It appears as if the centuries-long and inevitable exodus of the coyote in North America is almost complete. Leaving the mountains and prairies of the West, the canine moved eastward, populating cities and suburbs and evolving along the way, ultimately arriving in New York State about 90 years ago, and recently settling on Long Island. The offspring of coyote families that colonized the Bronx a couple of decades ago have now made their way into Nassau County, where two breeding pairs have been identified in the past couple of years, one in a county park and the other on an estate on the celebrated Gold Coast.
Locally, sightings and photo evidence have recorded a coyote roaming the South Fork since 2013. And just last year, for the first time, a single photo by a local hunter captured two coyotes together here. Whether they are a breeding pair is unknown. But what is known is that these two — or possibly three — are likely the first coyotes in history to ever walk across the farm fields and forests of the East End.
“This is definitely not a comeback,” said wildlife biologist Mike Bottini of the Seatuck Environmental Association, asserting that coyotes were never present on Long Island historically. “A lot of times when we’re talking about species getting back, it’s a matter of them having suffered from something we did to them — but that’s not the case here.”
“But this is kind of unusual,” he continued. “It’s not something you would consider an invasive species.”
Indeed, the Eastern coyote — as the animals who are now populating the state are called to differentiate them from their relatives in the West — are made up of species that have long called North America home. In addition to descending from their Western coyote ancestors, the Eastern coyote is also made up of wolf and domestic dog.
“Originally, the idea they had bred with wolves was not even on the table,” said Bottini, who will lead a Zoom presentation for the South Fork Natural History Museum on Saturday, January 30, in which he will discuss coyotes and their move east. “The theory was that they had interbred with domestic dogs, hence the name ‘coydog.’”
But advances in genetic technology have allowed biologists to more fully explore the makeup of the Eastern coyote, which, Bottini said, is about 50 to 65 percent Western coyote, the rest being wolf, with a smaller amount of domestic dog. The wolf, he said, accounts for the animal’s larger size compared to its Western cousin. The Eastern coyote is typically about 30 to 50 pounds, and about 48 to 60 inches long, almost twice the size of its western relative.
Like the expansion of other species, the exodus of the Eastern coyote took advantage of opportunity and a vacuum. By the 1800s, settlers had exterminated most of the wolves and many of the other larger predators in the East, clearing the way for coyotes to fill in the niche. Also aiding the expansion was the change in the landscape that was occurring in the East, with the clearing of forests and the emergence of a patchwork of farms across the land, eliminating habitat for larger predators and creating opportunity for the coyote. By the late 1800s, Bottini said, coyotes in the west, which had co-existed with wolves, ran into small, disjunct groups of wolves as they migrated east, and mated with them.
The Eastern coyote entered New York from Canada, crossing over the St. Lawrence River sometime in the 1930s, Bottini said. From there it made its way south, through the Adirondack and Catskill mountains, eventually emerging in Westchester and into the urban reaches of the Bronx.
The coyote is an extraordinarily adaptable animal, Bottini said, and is comfortable in urban or suburban spaces.
“It’s hard to find an environment they’re not able to survive in,” he said.
They have been established in Chicago for many years, he noted, and are thriving in New York. They can find their way to municipal golf courses or parks and find culverts “to hunker down in during the day, and hunt at night.”
Long Island is the largest island in the lower 48 states, and the largest land mass that, until recently, had not been colonized, so it would seem their presence here would be inevitable.
There are things that are similar and different from their ancestors. For the most part, Eastern coyotes are solitary animals, unlike wolves, which travel in packs; however, when it suits them, they can hunt collaboratively, like wolves do. And since they are larger than their Western coyote cousins, they are able to pursue and take down larger prey.
But the list of items on a coyote’s menu is extensive, from rodents and trash to bugs and fruit. Even deer and feral cats.
“It would be hard to find anything they wouldn’t eat,” Bottini said.
“It’s a very plastic animal,” he said. “Very moldable and extremely adaptable.”
Bottini said the question is, is this animal that has been seen around the South Fork really a coyote?
The answer is still unclear, he observed, and will be left to those doing the research and their argument in front of taxonomists.
Are They From the Bronx?
Where the two coyotes — or three — who now roam the South Fork came from is unclear. Offspring from those breeding pairs in the Bronx could have made their way out here, Bottini said, noting that when they disperse, a range of 100 miles would not be uncommon.
“They can have a pretty large range, especially if they’re not mated,” he said.
But, he added, another possibility is they may have come from Fishers Island.
Bottini was on the island in 2013 as part of his research on the return of the river otter when he said he discovered some coyote scat and locals on the island acknowledged they had occasionally seen the animals. Coyotes could easily have made the 2-mile swim from the Connecticut mainland to Fishers Island, Bottini said, but he was unsure if they could make the considerably longer swim from Fishers Island to Long Island. However, he said it may be possible if the animals took advantage of the archipelago of small islands in between.
A clue to their origin may be found in what they leave behind. A wildlife volunteer in Mattituck has discovered what she believes to be coyote scat on the North Fork. Bottini said that DNA evidence may point to whether they hail from the colony in the Bronx, or there is some link to those established in Connecticut.
For the past eight years, occasional sightings of a coyote — Bottini said the consensus is that it has been a single coyote, at least up until last year — have been reported across the South Fork, from Southampton to Amagansett. The first photo of a coyote was captured by a farmer in Sagaponack in 2013, and since then anecdotal reports and photographs have placed the animal on the Atlantic and The Bridge golf courses and ranging between the East Hampton Airport and the outskirts of Southampton Village. The coyote has also been seen crossing the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike from the Long Pond Greenbelt.
Starting a Family
Coyotes take some time getting to know their territory before mating, Bottini said. “This is the mating season right now, January. There’s a very short window, three days, where she’s receptive to mating.”
Bottini said he had the opportunity to monitor the pair on Nassau County’s north shore, and, following last month’s snowstorm, was able to track the coyotes on the Gold Coast estate.
“It seems they were checking out nesting sites,” he said having followed their tracks in the snow, which led to an old clay culvert and to a felled tree resting at a 45-degree angle on the property. “It appears they were cleaning out some of the dead leaves. I’m anticipating we’ll have some pups to monitor on the estate in 2021.”
Bottini said it is unclear if the couple photographed by the hunter last year — in Southampton, east of the canal — are a mating pair, or, in fact, one of the coyotes is the same one that has been seen since 2013.
“That’s hard to say,” he said. “The trail cam photo was at night so it’s a black and white photo. The coyote that was photographed in 2013 would be at least 8 years old … possibly 10. Their longevity in the wild is listed as 10 to 14.”
Which, of course, leaves open the possibility there are now three coyotes living on the East End.
While a future population of coyotes on Long Island and the East End appears inevitable, there are some — maybe many — who will not be welcoming them.
“It’s a difficult thing for some Long Islanders to get their heads around,” Bottini said, not the least of which is the addition of a major predator into the neighborhood.
“I keep hens, so I have to protect them,” he said, adding the precautions are “not a heavy lift.”
“The one thing that coyotes have dealt with in other areas is the feral cat population,” Bottini said, acknowledging it was “an emotional topic.” He said there were well over 100 colonies of feral cats on Long Island, but “some people will have a problem with it.”
With the likelihood of more human and coyote interactions in the coming years, the Long Island Coyote Study Group has developed a set of guidelines on the seatuck.org site to aid people in coexisting with the animal. These include minimizing any opportunity to create coyote habitat by clearing out or closing up any areas like crawl spaces under porches and outdoor sheds. Also, keep family members and pets safe. Coyotes rarely attack humans, but the guide suggests turning and running away could trigger their instinct to give chase. You can also scare off coyotes, which have a natural aversion to humans, by banging pots or yelling loudly. If confronted, make yourself look large. Small pets should be kept on leashes, especially when walking at night, and shouldn’t be left unmonitored in the yard.
“But the Golden Rule is: Don’t feed the coyotes,” Bottini said. “You start feeding, you’re going to have some real problems.”
Bottini’s Zoom discussion about the Eastern coyote will be offered on Saturday, January 30, at 10:30 a.m. through the South Fork Natural History Museum. Advanced registration is required at sofo.org. Search for the event under the calendar tab.