Coyotes, scat, and cats

Coyotes are wild animals successfully adapting to cohabitation with humans. Not only do coyotes adapt to us, they benefit us because their diet consists mostly of rodents. The fear that coyotes will kill all our pets is unfounded. Woefully, coyotes are inept at controlling the pest commonly known as the domestic cat.

Reports of coyote sightings in Seattle have been frequent in the past year, and blogs and newspaper stories engender lively discussions. One blog commenter [1] in particular sparked my curiosity with her note that coyotes are pests and that they are not native to the Northwest. JoAnne says:

I can assure you as a 3rd generation West Seattleite that coyotes are NOT native to this area and never have been. The area was inhabited by grey wolves and bears, but not coyotes.

The coyote is a dangerous pest species, and because its populations are exploding, it is invading many urban areas across the country. As the populations grow, the need for food will eventually translate to attacks on larger prey–first bigger pets (dogs in addition to cats), and then on people (small children).

It is naive to want them here, and a lot like saying rats are cute and we should let them infest our houses because they were here first. Except they were not here first.

Leaving aside the fact that cats, dogs, and most residents are hardly native, JoAnne did prompt me to wonder if it is odd to see coyotes in the Northwest, and if it is odd, how did they come to be here?  Always eager to put work down and pick up Google, I spent a pleasant half hour reading The Cook County, Illinois, Coyote Project and Living with Wildlife by the WA Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. The Coyote Project investigated Chicago urban coyotes. Living with Wildlife and the Coyote Project findings largely agree.

Thirty minutes reading doesn’t make me an expert, I know, but I learned a few things. First, as JoAnne says, coyotes are a recent arrival to the Northwest. Living with Wildlife indicates that the coyote range expanded partly because of the decline of the grey wolf. Grey wolf territory has declined all over because of another invasive species–yep, you guessed it, humans. The expansion of human populations in the NW has been possible because of the region’s deforestation in the 19th and 20th centuries. Both humans and coyotes were able to exploit this newly opened territory because of a characteristic we share–both species are both opportunistic. Coyotes are no more “invading” our urban areas, than our urban areas are “invading” the Northwest.

(JoAnne makes an understandable mistake when she argues that the invasion is due to their population growth. It’s just as likely that their population growth is due to the expanded territory. Neither assumption does anything to explain why coyotes are successful in urban areas when wolves are not.) Successful species adapt to changing conditions. Whether or not one is sentimental about coyotes, they’re simply doing a species job–surviving.

If coyotes benefit from human habitation, what do humans get from cohabiting with coyotes, if anything? The Coyote ProjectLiving with Wildlife agrees–found that the bulk of a coyote’s diet is rodent (see page 15 of the report). So, when Rick comments that in Kansas, where “ya listen to the corn grow,” they do kill coyotes, I wonder if the farmers might not be better off allowing what the coyotes might take of crops in exchange for the coyotes hunting rats, mice, and other rodents? However, that’s like trying to tell a rancher that grey wolves are beneficial. Even if a farmer or rancher or similarly inclined person insists coyotes should be removed or killed, consider this interesting fact from Project Wildlife, “Larger litters seem to be born in areas where intensive efforts at extermination or control have been undertaken.”

JoAnne’s horror movie scenario in which coyotes begin by eating our cats, then our children, then “infesting our homes” like so many dreaded relatives seems unlikely. There are excellent resources for developing management plans and for dealing with dangerous individuals. Everyone should know by now we shouldn’t feed wild animals: intentionally or unintentionally. I was going to say “no, duh?” but since I feed birds, I guess I’d best not throw that stone. In fact, when I’m finished writing I’m going out to clean up any spilled bird seed!

Speaking of birds (how’s that for a graceful transition?), lets consider in more detail the Coyote Project’s analysis of coyote scat. I’ve copied the table from the report for convenience. Notice garbage is low on their food preference list, and “cat” ties for last place with only 1% occurrence. “Small children” doesn’t make the list at all.

Table 1. Frequency of Food Items in the Diets of Coyotes in Cook County, Illinois.*
Diet Item Occurrence
Small rodents 42%
White-tailed deer 22%
Fruit 23%
Eastern cottontail 18%
Bird species 13%
Raccoon 8%
Grass 6%
Invertebrates 4%
Human-associated 2%
Muskrat 1%
Domestic cat 1%
Unknown 1%
* Based on the contents of 1,429 scats collected during 2000-
2002. Some scats contained multiple items; therefore, therefore, the
percentages exceed 100%. See Morey 2004.

Back to my outrageous statement at the top of this post: “Woefully, coyotes are inept at controlling the pest commonly known as the domestic cat.” I love cats, and have two now that I adore and spoil rotten. However, I have much bad karma for having had outdoor cats in the past. Not only did I have outdoor cats, I insisted on outdoor cats. The move to Seattle forced me to move my cat inside permanently, because I live on a busy street.

There is another, better reason to keep domestic cats indoors. It’s a reason I’d known for some time, but ignored because it was inconvenient. Cats kill birds. Yes, yes, you scoff, everyone knows that. What cat owners don’t know, don’t dare know, is how many birds are killed, and that some species are threatened with extinction. The simple fact is that aside from the loss of habitat, cats are the worst thing that has ever happened to the native bird population. Cats have a much greater, negative impact on the environment than coyotes [2]. Consider this sobering fact from the Ohio Wildlife Rehabilitators AssociationThe Effects of Cats on  Wildlife.” (Emphasis is mine.)

Richard Stallcup of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory estimated that of the 55 million domestic cats in the US, excluding Hawaii and Alaska, some 10% never go outside, and another 10% are too old or slow to catch anything. Of the remaining 44 million, a conservative estimate is that 1 in 10 cats kills a bird a day – this would yield a daily toll of 4.4 million birds – or 1.6 billion cat-killed birds in the US each year. [“Cats take a heavy toll on songbirds / A reversible catastrophe,” Observer, Spring/Summer 1991, 18-29, Point Reyes Bird Observatory; Native Species Network, Vol 1 Issue 1, Fall 1995.] Research has shown that rural cats, with more wildlife contact, kill many more, with the result that the feral cat population, most of which is rural, has an even more significant impact on the bird population. Alley Cat Allies estimates that there are 60 million feral cats in the United States. Combining feral and domestic cat predation, it is estimated that more than 3 billion birds are killed annually.

Cats and loss of habitat are the most harmful agents for native birds. Since JoAnne and others seem to consider native-ness of a species as preferential, coyotes are closer to being natives than cats. At least the coyote is native to the continent, whereas the domestic cat is not.

I write this with my own feral program rescue cat on my lap. She’s healthier for being indoors, happier for not being feral, and is in no danger from raccoons, coyotes, cats, or cars. Keep your cats indoors, and don’t let coyotes become familiar or comfortable with people. I know we can adapt to cohabiting with coyotes as successfully as they have adapted to us.

[1] Any mistakes in analysis herein are my own, and are probably my misreading of source. Please do not judge any authors by my words. Read the sources for yourself.

[2] I would be interested to know how coyotes and feral cats stack up with regard to killing urban rodents.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: