Urban coyotes raise quite a howl
Arnold Creek resident Kathryn Daly had to catch an early flight out of Portland one brisk fall morning in 2015 and decided to give her dog one last quick walk before leaving for the airport around 3:30 a.m.
All was going well on her jaunt through a nearby park until her 38-pound golden retriever mix spotted something and began crouching as if to scout a possible enemy.
Surprised at the change in her dog's behavior, Daly stopped, peered around — and spotted a large male coyote approaching just yards away. Then she turned to spot a smaller coyote, which she assumed was female.
"They were vector hunting me," she later recalled. "That is not normal behavior; I don't want to be hunted."
Caught off guard and unsure what to do, Daly chose to betray the subtle calm of predawn in the residential area. She began wailing for the coyotes to leave her alone, eventually whipping off her coat and whirling it around her head until they retreated.
Versions of Daly's experience written by other Southwest Portland residents pepper various social media and neighborhood websites like Nextdoor and Facebook. Words of fear, amusement and often bemusement accompany the tales of encounters with wily coyotes.
The woody Southwest Portland area may seem like a particularly apt location for these animals to dwell and hunt. But experts tracking coyote activity in Portland claim coyote packs live in almost every neighborhood except downtown.
At a recent Arnold Creek Neighborhood Association meeting, many attendees expressed worry about what they see as the increasingly bold activity of their wild neighbors. When guest speaker Bob Sallinger of Portland's Audobon Society asked who among those at the meeting had encountered a coyote, nearly all of the dozen or so attendees' hands shot up.
Sallinger said this is not a new phenomenon in Portland — he's given talks and consulted on the urban coyote presence in the area for more than 20 years. And Zuriel Rasmussen, a Ph.D. candidate at Portland State University, agrees.
Rasmussen is the main researcher for the Portland Urban Coyote Project, which aims to track and research human-coyote interactions in the area. The project relies on citizen reporting through its online survey.
"It's tricky with the data, because it's reliant on how many people know about the project," she said in a recent phone interview. "So every year, we see an increase in reports."
Rasmussen doubts the uptick represents an actual trend of increased coyote activity, though. Instead, she chalks it up to more people learning about the project and deciding to report sightings.
Sallinger notes that one of the reasons coyotes may seem like such a persistent pest in a mid-size urban area like Portland is because, well, they are. He says coyotes can adapt to a variety of conditions, and are in fact attracted to city environs.
In Oregon, coyotes are considered varmints and are not protected by law. You do not need a permit to kill the animals, Sallinger explained. But don't get too excited, he warns, as killing every coyote that wanders into your yard does precious little to relieve the issue.
"Killing them actually disrupts their pack structure," Sallinger said. "Only the alpha male and female will mate, typically, (but) when you disrupt pack structure, they all mate and they all have young. So killing coyotes actually leads to increases in coyotes.
"It's also one of the reasons why they're one of the most successful midsize carnivores in North America," Sallinger added, almost admiringly.
Protect your pets
Coyotes are no larger than a mid-size dog (around 20-35 pounds) and are usually no more ferocious. According to a study by the School of Environmental and Natural Resources at Ohio State University, there have been about 140 coyote attacks on humans in all of North America in about 50 years (as of 2009). And only two of those were fatal.
For some perspective, consider that there are millions of dog attacks on humans each year in the U.S. alone.
Sallinger says he has deduced that a number of coyote attacks were exacerbated or even caused by the animals' habituation to human feeding. He says people should never attempt to feed coyotes, because they can become more dangerous when they expect food from humans.
"Most of the cases where we've had situations that I would consider problematic around Portland have been situations where we've gone in and seen people intentionally feeding them," Sallinger said. "They're getting habituated to the point where they're associating people with handouts, very intentional handouts."
Nevertheless, Rasmussen says that, based on an initial survey and intermittent spot check of the past year's Urban Coyote Project results, she hasn't noticed an increase in violent or aggressive coyotes.
"Only a very small percent of reports mention any kind of concern over the animal," she said.
Rasmussen said she does often notice an increase in coyote-human encounters in the fall. She says most likely that's because the juveniles that were reared during the spring and summer are venturing off on their own and may not know yet how to interact with humans. They may be more curious about humans, and bolder.
"A curious coyote is pretty typical," Rasmussen said. "That's usually not something to worry about. Coyotes that are aggressive even when you're trying to scare them away ... that's the kind of coyote you might want to call about."
But though attacks on humans are relatively few and far between, small dogs and cats are certainly targets of prey for the coyote. Both the Audobon Society and the Feral Cat Coalition recommend leaving cats indoors or in an enclosed outdoor facility, and to monitor dogs that are let outside to use the bathroom.
Coyotes are predominantly active during the early morning and evening hours, so pet owners should be especially vigilant about monitoring their pets during those times.
Sallinger suggests that if residents encounter a bold or familiar coyote, they should first reach out to their neighbors to spread the word about not offering food.
If the problem persists, Sallinger says you can give him a call at 503-292-6855. Rasmussen also recommends people contact the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Service.
For the most part, though, coyotes seem to be an urban pest that human city dwellers will have to tolerate, much like raccoons.
And really, it could be worse, Sallinger says.
"In Alaska, (they) have grizzly bears; in California, they have mountain lions," he said. "In terms of predatory species, we're actually relatively devoid of them."