Ghosts of the city: Coyotes, foxes and urban wildlife

The dead coyote lay for nearly two weeks at autumn’s end in 2016 on the shoulder of Interstate 71, less than two miles from downtown Louisville. Its body was half under the cable barrier that borders the grassy median, its face hidden under its paws. How many motorists noted it, or knew it to be something other than a domestic dog, I don’t know.

As I sat in my car, idling on the far shoulder, the trucks roared by at such speeds, and continuously, that it was impossible to safely get close to the animal to learn more about it — to determine its sex, for example, or establish an accurate weight. Instead, I examined the coyote from across two lanes of pavement, its black-tipped guard hairs rustling in the updraft of passing traffic.

Just shy of the Zorn Avenue exit, this stretch of highway is evidently a wildlife corridor. I’ve seen wild turkeys along the shoulder, just above the wooded tracts to the north of the freeway. Deer, including mature bucks, cross here between the open spaces along River Road and the heavily forested Crescent Hill and Clifton Heights neighborhoods. Not long ago, turning onto the Zorn Avenue exit, an eagle — probably an immature bald eagle — soared over the roadway.

In every direction, animals such as opossums — North America’s only marsupial — as well as red foxes, raccoons, eastern cottontails, woodchucks, beavers and a number of raptors, including barred owls and red-shouldered hawks, roam uninhibitedly. Despite the congestion of roads and houses, the wildlife present within Louisville Metro’s urban boundaries is impressive.

The coyote is perhaps of another order.

In the past year, The Courier-Journal and several television stations have reported on the seeming increase of Canis latrans, 19 subspecies of which roam over the whole of North America. Increasingly, people are encountering them within the city limits in green spaces ranging from Cherokee Park to Iroquois Park, as well as the open country among the landing strips of Bowman Field. Whether it’s unfamiliarity with the coyote and the wild it clearly represents, or its approximation to the wolf, residents find the presence of the coyote unsettling.

The coyote is not endangered, and its numbers are increasing in many urban areas — Chicago is, in fact, a very stable habitat. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the coyote as “least concern,” a status shared with ubiquitous local species ranging from the Carolina wren to the black bear, though the coyote is likely to enjoy far less respect. This attitude does not seem to affect the coyote, which is increasingly adapted to the urban environment, and to the presence of humans.

Roaming among our houses at night is an entire order of life that disturbs us little. Granted, for me to have sat on my porch one night and had a raccoon suddenly leap into view was disconcerting. The opossum I saw in my backyard one summer night was larger than a small dog. And the fox I saw bounding up Hite Avenue, caught for a moment in the halo of streetlights before dodging into the dark yards, seemed nearly incredible given the heavy traffic of Brownsboro Road, the roar of the railroad and the presence of so many people.

Yet, for the most part, people accept these animals. Can we accept coyotes the same way? After all, the fox, too, will happily steal chickens from those who keep them in their backyards. The question is not necessarily what to do about coyotes, but how we might, in turn, adapt to and accommodate them.

A coyote in Woodford County (photo by Joe Lacefield)

‘Ghost of the plains’

I’m talking to Jason Nally, Private Lands Biologist in the Wildlife Division of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. Lately, he is the professional with whom people talk, whether it’s homeowners or local writers.

“I receive calls concerning coyotes on almost a daily basis,” he said. “I will often receive multiple calls from one neighborhood as the coyote makes its way across people’s yards. I have also received reports of missing or injured pets, and encounters from people who are walking their dogs near den sites.

“Most of these calls are from individuals who are surprised to see a coyote in such an urban environment and during daylight hours. I think that fear and concern are typical responses to seeing a coyote. The only angry calls are from individuals who have had a pet attacked or felt threatened by the coyote. Most of the angry callers want the coyotes gone; however, a lot of callers are excited to see coyotes in the area.”

When asked how many coyotes might be in Jefferson County, Nally can offer only a guess. What he thinks is that there are over 100 breeding pairs throughout the county. What coyotes there are will also be predominant near green spaces that offer food and cover — hence, the wealth of coyote sightings in places including Floyds Fork or the Frederick Law Olmsted Parks. Even so, he explained, coyotes need personal space. They are territorial and will defend their home ranges, though urban coyotes tend to have smaller territories than their rural counterparts.

Nevertheless, it is impossible, at this point, to get an accurate count of coyotes because no one is doing the counting. State Fish and Wildlife uses most of its monitoring resources on species that are threatened, declining or managed as a game species.

Coyotes are decidedly not in this category.

Oftentimes, a university may carry out a study; a graduate student, perhaps, may do a count, but no population-density research is happening in Kentucky, at least not to Nally’s knowledge. Records of any sort pertaining to coyotes are few.

In the 1974 book “Mammals of Kentucky,” the only recorded coyote specimen was one observation in Clark County, he said. “Since that time coyotes have gradually spread into every corner of the state and can now be found in all 120 counties. Although populations will likely fluctuate over time, it appears that coyotes are doing very well across the state.”

A barista at my local coffee shop insists she’d seen a coyote in an alley in Schnitzelburg. A fellow parent at my daughter’s school said he sees coyotes frequently on the stretch of Beargrass Creek where it flows through Seneca Park, and near the boundary of the Louisville Seminary. The coyote, which used to be known as the “ghost of the plains,” is only one among many such ghosts one can find in the city limits.

Consider the gray squirrel

Louisville clearly has remarkable habitat for many species. Some wetlands still exist, whether in Caperton Swamp along the Ohio River or Draut Park surrounding the Middle Fork of Beargrass Creek, lying within sight of both a major shopping plaza and a mall. The Olmstead Parks offer shelter to many species of mammals, lizards and birds. The city itself is ringed partly by The Knobs, containing both the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest and the Jefferson County Memorial Forest.

Birds are the first to come to mind, as the city’s neighborhoods flourish with songbirds: wrens, blue jays, cardinals, mockingbirds, brown thrashers and robins, to name a few. Large birds thrive, too. White egrets and blue herons drift over downtown. Night herons patrol stretches of Beargrass Creek. Turkey vultures circle parking lots along Hurstbourne Avenue. Golden eagles scan the woods of Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest.

But there are many other animals, too. Schnitzelburg lays claim to one of the heaviest populations of squirrels in the city. Around my house, the enormous black walnut trees, the tomato gardens and the peanuts strewn by my neighbor feed them proficiently and equally. Five-lined skinks sun themselves on walls and concrete steps, and rare salamanders live in rock outcrops along waterways.

How much do we know about these animals?

Consider the gray squirrel, surely one of the most adaptable species. I am not beneath considering them a nuisance, but even a cursory examination of the gray squirrel reveals that the reason it can cling upside down to a tree trunk is because its rear feet can rotate — the only animal capable of this feat. Opossum are to be revered by the sheer amount of ticks they can eat in a single day. Or watch for the chimney swifts at dusk as they funnel in a typhoon into the towering chimneys throughout the city — their Velcro-like feet allow them to cling to the bricks inside. How hundreds, or thousands, can arrange themselves comfortably is a mystery.

Foxes den in Douglass Loop as easily as chipmunks in woodpiles in Hikes Point. The eastern cottontail leaves its tracks over the snow in nearly every part of the city. Turtles sun themselves on driftwood, seemingly undisturbed, in water at the edge of roadways.

A question we might pose is this: How well do we understand the animals that move among us, crossing our yards at night, slipping into our alleys? And how might we renew our relationship to the animals we see variously as pests, if not outright dangers?

Of passerines, accipiters, buteos

It’s below freezing on a Sunday morning when I meet Rod Botkins beside Hogan’s Fountain in Cherokee Park. It’s late January, the air dappled with traces of snow. On the trunk of one tree standing before us, three species of passerines probe the bark: a white-breasted nuthatch, a red-bellied woodpecker and a downy woodpecker. Because it is still morning, birds are active.

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We hardly have to move along the trail to hear chickadees and titmice, and we spot a brown creeper through our binoculars, carefully ascending the trunk of a hackberry. I note how the nuthatch and the creeper have a similar way of moving along the limbs, though the nuthatch creeps always down toward the trunk. Botkins said, “I tell them apart like this: the brown creeper creeps up and the nuthatch goes down the hatch.”

I’ve known Rod for almost a year. We met at Pine Mountain Settlement School when he was an intern naturalist there, leading educational hikes and identifying not only the birds but the multifarious flowers, as well. “I’ve always been enamored with nature,” he said. “That’s why I joined the Boy Scouts, though I wasn’t interested in the merit badges.”

He tells me that, among birders, everyone has a “spark bird,” an experience — be it with a passerine, accipiter, or buteo — which forever sets one on the path to birding. For Rod, it was the sight of a northern flicker along Frankfort Avenue, an inordinately beautiful bird that he assumed to be rare. He went into the Crescent Hill Library that very day and found Peterson’s field guide, the fifth edition, and identified the bird. “I was a little disappointed to find it was common,” he admitted.

From that point, he focused exclusively on birds for a year and more. Even today, he leads birding hikes, as he did recently at the Louisville Nature Center, which hosts a bird blind at the edge of the Beargrass Creek Nature Preserve. “Birds are super accessible,” he said. “You don’t need to go to a wildlife sanctuary to see neo-tropical migrants. You can go to city parks. I’ve seen 50 species in one morning.”

He’s documented over 100 species in Cherokee Park alone. Shawnee Park, he explains, is an excellent place to see warblers flitting among the riverside sycamores. The reason there are so many birds in the Ohio River Valley has much to do with migratory flyways. The eastern United States is particularly rich in these flyways, especially those that follow the Mississippi River. Rod suspects that many veer off and follow the Ohio River northward.

The sheer number of passerines, perching birds, in Louisville means that Cooper’s hawks excel in hunting. This small accipiter is easily seen in not only city parks but neighborhoods. They glide as effortlessly through the alleys of Germantown as they do in the wooded Clifton neighborhood. A spray of feathers in the grass is easily attributed to them.

We drive through the park and down to the Hert Bridge over Beargrass Creek. As soon as we step out of the car, a song sparrow’s long warbling call fills the damp air. “It’s good to hear the sparrows,” Botkins said. He shows me a place along the creek where night herons will perch. I tell him I’ve seen the great blue herons in the creek as well.

When the temperature drops and the birds quiet, we leave as well. “The birds are like us,” he said. “They conserve energy in the cold.”

The bear of Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest.

Black bear of Bernheim

One weekend I showed up at Bernheim forest to get some volunteering hours in. Nothing excited the imaginations of locals as much as what had happened just hours before I came to the guard shack at the entrance — a black bear spotted along the lake.

Andrew Berry is the Forest Manager at Bernheim. When he talks of urban wildlife, he is nothing if not enthusiastic. Bernheim, as well as the Jefferson County Memorial Forest, both a part of the region known as The Knobs, represents what is known as the wild-urban interface.

I start by asking about the coyote population in the Bernheim forest. “They’re increasing,” he said, “and it’s only getting better because there’s food available — more deer, more turkey, more house cats.” He noted, too, that with some coyotes, up to 75 percent of their diet can be plant material.

The ecosystem, he explained, requires a food pyramid. The days of wolves and mountain lions in Kentucky are gone, which means the top predators are, for the most part, extinct. Bobcats are not numerous enough to covet such a position. Coyotes, though, are well situated to be, if not a replacement for wolves, a contender for that niche. Without such a predator, deer have multiplied across the east.

“Now that deer are at high numbers, there’s an opportunity for larger predators to increase,” Berry said. “Coyotes stepped into that niche. Wolves need large areas to roam, but the coyote slips in under our noses.”

Berry once worked in Yellowstone National Park and is familiar with the big game: Rocky Mountain elk, gray wolves, bison. In the east, coyotes — “Prairie wolves” — are getting bigger, he believes. They will continue to evolve. At Bernheim, he sees that coyotes are getting more social, forming packs and hunting large animals.

“Coyotes get a bad rap. People don’t realize this area is already saturated with them. We need to look at the food web that can exist here.”

The food web he refers to is the complex ecological chain that is as much about life as it is about death. Not long ago, a dead deer lay along the loop of Cherokee Park. Such a carcass, Berry pointed out, can feed 50 different species. A dead deer in the deep forest of Bernheim would attract not only carnivores such as coyotes and foxes, but resident eagles and hawks. Mice would gnaw the bones for calcium, and the bugs that feed on it would in turn feed birds. And so on, all the way down to the bacteria in the soil.

Deer are a keystone species, just as beaver are. Beavers, for their part, are what Berry calls an ecosystem engineer. They create ponds, wetlands and prairies that benefit other species: fish, birds, otters, waterfowl and amphibians. Beavers live in Bernheim, certainly, but they also are known to live in the marsh along Bowling Boulevard near the St. Matthews Mall.

The most famous resident of Bernheim, at least this past year, was the black bear. First spotted in late July, the bear is believed to be a young male and is the first documented bear in Bernheim history. The resurgence of bears in Eastern Kentucky leads to more competition for space and food and so, Berry concludes, younger males have begun migrating, looking for territory and mates.

Bernheim’s large, contiguous forest offers exceptional habitat for a black bear. Mature oak forest blends into open prairies, and clean streams flow into wetlands. Blackberries and soft mast provide forage, and the white oak acorn crop this year was particularly plentiful. The bear, Berry said, probably felt safe there. In time, he thinks a female is bound to show up.

Like coyotes, there is nothing necessarily to fear in the bear, although it’s important to allow these large mammals to remain wild. We will have to watch our garbage. We must not feed them, allowing them to associate humans with food. It is not out of the question that we may live on terms with these animals, as Los Angeles has lived with its mountain lions, or Chicago with its coyotes, or Trinidad, Colorado with its bears.

“Bears learn from people, and people learn from bears,” Berry said.

Something to teach us

With attention, anyone can notice the traces of wildlife in this stretch of the Ohio River Valley. Coyote dung at the peak of the knob in Iroquois Park. Brown thrashers nesting in shrubs along River Road. Turkeys behind the St. Joseph Children’s Home. With attention, it is easy to distinguish between an eagle and a turkey vulture simply by a tilt of the wings, and one knows what to watch for when scanning the sky above the Ohio River.

To see a full-grown buck crashing through the woods into Joe Creason Park brings the wild world closer. That our city provides habitat for wild animals should come as a comfort — we live, in part, in a healthy environment. Despite the pollution Beargrass Creek has suffered, the great blue heron fishes there, patiently. The coyotes raise their young near its shores.

We have, as it were, an opportunity to become more aware of the world through the many lives that thrive here. There are simple rules to follow with the likes of coyotes, foxes or bears: Don’t feed them. Know that bird feeders attract predators. Keep pets on a leash and know that coyotes can scale small fences. Teach children not to approach a wild animal and, as with adults, do not run away — instead, practice “hazing” the animal by making yourself look like a threat, clapping hands, yelling.

Just as it is said that coyotes are chasing foxes into the city, development in the Great Plains is pushing the coyote to us. Their tenacity and intelligence deserves respect. We must acknowledge that the coyote, too, has something to teach us. •

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