed in a Wynnewood yard, with the police having to reassure people to keep their pets indoors at night.
In Philadelphia, abandoned homes and trash-strewn streets are perfect for breeding large numbers of a variety of mammals, explaining the raccoons, skunks, and possums we see, not to mention that mice and rats we don’t. We’ve given coyotes a wide menu of easily available food, and should have expected this would happen eventually. Luckily, they are incredibly shy, and vanish when people are around—that’s really good.
For me, we’ll never remove these new neighbors from our area: coyote eradication programs have always failed. They’ve adapted to us; the trick is to adapt as well to them. Rick Schubert, the director of the Schuylkill Center’s Wildlife Clinic, reminds us that “coyotes are conscious animals, with the same intelligence and capacity to suffer as your dog.” He’s hoping to spread compassion for these remarkably intelligent animals. And here at the Schuylkill Center, coyotes have likely been roaming across our property—and Upper Roxborough—for a long time now, and of the 30 people on staff year-round, only one of us has so far seen one. They are elusive and astonishingly quiet neighbors (I’ve left the Center late many evenings, and have never heard one).
So there are coyotes, or, better, coywolves, living in Roxborough. Let’s be smart, let’s be safe, and let me know what you see and where you see it. Perhaps the Schuylkill Center can serve as a central clearinghouse for new information about coyotes, and together we’ll learn to adapt to this new species.
Editor’s note: this piece was originally published in the Natural Selections column of the Roxborough Review on March 1, 2017.