(WALKING AMBIENT SOUND)
ZAIDA: Well, I think it looks like it's green. Don't see any hair in there.
ELIZABETH FRIEND, HOST: I see here is it's got the twisted pointy ends and what I think are small bones. You know what, those could be small leftovers of small feathers. Do think those could be from a bird or…
ZAIDA: Yeah, I think it's a bird.
FRIEND: Huh. I’m on a walk with my ten-year-old daughter Zaida. We’ve been doing this pretty regularly since the state’s been on some version of a lockdown. After months of being stuck in a tiny house with Zaida and my partner, we were all pretty sick of Zoom meetings, math lessons, so many cartoons.
So we’d get out and walk up and down the dirt road we live on. Sometimes we’d take our dog Duncan. Along the way, we’d stop to examine box turtles, ladybugs or a blob of bullfrog eggs at the edge of a pond, but we’d also have to watch where we stepped… And so where did we find this poop?
ZAIDA: Oh, we found it in the middle of the road, which is where coyotes usually do that. Because it's like, this is my spot and it's in a lot of the way for other coyotes to see. And so there looks like to be the remains of feathers.
ZAIDA: So that is a good sign that's coyote poop. Although it's not good for the birds.
FRIEND: The birds? What about us? What does it mean to know we have coyotes for neighbors?
LAURA PELLICER, HOST: This is CREEP: a special look at creatures showing up in places we don’t expect to see them. I’m Laura Pellicer, you’ve already met Elizabeth.
FRIEND: Yeah, that's me taking a walk with Zaida. I’m Elizabeth Friend, and Laura and I want to tell you a story. It’s the story of one animal in particular that we’ve been noticing in new ways since the pandemic came to the U.S.
(SOUNDBITE OF COYOTE AND DOG SCENE)
FRIEND: Duncan, Duncan.
ZAIDA: Duncan, Duncan come!
PELLICER: Lockdown efforts by states cut us off from our daily routines and distractions, and prompted us to turn our attention a little closer to home. It also made us hyper-aware of things outside that we might otherwise miss. Like the pile of coyote poop Elizabeth and her daughter Zaida came across. And so we wondered, are we seeing something new? Or something we’d just always overlooked?
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER: Japan's famous Nara Park deer, usually fed by tourists, have started wandering into town to search for their next meal.
PELLICER: Bold animal behavior made headlines across the world while we humans were social distancing. Videos of creatures closer than we ever knew went viral.
(SOUNDBITE OF SOCIAL MEDIA CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This gator is crossing the road, look how big it is! Lord have mercy. Oh shoot, it's coming for me!
PELLICER: I’m a digital news producer by day, and I went down a bit of a rabbit hole, finding endless social media posts about adventurous animals. Hashtag nature is healing.
(SOUNDBITE OF SOCIAL MEDIA CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Bear, go home! Oh, he's coming back for seconds. (Whistle) Run down and close your door. Oh, there he is. Hey! (Growl) Don't go back to the car.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON 2: Don't don't f--- with the Mercedes.
PELLICER: Elizabeth and I live in North Carolina and in our area, many people reported seeing animals in unexpected places. We heard from Susan who saw a snake in her car, Jaye who ran into a peculiar deer in the backyard, and a local, feathered treasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF CALLER)
SUSAN: I have lived most of my adult life on a farm and as such I have encountered a lot of snakes. Here in Chapel Hill though, the place I don't want snakes to be, is in our cars.
UNIDENTIFIED CALLER: I was at home, downstairs about half-hour after sunrise. I looked out the window and there in the backyard stood a completely white deer.
UNIDENTIFIED CALLER 2: Tarnisha The Turkey has been scooting around our area here in southeast Guilford. She's so fast and beautiful, we've never seen her before, we don't have a picture, but I think you got a footprint or two didn't you Joe?
JOE: Yeah, she comes in our yard occasionally. I've got a picture of some footprints we found in Alamance Creek nearby.
PELLICER: It seemed most folks were delighted or at least entertained by their new animal friends. Here’s how Rob Howard in Knoxville, Tennessee felt.
ROB HOWARD: (Howls) That is the freakiest thing.
PELLICER: That animal call? Those are coyotes. They’ve been spotted wandering the streets of Chicago, hanging out by the Golden Gate Bridge...
FRIEND: Even congregating in my own backyard…
(SOUNDBITE OF BACKYARD SCENE)
FRIEND: Holy sh--, there’s coyotes in our yard…. What did you think of that Zaida?
ZAIDA: Oh fudge.
FRIEND: And it turns out we’re not the only ones in North Carolina who have come across coyotes while in quarantine
PELLICER: In April, officials with the North Carolina Wildlife Commission warned that quote increased "sightings in neighborhoods could be due to changes in human activity caused by COVID-19.” But, as they point out, our isolation comes just as coyote parents are raising and feeding their pups.
COLLEEN OLFENBUTTEL: We do see that this time of year, we see an increase in phone calls about coyotes attacking dogs, because they are so protective of their pups and their den sites.
FRIEND: Colleen Olfenbuttel has a good sense of what coyotes are up to this time of year. She is a furbearer biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Commission. That’s an expert on species that people like to trap and hunt, including coyotes.
COLLEEN OLFENBUTTEL: From March through May they’ll have their pups. The breeding pair is really busy caring for those pups as well feeding the pups, and so we also see that coyotes are going to be pretty active in their home range trying to find food to bring home to the pups that they're raising. It also means that because they have those pups, they're going to be more territorial than they would usually be.
PELLICER: So the time of year when coyotes are most territorial happened to overlap with the months a lot of us were stuck at home. And some people aren’t too thrilled to share space with them.
FRIEND: But Colleen says most people in North Carolina are pretty ambivalent about coyotes. And that could be because we haven’t lived with them for very long.
COLLEEN OLFENBUTTEL: There's a lot of myths and misperceptions about the coyote, especially here in North Carolina. You know, we were one of the last states to have coyotes naturally start to come in and expand their range. And so coyotes are still considered a novel species, even though they've really been here since the late '80s. And the public definitely is always surprised when they do see coyotes in areas they don't expect them to see.
FRIEND: Coyotes have been watching us, studying us for centuries. But we’re still figuring them out. Especially here in the South where our relationship with coyotes is quite young. So what do you know about coyotes in our area?
ZAIDA: Well they’re an invasive species and they’re quite annoying and they have a very creepy little bark.
FRIEND: My daughter Zaida raises an interesting point, this idea of invasive species. Those are animals, insects or plants that thrive outside their native range, often in places where they're introduced by humans, either by accident or on purpose, and they’re responsible for causing economic or environmental harm. I’ve lived in North Carolina for a while and I can remember a time when there weren’t any coyotes here. I’m not the only one.
PERRY SUMNER: I’d completed my master's research on coyotes at Mississippi State University. At that time, there was no evidence that there were any coyotes in North Carolina.
PELLICER: That’s Perry Sumner. We wanted to talk to him because he worked for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission for decades. He’s retired now, but back then he saw how coyotes were spreading rapidly across the country. In the '70s and '80s, coyotes were expanding their range, pushing east through Kentucky, Georgia and South Carolina. Others traveled north to Canada and began moving south into Virginia. But Perry says something unexpected happened when they got to North Carolina.
SUMNER: We kinda had seen 'em coming from the west to the east, you know, sort of a somewhat natural migration. But in North Carolina, we actually had them occur and in the eastern part of the state before they ever hit the western end.
PELLICER: So how did the coyote pop up in the eastern part of North Carolina, when the rest of the species was migrating from other directions? There’s a theory behind it and it involves the auto insurance industry. And another animal: deer.
SUMNER: If it was true that coyotes could control deer populations, then it would make sense to assume that perhaps the state wildlife agency would bring in coyotes to control the deer populations.
PELLICER: Okay. Here’s the theory: drivers hit deer, a lot. And the damage of those collective collisions caused steep payouts from car insurance companies for repairs. So North Carolina Wildlife officials shipped in coyotes by the truckload to attack the deer, to reduce their population and thus reduce the number of deer-related accidents.
SUMNER: Yeah, that never happened. That didn't need to happen because they were coming anyway.
PELLICER: OK, so there wasn't a state-sponsored plot to bring in coyotes, although that rumor still floats around. But some people were bringing them into the state, illegally. Hunters were smuggling them in to train their hunting dogs. The coyotes were kept in these huge pens where they were essentially used as bait. The hunters originally started with foxes but found that coyotes were heartier and survived longer.
SUMNER: But it turns out that most of the pens that were built, and some of them were talking upwards of 600 to 1000 acres in some cases, turns out that they were built to hold foxes and that they didn't really hold coyotes that well because we ended up with populations of coyotes free ranging outside of these pens, primarily clustered in areas where several of those pens were located.
PELLICER: So, you have heaps of captive, non-native animals. And then you have weather.
SUMNER: Hurricane Hugo went right through that area. So all the animals that were in those pens got released at one time when those fences came down.
PELLICER: Coyotes now spread in the east, and were slowly migrating in from the north and west. Once the coyotes were established in the state, the relationship soured.
SUMNER: There weren't many or any, that I remember, good things to say about ‘em from anybody.
PELLICER: But the question remains.
FRIEND: Do you consider coyotes invasive in North Carolina?
SUMNER: I would consider them invasive. Well, let me back up. I considered them invasive when they were beginning to show up. By now, they're here. I don't know how invasive they really are. By calling them invasive it almost implies that well, you should do something to get rid of them and that's just not gonna happen.
FRIEND: But why are they here? What would motivate a species with nearly a million years of history in the American Southwest to expand its territory so dramatically, traveling north to the Arctic Circle, south to the jungles of South America*, and east to the edge of the continent on the Outer Banks of North Carolina? That’s a big picture question. So we asked a big picture expert: Dan Flores. He used to live here in the South, but now...
DAN FLORES: Well I am sitting on a mesa top 17 miles south of Santa Fe, New Mexico. So I'm looking out across about I don't know maybe 100 square miles of southern Rocky Mountain high desert landscape which is prime coyote country.
FRIEND: Dan is the author of "Coyote America," a sweeping look at the history of coyotes in North America and their changing cultural significance.
FLORES: The truth is, the reason coyotes are in the east now, the reason they’re east of the Mississippi River has to do with two factors: one a pull factor and the other a push factor. The pull factor is the complete elimination of all the wolves in the Southeast, and up and down the Atlantic seaboard 100 years ago and in some places even longer ago than that.
FRIEND: What Dan is saying is: by wiping out wolves across much of the country, European colonists inadvertently created a new niche for coyotes. Wolves are apex predators, animals at the top of the food chain. And they traditionally kept the smaller coyotes in check. Coyotes were never top dog in their native range, but when humans created a vacuum at the top of the food chain, coyotes rushed to fill it. And then there’s the push factor.
FLORES: And the push factor, the other explanation for the reason that there are coyotes in the east now and there weren't, say, 75 years ago, is because of the war of attempted extermination we waged against coyotes here in the American West.
FRIEND: Having largely eradicated wolves, humans set their sights on coyotes.
FLORES: The government agency that had been a major player in this started on a campaign to completely exterminate coyotes in the United States, which appears at the time, the American West, and they began, starting with an act passed by Congress in 1931 that gave this agency $10 million to develop a poisoning campaign to exterminate coyotes. They started attempting to wipe out coyotes completely in the west. This is mostly at the behest of the livestock industry.
FRIEND: From the 1920s through the early 70s, government-funded mass poisoning campaigns killed more than eight and half million coyotes.
FLORES: And that attempt to poison coyotes out in the west inadvertently becomes the push that begins to drive coyotes across the Mississippi River and into the east. In other words, it's an effort to wipe them out that actually expands them.
FRIEND: Coyotes are incredibly adaptable. They’re able to make rapid changes in how and where they live to respond quickly to conditions that threaten their survival, like poison. When coyote populations are persecuted or harassed, they disperse, alone or in pairs, and colonize new areas. Scientists have documented coyotes traveling more than 200 miles in just a few months. And once they find a place to call home, they can adjust their litter size based on the numbers of coyotes in the area.
FLORES: Coyotes survived so well, we finally discovered by the 1950s and '60s that you can wipe out 75% of all the coyotes in a given area year after year after year, and you don't diminish the population at all. But what you do do is break up their packs and cause them to scatter and colonize. And so that in effect is why coyotes began crossing the Mississippi River.
FLORES: I mean, in one respect, you can argue that coyotes are invasive. But in fact, we humans effectively push them into new places.
PELLICER: Coyotes are fascinating and it wasn’t until recently that I realized how omnipresent they are across the U.S. And Elizabeth pretty much had no choice but to come to terms with her coyote neighbors after a backyard encounter during North Carolina’s COVID lockdown.
(SOUNDBITE OF BACKYARD COYOTE SCENE)
FRIEND: Duncan! I think it's OK...
FRIEND: Duncan the dog is doing fine, in case you were wondering. But are the coyotes doing something different now that normal human activity has changed so dramatically? Let’s put a pin in that and get back to this question of whether or note coyotes are an invasive species in our area
PELLICER: Remember, there’s a sort of checklist we are using.
FRIEND: Basically, are they living outside their native range? Were they introduced by humans? And are they causing economic or environmental harm? They’re certainly thriving east of the Mississippi. But for the most part, experts we talked to agree that coyotes arrived in the South on their own four feet. Although they changed along the way, interbreeding with wolves and dogs as they moved into new territory, eventually becoming a slightly bigger, shaggier version: the Eastern Coyote. Still, even big coyotes only weigh about 50 pounds. Yet they loom large in our imagination. And when we hear them howling at dusk, it’s easy to believe there are dozens nearby, when in reality, it’s probably just a few.
(SOUNDBITE HOWLS AND YIPS)
PELLICER: Some of us see them as a risk to our pets and even our families. But how much harm do they really cause? How dangerous are they?
SUMNER: They eat animals, they eat plants. There have been problems with them, with watermelon growers at times. The one thing that they always seem to prefer when they can get it over everything else is persimmons.
FRIEND: Coyotes tend to eat whatever’s available, but they don’t seem to deplete any one food source.
SUMNER: There were predictions that you know, the wild turkeys are gonna disappear and the deer populations are gonna disappear. And that's yet to happen.
FRIEND: But, their flexibility in diet sometimes conflicts with our love for other furry friends.
ROLAND KAYS: Sometimes they kill pet cats, sometimes they kill small dogs and sometimes they kill livestock, especially, sort of, sheep, some of the smaller livestock or, or young cattle.
FRIEND: Meet Roland Kays. He’s a zoologist and professor who heads the Biodiversity Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. He loops back to that question: if coyotes aren’t native to the area, and one eats your house cat, then is the coyote doing the kind of harm that might earn the label invasive?
KAYS: If they're invasive, that generally means that they're very common and they're causing some kind of problems ecologically or with humans. And so that's a very loaded question of: do you think coyotes are causing problems?
FRIEND: Many people do not.
KAYS: I don't have a cat that's being harassed and I think cats should be indoors anyway. So personally, I don't think coyotes are that invasive. I think they're actually playing some beneficial roles by filling in as a predator now that the wolf is extinct for most of the area.
FRIEND: And that’s the consensus from most of the folks we talked to. Coyotes may be a lot of things, but they don’t quite fit the model of an invasive species. As Roland points out, that term invasive isn’t a neutral description of animal behavior. It’s a value judgment we humans use to label creatures we find particularly inconvenient and often unpleasant.
FRIEND: The coyote gets a bad rap in much of the Eastern U.S., but from his perch in coyote country, Dan Flores reminds us that’s not the sentiment everywhere.
FLORES: Coyotes have been on the scene for Native people, for I mean, ever since human beings had gotten to North America 15,000 years ago, one of the animals that greeted them at the door when they arrived was the Coyote. And Native people had not only made their peace with the coyote, they so respected and honored that animal that they made it the central character in the oldest literary tradition we have from North American history, which are the coyote stories and there are hundreds of them from more than 40 tribes, all across the western part of what is now the United States.
FRIEND: Throughout the Southeast, where we don’t have that long history, the presence of coyotes is a source of ongoing discomfort. According to animal expert Colleen Olfenbuttel, the majority of coyote calls to the North Carolina Wildlife Commission are basically folks saying they spotted a coyote, and asking, is it normal for this predator to be here? Maybe a better question is: how do we accept that coyotes are normal here now? I didn’t grow up hearing coyotes in my backyard, but my daughter definitely will. She’ll grow up knowing the seasonal patterns of their lifecycle, when to chase them off and when to leave them be, how to keep them away from her yard and what to do if one gets a little too comfortable with its human neighbors. It’s crucial knowledge because whether you can see them or not, coyotes are everywhere.
PELLICER: Roland Kays uses camera traps in his research to observe wildlife behavior. The motion-detecting cameras take a snapshot of each animal that passes by, even at night.
KAYS: We worked with citizen scientists to run cameras all throughout Raleigh and Durham and Chapel Hill. In the suburbs, right down on NC State campus, and then out in more remote areas, all the way out to wild. So all the way from urban to rural to wild. And I really thought we were going to see a lot fewer coyotes in the urban areas. And when we finally ran the numbers, I was surprised to see that they were about the same in all those zones.
FRIEND: Which brings us back to our initial question. Coyotes and other wild animals have been spotted in plenty of unexpected places during this pandemic. But are we just seeing behavior we didn’t pay attention to before?
OLFENBUTTEL: It was people that changed their behavior, spending a lot more time at home a lot more time walking around their neighborhoods, a lot more time actually being outdoors. And so thus it's going to increase the chance that they're seeing wildlife that's always been there, they just normally never saw it because they weren't home.
PELLICER: Researchers have a hunch about what animals were up to when we were all locked down. But as professionals who love a good properly annotated graph, they are patiently awaiting real and concrete data.
KAYS: We put a call out to basically researchers around the world who happened to have GPS tags on animals already so that we can really get a really solid data view of what the animals are doing, and has it changed from before and after? And that's something we'll be looking at later this summer to make those comparisons and really have a pretty incredible experiment of the effects of people on wildlife. Of, you know, hundreds of different species in hundreds of thousands of different locations all around the world?
PELLICER: It could be awhile before we can say with any certainty whether animal behaviors really did change during the pandemic lockdown, or if the big change was us and how we saw the world.
FRIEND: And for those of us who are seeing coyotes in our part of the world...
FLORES: The task we have before us is learning how to share space and coexist with these animals. Because here's the lesson from the American West, and in fact everywhere coyotes have gone, you are not going to get rid of them. Resistance is futile.
FRIEND: Because as we learned, the more you try to fight the coyote, the more the coyote bounces back.
I’m Elizabeth Friend.
PELLICER: And I’m Laura Pellicer. We’re going to keep exploring invasive species in our region. And we want to know: What have you been seeing?
PELLICER: CREEP is a production of North Carolina Public Radio, WUNC. Charlie Shelton-Ormond is our producer, Jenni Lawson is our engineer, and Lindsay Foster Thomas is our executive producer.
OLFENBUTTEL: There's always a joke that if something happened to people, and the world, say a great catastrophe or the nuclear war, the only thing that'd survive would be cockroaches and coyotes. And that might be right.
ZAIDA: Are you still recording? Are you gonna edit it?
FRIEND: Let's hope so.
*There are no sightings of coyotes on the record yet in South America, but researchers have tracked them just up to the border near Columbia. North Carolina State University zoologist Roland Kays further explains in this article.