Pizza rats. Trash pandas. Rats with wings. Animals in New York City seem like they thrive off New Yorkers’ refuse. Now that the city has a small coyote population, has it gained litter puppies? Fuggedaboutit.
You have probably never seen one, but “considering the number of potential habitats available to them, we estimate between 20 and 30 coyotes are here in the city,” said Carol Henger, an urban ecologist at Fordham University who studies the animals. The idea of a wild animal — not a dog, not a wolf, just big enough to be a little unsettling — haunting places like the Bronx makes the wilderness feel a little closer. But it also raises a question: What does a city coyote even eat?
Despite its urban surroundings, Dr. Henger and her colleagues discovered, a city coyote maintains a surprisingly wild diet. Urban and suburban coyotes, the researchers reported last month in the journal PeerJ, eat similar amounts of human food, which does not make up most of their sustenance. Instead, city coyotes eat what they have always eaten — small mammals, plants, bugs and whatever else they can get their paws on. Coyotes may be living in the city, but they are living alongside us, not off our stuff.
Dr. Henger’s team collaborated with the Gotham Coyote Project to track down coyote feces across the five boroughs. “A few of them had trained their dogs to find scat,” she said. Others took to assorted hiking trails in the city on their own, scanning the sides eagerly for unscooped poops. The dogs were the M.V.P.s. “They can find it so much better than we can,” Dr. Henger said. “All the scat I found was dog.”
Over a 10-year period, they collected 95 samples of coyote scat within the city. Most were from green spaces in the Bronx, with a few near LaGuardia Airport and elsewhere in Queens. (Some samples from Palisades Interstate Park in New Jersey were part of the urban set.) They gathered another 31 nonurban samples from parks and nature reserves in Westchester, Orange and Rockland Counties. They then scanned the DNA in the specimens, matching it to animal and plant materials.
It would be easy to think that an urban coyote would subsist entirely on takeout like any good New Yorker, with some rats and cats thrown in for good measure. But unlike pizza rats and trash pandas, the city’s coyotes are not litter puppies, Dr. Henger found. Yes, 64 percent of the urban coyote feces contained human food. But so did 55 percent of the nonurban coyote feces. In both groups, chicken scraps were a favorite. But overall, human food made up only about 22 percent of coyote diets.
“I thought we would find more human-associated items, just because it’s so easy to find them in the trash bins and along the ground,” Dr. Henger said. “But, you know, I don’t think they prefer the human foods. I think they’re finding enough natural food items that they’re not really wanting to eat human food.”
Chicken, however, might be a bit of an exception. “I think coyotes are finding chicken bones in the parks,” she said.
Instead, New York’s coyotes have more hipster preferences, going for locally sourced small mammals, plants, insects and even salamanders. The nonurban groups also dined on venison in the spring, when fawns were easy prey. And those trash pandas seemed to be a favorite in both groups. “We just have a lot of raccoons in New York,” Dr. Henger said.
Like all urban elites, city-dwelling coyotes also had more diversity in their diets, with more species represented in them than in the diets of their nonurban cousins.
“That’s probably one reason why coyotes are so successful in urban areas,” said Stan Gehrt, a wildlife ecologist at Ohio State University. “They have a lot of different things to choose from, or at least a lot of things are available.”
In studies of urban coyotes in Chicago, Dr. Gehrt also found that urban coyotes rely more on natural foods, not deep-dish pizza, Italian beef or the Second City’s other human delicacies.
Urban coyotes are so into clean eating that in Dr. Henger’s study, only 5 percent of their feces contained rats. It’s not because rats aren’t available. “I think it’s because rats are usually where we are,” Dr. Henger said. “And coyotes don’t want to be where the people are.”
Coyotes are living in the city, but they are not living off us. Instead, “we’re living alongside them,” she said. “We’re coexisting.”