HAMILTON — Coyotes continue to make their presence known on the North Shore. As recently as Monday evening in Salem, a man called police to report being chased by an aggressive coyote on Fort Avenue near the power plant.
But an author and researcher who spent the last 10 years studying eastern coyotes says the animals should not be considered dangerous.
“My take-home message is that they do well around people so long as we tolerate them,” Jonathan Way said during a lecture at the Hamilton-Wenham Public Library on Tuesday night.
Way, a wildlife biologist, is the author of “Suburban Howls: Tracking the Eastern Coyote in Urban Massachusetts.” During his talk, he explained that the coyote is one of the few carnivores to actually increase its range and distribution in the past 100 years. It has taken over as the top predator in all environments in New England, from wilderness parks to city greenbelts, with the eradication of most of its competition, especially wolves.
In the case of Monday’s incident, an officer said there had been a coyote in the area of the power plant “for years.” Way said during an interview yesterday that he couldn’t say for certain whether the animal was actually a coyote, but he did say that its behavior would be “extremely abnormal” for one.
“It just sounds like something very strange, and something very, very out of the ordinary,” Way said. “Chasing a kid and snapping its jaws while it ran for a while is very aberrant.”
Although he said it’s possible that a coyote could act strangely if it were infected with a disease such as rabies, Way said he couldn’t name another instance where a coyote was known to have chased a human being, and that the animal seen on Fort Avenue was more likely a dog.
“People think coyotes are very bold,” Way said during the lecture. “The real paradox is that they live in our area but try to avoid us.”
Every year, he said, 4.7 million people are bitten by dogs, causing around 1,000 visits per day to the hospital emergency rooms and 15 to 20 deaths. In comparison, he said, five people have been bitten by coyotes in Massachusetts’ history, and there have only been two recorded fatalities in North America, one in the early 1980s and one in Nova Scotia in 2009.
To happily coexist with coyotes, Way suggested making a loud noise outside and banging pots and pans to chase them away if you don’t want them in your yard. He also urged people not to feed them or any other animals outside. Always leash dogs when walking outside, he said, and do not let your cat outside if you are living in coyote country.
Way said coyotes howl at night to communicate between packs, rally each other, mark out their territory and because they probably enjoy it, “but they do not howl to scare humans or because it is a full moon.”
With a bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a master’s from the University of Connecticut and a doctorate from Boston College, Way has conducted two major research programs about eastern coyotes. The first involved trapping and radio-tagging coyotes in two regions, Cape Cod and around Boston, and then releasing them back into the wild so that he could track their movements. The second study involved hand-raising coyotes at Stone Zoo in Stoneham.
From his research, which also involved measuring and taking blood samples from the trapped coyotes, Way was able to establish that the eastern coyote, or coywolf, as he prefers to call it, is not related to the gray wolf but is a product of hybridization between western coyotes and eastern/red wolves.
The eastern coyote is the biggest type of coyote, Way said, weighing on average between 30 and 45 pounds and living in the Northeast from New Jersey to Maine. Its color ranges from blond to darker black and brown, but is usually tawny brown.
The evening’s program was funded by the Friends of the Hamilton-Wenham Public Library. More information can be found on Way’s website, www.easterncoyoteresearch.com.
LIVING WITH COYOTES
Wildlife biologist Jonathan Way offers the following tips for living near coyotes.
To frighten off a coyote, make noise, such as banging pots and pans. Carry a whistle or other noisemaker with you if you’ll be walking around where coyotes are common.
Do not feed coyotes or other wildlife. If you feed birds, coyotes will be attracted to your yard. Same goes for feeding pets outdoors.
Do not let your cat outside.
If you have a dog outdoors, make sure the fence is at least 5 feet high, and don’t leave your pet unsupervised. If the dog is not in a fenced yard, keep it on a leash.
Invisible fences do not prevent animals from getting into your yard and will not protect your pet from coyotes. That type of fence merely keeps your pet in your yard.