The shy and highly intelligent coyote is a nature-loving Westchester resident that is expanding into New York City and Long Island -- by following train tracks, according to new research by Bedford-based conservation biologists.
"We're finding them in new places and it looks like railroads might be one of their modes of transportation to get to urban areas with parks," said Mark Weckel, director of research and land management at Bedford's Mianus River Gorge Preserve. "They are just like people; they're very adaptable and can live in a lot of different environments, including urban areas that have more people."
The preliminary findings are based on data that Mianus researchers gathered in 2012 and have just begun to analyze in their continuing study of coyotes, which can grow to about 35 pounds and, with their blonde-streaked coats, resemble a cross between a small German shepherd and a wolf.
While the organization has long believed that Canis latrans are poised to expand into the city and the island, the question was how these quiet, clever hunters would get there. Weckel cited a study in Boston where coyotes that were radio-collared were found to be following railroad tracks to expand their territory. He said that a few of Westchester's coyotes might also be swimming across the Long Island Sound to Connecticut parkland.
Weckel stressed that coyotes are normally not dangerous to humans but have been known to kill cats, small dogs and other pets left alone outdoors. But on the bright side, they feed on rodents and fawn, which makes them helpful in rebalancing the county's dysfunctional food chain, where the deer population has exploded due to a lack of natural predators.
"Our coyotes live in highly fragmented environments and have to go through human areas to get to their wood lots," Weckel explained. "But there are also a lot of benefits to having nature's predators in our area and the benefits outweigh the risk."
Over the next month or so, the Mianus team will be fine-tuning ways to create a hair trap that will collect fur samples from coyotes. The field trial, which offers a means of tracking individual critters, will begin at the preserve.
"The hard part is getting the samples," Weckel said. "In every interaction I've had with coyote, they have run fast."
Hair traps have been used successfully in collecting samples from bears that like to scratch themselves against trees but applying the strategy to coyote is new research territory, Weckel said.
"If we find the perfect hair trap, we would like to deploy them throughout Westchester and New York City by the summer," he said. The hope is to set out up to 50 traps or more, depending on how much money can be raised to fund continued research.
The ability to identify and track individual animals will help biologists figure out how many coyotes are actually in the area, a number that is currently unknown. Earlier attempts to come up with an estimate have been difficult because the elusive creatures "are wary of anything novel in the environment, they're very smart and they've got a very good sense of smell," said noted wildlife expert Paul Curtis, a Cornell University professor.
Sightings are rare and once they've seen the flash of a remote camera, they will not return. But hair traps might work, he added.
He added that coyotes do routinely move through cities and suburbs by following train tracks because they are "open areas where they can move fairly quickly in a straight line," said "They can cover a lot of distance in a hurry that way."
He said there have also been a few confirmed sightings of these animals on Long Island, "although the numbers are very low there now."
Apparently, coyotes are not the only woodland creatures who follow the rails operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. "Our engineers report seeing all kinds of wildlife along the tracks, especially on the outer segments and Connecticut branches," MTA spokeswoman Marjorie Sanders said.
The Harlem Line is probably especially appealing as a "migration corridor" because it "passes through vast undeveloped and protected watershed areas and in some cases, the railroad tracks bridge across open water," she said.
Since 2006, Mianus River Gorge Preserve has been mapping the Westchester whereabouts of coyotes and have found them to be firmly established in the county's greener, woodsy northern reaches. The coyote, originally from west of the Mississippi has been here for nearly a century and was well established in Westchester by the 1970s.
In 2011, Mianus biologists began tracking the animals' move southward by using remote camera stations at 25 locations within New York City parks.
An estimated 20,000 coyotes are in New York, according to the state Department of Conservation, which also says that these hunters are normally not dangerous to humans. An average of 650 people are hospitalized for dog attacks with one fatality every year -- compared with only a handful of coyote attacks nationally, the DEC said. But as with all wildlife, officials advise residents not to feed these visitors or leave out food or trash.