Unexpected Urbanites: Cacophonous Coyotes

By David A. Fahrenthold
THE SOUND did not belong. It was high-pitched and keening, something from a prairie night or a Hollywood sound-effects reel.

Something one should not hear while sleeping in a bed, in a house, in Chevy Chase, (MD).

“AOOOOOOO!” said Lee Bernstein, mimicking the noise that woke her up at 4 a.m. March 31. “Like a cartoon or something.”

Other people have heard yipping in the woods near Cleveland Park, barking off Oregon Avenue NW and wailing that answers police sirens near Military Road NW. These are the sounds of coyotes, the Western predators that first colonized the city’s suburbs and now have established themselves in Rock Creek Park.

As the animals have moved in, neighbors have started hearing things that leave them startled, curious and suddenly worried about where the dog is. In the middle of the District: actual calls of the wild.

“It’s an eerie howl. It’s a little–what am I thinking of–like a monster-movie howl,” said John Northcutt, who lives across the street from the park. “It was just very strange to be in the city and hear that.”

Coyotes have recolonized most of the urban East in the past few decades — or perhaps colonized, since scientists aren’t sure whether they were here before European settlement.

Their proliferation is partly about the reforestation of the East Coast as farming has faded and woods have returned. But it’s also partly about the animals themselves. They have adapted well to the suburban environment, eating everything from garbage to fawns to small mammals. Coyotes are the most general kind of omnivore — like raccoons, if raccoons also ate rats and house pets.

In fact, scientists say East Coast coyotes often grow bigger than those in the West. The life, and the hunting, might actually suit them better here.

“Easy pickings,” said Paul Peditto, an official with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “They’re highly adaptive, and they’re efficient, and what they learn is that it’s much easier to take a suburban small pet . . . as opposed to having to run down a wild cottontail rabbit.”

The first coyotes arrived in the Washington suburbs years ago.  
Biologists now estimate there are at least 1,250 in Northern Virginia alone. In Maryland, the picture is less clear: Peditto said there were more than a few dozen, but the state did not have a more exact estimate.

In both states, though, officials say they’re certain that the population is growing. To prepare residents in this area, the National Wildlife Visitors Center in Laurel will offer two “Living With Coyotes” presentations Saturday. During these sessions, from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and from 1:30 to 5 p.m., coyote experts will explain ways to avoid coyote-human conflict.

In many places across the area, the proof of coyotes’ presence is in the howls: Hunters hear them in the woods near the Quantico Marine Base in Virginia. John Hadidian, director of the urban wildlife program for the Humane Society of the United States, said he heard a group howling near the C&O Canal towpath in Montgomery County.

“It is a strange sound. . . . It’s not like dogs barking,” Hadidian said. “This is a chorus. These are voices occurring in unison.  They’re kind of melodic, and they have kind of a musical touch to them.”

The District’s first coyotes were spotted in 2004, when a handful were found in Rock Creek Park. Officials don’t believe the population has grown much, but they say it’s difficult to study such an elusive animal in a park crowded with people, cars and dogs.

The park’s neighbors say it’s obvious the coyotes are still there. They see the animals, which can resemble tall, skinny gray dogs, loping along side streets. And they hear drawn-out whines and repeated yips–which they say don’t sound like the rasps and screams of the park’s red foxes and come from too deep in the woods to be dogs.

In some cases, the coyotes seem to howl at sirens blaring on Military Road or Nebraska Avenue NW.  Not everybody thinks the sound is melodic.

“I could tell there were several of them, because one sort of set off the other, and then they just started yelping at the same time,” said Bill Peter of Chevy Chase in Northwest. “It wasn’t that single yelp- howl that you hear in a western movie. It was a little more ominous than that.”

On 28th Street NW, Shelley Schonberger had her own ominous thought after she heard a chorus of yips early one morning.

“Kitty comes in at night now,” she said.

So what are the coyotes trying to say? Scientists have a few theories: The howls can serve to call a family group together or keep other coyotes away from their territory. The animals may respond to emergency sirens because they sound like rival animals or because the noise hurts their ears.Or maybe they just like an excuse to make noise.

“I do think that howling is also fun for them,” said Megan Draheim, a graduate student at George Mason University who has studied Rock Creek Park’s coyotes. “So, when they’re given the opportunity, they howl.”

Unless, of course, you’re trying to get them to do it. Last year, Draheim attempted to locate coyotes in Rock Creek park by attaching a loudspeaker to her iPod and playing recorded coyote howls. She never heard the reply she wanted.

And on a recent morning at the Quantico base, where coyotes live in the woods that the Marines use for training, Scott Simmons, a wildlife biologist who works on the base, had similar luck. Using a device the size of a large flashlight, he played a recorded coyote distress call and a “pack howl” — a cacophony of yips, howls and squeaks that sounded like an entire zoo full of animals but was really all coyotes.

But the woods were quiet. The only response he got was a gobble from a far-off turkey. Too bad, Simmons said. There’s nothing like hearing the sound in person.

“It’s pretty exhilarating,” he said. “It reminds you that there is wild out there.” –Washington Post