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Urban coyote in camera trap

Camera Trapping Urban Coyotes With Cognisys

Urban coyote in camera trap
© Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative

CAMERA TRAPPING URBAN COYOTES WITH COGNISYS

Are you curious about how we capture some of our more up-close images of coyotes? Camera traps are essential tools, but they also provide their fair share of tribulations from tricky technology! Cognisys has developed a new trigger, the Scout, that we are using in the field with great success, and it’s helping relieve some of the headache that comes with camera trapping. Dive in to Ivan’s experience setting up one of his New York City-based traps utilizing this latest triggering system for our collaboration with Gotham Coyote Project .

by Ivan Kuraev

 

As I walked the shore of Westchester Creek, I thought to myself, “this isn’t the New York City I’m used to.”

I live in Washington Heights, at the North end of Manhattan, just three blocks from the George Washington Bridge. It’s a residential neighborhood, but still feels very much like a part of the City – the subway station is just around the corner, and when the trains are running on time, a twenty minute train ride gets me to Columbus Circle or the Theater District. Last Spring, I started making a twenty-minute drive from my neighborhood in the opposite direction, to the East Bronx, in search of urban coyotes.

There’s no traffic at sunrise, and when I arrived at Ferry Point Park, I felt transported to a very different world than my neighborhood, only seven miles away. I parked in the empty gravel lot and walked through the Park, over a vast lawn and baseball field, to get to the shore of Westchester Creek, a tidal inlet that branches off the East River and dead ends about two miles inland. I scanned the sand along the shore and quickly spotted what I was looking for – coyote tracks.

 

Cognisys camera trap review
© Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative

Coyotes that den somewhere near Ferry Point Park have been using Westchester Creek as a corridor to travel between multiple green spaces that offer them shelter and foraging grounds. As I followed the tracks, I understood why it’s a perfect path for coyotes. The sandy beach follows a turn in the creek and transforms into a salt marsh, overgrown with phragmites and spartina grass, and is sheltered from the adjacent Hutchinson Parkway by a band of trees and thick undergrowth. This is a secure coyote passageway.

As I followed the Creek and left Ferry Point Park it all started to feel very wild, until I noticed that the animal tracks in the sand were weaving between pools of broken glass, rusted bits of metal, an overturned dinghy and other human detritus that hinted at what lies beneath Westchester Creek. The Creek is known locally as a toxic backwater, forgotten behind industrial lots and warehouses, and used for years as an illegal dumping ground. It’s a kind of habitat that’s become familiar to me after tracking coyotes through New York City; a liminal space that’s left behind by people and gradually reclaimed by nature.

The trash is striking, but so are the Yellow-Crowned Night Herons that hunt crabs along the shore, warblers that swarm in the trees on Spring mornings, and coyotes that walk the beach as they navigate the perimeter of their territory. This is a hidden wild highway through a busy human city.

Raccoon in camera trap
© Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative

After many unsuccessful sunrise hours spent stalking the marsh with my camera and telephoto lens, I realized that the only way I was likely to get images of the local coyotes was by using a camera trap, because the coyotes seem to travel at night. I have used a setup that’s familiar to many wildlife photographers – DSLR camera, Nikon SB-28 flashes (these flashes cycle into a sleep mode that conserves batteries, and can come out of sleep mode as soon as the shutter is tripped) and a Trailmaster Trigger. The Trailmaster is an infrared motion sensor and camera trigger that’s been a mainstay of the wildlife photographer’s arsenal since the 1990s, and their design has remained largely unchanged. Trailmaster triggers have produced many iconic wildlife images and proved themselves to be reliable in the field, but also a bit dated.

The Trailmaster build is straightforward. They run off C-type batteries, which makes installing and troubleshooting in the field very easy, and those C-type batteries can last for months. Unfortunately, the Trailmaster menu is displayed on a small LCD using shortcuts and abbreviations, and all selections are restored to factory settings when you swap batteries. I never memorized the menu abbreviations or how to change specific settings using the “time set,” “set up” and “adv” keys, so I would always need to dive into the user manual to set up my trigger. The Trailmaster units are not waterproof, and I reinforced the battery compartment seams with duct tape during installation. This usually kept the units fairly weather resistant, but in April, Westchester Creek retired my Trailmaster when tidal waters rose during a spring storm and flooded my setup. My camera was sealed in a Pelican case and survived, as did one of my flashes. Unfortunately, the Trailmaster was completely waterlogged, having been submerged for several hours. It was time to find a replacement.

Cognisys was on my radar for some time, but their triggers never seemed appropriate for the kind of camera trap photography I practice. The Sabre, one of the first triggers Cognisys produced, uses an internal rechargeable battery (which makes swapping batteries in the field impossible), and a very sensitive motion sensor that acts a bit like sonar.  According to Cognisys, “the sensor emits a very short pulse of IR light and determines the distance to the subject by measuring how long the light pulse takes to be reflected back to the sensor.”  This is great for using the trigger to photograph small and fast subjects – hummingbirds, dragonflies, bats – but didn’t work for my photography.  If I pointed the Sabre at a patch of grass, every time the grass moved, my camera would fire. It’s possible to change the sensitivity settings on the Sabre, but I never seemed to find optimal settings for photographing large animals in dynamic environments. I checked back with Cognisys after my Trailmaster flooded, and discovered that they debuted a new sensor system designed for the very kind of photography I’m doing!

Rather than using pulses of infrared light projected out of the sensor and onto the environment, the new Cognisys Scout system consists of separate transmitter and receiver units that are linked by an infrared beam. This is exactly how Trailmaster triggers work, and the Scout feels like a logical, modern update to the classic Trailmaster.

When I took my new Scout Trigger and receiver out of the box and opened the battery compartments (they are closed with four screws), I noticed the recessed gasket seals. I can’t say with certainty that the Scout would’ve survived the storm that killed my Trailmaster, but I bet the Cognisys unit would have done just fine. (On the Cognisys website, you can find a testimonial from a photographer in the Yukon Territory whose Scout froze in a stream, then was defrosted and found to be dry inside.) The three-pin cable that connects the Scout receiver to the camera has a twist-lock, and seems to be watertight as well.

Cognisys camera trap review
© Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative

The day after receiving the Scout, I went back to Westchester Creek to set up my camera trap again. My DSLR is contained in a Pelican case that’s routed for a UV filter, and attached to a small tripod, which makes it easy to adjust the height and angle of the camera. I use metal stakes pounded into the ground with a mallet to mount my flashes, the Scout transmitter and receiver. This brings me to another perk of the scout system: 1/4-20 mounting threads, which allow me to attach quick-release plates to the transmitter and receiver, and mount them to the stakes using inexpensive ball heads. (The steel stakes have headless threads welded on.) Using ball heads makes aligning the transmitter and receiver a breeze, and once they are aligned, I can tighten the ball heads and remove the Scouts using the quick-release plates when I need to change batteries. The receiver and transmitter can each be powered with six AA batteries, which is great for swapping in the field. Cognisys states that rechargeable Eneloops will last 100 days, but I change mine every two months so the units never power down and miss photographs.

The menu system on the Cognisys is a big improvement over other triggers. There are no abbreviations or codes; everything is written out in complete words and navigating through the options is easy using the up, down and return keys. After mounting every component of my camera trap and connecting the three-pin cable from the Scout receiver to my DSLR, I navigate to the “LED alignment” tab in the menu to fine tune the alignment of my transmitter and receiver. When the units are aligned, they connect with an invisible infrared beam, and the receiver flashes red to indicate proper calibration. The camera should fire when that beam is broken. I have found that some tuning of the position is often required, and even though the LED will flash a confirmation, true alignment hasn’t been established. It seems like the “beam” is actually a little wider than I first imagined, and ambient light or reflective surfaces like sand or water can sometimes interfere with the triggering mechanism. My routine when setting up a camera trap is to act as a stand-in for the animal and make multiple passes in front of my camera to trigger the system. This is another reason why using ball heads is helpful, as you can make fine adjustments, then set them with no slop.

The receiver has no LCD menu, but does have three buttons: power, transmit rate, and transmit power. I use the highest available transmit rate. The downside of this is that the camera can sometimes be triggered by birds or leaves blowing in the wind. However, I’ve found that the highest transmit rate eliminates most lag from the triggering sequence, which is important for capturing fast-moving animals that don’t come around often! I have had the most consistent results using the high transmit rate. The transmit power has two levels – low and high. High power is suggested when the trigger and receiver are more than forty feet apart; I set mine about fifteen feet apart. Resist the urge to think that more power is better – using the high setting when the transmitter is close to the receiver will often result in errors and misfires, and it seems like the “beam” is harder to break.

My final step when setting up the camera trap is going into “Time Settings” in the Scout receiver menu, and choosing a limited time window during which the system will be active. This is useful for conserving batteries in the field when photographing animals that are only active during part of the day; New York coyotes are largely nocturnal.

The feature is especially important to me because, working in an urban setting, I don’t want the flashes firing during the day and attracting attention. My camera traps have been raided and vandalized, and minimizing camera activity makes the setup less conspicuous.

Since buying the Cognisys scout in April, I have moved my camera trap setup to several locations and taken many photographs of New York City’s animals – cats, mourning doves, skunks, dogs and coyotes. Of course, whenever I set up my trap in a new spot, my first visitors are always raccoons. I don’t know how they figure out there’s a camera in the area, but I can tell you that raccoons immediately arrive to take multiple selfies and drain my flash batteries.

 

Cognisys camera trap review
© Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative
feral cat at urban camera trap
© Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative
Raccoon in camera trap
© Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative

When I first set up the Scout, I did have to troubleshoot the system a bit and figure out its quirks – dealing with reflective surfaces, fine-tuning alignment and setting appropriate transmission power. Matt over at Cognisys was very helpful, and stayed on the phone with me while I acted the part of the coyote and tried to trigger the Scout over and over again. He also mentioned that they have some triggers permanently set up and connected to cameras at the Cognisys headquarters, so if you call with a specific issue, they may be able to reproduce your settings, test your unique trapping scenario and offer a solution.

Having used competitive systems, I can sincerely recommend the Scout to any camera trap photographer. These are reliable, weather-resistant triggers that offer the same functionality and much better usability than any other products on the market. Now, if only they offered a raccoon-proof setting.

Urban coyote in camera trap
© Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative

Help us keep our cameras clicking

If you would like to support Urban Coyote Initiative and help get us out in the field photographing coyotes, you can make a tax-deductible financial contribution

We are proud partners with the WILD Foundation. This upstanding nonprofit has a 40-year history of protecting wilderness while meeting the needs of human communities. As our fiscal sponsor and conservation communications advisor, the WILD Foundation processes and distributes to us (according to IRS guidelines) all donations received for our work.

Your contribution will directly support us in documenting urban coyote research and providing coexistence strategies to communities. You can even set up a recurring donation to provide ongoing support.

Text ‘coyote‘ to 50155 to make a donation via mobile phone or click the button below to donate online. 

Cognisys did not request, pay for, or in anyway influence this review. It is based entirely on our honest experience with their products. 

Related Articles

Denver is a New Hot Spot for Urban Coyote Research

Urban coyote researcher Chris Schell hold a coyote skin in a museum
© Morgan Heim / Urban Coyote Initiative

DENVER IS A NEW HOT SPOT FOR URBAN COYOTE RESEARCH

Do genetics play a role in how bold or wary a coyote may be? Does a coyote’s family tree help determine which individuals are more likely to take up residence in a busy city? A team of researchers are set on discovering what secrets the DNA of Colorado’s coyotes reveal about behavior, which could guide us in smarter coexistence strategies.

by Melanie Hill
November 2016

 

Colorado’s Front Range is home to the western edge of the Great Plains and the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains. It’s the best of both worlds, in my mind: to the east are big blue skies resting on top of wide open grassy plains, and if you look west you will find the impressive rock formations of the foothills. The biodiversity in this region is incredible- coniferous forests, big cottonwood trees, yucca plants, tons of colorful wildflowers, prickly pear cactus, an abundance of wildlife, and the list goes on.

These aren’t the only living beings that thrive here; the Front Range also contains the state’s largest cities and highest populated areas.

A variety of wild animals have adapted to the urban settings the Front Range provides, with some of the more commonly seen wildlife being squirrels, rabbits, prairie dogs, mule deer, numerous bird species, raccoons, skunks, and even foxes. As the Front Range cities continue to expand, we’re also seeing an influx of larger predator species such as black bears, mountain lions, and perhaps the most adaptive species of them all: the coyote.

 

A rise in urban coyote activity

Within the past decade, the number of coyote sightings – and conflicts – has steadily increased in the Front Range. In Denver specifically, the past 30 years of urban sprawl have brought on some incredible changes to the behavioral aspects of this species. A 2010-2014 study led by USDA National Wildlife Research Center scientist Dr. Stewart Breck found that coyotes were learning how to survive in cities by reading people. Our behavioral patterns, set schedules, traffic conditions, and the like are cues to coyotes about how to live next to, and avoid, human detection. Incredible, right?

Breck’s team also found that coyotes were relative newcomers to Denver; they colonized the city after it was built. And despite the hustle and bustle of people in nearby parks, residential areas, and business spaces, coyotes have no issues getting around.

His research provided some outstanding foundation, but a few questions still remained:

  • Why did human-coyote conflicts begin rising in 2005?
  • Why do we see more coyote attacks on the west side of the country than the Midwest and East Coast?
  • How are coyote populations able to grow and thrive in cities over such extensive periods of time?
  • What are the primary biological factors making coyotes so successful in environments? 
  • How have they been able to adapt to cities generally in timescales ~30 years or less?
Just weeks old, these are the youngest coyote specimens found at DMNS. © Melanie Hill / Urban Coyote Initiative

Enter: Dr. Chris Schell

Dr. Chris Schell is an evolutionary biologist, behavioral endocrinologist, urban ecologist, and quite the charismatic speaker. Whether it be over the phone, through email, in the lab, or presenting to a room full of concerned residents, it’s easy to see how passionate he is about his work. His enthusiasm is contagious.

To expand the scope of Breck’s exceptional findings, Schell launched a 3-year study focusing on “Cosmopolitan carnivores: An investigation of the behavioral, hormonal, and genetic factors underlying coyote success in urban environments.” The study is part of the Denver Urban Coyote Project, which aims to uncover the real Wily E. Coyote. 

Schell is working with local land managers, organizations, and individuals in the greater Denver Metro region to gather data in a few different ways.

First, to get a stronger understanding of the urban coyotes’ behavioral patterns and territories, Schell is in the process of trapping the animals and collaring them with GPS trackers.

Before they release the coyotes back into the wild, his team also takes a few hair and DNA samples, which they then use in comparison with historic data. The available historic information dates back more than 100 years ago and is housed at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science’s collections facility. 

Dr. Schell preparing tissue samples. © Morgan Heim / Urban Coyote Initiative

To broaden the scope of his findings and ensure that local communities remain involved, Chris incorporated a citizen science element into his research. He’s doing this through an online platform called iNaturalist. Whenever residents in the area spot a coyote, Chris encourages them to submit their sightings on the Denver CoyoteWatch page.

There, users can join the Denver Urban Coyote Project’s ever-growing research base by uploading pictures, specific locations, and any other details about the sighting. With all these individual observations coming together, Chris’s team can develop a much larger picture of where these coyotes are going, and what might be attracting them.

And if social media outlets are your preferred communication outlet, locals can also share their sightings on Twitter with the #DenverCoyotes hashtag. That’s right, tweeting for science!

Dr. Chris Schell examines a coyote specimen in the museum's laboratory.
Dr. Chris Schell examines a coyote specimen in the museum's laboratory. © Morgan Heim / Urban Coyote Initiative

In addition to the important research he’s currently conducting, Schell launched an educational program for K-12 students. The program works to empower underrepresented communities in wildlife science, and presents his research at public gatherings in the area so residents can easily access information on urban carnivores. 

“It’s important to understand how coyotes are living amongst us partly because it’s the new norm,” Schell explained to me after our first meeting at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. “A lot of our urban areas are radically changing, but they’re also stabilizing in a sense that we have certain species in these areas and the likelihood of them leaving anytime soon is very low because populations now have cemented their ‘legacy’ in these urban ecosystems.”

 

“Understanding how coyotes influence that ecosystem is important on a theoretical level for us, but also on a management level in trying to understand how we need to change our behavior. So, understanding how we walk our dogs, whether or not we let our cats outside – all these decisions that we make on a daily basis that used to be commonplace thirty years ago, we have to rethink.”

 

What’s next?

The Urban Coyote Initiative is beyond excited to have this opportunity to collaborate with Dr. Schell’s team as they examine exactly how these Denver coyotes have become so successful with adapting to urban life. As the research progresses, contributing photographers Morgan Heim and Melanie Hill will assist Dr. Schell and his team out in the field, inside the lab, at community meetings, educational programs, and more.

We are committed to shining a light on this important work that’s being done, so Denver communities can understand what their canid neighbors need to peacefully coexist.

Coming soon: Morgan and Melanie join Dr. Schell in the lab at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to document his coyote sampling process. And in the process, they nerd out over flesh eating beetles with the museum’s curator of vertebrate zoology.

© Melanie Hill / Urban Coyote Initiative

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New York City’s Citizens Are Collecting Coyote Scat for Science

© Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative

NEW YORK CITY'S CITIZENS ARE COLLECTING COYOTE SCAT FOR SCIENCE

Local nature enthusiasts and high school students head out to city parks and pathways to help the Gotham Coyote Project collect dat, which will reveal the secrets of these new canid residents of the Big Apple.

by Ivan Kuraev
January 2017

 

“I’m always looking down,” says Mark as we walk side by side along a trail through Pelham Bay Park, in the Bronx. It’s a sunny and cool November day in New York City, and Mark’s eyes are scanning the ground as he speaks to me.

Mark Weckel is a biologist with the American Museum of Natural History, where he manages research into the behavior, diet and genetic history of coyotes in and around New York City. He seems a little distracted as he answers my questions, and his sentences are broken by long pauses that let me know his real focus is on finding his quarry. Today Mark and I are looking for scat – coyote poop – left behind by predators that have lived in this metropolitan park for the last twenty years.

Averaging thirty to forty pounds, coyotes aren’t small animals but they are great at staying unnoticed, and the best way to learn their habits is by studying what they leave behind.

Most neighborhood residents who pass us walking their dogs along the park trails have no idea that they are following paths that were crossed by coyotes only hours earlier. I don’t expect to see an actual coyote today, and neither does Mark, but he seems more optimistic than I am about finding coyote scat.

I don’t want to look like a rookie, so my eyes are also on the ground, scanning through several inches of dry leaves that cover the path ahead. Finding something among the leaf litter seems impossible. I am reminded of all the times that I have walked my girlfriend’s dog on autumn days and struggled to find its poop in a patch of fallen leaves, even if I had been looking at the very spot where the dog deposited it just seconds earlier. So how do we find scat in a 2,772 acre city park?

Luckily, Mark and I are not searching on our own – a team of eleven high school and college students assembled this morning to aid in the day’s hunt, along with eight adult “citizen scientists,” who are also contributing to the search effort. All of them are part of the Gotham Coyote Project, an organization that Mark founded in 2010 along with biologists Chris Nagy and Anne Toomey.

Today, the Gotham Coyote Project functions as an urban coyote think tank, regularly recruiting professional and amateur naturalists to collect data and report sightings of New York’s wild canids. The goal of today’s outing is to add to Gotham Coyote’s growing collection of coyote scat.

At their lab in the Natural History Museum, students and scientists working with the Project will dissect and analyze the scat in order to determine what prey items are on a New York coyote’s menu.

I’m walking side-by-side with Josh, who goes to high school in the city and regularly volunteers with Gotham Coyote, and he gives me some scat hunting advice.

“You have to think like a coyote. If we were coyotes, where would we poop?”

“Everything looks like a piece of poop,” I answer, downcast.

Dr. Mark Weckel shows students the area where they'll be doing field work. © Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative

Earlier this morning, the Gotham Coyote team assembled in the parking lot of Split Rock Golf Course on the edge of Pelham Bay Park, and after making our introductions, split off into smaller groups to search different areas of the park. My small group of citizen scientists was assigned to the Orchard Beach section of Pelham Bay Park, with Mark Weckel as our team leader. Olivia, Christopher, Josh and Tim joined my team as well – four teenagers who are seasoned scat-finders and nascent biologists.

The rest of the Gotham crew went to search another section of Pelham Bay Park with Chris Nagy and Anne Toomey. Chris and Anne have been studying New York’s coyotes together for eight years and are experts in the field, but their team has another advantage – scat sniffing dogs.

Ferdie Yao, a wildlife biologist and certified dog trainer, brought his own dog along with several of his canine understudies on today’s hunt. A large shepherd and two eager mutts zigzagged away into the woods when we last saw them, and I’m sure that by now their noses have found more scats than our eyes.

“Our group is not going to have a dog,” Mark said before we split off from Chris, Anne and Ferdie. “You just got me, and I tend to find scat one way or the other.” He paused, then added, “I might step in it.”

Citizen scientists and a scat-sniffing dog get ready for field work in New York City. © Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative
Dr. Mark Weckel shows students how to tell if the scat they've found belongs to coyote. © Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative

After an hour of walking as a group, winding through the leaves and feeling our eyes go cross from concentrating on the ground, Mark nudges Tim’s shoulder, then stops him and says, “Dude, I was giving that one to you!” Mark is pointing at the ground; in the middle of the path, clear of leaves, is a scat.

The whole group hunches over around the poop. Mark uses two twigs like chopsticks to turn over and examine the scat, which looks to me like it may have been left there by a dog sometime this morning, but Mark points out its shape.

“See that twist? Often you see that in a wild canine. I do not think that is dog,” he says with emphasis.

The twist Mark pointed out is caused by hair that is trapped in the scat. Pelham Bay Park coyotes are likely eating small mammals like mice and rats whole, and though flesh is digested, their hair and bones get expelled through the coyotes’ feces. Hair content, which is easy to spot for the trained eye, helps the Gotham team identify coyote scat in the field and tell it apart from poop left by domestic dogs.

By analyzing the individual bones and hair follicles from the scat in their lab at the American Natural History Museum, Mark and his team can identify the different mammal species that make up an urban coyote’s diet.

Mark places the scat in a brown paper bag, then labels it with a date and location. Since the Gotham crew split into groups earlier this morning, Mark has been texting with Chris to check on the other team’s progress. He looks up from his phone and smiles.

“So far it’s humans-one, dogs-zero.”

I want to see what happens to coyote scat once it is brought in from the field, so a couple of weeks after my Bronx outing with the Gotham Coyote team, I visit their lab in the American Museum of Natural History.

Mark meets me at Museum’s staff entrance, and I walk behind him as he leads me through narrow back hallways, closed to visitors and lined by metal cabinets and glass cases of specimens kept off public display.

There are skeletons of big cats, shelves holding large mammal skulls, and dented filing drawers labeled “Lepidoptera.” I want to slide all of them open and look at the butterflies and moths, pinned to cork, that must be inside. Different phyla of animals are arranged together, presented with care but without the embellishment of dioramas and oil-paint backdrops that adorn the museum’s stately exhibits.

We round a corner, then Mark opens an office door and welcomes me into the lab that’s used by the Gotham Coyote Project for their scat research. It is a narrow room, made narrower by a long table supporting two microscopes and a beige cabinet with pull-out drawers of mammal specimens: a whole skunk, a raccoon, an assortment of mice and voles, and an excess of brown and gray pelts.

At the far end of the room, Neil Duncan, the Museum’s Department of Mammalogy Collections Manager, stands up from his desk and walks over to shake my hand.

Neil supervises the scat analysis for Gotham Coyote, and his work involves breaking down samples and extracting useful evidence from the scat. Our introduction is brief, and Neil is visibly eager to share his work. He pulls a brown paper bag from a cardboard box filled with many more like it, then opens the bag and tips the contents on his desk. The coyote scat inside is several weeks old and so desiccated, I can hardly recognize it is poop.

“We start the process by separating the bones and fur from the scat matrix,” Neil explains.

What he calls the matrix is, well, the poo part of the coyote scat. It’s fully digested organic matter, and it mostly breaks down in water. Neil places the scat into a brown pantyhose, ties it off, then submerges it in a large bucket of water, clipping the pantyhose to the rim.

Neil leaves it to soak overnight, then washes what didn’t dissolve through the fabric over a sieve. By the end of the process, all that’s left of the scat is what wasn’t digested by the coyote – fur, bones, claws, beaks and teeth. This is the good stuff.

Bags of coyote scat collected in the field are brought into the lab at the American Museum of Natural History for analysis. © Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative
Neil Duncan, the American Museum of Natural History's Department of Mammalogy Collections Manager, looks through coyote scat samples during analysis. © Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative

Some of the students whom I met in the field with Mark and Chris, like Olivia, also work in Neil’s lab. The high-school students who contribute to Gotham Coyote’s research are part of the Museum’s after-school SRMP program, which Olivia affectionately pronounces as “shrimp.”

As members of the Student Research Mentoring Program, New York City’s young scientists can participate in one of many research projects being carried out in the Museum’s behind-the-scenes labs. Working with Gotham Coyote, SRMP students search for coyote scat in city parks, then look at the bones and hair from the scat through a microscope and compare what they find to reference samples in the Museum’s immense mammal collection.

“It’s real-time science in the field,” one student said to me about the SRMP program. “It’s not just on paper. All of high school is mostly just on paper and you don’t interact with the actual science.”

The ability to engage in both fieldwork and labwork in the city where they live allows these teenagers open access to science – wildlife biology is suddenly in their neighborhoods, just a walk or a subway ride away from their schools, apartments and corner bodegas. They can become scientists without having to ask their parents for rides or applying to remote internships.

Olivia isn’t really a student right now – she has taken a gap year before going to college, and has decided to devote two days a week to looking through coyote poop. Every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, Olivia comes to Neil’s lab. She begins each scat analysis by looking at the size of the hair and bones from a sample to approximate the size of the animal that was eaten. Are they large bones? Then it’s probably a rabbit, or a raccoon, or even a deer. Small bones? That’s a little more complicated.

A high school student looks up rodent species in a text book in order to identify the bones found in coyote scat. © Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative

By looking at the structure of the bones, she can figure out if the prey was a mammal or a bird. When she narrows down the possibilities for who the victim could be – “Mammal, smaller than a squirrel, likely a vole species” – she can compare some of the found bones to those of known species in the Museum’s reference collection.

Looking through a microscope reveals small structures of individual bones and hair follicles that are invisible to the naked eye, and these can be used identify the genus or even the species of the prey.

“Finding teeth or claws makes it much easier,” says Olivia, “since each mammal species has distinctive teeth.” Still, sometimes making a positive ID of a coyote’s last meal just isn’t possible.

“We might not be able to ID the species,” says Neil, “but we can tell the order, or family, or say it was a mammal, and that may be good enough.”

Even an approximate identification helps the Gotham team figure out the breakdown of a coyote’s diet, and with such an opportunistic predator this is a significant accomplishment.

Based on the analysis of ninety-nine scats examined by the Gotham Coyote team and SRMP students, an urban coyote’s menu includes birds, mice, voles, squirrels, insects, raccoons, deer and even fruits and seeds. Olivia has looked through most of the ninety-nine scats herself, and her dedication has ensured that her name will be listed as a co-author in a future publication of Gotham Coyote’s results. This is a huge achievement for a teenage biologist, and goes to show the value of contributions from citizen scientists to Gotham Coyote’s research.

Olivia may be starting college in the fall, but in the meantime there is no shortage of work for her in front of the microscope. More coyote scat samples keep arriving in Neil’s lab on a regular basis. Mark picks up scat while hiking on weekends, and some people who are interested in the work of the Gotham Coyote Project even send scat in the mail, addressing it to the Museum of Natural History.

“I think the people in the mailroom hate me,” laughs Neil. “Sometimes they call and say, ‘You have to come and pick this up right now.’”

Bits of rodent bones found in coyote scat are identified in a lab at the American Museum of Natural History. © Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative
Bits of rodent bones found in coyote scat are identified in a lab at the American Museum of Natural History. © Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative
A piece of a rabbit jaw found in coyote scat is identified in a lab at the American Museum of Natural History. © Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative

Scat is a vital resource for learning about the coyotes that leave it behind. It’s easy enough to see bones and fur, but there is something else inside the scat that is well beyond the scope of our eyes, and it can reveal the identities, and even the family histories, of New York City’s coyotes.

Carol Henger is a PhD student at Fordham University, where she is studying DNA collected from the poop of NYC’s urban coyotes.

In her lab, Carol has a freezer the size of a standard kitchen refrigerator that’s packed with coyote scat, much of it samples collected by citizen scientists who work with the Gotham Coyote Project. The cold helps preserve the genetic code inside the scat, and that is Carol’s prize.

Most of the DNA contained within these scats belongs to the coyotes’ prey. However, if Carol uses a scalpel to scrape the surface of the scat, she can collect a small amount of coyote skin cells that were deposited on the poop as it left the animal’s body. She can then isolate the DNA that is contained in the nucleus of each skin cell – a process that takes about six hours – then suspend the extracted DNA in a liquid medium that helps preserve it. This sample contains the unique genetic code of an individual coyote. A tube containing the preserved DNA is then sealed and stored in another fridge, filled with hundreds more like it.

Carol is building a catalog of coyote DNA samples, and her mission is to create a genetic database of all coyotes living in New York City.

By noticing repeating sequences in sections of the sample DNA – non-gene-coding sections called ‘neutral markers’ – Carol can identify individual coyotes. So far, she has identified thirty-five different coyotes living in the Bronx. Using scarce bits of evidence left behind by secretive, alien predators, Carol can uncover their identities. When she finds the same coyote’s genetic sequence in two different scat samples, Carol can infer the boundaries of an individual coyote’s territory. If only a part of the unique sequence appears in another sample, Carol knows that she is looking at scat from a different coyote that belongs to the same family unit.

“I can’t tell if it’s parent-offspring or full siblings,” she says of samples that share about fifty percent of these repeating sequences, “but I can say, ‘look, these here share half of their DNA, so they are from the same family group.’”

This is known as first-order relatedness.

“You can also tell second-order relatedness,” adds Carol, “where they share a quarter of their DNA. That would be like aunt-uncle, niece-nephew, grandparent-grandchild.”

Of course, my immediate follow-up question to Carol is, “How many family groups have you found?”

“I’m still trying to decide,” she says, laughing.

“What I can tell you so far is it looks like there is a family grouping in each park [in the Bronx]. So, Pelham Bay has at least one family grouping, and Van Cortland, and then Riverdale. But I’m not sure how many individuals are part of that. And if it’s one family, could it be two different generations? So that’s what I’m trying to understand.”

It takes a long time to gain these insights from analyzing coyote scat. Carol is almost done with her degree, but it seems like she has an agenda for another four generations of Fordham graduate students.

“That’s my plan,” Carol says, smiling. “I want this to be the start, and for people to keep building on it. And I think that they will.”

What’s the future of her work? Carol opens her laptop and pulls up a map of New York City. On this map is a whole bunch of dots that are connected by either yellow or black lines. These dots represent the locations of found scat from coyotes that Carol has identified as members of two distinct family units.

Most of the black dots on the map are concentrated in Van Cortland Park, in the Bronx. Most of the yellow dots are in Pelham Bay Park. However, a couple of yellow dots are in out in Queens, connected to the Bronx by long yellow lines. A couple of black dots are also there, on the far edge of her map, miles away from their Bronx locus.

These points represent the coyotes that are leaving their family units to colonize new territories.

Their next frontier? Long Island.

PhD student Carol Henger works on coyote DNA samples in an effort to uncover the "family tree" of NYC's coyotes. © Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative

Coyotes are coming to Long Island – their arrival there is inevitable. By tracing the settler coyotes to their original family units, Carol and the future students who pick up her work will be able to identify the families that gave rise to the first generation of Long Island coyotes.

This is important because these settler coyotes will have been born in Bronx city parks, not in upstate New York forests. They will be city slickers, and the urban lifestyle and diet is the only kind they’ll know. Long Island has densely settled areas, but much of it is suburban and even pastoral.

Research from Chicago, where urban coyotes have been studied for nearly two decades, shows that city coyotes establish smaller territories compared to their wild cousins. Will coyotes that settle Long Island maintain small territories, just the way they would have if they stayed in the Bronx? Will they continue to eat the same diet as they did in the city? Or, will they learn new behaviors and teach them to their offspring? How will the behavior of city coyotes change when they start crossing sprawling backyards, soccer fields, farms and open beaches?

Seeing how urban coyotes adapt to a new environment can not only open a new chapter in our understanding of these animals, but also inform Long Island residents of how to get along with their new neighbors.

A few days ago, I visited Neil’s lab in the Natural History Museum again, to shoot close-up photos of some of the bones that he and his students have collected from coyote scat. As I was setting up my equipment, Neil said that he had some news for me.

A pair of coyotes was seen in Middle Island, a small town in the middle of Long Island, sixty miles from New York City. They were sighted at night, but it seems to have been a reliable report.

Mark is already planning a scat-searching blitz with his volunteers, and if they find any samples, Neil’s lab will analyze their contents to learn what these settler coyotes are eating on their journey East. Carol will use her DNA database to learn if these coyotes are related to family units breeding in the Bronx.

Coyotes have finally arrived on Long Island, and the Gotham Coyote Project is mobilizing all its resources to keep up.

The chase is on.

 

Follow our collaboration with the Gotham Coyote Project

Students install a trail camera on a tree in a local park in hopes of capturing coyotes on camera. © Ivan Kuraev / Urban Coyote Initiative

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A coyote stands under a shrub in golden sunlight

How Compost Piles Are Creating Problem Coyotes

A coyote stands under a shrub in golden sunlight
© Jaymi Heimbuch / Urban Coyote Initiative

HOW COMPOST PILES ARE CREATING PROBLEM COYOTES

We think we’re being environmentally friendly by composting, but without the proper precautions, those piles can be problematic for wildlife. Learn what one study discovered about the surprising impact compost piles have on urban coyotes.

By Jaymi Heimbuch
November 2016

 

Coyotes live in practically every city in the United States, yet the vast majority of human residents never spot a single one. That’s because urban coyotes are skilled at steering well clear of humans, even switching to nocturnal behavior just to stay out of sight.

So what makes some coyotes more likely to be active during the day, or hang around in areas closer to humans with a higher chance of having a run-in? Are these animals simply more bold and brazen, destined to become problem animals — or is there more to it?

We were really interested in the question of why certain individuals are much more likely to be encountering people when really most [urban] coyotes avoid people, tend to stick with natural areas, tend to be quite nocturnal. We wanted to know why there are these big differences in behavior across coyotes.

Maureen Murray

A study published earlier this spring in Proceedings of the Royal Society B helps answer this core question about urban coyotes. Maureen Murray of the Edmonton Urban Coyote Project and her team caught and collared 19 coyotes. Using GPS location data from the collars, hair samples collected while collaring, and video footage placed around nine compost piles, the researchers discovered that these very compost piles and a common disease called sarcoptic mange are two key factors in causing coyotes to alter their behavior and potentially be involved in more human-coyote conflicts.

When the team collared the coyotes, they noted their general health including whether or not they had signs of mange. As they collected GPS collar location data, they noticed distinct differences. The individuals with mange had not just slightly different behavior, but distinctly different behaviors and habits than those individuals without the disease.

Mange is a highly contagious skin disease caused by a mite. It is commonly found in animal species, including our own domestic dogs. The mites burrow just under the skin, causing extreme itching and discomfort as well as hair loss. Imagine the feeling of a constant, pervasive itch and a desperate need to scratch, to the point that you injure your own skin and have trouble concentrating on anything else including eating. Imagine also that the itch causes your hair to fall out, leaving you vulnerable to the cold. That is what an animal with mange is experiencing. So it is no surprise that those individuals with mange would have different behaviors. But the extent to which it affects them is of interest.

“The guys with mange had these huge home ranges, like 60 square kilometers,” says Murray. On the other hand, “the healthy ones never really leave the natural areas. As our sample got bigger and bigger, this pattern kept holding that the ones with mange weren’t nocturnal like the healthy guys. They were active pretty equally at all times of day, they used residential developed areas five times more often, and they had four times larger home ranges.” In other words, the coyotes with mange travel much more, in areas and at times of days where they are much more likely to encounter people. But that isn’t the only important distinction.

The coyotes with mange also tended to use residential back yards, specifically those with compost piles. The lure of the compost pile is a key piece of the puzzle in behavior differences among coyotes, but the reasons why are complex.

The team wanted to discover if the compost piles aggregate coyotes, attracting sick coyotes and healthy coyotes alike, and perhaps assisting in the spread of mange among these urban animals. To find out the answer, the team put cameras on the compost piles and looked at how often a coyote with hair loss — a sure sign of mange — appeared and how far apart the visits of individual coyotes were spaced.

With the help of the remote cameras, Murray found that coyotes with hair loss were recorded at compost piles more frequently than they were recorded on cameras set up in natural areas. Not only that, but the visits to compost piles by different coyotes were much closer together in time, increasing the chances of healthy coyotes coming into contact with disease.

Coyotes are naturally territorial so healthy coyotes hunting for rodents and small prey in their home range are sure to let visiting coyotes know they aren’t very welcome on their turf. In normal wild situations, the chances of many coyotes meeting up often enough to spread mange are much, much lower. But when you throw in a steady supply of food provided by humans, the dynamics shift. In short, the compost piles are bringing coyotes together far more frequently than happens in natural areas, and more of those coyotes are sick.

The team found that the difference between healthy and sick coyotes isn’t just in where they roam and when. It also comes down to the specific foods they’re eating and how their diet is affecting their overall health.

An urban coyote eats bread left near a walking trail
Coyotes are opportunistic eaters, and leaving any food out - whether that is fallen fruit from a backyard tree, pet food on the porch, or uncovered compost piles - is a sure way to attract them to your home. © Jaymi Heimbuch / Urban Coyote Initiative

Murray wanted to find out if there is something about eating from these piles that causes the coyotes to get sick beyond just contact with other coyotes. In other words, is the food itself perhaps to blame in compromising a coyote’s immune system?

“When we ended up looking at the stable isotope signatures of their hair, we found that the sick coyotes assimilated a lot less protein than the healthy guys. If a sick coyote has a worse diet, it’s hard to picture them sort of breaking out of that cycle [of illness] since this lower protein diet is also bad for their health.”

Next, the team took samples of the compost at the different piles to test for fungal toxins called mycotoxins.

Mycotoxins can contaminate food supplies from livestock feed to grains that go into human foods. In animals and humans who have consumed mycotoxins, the effect can range from vomiting and weight loss to immune suppression and, in the worst cases, organ failure or even cancer. Immune suppression was of interest to Murray, as this could be part of the reason why coyotes feeding from compost piles tend to be sick. Even if they arrived sick, the food they consume could be making it harder to fight off that illness.

The team found that mycotoxins were present in a significant number of the compost piles, and some piles had disconcertingly high concentrations. “It was quite shocking that an animal eating at this compost pile, you wouldn’t be able to legally give that food to a pet or to livestock,” says Murray.

Piles of food waste we don’t normally think about, or think of as being environmentally friendly, could have negative affects for coyotes, and also for a lot of other wildlife like bears or raccoons or foxes.

Maureen Murray

Easily accessible sources of food change the behavior of wildlife, bringing animals in contact with each other more frequently than would naturally happen. This aids in the spread of many other diseases besides mange as well. In the case of compost piles specifically, it also aids in the spread of toxins that could have even deeper health consequences.

Now the team’s questions take on a chicken-or-egg shape. Are the coyotes visiting the compost piles because the piles are an easy source of food, one that is needed as the mangy coyotes struggle to hunt natural food sources? Or are the coyotes taking advantage of pockets of food that ultimately weaken their immune systems and make them susceptible to contracting mange via other visitors to the same food source? This is an area of future study for Murray.

Either way, the team has been able to point to compost piles as a problematic issue for the health of coyotes. The piles play a role in reducing the health of urban coyotes, bringing sick coyotes into residential areas, and increasing the possibility that coyotes come into conflicts with humans.

Making compost piles difficult for wildlife to access is a simple way to reduce the temptation for coyotes to come near a residential dwelling. Keeping coyotes away from human food sources protects them both from disease and from the potential of becoming a problem animal. Thus, putting a lid on compost piles is both a proactive and a compassionate solution.

In fact, urban wildlife managers universally recommend removing any and all food and water sources around the home as a way to keep wildlife out of residential areas. The less food is in a yard — from bird seed scattered on the ground under a feeder, to ripe fruit fallen under trees, to lids left off of trash cans or barbeque grills left coated in grease — the less likely it is that wild animals become habituated to humans and turn into problem individuals, perhaps problematic enough to be lethally removed.

 

A lot of coyote management is focused right now on to remove or not to remove because it’s pretty hard to get a real problem animal to change its behavior. Managers are stuck between a rock and a hard place; some residents are really concerned about the presence of coyotes, but a lot of residents are super excited about the presence of coyotes and don’t want to see them harmed or relocated. We’re hoping our results help the city better target how to prevent conflict. We don’t mean to imply that all conflict all the time is related to disease, but it does shed some light on a different approach we could be taking.

Maureen Murray

 

Going after easier food sources such as those found in backyards, taking up shelter in residential areas like under houses and decks, and traveling during the day and in more heavily populated areas are all actions with the potential to cause conflicts. Murray’s research is helping to uncover specific causes for this kind of “unnatural” behavior among urban coyotes. Now that the team has made the connection between compost piles and the health of urban coyotes, they can look more deeply into how residents can take proactive steps to avoid creating problem coyotes. This is the kind of research that goes a long way in promoting coexistence through science.

“It’s very rewarding to be able to collect knowledge about coyotes and then teach people there’s a reason why conflicts are happening and that we can do a lot to prevent those, rather than [conflict] being an inevitable consequence of living with wildlife.”

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