The Coyotes of Chicago: Meet the Windy City's Unlikely New Residents

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Chicago Tribune / MCT / Landov

The coyote tilts its head back and bellows out a series of high-pitched yips while standing alone in the patch of marsh where it makes its home. Soon a dog nearby barks in response. The coyote answers. Before long, other dogs in the area add to the canine symphony, their woofs and yips resounding as the sun hangs low over shingled roofs just before dusk on a Saturday.

It's a scene that wouldn't be out of place on the outskirts of Santa Fe, N.M. But this is Streamwood, a suburb of Chicago, the nation's third largest city and one where coyotes are not only increasingly common but appear to be living harmoniously with human residents.

"People walk their poodles not knowing 15 ft. (4.5 m) away there's a full-grown coyote," says Stan Gehrt, a wildlife biologist at Ohio State University. "That's every day."

Once a fixture of the Midwestern prairie, coyotes largely disappeared by the end of the 19th century as cities grew and expanded. But in the past 20 years they've returned, moving eastward from their native western states. Hunters and trappers in Illinois now harvest about 7,000 of the animals annually, according to the state's department of natural resources. Gehrt has spent the past 10 years tracking nearly 500 Chicago-area animals for the most comprehensive study of urban coyotes ever done. His researchers are out around the clock five days a week, driving pickup trucks equipped with antennas that detect signals from the animals' radio collars; a receiver in the front seat chirps a particular frequency when one of them gets close.

On a recent Saturday night, Evan Wilson, an Ohio State graduate student, is tooling around Chicago's northwest suburbs, looking for coyotes. "The fact that these animals continue to eke out an existence is pretty incredible," he says. But the study has found coyotes to be well-adapted urbanites. They rest during the day to avoid people and traffic. At night, they hunt rodents and feral cats and feast on roadkill. At intersections, some have mastered the art of checking for oncoming traffic before crossing. (Many haven't: three-quarters of Chicago coyotes don't live to see their third birthday, and cars are the leading killer.)

The animals' survival depends on avoiding people and the spotlight, although they tend to wander accidentally into it. A few years ago one was discovered in a downtown sandwich shop cooling off in a display fridge amid the cans of fruit juice and soda. Last December another floated onto the open waters of Lake Michigan on an iceberg; as TV helicopters hovered, rescuers pulled Holly — named in honor of the holidays — to safety from the frigid water. It was a scene that looked more Alaska than Chicago and was the talk of the city. In late March another got stuck on an overpass just north of downtown.

Every time a coyote makes a cameo, Donna Alexander's phone rings. Alexander, the administrator of Cook County Animal and Rabies Control, which is sponsoring Gehrt's study, says calls to her agency spike whenever a coyote sighting makes the papers. "We calm people down and tell them a coyote is your best friend, especially if you have rats," she says. In the past decade, she says, they've had to remove only one animal — a coyote they trapped after it had been fed repeatedly by people and lost its fear of them.

But overall, daily life for coyotes isn't so different from that of other Chicagoans: most have a place in the burbs and young mouths to feed. Take the guy who started yipping at sunset, a 40-lb. (18 kg) alpha male named Big Melon for his oversize, reddish-furred head, whom Gehrt and his crew have been tracking since 2004. Big Melon and Big Mama — an alpha female and the first coyote Gehrt put a radio collar on, back in 2000 — had a monogamous relationship for years; they raised pups each spring (45 in all, spread over six litters) and together roamed a stretch of traffic-clogged terrain near O'Hare International Airport.

Then one day in April 2010, Big Mama's radio signal suggested she wasn't moving. A researcher found her dead in a forest preserve, a 13-year-old great-grandmother taken not by traffic on Interstate 90, which she crossed regularly, but by natural causes. Big Melon finished raising their spring pups and then last fall went missing for months.

But by October, Big Melon was back, resettling just a few miles away in a patch of marsh tucked between a subdivision and a Sam's Club, in the shadow of the Streamwood water tower.

Researchers think he has a new mate and is ready for another spring of raising pups. He's not shy with his new canine neighbors; although he keeps his distance, he still makes music with them. And he appears to have found another new neighbor to his liking: on the gravel path beside Big Melon's marsh, where suburbanites walk their dogs daily, lie the bones and feathers of what used to be a Canada goose, with coyote scat not far away.