Recently, there have been sightings and interactions with “aggressive” urban coyotes in Texas cities – something wildlife experts say is rare.
Something even rarer is research on how these wild dogs are adapting to urban growth. With human-coyote interactions on the upswing in Austin, a group of researchers at Huston-Tillotson University are looking for, among other things, clues as to how humans and coyotes might better coexist.
Amanda Masino is an associate professor of biology at Huston-Tillotson, and says it’s not certain yet whether the urban coyote population is actually increasing, but there does seem to be increased human awareness of the animals.
“The general public is aware of coyotes; they share photos on social media and online. 311 gets a large number of calls, entities like Texas Parks and Wildlife and the Austin Animal Center get calls about coyotes,” Masino says.
Her research focuses on the behavior of urban coyotes in terms of their territory range, where they sleep, hunt, roam and their group sizes. She and her team trap coyotes and put GPS trackers on them.
“This will tell us a lot about some of those human-coyote interactions,” Masino says.
Masino says this research is new in Austin, but it’s been done in other cities like Chicago, for years. There, she says researchers have the GPS trackers, and sometimes they put a nose camera on the coyotes to see where they go and hunt.
“They’ve learned a lot. They’ve learned about behavior, they’ve raised public awareness, they’ve learned how to manage the coyotes and how to manage personal [human] behavior around the coyotes,” Masino says. “So, we’re hoping to learn some of those lessons here.”
Masino says her team can use what’s been learned in Chicago and apply it to their own research.
“It could help us to understand if we’re seeing something abnormal, or if what we’re seeing is just increased contact,” Masino says.
She says if, in the end, there’s simply more human contact with coyotes, rather than rising numbers, then the Chicago research has already led to some practices that can help.
“There’s a whole host of things that homeowners can do that falls into the category of ‘coyote hazing,'” Masino says.
She says hazing is basically making one’s property “unappetizing” to coyotes.
“They will learn and respond, and they will stay away from areas that we make unpalatable to them,” Masino says.
She says the benefit of hazing is that it keeps municipalities from having to take more serious measures to deal with coyotes like eradication and poisoning.
“These things – we don’t want this to be happening,” Masino says.
Masino says coyotes generally aren’t a physical threat to humans; attacks are rare. She says bobcats and mountain lions are more dangerous, and Texans actually face more risk with bats because of the diseases they can spread.
“We have more rabies in bats than we do in coyotes,” Masino says. “For the most part, nationally, they’re not the villains they’re sometimes painted to be.”
Another aspect of Masino’s work is increasing diversity in her profession. She worked with Texas Parks and Wildlife to learn how to bring people from a wider variety of backgrounds into wildlife and environmental careers. She says that field, generally, has a lower proportion of people of color. As a result, she started the urban coyote research project at Huston-Tillotson, a historically black university, to draw students to the field and create a pathway to the workforce after graduation.
“We talked about what it would take for our institution to be able to engage students in the work and then train them properly to go right … into these jobs,” Masino says. “We needed something that would be of value to our community, but also engaging to our students.”
Written by Caroline Covington.