As a native Brooklynite, seeing something even as large as a raccoon in the wild is a complete shock to me. I’m still in awe of deer — they’re the size of a horse. In the wild. When I lived in Lawrenceville for a few years, I would hear howling at night in February as I walked my dog. Wolves? Can’t be. Coyotes. It was that point when I started to realize there was more unusual wildlife in New Jersey than black squirrels.
This past month, there have been some news-making coyote sightings in Mercer County — in Princeton, Trenton, and Ewing — and several local social-media threads have been ablaze with more sightings.
The first coyote was spotted in New Jersey in 1939. New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife has had only 5,400 reports of coyote sightings in the past 25 years, with Mercer County being the 5th lowest county for coyote reports.
“Coyotes have been documented in at least 430 municipalities from all 21 counties since 1939,” said Andrew Burnett, NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife Biologist. “Based on sighting and incident reports, it would appear that the population began to increase significantly during the 1980s. My best guess is there are 5,000-10,000 coyotes in NJ.”
Current population is not known precisely, partly because of low reporting rates, but also because coyotes are quite elusive.
“Most people are unaware that coyotes are present in their township. Or they are mistaken for other species,” said Burnett. “The recent Trenton Times article about a wolf in Trenton was in fact most probably a coyote. And then, sometimes, mangy coyotes are mistaken for mountain lions.”
But they are certainly around us. Jeff Hoagland, Education Director at the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, is a huge fan of coyotes.
“Last winter, with all that snow, I tracked several (or the same one several times?) across the Watershed Nature Reserve. They are super stealthy and there are signs of them all over such as tracks and scat, late night howling, road killed deer stripped over night. Yet, they are not seen with the frequency that I would expect,” said Hoagland. “I hear about encounters with great frequency from farmers suffering chicken losses, to hunter friends, to people hiking at the Pole Farm, and even people driving down Carter Road.
I watched one cross the Stony Brook on a downed tree at the edge of our Reserve. We have seen them in the middle of our Reserve (once during our organized walk ‘Take a Walk on the Wild Side‘). I’ve seen them numerous times on Moores Mill – Mt. Rose Road. I recently spooked one near the Stony Brook on Stony Brook Road at 3:00 in the afternoon. And I have heard them many times from my house in Hopewell Borough.
These are relatively abundant animals that move among us.”
Coyotes are most active this time of year — in February and early March. Their mating season, for both males and females, is only a 3-days window annually, according Burnett.
What came as a total surprise to me is that coyotes are considered a “furbearing species” so there is a trapping and hunting season in New Jersey. However, Burnett from Fish and Wildlife explained that the overwhelming majority of hunter harvests comes from deer hunters that happen to cross paths with a coyote and shot it incidentally to their deer hunting activities.
Should we be reporting coyote sighting? For that answer, I reached out the Hopewell Township Police Department.
“…It depends,” said Chief Lance Maloney. “We would ask that the police department be notified if a coyote appears to be sick or injured or if a sighting is made in the area of a school during operation hours. As far as sightings that occurs where one would expect the the animals to be, a notification is probably not necessary. If in doubt, a person should err on the side of caution and let us know.”
The cautions are outlined on the NJ Fish and Wildlife website. And, while some of these precautions are pretty serious, Jeff Hoagland cautions people against irrational fear — people should just remember to be courteous and respectful. “In situations like these, I always feel that fear is the enemy,” said Hoagland.
Here are some of the specific safety recommendations from NJ Fish and Wildlife:
- Never feed a coyote. Deliberately feeding coyotes puts pets and other residents in the neighborhood at risk.
- Feeding pet cats and/or feral (wild) cats outdoors can attract coyotes. The coyotes feed on the pet food and also prey upon the cats.
- Put garbage in tightly closed containers that cannot be tipped over.
- Remove sources of water, especially in dry climates.
- Bring pets in at night.
- Put away bird feeders at night to avoid attracting rodents and other coyote prey.
- Provide secure enclosures for rabbits, poultry, and other farm animals.
- Pick up fallen fruit and cover compost piles.
- Although extremely rare, coyotes have been known to attack humans. Parents should monitor their children, even in familiar surroundings, such as backyards.
- Install motion-sensitive lighting around the house.
- Clear brush and dense weeds from around dwellings – this reduces protective cover for coyotes and makes the area less attractive to rodents and rabbits. Coyotes, as well as other predators, are attracted to areas where rodents are concentrated like woodpiles.
- If coyotes are present, make sure they know they’re not welcome. Make loud noises, blast a canned air siren, throw rocks, or spray them with a garden hose.
And “Thank you!” to one of our readers for sharing her own coyote sighting in Hopewell Township which we used above as the feature photo.