Reclusive Canines Move into Triangle
Richard Stradling and Sarah Lindenfeld Hall / newsobserver.com / November 2004
Coyotes, those natives of the Western plains and stars of cowboy movies and Road Runner cartoons, have quietly moved to the farms and suburbs of the Triangle.
The reclusive canines dart across runways at Raleigh-Durham International Airport and turn up dead along highways. They've killed livestock and are prime suspects in the unexplained disappearance of family pets.
"They are here," said Robert Jankowski, owner of Critter Control of Raleigh-Durham, a company that traps nuisance animals. "A lot of people don't want to believe they're here, but they have arrived."
Coyotes, which resemble small collies with narrow snouts and bushy tails, crossed the Mississippi River more than 70 years ago and began moving into North Carolina from Tennessee and Virginia in the mid-1980s. Perry Sumner, a biologist with the state Wildlife Resources Commission, tracked the migration for several years but stopped about four years ago when he concluded that coyotes live in all 100 counties.
"There seems to be a few everywhere," Sumner said.
No one is counting coyotes in the Triangle. But Tad Bassett, owner of Triangle Wildlife Removal, a company that collects road kill for the state Department of Transportation, tracks how many dead ones he picks up off the side of Wake County roads. A few years ago, Bassett found a couple of coyotes a year; now he scoops up one or two a month.
"They're definitely getting more numerous," he said. "But they're fairly secretive, so you really don't have a good feeling for how many are out there."
Coyotes are predators that can live just about anywhere there's food; one even turned up in New York's Central Park five years ago. They favor rabbits, mice, deer and woodchucks but have also been known to eat grasshoppers, grapes and watermelons.
"There's not anything I know of they will not eat," Sumner said. "They can make a living just about anywhere."
The grassy fields around the runways at RDU offer a smorgasbord of rodents and rabbits. Trapping and removing coyotes has become a routine part of running the airport, said spokeswoman Mindy Hamlin. Using foothold traps, a contractor took away seven this year; another one was killed by a Boeing 737 as it landed.
Coyotes dig their way under the fence that separates the airport from Umstead State Park. No one has reported seeing them in the park, said ranger Bob Davies, but he's sure they are there, based on sightings at the airport and elsewhere.
"It's a 5,000-acre state park." Davies said. "There's plenty of room for that type of wildlife."
Coyotes pose little threat to humans, said Todd Menke, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services office in Raleigh. They're active mostly at night and would rather stay clear of people, Menke said.
But as their population grows, he said, they are likely to grow bolder, looking for food around homes.
"The first thing you usually will see is a lot of people missing their cats and dogs," he said.
Snuggles, a pet rabbit belonging to 8-year-old Grayson Montgomery in North Raleigh, may have been a coyote victim.
Grayson and her mother, Suzanne, returned to their home off Lead Mine Road one afternoon last summer to find the wood and wire hutch in the back yard smashed and Snuggles gone.
A wildlife biologist who surveyed the damage and examined tooth marks on the wood concluded that a coyote or wild dog was responsible.
"It made us very nervous about children being outside," Suzanne Montgomery said. "If a coyote could come in and get a rabbit, it could get a child, too."
Triangle farmers are becoming familiar with coyotes.
Quincy Adams didn't know coyotes were in the area until last year. Adams found two eating the carcass of a newborn calf on his family's farm in Willow Spring in southern Wake County and now sees them regularly when he goes hunting.
"All of a sudden last year they were everywhere," he said.
Donkey, llama may help
Adams works as an agent for the state Cooperative Extension Service and has a pamphlet that offers strategies for repelling coyotes. Among the suggestions: keeping donkeys or llamas, which can be aggressive toward coyotes.
Judy Tysmans opted for a Great Pyrenees dog named Siobhan to help protect the goat and eight sheep that live on her farm between New Hill and Holly Springs in southern Wake County. Tysmans has heard what she thinks are coyotes in the woods.
"It sounds like 15 or 20 of them really, really loud," said Tysmans, a research nurse at UNC-Chapel Hill. "There's lots and lots of barking and a very high-pitched yapping kind of sound. It's just very unsettling."
The state considers coyotes non-native nuisance animals, said Kate Pipkin, a biologist with the Wildlife Resources Commission. Anyone is free to kill a coyote any time of year during daylight hours or at night if the coyote poses a threat, Pipkin said.
With fur that runs from red to dark gray, coyotes can be mistaken for wild dogs or foxes, which live in the Triangle, and for wolves, which do not. Some animal sightings remain a mystery.
On a dark October morning, Liz Pirola hit an animal on Raven Ridge Road north of the Outer Loop in North Raleigh, called 911 and waited for a police officer.
"He came back and said, 'You hit a wolf,' " said Pirola, 31. "He said 'Consider it a public service.' "
Joe Blomquist, Raleigh's animal control supervisor, is certain Pirola didn't hit a wolf. Blomquist thinks the police officer was probably looking at a dead fox.
But other wildlife specialists agree coyotes have arrived and will continue to make themselves known throughout the region. That's exciting to Jankowski, the owner of Critter Control, who expects coyotes to provide a new challenge, something other than getting raccoons and squirrels out of people's attics.
"Coyotes have not caused us enough of a problem that we really worry about it yet, but they will in the future," he said. "They are here to stay."
Staff writer Richard Stradling can be reached at 829-4739 or firstname.lastname@example.org.