If you ask me, it is always worth your time to take a closer look at animal feces. I mean, how often do you actually see wild animals? I often go exploring with groups, and since our chances of finding wildlife are slim, we look to the ground for signs. Besides possibly identifying the animal it came from, animal feces or “scat” can tell you what that animal has been eating.
Last month I shared that 18% of an urban coyote’s diet is rabbits. What makes up the other 80+%? Stanley Gehrt’s research team analyzed coyote scat for their study in Chicago, Illinois. They found the coyote’s top prey is a group of very small mammals: rodents. On average, 40% of the coyote’s diet is rodents. Squirrels, voles, mice, rats… there are abundant rodents in urban areas and coyotes are opportunistic hunters. With so many squirrels competing for food and space in urban areas, coyotes help keep their populations in check. This is helpful to humans, as well as the rodents.
Can you think of any other wildlife whose populations have exploded over the last 20 years? Perhaps you have seen dozens of Canada geese taking up residence in your favorite park or a nearby pond. Coyotes don’t usually prey on adult geese, probably to avoid a fight, but they will raid nests for goose eggs. So coyotes may not be able to reduce a Canada goose population, but they can help slow the growth rate.
Another significant part of a coyote’s diet is white-tailed deer. Just as squirrel and goose populations can explode, so do deer populations. In years past, deer had become so abundant in central Ohio that wildflowers and shrubs were disappearing. Just as with squirrels and geese, too many deer in an area affects the health of the whole population. Coyotes can slow population growth by taking fawns, or perhaps injured or sick adult deer.
So far we know urban coyotes diet consists of rodents, rabbits, deer, and some goose eggs. There is a lot more variety, and here is the breakdown Gehrt’s research team found by analyzing scats:
- Rodents: 42%
- Fruit: 23%
- Deer (usually fawn): 22%
- Eastern cottontail rabbit: 18%
- Bird species: 13%
- Raccoon: 8%
After these main food sources, they also found coyotes had eaten grasses, insects and other invertebrates, and human-related foods such as pet food, garbage, etc.
So where are all these urban coyotes? Have you seen any in your neighborhood? It turns out urban coyotes are more strictly nocturnal than rural coyotes. Of course, if you’re in the right place at the right time, you may see one. If you have an interest, look for their scat while walking through your neighborhood. Coyote scat can look similar to dog feces, but it usually has pointed ends and is more compact. It also has fur, seeds, grass or other obvious remains of what the coyote ate. Since dogs eat pet food, you should not see these items in dog stool.
I appreciate having coyotes around, as they can help keep our ecosystem balanced. Because the grey wolf and mountain lion are not present in central Ohio anymore, coyotes have come to fill the role of predator. But it wouldn’t be fair to ignore the fact that there are some conflicts we have with coyotes. The next article will reveal reasons for human-coyote conflict and how you can prevent them in your backyard. – Colleen Sharkey
Colleen Sharkey has been an informal educator and nature enthusiast for 10+ years. She lives in Columbus, near a couple of beautiful ravines that offer habitat to everything from nesting barred owls and red foxes to hemlock trees and migrating warblers. Colleen is currently an environmental educator for BrightPath Active Learning in Westerville and a Naturalist with Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks.