Home, Home on the Range? Coyotes in Northern Virginia

By:  Linda Neighborgall

As if Falls Church is not already troubled by predatory towing companies and predatory lenders, the city is being stalked by real, live, four-legged predators.  I’m talking about coyotes, which have been sighted in the Hillwood and Broadmont areas several times over the last week.  Perhaps you have seen it/them in your neighborhood too.  Coyotes eat small animals.  I feel protective toward small animals, so I decided I had better do some coyote research.

[pullquote]I’m talking about coyotes, which have been sighted in the Hillwood and Broadmont areas several times over the last week. [/pullquote]

No longer a Great Plains and Southwestern phenomenon, coyotes have migrated via a northern route, where they interbred with Great Lakes wolves, and along the Appalachian mountains southward, where they meet up with coyotes that followed a southern route to Northern Virginia.  According to Christine Bozarth, a research fellow at the Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, as reported in Science Daily (10/25/2011) “The Mid-Atlantic region is a particularly interesting place because it appears to mark a convergence in northern and southern waves of coyote expansion” that makes our area a fertile area for further hybridization of the species.

According to Falls Church Animal Control Officer Becky Keenan, coyotes have been reported in Falls Church as far back as 2003.  She receives reports of sightings almost every day.  “We know they’re here. This is a natural habitat.  They’re a nuisance species, but unless there is an unusual circumstance, like an attack or one taking up residence in a yard, there isn’t much we can do about them.”

Recognizing Coyotes
Maybe you’ve heard them howling, a high-pitched wail, or yipping and barking.  Coyotes, which bed down in protected areas, not dens, are most active during early morning hours and at night.  They have keen eyesight, hearing, and a sharp sense of smell.  They weigh 35-40 pounds on average and can run at speeds up to 40 miles per hour.  They carry diseases including rabies, distemper, hepatitis, parvo virus and mange, and they are host to a variety of parasites including fleas and ticks.

Coyote-wolf hybrids tend to be somewhat larger than Plains coyotes but not as large as wolves, with more wolf-like skulls, jaws and teeth.  Although they typically hunt and eat small prey, they are indiscriminate when hungry and will eat plants and even garbage.  Their jaws make them capable of taking down a deer.

Discouraging Coyote Visitors
Coyotes are well adapted to suburbia and quickly become accustomed to the presence of people.  Because of this, they must have the fear of human beings continually reinforced to discourage them from hanging around.  Hazing, using varied methods, is the best method for instilling this fear.  Effective methods include yelling and arm waving while approaching the coyote; noisemakers such a whistles and “shaker cans” full of pennies; projectiles such as rocks or tennis balls; and hoses, pepper spray, and water guns filled with vinegar water.  The Human Society website contains a wealth of additional information about hazing coyotes:  click here

I’m somewhat confident that our local overpopulation of deer can fend for themselves.  I’m less sanguine about our pets, dogs and outside cats, who present to coyotes as tasty morsels.  Maryland Department of Natural Resources official Paul Peditto, quoted by Washington Post writer David A. Fahrenthold (4/16/2007), observed that our house pets are “[e]asy pickings … [coyotes are] highly adaptive and efficient, and what they learn is that it’s much easier to take a suburban small pet … as opposed to having to run down a wild cottontail rabbit.”

Protecting Our Pets
What can we do to protect our pets?  According to the Virginia Cooperative Extension at Virginia Tech, prevention is the best policy.  They suggest following these guidelines:

  1. Keep pets and their food and water indoors.  Supervise your pets when they are out of doors
  2. Spay/neuter your dogs to prevent hybridization.  Keep pets current on vaccinations.
  3. Supervise young children when outdoors.  Teach them that coyotes may be observed at a distance, but they should never approach them close enough to touch or feed them.  Children should tell an adult if they see one.
  4. Keep garbage cans tightly closed.
  5. Clean up any spilled birdseed, fruits, or vegetables in patios or gardens.  Use containers for compost rather than open piles.
  6. Minimize the amount of low ground cover in your yard that may harbor rodents and small mammals, coyotes’ preferred prey.
  7. Treat any emerging rodent problem immediately and follow label directions on any commercially available control products accordingly.
  8. Few fences are completely coyote-proof.  Best bet:  6’ tall fencing, arched outward at the top, and buried one to two feet.
  9. Be extra careful near any potential den sites during pup-rearing season (May-August), as coyotes may become aggressive if they feel threatened.
  11. If you see a coyote, don’t panic.  Most coyotes will leave the area when they detect your presence.  If, after seeing you, the coyote does not leave, then start hazing activities or, if at night, turn on any nearby lights

For additional information, see the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries website:  click here 



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