The XX Factor

Wile E. Coyote & Roadrunner are Total BFFs

On Sunday, NPR reported that more than 2,000 coyotes were living in Chicago, many inside the city’s highly developed downtown Loop. That’s not unusual. Since the elimination of wolves and the advent of suburbs teeming with tasty prey, coyotes have made their homes in cities from Los Angeles to Boston. According to the NPR story, urban coyotes are actually faring better than their rural counterparts, free from hunting and able to dine upon a bounty of rats and goose eggs. Though it seems counterintuitive for people with visions of roadrunner-chasing Wile E. Coyote, urban coyotes actually protect city-dwelling birds.

The Coyote of Native American folklore is a raunchy, greedy trickster with a detachable penis, but regular, non-mythical coyotes are a bit more pedestrian. They’re a lot smaller than you’d think from their fearsome howling-they weigh about 30 pounds and come up to your knee. They’re also not dangerous to people. In recorded North American history, there’s only been one coyote fatality.

But coyotes do have a mighty appetite for domestic cats. They’ve have been observed nibbling their way from feral cat colony to feral cat colony, and are responsible for the fact that any wandering pet cat in my San Diego neighborhood will not be seen again. I dote upon my two kitties, so it seems cruel to rejoice in the killing of other cats. But however adorable, domestic cats wreak ecological havoc. The average pet cat kills over 100 small animals every year, a blow that already-declining bird populations can ill afford .

When cat-munching coyotes appear, wild birds thrive. A 1999 study in suburban San Diego found that unlike other predators, cats were disproportionately preying on rarer native species such as California quail rather than common non-native urban species such as rats. Areas with coyotes had significantly more native bird species than areas without coyotes. The coyotes killed some cats and caused worried pet owners to keep the rest inside, allowing the birds to raise their babies free from decapitation.

Cities and suburbs have a lot of fields and shrubs and little clumps of trees, which ecologists call “edge habitat.” Animals that can take advantage of these habitats, such as white-tailed deer and raccoons, live fat and happy right alongside people. But with the rise of that old trickster coyote, a top predator is back in town. Coyotes won’t be able to balance urban ecosystems all by themselves, but as in the Native American stories, life is more interesting when they’re around.