At first, I thought the animals trotting across frozen Gray’s Lake were a pair of stray dogs, and I worried they might need to be rescued from the ice.
The late-January sun had just set at the Des Moines park, where I was one of a few bundled-up walkers. I peered out at the shadowy animals, which were ambling across the ice with the confidence of experienced travelers.
Then, an ambulance siren wailed nearby, and the creatures on the lake responded with a spooky, extended chorus of howls and yips.
They were announcing who they were: wild coyotes.
I’d seen or heard coyotes plenty of times while camping in the West or spending an evening on a farm. But I’d never expected to run into them a few blocks from downtown Des Moines.
Such encounters are becoming more common, however, especially near woods throughout the metro area.
State experts say coyotes have made a dramatic comeback since the mid-1900s. Before that, uncontrolled hunting and trapping devastated the population. Many counties even paid bounties for every dead coyote, because of an inflated belief that they feasted on lambs, calves and chickens, said Vince Evelsizer, a wildlife biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
“It’s quite the story with coyotes,” he said. “They’re hated and loved and everything in between, and yet they’ve survived.”
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They can still be legally hunted and trapped in much of rural Iowa, but the pressure has been reduced, and their numbers have rebounded.
No one has an exact handle on how many coyotes now roam around Iowa. They’re hard to count, because they usually hide during the day, and most are wary of humans. But some have become bolder as they’ve become accustomed to living in urban areas.
Andy Kellner, another DNR biologist, said the Des Moines metro is a welcoming region for coyotes and other wildlife, such as turkeys, bobcats and foxes, because they can travel through wooded corridors along the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers and various creeks.
Kellner suspects the rising awareness of urban wildlife is due both to increased populations of the animals and the prevalence of cellphone cameras and social media, which people use to share sightings.
Bobbie Van Roekel of Urbandale posted on the Nextdoor website about a coyote she saw in her neighborhood on a recent afternoon. “I knew it wasn’t a regular dog,” she said later. She estimated the coyote was roughly the size of a German shepherd, and she briefly wondered if it might even be a wolf. “He was a big boy.”
The coyote didn’t seem threatening, but she alerted the police so they would know about it.
In response to such reports, Urbandale officials have posted online advice on how residents can help prevent problems from coyotes. The tips include to keep garbage in a secure container; to avoid leaving pet food outside; and to clean up spilled bird seed or fruit on the ground. The suburb’s website also says residents should not leave cats or small dogs outside unattended, and that if they encounter a coyote, they can try to “haze it,” by standing tall, yelling, shaking a can of coins, throwing sticks, blowing an air horn or spraying a hose or squirt gun.
“Haze loudly and aggressively,” the Urbandale website advises. “Do not chase the coyote, but let it know that you are serious.”
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The website advises residents to report coyote sightings to officials if incidents happen frequently during the day; if a coyote is approaching people or pets; or if the animal appears to be sick or injured.
Joe Stafford, an Animal Rescue League administrator who runs Des Moines’ animal-control program, said it would be pointless to try to eliminate urban coyotes. New ones would move in quickly if the current ones were removed, he said. It’s better to teach the coyotes who already live here to be wary of humans, he said.
Stafford said coyotes are very unlikely to attack people, and he doubts they routinely prey on domestic cats or small dogs, as some folks believe. Coyotes’ main food sources include mice, flies and injured rabbits, he said. They also will learn to eat garbage if it isn’t secured. “They don’t need to work hard,” he said. “They look for easy meals.”
Stafford said sightings of Iowa coyotes are most common from January into March, which is breeding season and a time when the animals are particularly active.
State officials or local police occasionally have to put down a coyote if it’s been aggressive toward people or pets or if it appears sick or injured, he said. Otherwise, Stafford said, they advise Iowans to savor a renewed taste of the wild. “People will call and say, ‘I just saw a coyote’ – and I’ll say, ‘That’s awesome!’”
Tony Leys covers health care for the Register. He has spent more than 30 years in Des Moines, and currently lives in the Beaverdale neighborhood. He shares coyotes’ love of the city’s wooded areas, and like them, he is an opportunistic eater. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8449.
Our Des Moines
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