Thursday, December 5, 2013

Coyote in the median

Through the din coming over the radio this morning, those words caught my attention. It turned out that traffic was stopped somewhere because there was a coyote camped out in the traffic median on the northwest side of the city. I'm always impressed when a wild animal can bring a part of the city to its knees; it's as if Mother Nature in her infinite wisdom is letting us know who's in charge.

Large numbers of coyotes and other predators are a fairly recent phenomenon in cities as suburban sprawl continues to wipe out those species' natural habitat. By contrast, as large tracts of land are opening up in big cities because of disappearing industries, businesses, and homes, nature quickly reasserts itself. The overgrown, unkempt vacant lots, so unattractive to human beings, are a godsend to our four legged (and two legged winged) friends, and are becoming unintended nature preserves.

A few years ago as I was documenting the demolition of the last of the notorious south State Street housing projects, I witnessed two wildlife dramas that could have merited a feature on a TV nature documentary. One day I spied upon a magnificent Red tailed hawk on a telephone pole as she (guessing she was a she from her size), was intently gazing down on some undergrowth directly below. The raptor did not move a muscle for at least ten minutes. Then without warning, it sprung from its perch and dove straight down in to the growth below and in one motion, came up with a small bird in its talons. I watched intently as the hawk devoured its unfortunate victim.

On another day in the same place, as bulldozers worked over a patch of ground where new housing was to be built, I heard the unmistakable whistle of a pair of Killdeers, birds that are related to seabirds, but for some reason, prefer to live on open land, as this neighborhood was becoming. These two poor birds were nesting right in the bulldozer's path and there was nothing I could do for them because the area being worked upon was fenced off. I went about my work with the sad notion that this little bird family would be wiped out before it even got a chance to begin. Much to my surprise and joy, when I returned the following week, not only did I see mama and papa Killdeer proudly prancing about the open field, but five other Killdeers. The brood nearly as big as their parents, not only survived the bulldozer, but was thriving. It turned out the ruts made by the bulldozer provided the perfect structure for their nest.

And so it goes, life and death in the big city, just as in the wilderness.

To me there is something wonderfully profound about the Wild Kingdom transplanted into the heart of the big city. A little while ago I wrote about a pair of Bald eagles who were nesting along the Calumet River on the south east side of Chicago. Even our taciturn mayor couldn't help be a little giddy about a pair of endangered (well, once endangered) animals who also happen to be our national symbol, raising a family in our fair city. I imagine that fewer people are thrilled about the coyotes, a much disparaged species of animal. Yet in the big picture, they have as much a right to be here as the eagles, or us for that matter.

Coyotes pose very little threat to humans, unless they're cornered when they'll protect themselves. The same cannot be said about the threat to pets who are allowed to wander about freely. It's also not a good idea to try to feed coyotes as a three year old boy who was bitten by one discovered in Columbus Park last month. In general however, coyotes go out of their way to avoid us which is why you rarely see them. Rest assured however, they're everywhere, there's probably one within a few hundred yards of you right now. It's usually bad news for the animal when it does get entangled with humans; the coyote who bit the boy was captured and destroyed along with its family to test them for rabies. The coyote mentioned in the traffic report this morning was captured and presumably relocated. This would seem to be the humane thing to do but coyotes are very territorial and being moved into another coyote's territory will severely compromise the animal's safety.

Despite the minor inconveniences, coyotes benefit us as they help control the populations of rodents and avian pests such as the Canada goose, by stealing their eggs. They also remind us that we're not alone on this little planet, and their presence in our cities tells us as much about ourselves as it does about them.

Long may they survive.

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