In the depths of winter, the hungry hunter prowls the landscape, carefully sniffing the air for a meal, hoping for easy prey. Suddenly he stops, turns. He has picked up a scent: rabbits. Bushy tail low, he silently advances.
As the rabbits huddle in their hutch, Priscilla Foglia leads her Siberian husky to his kennel behind her home in rural Vernon Township. Foglia is aware that danger lurks in the woods around her property. Usually it stays there, not venturing boldly into the open, especially in broad daylight. Today will be different. Little does she know she is about to come face-to-face with the eastern coyote, New Jersey’s largest species of wild dog.
As Foglia nears the kennel, she is only about 200 feet from the rabbit hutch in her neighbor’s yard. The grayish-brown creature, having closed the distance, is madly circling the hutch. At first, she thinks it is a pet that got loose and is gallivanting through the neighborhood.
But that doesn’t seem right. “A regular dog would just bark and run away,” Foglia says. “This thing was doing anything it could to get to those rabbits.”
Now, the coyote shifts its attention to Foglia and her 65-pound husky.
“The animal caught scent of us and started coming over,” Foglia recalls. “Then he started charging us, and my dog started charging him.” Fortunately the pet was leashed. She yanked him back and they ran into the house.
Outside, the gray invader paused, strangely seemed to lose interest and vanished back into the woods. Foglia—adrenaline rushing and heart pounding—was unsure what she had seen. “It looked like a smaller, scraggly German shepherd,” she says.
What she had seen was an invader whose numbers in New Jersey have grown substantially in recent decades. So have sightings and attacks, mostly on family pets and livestock, but on rare occasions, people.
Foglia did not know that by turning her back and running from the coyote, she triggered its chase instinct, says Tony McBride, a principal biologist at the Division of Fish and Wildlife, part of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
“Anytime anyone has a coyote coming toward them, it’s attacking,” McBride says. “You want to make yourself big and harass the animal. We encourage people to yell and throw rocks while slowly backing off.”
Incidents like the one in Foglia’s yard don’t surprise McBride. “Throughout the 1970s and the ’80s, we saw a natural progression of a population explosion of coyotes in the state,” McBride says. “Today, they’re in every county.”
The first documented sighting in New Jersey occurred in 1939 in Lambertville, but not until 1948 did state wildlife officials confirm that the coyote had become a fulltime resident. The coyote population went from a few annual sightings at that time to the latest DEP estimate of 5,000 to 10,000 animals. Since 1939, sightings have been reported in 416 of the state’s 565 municipalities. McBride’s office receives an average of 160 calls about coyotes each year. Most of the calls just report sightings, but about 50 stem from nuisances such as overturned garbage cans, damage to wire fencing, or attacks on livestock. This year, Morris County has had the most calls (21), but McBride says the densest coyote populations are in rural areas such as Sussex County and the Pine Barrens.
The calls come year-round but peak as temperatures plummet. “Winter is breeding season and available food for carnivorous wildlife is at its lowest,” McBride says. “In February and March, coyotes are more active during the daytime, looking for food.”
Although they are constantly seeking sustenance, coyotes usually don’t consider humans a food source. There have been exceptions. The most recently reported instances occurred in 2007, when coyotes in two separate incidents attacked children in Middletown Township, Monmouth County.
In one instance, a coyote went after a 22-month-old; in the second, the victim was a 5-year-old. Both boys survived with bites and cuts, thanks to nearby adults who fought off the assailants.
“This was a scenario where these children were clearly viewed as a food source,” McBride says. “It is a very, very rare event for a coyote to go after a person.”
Coyotes have no real predators in New Jersey, and the state has no formal program to thin their numbers. That job is left to hunters, who can take coyotes in any deer hunting season, as well as January into February, the state’s special coyote-hunting season. Licensed trappers may capture coyotes with snares.
Coyotes are not native to New Jersey, and their path here is unclear. One theory among wildlife experts is that they descended from western coyotes that migrated east, swinging north around the Great Lakes. There, they interbred with Canadian grey wolves, creating the hybrid known as the eastern coyote.
Male eastern coyotes can weigh 40 to 50 pounds, or about 10 pounds more than western coyotes. Easterns go through color phases, including blonde, reddish, brown, black and salt-and-pepper. Western coyotes tend to stay grey.
New Jersey forests offer a diner-like menu for coyotes. They munch on moles, mice and rabbits; a single coyote can even take down a small deer. They also prey on chickens, ducks and sheep. But as coyotes push into the state’s suburban areas, they are beginning to feed on any easy target—from garbage to small pets.
“Coyotes are very opportunistic,” McBride says. “They will push over a trash can and supplement their diets with garbage. People who have outdoor cats, or if there are any feral-cat colonies in the area, the coyotes will feed on the cats.”
In early winter, coyote family groups push adolescents away and begin to mate, says McBride. The adolescents tend to wander into unfamiliar territory looking for garbage cans for an easy snack.
The coyotes sometimes are not the only guilty party in human encounters.
“Some people in New Jersey are actually feeding coyotes, and it’s really bad,” McBride warns. “Any time you habituate coyotes to human-left food, they can become comfortable with people and become aggressive toward people.”
Coyotes have a natural fear of humans. By feeding them, we risk breaking down their precaution. That appears to have happened in the summer of 2011, when a family of coyotes set up housekeeping in Hackensack and Maywood in Bergen County.
Many Maywood residents were surprised. “I never knew there were coyotes here; I thought they were only in California,” says Catherine Diamond, who was stunned to encounter one while walking her dog on a local street. “It’s definitely a little concerning.”
Diamond says the coyotes became the Where’s Waldo of the town. One, known as the El Maywood Coyote, even has a Facebook profile, where people post photos of the invaders and anecdotes about coyote encounters. The sightings have recently gone down, likely because the pack simply moved on to another area, McBride says.
Hackensack residents made light of the coyotes—some reportedly feeding them by hand—but McBride says the encounters are no joke.
“Not everyone knows the repercussions of feeding these animals,” he says. “People are telling us that they are chasing the animals and [the coyotes] are coming back within 10 feet. That means that animal has lost its fear of people.”
If the DEP determines that an individual coyote presents a danger, agents set out body snares to catch the animal. Once caught, it will be euthanized, McBride says. DEP personnel will not risk relocating an animal and having it bite somebody.
McBride hypothesizes that weather may play a part in coyote-dog interactions. He says the increase in attacks on dogs in 2010 can be traced to the unusually wet spring, which limited growth of the state’s rabbit population.
Though the eastern coyote is large and wild, it can be chased off by a human. “Adults are bigger than these animals,” McBride says. “I usually tell people, if your dog is being attacked, by all means grab a stick and combat the coyote. The coyote will run if you attack it.” (Rabies is rare among coyotes, but as with other animals, a rabid coyote would display erratic behavior, either extremely aggressive or overly tame, McBride says.)
McBride stresses that we need to reinforce coyotes’ natural aversion to humans. He urges residents to acknowledge the presence of the creatures and take precautions to avoid harmful contact. For example, people living in areas where coyotes have been sighted should keep garbage cans secure (and perhaps inside a garage); keep an eye on small children and pets playing outdoors; keep landscaping well trimmed to avoid attracting the small animals coyotes feast on; and install latticework under decks and around sheltered spots that coyotes might like to call home.
Catherine Diamond agrees that people in New Jersey have a lot to learn about coyotes.
“I think we need a little more information about the coyotes so we know what precautionary things we can do to avoid contact,” Diamond says. “I would just really prefer that they didn’t try to eat my dog.”
Joe Van Der Bogart is a freelance writer based in Morristown.
Keeping the Wiley Coyote at Bay
- Many of the animals coyotes prey on live in tall grass, shrubbery and woodpiles. Letting these areas grow wild can encourage coyotes to hang around, looking for food. Keep your property clean and trimmed.
- Secure all garbage. Just like bears and raccoons, coyotes feast on edible trash.
- Be vigilant. Don’t leave pets and children unattended if there are any hints of coyotes in the area.
- If coyotes are trying to make a den on your property, harass them as much as possible. Leave music and lights on to deter them from moving in.
- If you see a coyote, report the sighting to local police and to the Department of Fish and Wildlife at 908-735-8793 or 877-WARN-DEP.