Like many immigrant groups, canids began moving into Chicago quietly. Seeking a place to live undisturbed, isolated individuals promptly blended in, sheltering in crannies, gleaning a livelihood by filling roles others wouldn’t. The rest of the city took notice only when a troublemaker appeared.
Four species of canids, the wild cousins of dogs, hunted the presettlement prairies and woodlands of Illinois. Lean and long-muzzled, coyotes carry their brushy tails low. Foxes, with fluffier tails and shorter snouts with splayed whiskers, are more feline, their folk reputation for adventurousness and cunning well earned. Gray foxes even climb trees, sometimes denning in the hollows of old oaks. Coyotes, wolves, and gray foxes all wear a camouflage of dark back and sides with lighter underparts, in subtly dappled grays or rust, gray, and black. The red fox is a mass of cherrywood with a light belly and dark legs.
Local canids were hunted down by early settlers defending their chickens and sheep. In A Natural History of the Chicago Region Joel Greenberg writes of a sheep farmer in southern Cook County who was driven into bankruptcy by coyotes and of hunters who routinely shot a dozen a day “within a few miles of town.” Wolves were quickly extirpated from the state, and coyotes were driven out of the region in the early 1900s. Foxes held on warily in rural fencerows and preserves.
By the mid-1900s coyote and fox populations began to rebound, doing so well that in recent years they’ve swept toward the city. Jim McDonald, a volunteer habitat steward at a north-side park, remembers seeing one of the first urban coyotes 15 years ago. He and his wife were walking their dogs, a shepherd and a large mixed breed, in La Bagh Woods near Foster and Pulaski, and they all noticed the coyote at the same moment. The dogs tensed and took off after it. It held its ground, shifted slightly, then “poof, it spun and it was gone like Wile E.,” says McDonald. “The dogs couldn’t come close.”
Bob Long, who runs fishing programs for the Park District, has seen coyotes and foxes in surprising places on the south side. “As fishermen, we happen to be in places at times where others aren’t going to be, clambering around in the rocks on the lakefront at 4 AM,” he says. “We find bones that look like they’ve been eaten by something, chewed up more than a bird of prey is going to do. Areas cleared of squirrels and rabbits, and the only reason is because a predator has been around. I’ve seen coyotes running along the rocks between 47th Street and 39th.” Two years ago he saw a large coyote and two smaller ones in Jackson Park. “They were just running around smelling things. At first I thought they were small German shepherds, but they were low-slung. Definitely coyotes. They were just wandering around, very casual–at a good clip but not running particularly fast. They seemed very comfortable.”
Urban canids that draw attention are often promptly removed. Last year a coyote near the downtown water-filtration plant was chased onto an ice floe by animal-control officers, who eventually trapped it and sent it away. Another miserable specimen was found cowering in a riverside sewer outfall in the Loop last summer; it too was exiled. Human admirers try not to draw attention to the canids, spreading word of their presence through gossipy e-mails.
Long thinks the animals he saw came into the city along the Illinois Central railroad tracks, and the La Bagh Woods coyotes were at the intersection of the Chicago River’s North Branch and an abandoned rail line. But other recent canid sightings have been far from the normal wildlife corridors. Noah Praetz, who works for the county’s election department, flushed a red fox from some bushes while he was jogging in Grant Park near Monroe Harbor. “It crossed my path and started loping south right along the lake,” he says. “He was rusty myrtle brown and white with a long tail. I recognized it as a fox because I’ve seen them in Wisconsin. It looked like he’d been there a while, since he paid no attention to me or the cars on the drive.”
Susan Fargo, head of the North Pond Conservation Council, asked her members to look out for a fox that had been reported around the pond, which is near Diversey Harbor. People e-mailed back with sightings near the zoo at South Pond, along the fence at the Diversey driving range, and running along Cannon Drive–“a big hunting territory of a mile and a half,” says Fargo. “Eventually we saw two together, a mated pair–beautiful adults with big bushy tails, clean and healthy looking.” Her group has worked with staff from the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum to create a small native prairie around North Pond. “Our mission is to create a high-quality urban natural area. We’ve had rabbits, opossum, raccoons, muskrats, frogs, and turtles. The rabbits were becoming a nuisance, because they devour the plants around the lily pond and all over the zoo. All of a sudden the rabbits are gone. Having red foxes around adds an interesting balance to the terrestrial ecosystem. They keep down the mice, rabbits, even the rats.”
Stan Gehrt, a wildlife biologist, has been studying local coyotes for the county’s animal-control bureau since early 2000, radio-collaring and tracking them. He says the urban coyote diet is heavy on nuisance animals that proliferate in human environments. “They’re flexible in using habitat, but in most cases they stick to their natural diet–rabbits, voles, and mice. Where there’s a large deer population, deer consume vegetation, removing the very cover their fawns would benefit from. Coyotes take up to 80 percent of the fawn population in those settings. We’re also looking at predation of geese. Geese nest in concentrated areas–up to 50 or 60 on a single shoreline–and the clustering makes it easier for coyotes to find them. A coyote can wipe them out in a few nights. Coyotes may be the primary control on Canada goose populations.”
Gehrt is also studying the “mesopredator effect” of coyotes–the impact they have on midsize predators halfway up the food chain, on the hunters that are also hunted. In an urban context mesopredators include alley animals such as raccoons, skunks, and domestic and feral cats–omnivorous scavengers that multiply on a trash-can diet but still patrol parks for the more traditional fare they find in bird nests. Coyotes eat mesopredators, outcompete them for food, and scare them into more cautious behavior that makes them less effective hunters. With fewer raccoons and cats around to eat their eggs and chicks, songbirds in coyote territories often show dramatic increases in nesting success.
Gehrt has yet to uncover evidence of a mesopredator effect in Cook County. Last summer his grad students tried to get some clues using triggered-flash photography, but the first flash tended to scare the coyotes off. This year Gehrt will try infrared cameras. “Their secretiveness is their survival mechanism,” he says. “If anything looks out of place they’ll avoid the area.”
As coyotes grow more used to urban living, that wariness may diminish. In early February, Geoff Williamson, a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology and an avid birder, saw a coyote at the Montrose Point bird sanctuary, sleeping on the ice in the curl of the breakwater. He watched it wake up and trot in. “The coyote went into a dune area of willows and then headed up along the beach for a bit, finally circling back into the dune,” he says. “The dogs along the beach got really nervous.” Two weeks later he saw it again, walking on the beach toward him. He described it as “not nearly so skittish.” He took photographs, which show a beautiful animal standing in the sand maybe 30 feet away. Gehrt says that of the hundreds of animals he’s studied, less than 1 percent lost their fear enough to begin approaching humans and had to be removed. In every one of those cases someone had been feeding them. Williamson doesn’t know what led the Montrose coyote to grow less wary, but it seems to have been the animal’s downfall. He says it disappeared shortly after he took the photos, though an animal-control spokesperson says her office didn’t trap it.
At the Oak Woods Cemetery south of Hyde Park, a pack of gray foxes has been in residence for years, roaming a territory that includes the crypt of Harold Washington. Gehrt says people often think foxes and coyotes are less social than wolves, the stereotypical pack animal, but it’s not true. “Their social system is a pack based on the family–an adult male and female with some subordinate young adults from previous litters,” he says. “Unlike wolves, they hunt small prey, so they hunt alone. After hours they join together at rendezvous sites, where you hear them howling. They defend their territory as a pack.”
The foxes at the cemetery prey on rabbits, geese, and squirrels, which they can follow into the trees. “Years ago we had a problem,” says the head groundskeeper, Victor Remarcik. “People were feeding them, so they started to come out, get more curious. You could crinkle paper and they’d come. Some visitors thought they might be dangerous.” When the cemetery banned handouts the problem ended. Afterward, John Oakes, another cemetery employee, noticed that the geese had begun fighting for nesting sites atop small outbuildings. They’d apparently figured out that pond-side nests were no longer safe.
Gehrt’s mesopredator effect seems to be occurring between different canid species. Five years ago a pair of coyotes began leaping into the cemetery from the bordering IC tracks. They haven’t stayed in the cemetery, but they keep visiting. “The foxes used to range the whole cemetery,” says Remarcik. “Now they don’t go far. They stay in the most desolate, least visited part,” an older area of the cemetery with few recent graves.
At the cemetery recently I found fox scat with traces of fur in the hollow of a dying tree and a trail of feathers and down that led to an evergreen shrub and some telltale bones. Remarcik told me he’d seen a rooster wandering the southern edge of the cemetery the day before. “Another voodoo chicken,” he said, referring to the funerary offerings of Carribbean immigrants. “I’m not going to go chasing roosters. The foxes always get them.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joe Nowak, Michael Melford/National Geographic/Getty Images.