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Coyotes right at home in the city

City dwellers are more used to seeing two-legged predators than four-legged ones.

So when folks who live in the city or the nearby suburbs see a bear or a coyote prowling the neighborhood, they sometimes get a little concerned.

A few days ago I got an e-mail from a reader in Charleston's Fort Hill region. He said he had seen coyotes roaming around, and just the evening before had heard a pack of them howling in the woods behind his house.

He wondered if Charleston residents were fully aware that coyotes have set up shop well within the city limits.

Truth be told, many folks aren't aware. So here's the scoop:

Coyotes have been present in and around Charleston for more than two decades. They are extraordinarily adaptable animals, able to live close to humans without being noticed.

I did an interview in the mid 1990s with Tom Dotson, at the time the Division of Natural Resources' wildlife biologist for the Charleston region.

Dotson told me that the hills just south of the Kanawha River, in Charleston and immediately surrounding it, probably held the state's largest single concentration of coyotes.

"It makes sense when you think about it," Dotson said. "The area has a lot of houses and a lot of woods. There are lots of garbage cans to raid and lots of mice, chipmunks, squirrels and small house pets to feed on. There's an extensive road network with lots of roadkill. A coyote can make a pretty good living there."

The city's northern suburbs have their share of coyotes, too. A friend of mine, who lived in the Sugar Creek area between Charleston and Sissonville a few years back, cured his wintertime cabin fever by trapping coyotes. He enjoyed tremendous success, yet never seemed to diminish the number of "yotes" roaming the woods near his home.

Charleston residents probably don't realize there are so many coyotes because they are so easily mistaken for small German shepherd dogs or mongrel strays with strong German shepherd characteristics.

They're also often fooled by coyotes' size. When people hear the word "coyote," they tend to think "wolf" and imagine a really large animal. Not so. Coyotes from the American west average just 25 to 35 pounds. Eastern coyotes, whose ancestors crossbred with gray wolves as they migrated through the upper Midwest, tend to be larger. They average 30 to 50 pounds - not small, but not nearly wolf-sized either.

Despite their relatively small size, they are efficient predators that can easily handle even a large dog in a fight. In a 2001 study at Canada's Laurentian University, a researcher determined that a 55-pound coyote's jaws exert about 153 pounds of bite pressure. By comparison, a large Labrador retriever' jaws exert just 125 pounds of pressure.

With jaws like that, coyotes can eat most anything.

Geriann Albers, a West Virginia University graduate student who recently completed a study of coyotes' stomach contents, said deer accounted for 44 percent of the contents' volume, followed by small mammals at 12.5 percent, squirrels and chipmunks at 8.2 percent, fruits and seeds at 7.1 percent, grass and twigs at 7.1 percent, rabbits at 3.3 percent and livestock at 3.1 percent.

"Their diets vary according to what is available," Albers said. "They will eat anything - and I do mean anything."

One coyote in Albers' study appeared to like fast food, or at least the contents of Beckley-area fast food stores' trash containers.

"It must have been a Dumpster diver," she said. "In its stomach we found the remnants of a Dairy Queen napkin, a Subway sandwich wrapper, a Taco Bell sauce packet and a commercial crab leg."


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