Wildlife ecologist Dr. Chris Nagy never goes hunting for coyote scat, also known as poop, without his trusted and loyal assistant, Ethan, a 10-year-old Norwegian Elkhound.
On an unseasonably warm November day in Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, the trail was muddy, but beneath a layer of newly fallen leaves, Ethan could still find coyote droppings. It’s just one piece of evidence that coyotes continue to expand from wilderness territories into human environments. The dung can unlock even more details about diet, movement patterns, DNA and how the coyotes are adapting to urban life.
Nagy conducts these scat searches as part of the Gotham Coyote Project, funded by the Mianus River Gorge, a nonprofit nature preserve and conservation organization. Since 2010, they’ve been studying coyotes and following their movements without touching or disturbing these reclusive mammals.
According to an analysis of the droppings collected by Nagy’s research team, New York City-area coyotes are adapting to human food. Some scat contained food from halal carts, and other coyotes have developed a taste for chicken, but for the most part, they’re mostly sticking to wild diets. The researchers’ goals are to learn more about these canids and understand their impact on the urban ecosystem while also educating the public.
That day, Nagy was also collecting strategically placed digital field cameras — housed inside camouflage-painted boxes tied to tree trunks at around knee height. Whenever something warm-blooded moves in front of the infrared trigger, the camera snaps a photo. These images not only help study the coyotes’ movements and behaviors but also that of their favorite prey, such as foxes and white-tailed deer.
“There is some parallel between the human story and the coyote story,” said Nagy, who co-founded Gotham Coyote Project and is also the director of research and education at the Mianus River Gorge. “We are both scrawny, but somewhat clever, sort of little weaklings compared to lions and grizzly bears, and so we had to sort of live under their feet for a while and figure things out using our wit.”
The Gotham Coyote Project has found these canines eat more than just deer and foxes. Whatever it is, coyotes devour it – all of it. They’ll eat anything, including plants and even a shoelace with a ketchup stain. Nagy also found all the fixings for a summer barbecue, including watermelon and hamburgers. And as for stories about coyotes having felines for dinner, out of 400 collected samples, only about 1% contained cat remains.
Coyote scat looks a lot like dog poop, except it’s drier and often filled with what looks like twisted twine or rope strands, a result of eating its prey whole – bones, fur and all. As they eat more food out of trash cans and what people leave behind, the scat starts to look less like that — as fast food wrappers replace hair and vertebrae.
But unlike urban scavengers like pigeons, rats and raccoons, coyotes seem to prefer their traditional food sources over human ones. According to the genetic sampling analyzed by former Gotham Coyote researcher Dr. Carol Henger, they eat mostly rabbits, raccoons, white-tailed deer, voles and skunks. She said human food is more of a supplement to their diets.
“They're opportunistic, and they will take advantage of readily available food sources,” Henger said. “They’re not depending on human food items. As long as there are a lot of naturalistic food items available, I don’t see coyotes just hanging out at trash sources just to get human food.”
The secrets locked in coyote poop
Feces can reveal more than what a coyote had for lunch. These canids use it as a way of marking their territory. It is also rich with DNA that can genetically link coyotes as far as Nassau County to ones who crossed over from Westchester into the parks of the north Bronx in the early 2000s.
From 45 unique individual samples of coyote carcasses collected from 2010 to 2017, most of which were roadkill, Henger deduced that New York City coyotes were related.
“We had grandparents and related grandchildren — a few generations,” Henger said. “I looked at the relatedness across parks and I could see a lot of coyotes were related, which indicates to me that coyotes are dispersing and colonizing different parks.”
Since then they have dispersed throughout the Bronx's parks, crossing train tracks along the West Side of Manhattan, and moving under darkness through deserted streets and a patchwork of greenspaces, such as the woodlands of Central Park, where one lone coyote is known to roam.
In the Bronx and Manhattan, they also spend time along the East Side’s deserted waterfront. The coyotes even swim across the East River and the Long Island Sound. Coyotes on Fishers Island swim up 2 miles from the southeastern coast of Connecticut, according to Mike Bottini, a wildlife biologist for Seatuck, a Long Island-based environmental conservation group.
“Coyotes are part of the natural ecosystem that used to be here before European settlers arrived, and they're kind of here to stay, which is a good thing,” said Dr. Stephen Harris, a SUNY biology professor and researcher on the Gotham Coyote Project. “They're back. They're helping control the rodent populations.”
Their expansion continues, in part because they don’t have a choice. Coyotes are highly territorial. For example, 2,700-acre Pelham Bay Park harbors only one mated pair with a den. Every spring, they can have as many as seven pups, but when those younglings come of age, they’re forced to find new homes.
“The barrier between the wild and the civilized is disappearing almost entirely,” said Dr. Colin Jerolmack, NYU professor of sociology and environmental studies. “Fifteen or 20 years ago you saw coyotes starting to dip into the outer boroughs, so that was sort of testing it out and seeing if these places would be a place that they could try to survive, if not thrive.”
Jerolmack expects to see more of that. Normally, when a pup reaches the age of 6 months, it has to move out of its parents’ den, but this family dynamic is different in cramped New York City, according to Nagy’s observations. He said if four babies are born in the spring, then by fall two usually leave right away. The other two may stay for a full year or even through the summer afterward. The remaining duo may help with rearing the new litter of brothers and sisters, but at some point they leave, too.
“The trick to that is New York City never sleeps. In the middle of the night, you're still going to have a fair number of cars and trucks,” Bottini said. “With the yearlings that are looking to disperse into their own territory, it's not very enticing for them to go wander onto the Throgs Neck Bridge or the Whitestone Bridge.”
Even amid New York City’s more than 300 square miles and nearly 9 million people, coyotes are so territorial that there is only enough room for about 30 adults, citywide.
“If you were a young coyote and your parents are like, 'OK, time to go,' you have a choice to make – which way will I go? How far am I going to look? Am I going to wait a little while, try to live with my parents a little longer?” Nagy said. “It’s sort of like people, but they don’t have a map, so they’ll just say I guess I’ll go that way.”
When a young coyote leaves its parents’ den, it’s looking for maximum seclusion and a good 10 acres to hide and sleep in all day without the risk of people. This locale would usually consist of a heavily wooded area, but in New York City, coyotes settle for less. Golf courses can be attractive housing options for these privacy-hungry canines because they are usually fenced off from humans.
When a coyote finds the right location, it might build a den, which can be as simple as a burrow dug at an angle into the ground, up to 6 feet deep. These homes are only used for having pups. Otherwise, coyotes sleep out in the open. They reuse the den every year, unless a human interferes with it, then they abandon it permanently.
And metropolitan coyotes are impacting our urban ecosystem. Using field cameras installed in the Bronx and Queens parks, Nagy has observed behavior changes in about 20 different species of animals sharing a habitat with coyotes, most notably rabbits and deer.
“If you’ve got coyotes, which are super nocturnal, then the other species who are also often avoiding people, they have to make a decision,” Nagy said. “Usually, the other species now need to sequester their activity to just dawn and dusk.”
Nagy is confident that nearly every park in New York City has a coyote camping out there. At a time when animals are confronted with adaptation or extinction, Canis latrans var is a very resilient creature. Unlike its close relative the wolf, the eastern coyote has eluded extermination by increasing its territories and adapting to environments from deserts and mountain forests to Central Park, one of the most traversed urban greenspaces.
“Coyotes got here not because we wanted them or they were endangered or we bred them and let them go in the city parks – they got here on their own, even in the face of the fact we tried to eradicate them for 200 years,” Nagy said. In the U.S., an estimated half-million coyotes are killed, mostly for sport, every year. Despite that, the coyotes have increased their range to encompass the entire continent.
“Coyotes theoretically could thrive in New York City, but the big question is where’s the threshold,” Nagy said. “You never know with coyotes, but I don’t think you’re going to have a coyote den in Times Square.”