Where the Wild Things Are
Few people realize that coyotes prowl the country's major urban areas. By tracking them on their turf, one Boston-area high school teacher and his students are helping scientists to learn more about the oft-misunderstood animals.
“Ha. These guys are close.”
David Eatough, a science teacher at Revere High School just north of Boston, shuts off his car engine and lowers his voice to a whisper. His passengers—Joe Dreeszen, 17, and Kevin Welch, 16—hush their conversation also. Two days before Halloween, under a full moon, Eatough and his students have been driving without headlights through three adjoining graveyards, looking for eastern coyotes. Now, roughly an hour into the outing, they’re about to hit pay dirt.
Kevin, a junior who’s tracked with Eatough twice already this week, picks up binoculars off the back seat and scans the darkness as Eatough extends a 2-foot antenna out his window. A transmitter on the front seat emits a beeping signal from the radio collar on a young coyote called Cour. The signal is strong. Eatough figures the animal is several feet away, just past a hedge.
Soon, the lanky silhouettes of three coyotes emerge—Cour, plus two without collars. As the animals congregate, the whispering inside the car becomes animated.
“There’s one, two, three,” Eatough says, pointing out each dark outline. “You don’t see a collar on that one, do you?” he asks Kevin, who’s peering through his binoculars.
“I couldn’t tell,” Kevin responds. “There’s one staring at us, lying down now.”
Another coyote walks past the car—10 feet away, at most—before trotting off into the night; a couple of yips pierce the silence. Up front, Joe, a senior who’s been tracking with Eatough since his freshman year, props a flashlight in his lap with one hand and writes with the other. As Eatough dictates, Joe records location, time, and other details in a journal, the latest of several that Revere students have filled since they began a pioneering study of the animals in 2002. In three years’ time, Eatough and his assistants have helped capture, collar, and track seven coyotes.
The Eastern Coyote Ecology Study is the first of its kind in the northeast, according to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. The behavior of these animals in urban settings—how they move about, what they eat—is not well understood, so Eatough and his students are helping develop a profile of the species. But the study, which recently added two other high schools and is the basis for a new curriculum, is also an eye-opener for city kids who otherwise might not have a chance to study wildlife biology in the field.
“You know what is amazing?” Kevin says after the coyotes have disappeared. “It’s how, even with a full moon, they are so hard to see. If [they] hadn’t moved, I wouldn’t have seen [them] at all—they blur right into the background. I’ve never seen three at once. That was fantastic.”
During the course of the evening, Eatough maneuvers his green Subaru Legacy down alleys and along thoroughfares linking three of Boston’s northern neighbors—Revere, Everett, and Malden. He and his students pass tightly packed duplexes, apartment buildings, auto-repair shops, fast-food restaurants, and gas stations. Revere High’s 1,400 students, who represent 27 different nationalities, share their densely populated city with three subway stations, a 14-screen movie theater, and access routes to Logan International Airport.
It all makes for a terrific coyote habitat, wildlife experts say.
“We call coyotes and other animals that do well in urban areas ‘urban exploiters,’ ” says Eric Strauss, science director of Boston College’s Urban Ecology Institute, which is coordinating the study. Such animals “do better around humans,” adds Chrissie Henner, a wildlife biologist with the state DFW. In rural areas, she explains, coyotes have to work much harder, covering a lot of ground to find seasonal foods. But, she says, “if they’re in Everett, they are counting on that Dumpster every day, and usually they can.”
Weighing 30 to 50 pounds, the eastern coyote is considerably larger than its western cousin; scientists hypothesize that interbreeding with wolves as they migrated eastward accounts for their size. Able to live “almost anywhere,” Henner says, the coyotes first arrived in New England and western Massachusetts in the 1940s and ’50s and have since been sighted statewide, except on the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. The story is similar all along the East Coast. This past fall, the National Park Service confirmed for the first time the presence of coyotes in Washington, D.C.
In 1998, during a field trip sponsored by the institute, Eatough met Jon Way, whose own interest in coyotes had been sparked by a high school teacher of his who tracked the animals on Cape Cod. At the time, Way was using radio telemetry to study eastern coyotes on the Cape—a project that intrigued the Revere instructor. Soon after their meeting, sightings of coyotes in Revere began to increase; Way, now 29 and a Boston College doctoral student, formulated the idea for an urban study to complement his rural research, and Revere High became the first field study site.
The project serves as an extracurricular activity for up to 20 of Eatough’s students, who conduct research on weeknights and weekends. They receive community service credits for participating because “they are volunteering, in a sense, to help with the community’s understanding of these animals,” Eatough says.
According to Henner, the data the students collect through their tracking and observations should help dispel misconceptions about the species—namely, that they’re aggressive and a threat to children and domestic animals. “We’ve found [that] a lot of people in Massachusetts don’t know that coyotes exist until they are in their backyard, and then it’s sometimes not a great experience,” she says.
Coyotes, much like deer, must coexist with humans, she adds. So city dwellers need to make compromises by not leaving uncovered garbage, pet food, and other lures outside. But “a lot of adults aren’t willing to compromise,” Henner says. “If you expose people at a younger age, they might be more accepting.”
Seventeen-year-old Alana Popp is a case in point. Shattering every preconceived notion about what makes a teenage girl tick, she loudly announces her discovery of a pile of excrement—called “scat” by wildlife biologists. Eatough and two other students stop and watch as Alana crouches along a muddy trail cutting through Belle Isle Marsh, a 241-acre wetland that borders Revere and that is Boston’s only remaining salt marsh. She grabs a twig and begins picking through her find, as a coyote’s waste can help determine its diet. Separating the moist mass, she reveals clusters of red seeds—remnants of berries that cling to abundant staghorn sumac trees nearby.
“Alana!” Eatough exclaims, laughing. “You’re my prodigy!”
In a half-hour of wandering trails on the day before Thanksgiving, Eatough and his students haven’t spotted any coyotes, but they’ve seen lots of scat, a clear sign the animals have been there recently. One student, 17-year-old Richard Butler, tells Eatough he saw tracks in another part of the marsh. Eatough says people have videotaped coyotes here—less than a quarter mile from Logan Airport’s runways—but so far, they’ve eluded capture.
In a cool drizzle, the group hikes a winding path through towering reeds to a clearing of gnarled sumacs. Toting a rake and a 5-gallon pail of beef trimmings donated by a local butcher shop, Eatough and his students arrive at a wire box trap, about 5 feet long and strewn with scraps of meat left two days before.
Eatough hands latex gloves to Joe Dreeszen, who baits and sets the trap as the teacher explains how it’s done to Alana and Richard. In the coming weeks, the project’s new recruits will help monitor the trap, which will remain wired open until Eatough has solid evidence that coyotes are making use of it. After that, it will be set to close once an animal steps inside.
“Joe has an intimate relationship with this trap—and all of the local skunks,” Eatough jokes.
“I think I’ve named them all,” Joe responds, grinning. In the past, this trap, situated in a portion of the marsh boasting a view of the Boston skyline, has captured myriad skunks, opossums, and feral cats, but no coyotes. Joe can attest to the success of box-trapping elsewhere, however. He’s helped transport several captured coyotes to a local animal hospital, where they were sedated, examined, treated for fleas and ticks, and fitted with radio-telemetry collars before being released unharmed.
All told, Eatough’s students monitor six traps scattered around Revere and five neighboring communities. Lately, the most productive has been the cemetery trap, which this past May captured Maeve, a lactating female, after months of baiting and waiting. In the months that followed, her mate, Jet, and two pups, Cour and Jem, were also caught and collared—an experience few students ever forget.
“You wake up and get a phone call: ‘It’s Eatough. Meet me at the cemetery. We’ve got a coyote,’ ” recalls Kevin, who helped with Maeve’s capture. Later that day, Eatough, Way, and several students released the radio-tagged coyote near the same spot where she had been caught. “Maeve will always have a special place in my heart,” Kevin says. “It was the first time I ever touched a coyote.”
Seeing, let alone touching, a coyote is almost unimaginable to those who don’t track with Eatough. Alana says that when she first started, her mother, like many Revere residents, doubted that coyotes even existed in the city. When they’re not skeptical, some are frightened; this past year, in Hull, a peninsular town southeast of Boston, officials declared a state of emergency after a coyote was spotted near an elementary school.
“It’s an immigrant’s tale—[the coyote] moves into Boston, it’s misunderstood, it’s persecuted,” says Eric Strauss of the Urban Ecology Institute.
Those are characteristics, however, that many teenagers can relate to. “There are negative attitudes about coyotes and negative attitudes about high school students,” Eatough says, “and I think both of those attitudes are challenged by this project.”
The study, he adds, has helped prove that teenagers “are not the terrors some people think they are. [My students] are doing wonderful science. They are becoming stewards for the environment.”
On a sidewalk outside Revere High, a half-dozen students linger well after the morning bell has heralded the start of the school day. Their look—boys in low-slung baggy pants and oversize jackets, girls in thick eyeliner and skintight jeans—is decidedly urban. “Most of the kids here are traditional city kids,” says principal David DeRuosi.
But upstairs, nature holds sway. “Take off the hats,” Eatough instructs students as they file into his AP environmental science class. Caged doves coo in the background as the 14 teenagers sit at lab tables flanked by tanks of fish, turtles, and lizards. Hanging on the wall are wildlife posters as well as enlarged photographs of the three eastern coyotes the class observed during a recent field trip to nearby Stone Zoo. Way, who’s at the school teaching a science unit based on his work with the animals, knows these particular coyotes well: He raised them from pups after discovering them under a backyard shed on Cape Cod.
Although the Eastern Coyote Ecology Study is an extracurricular project for some of Eatough’s students, his entire class has observed the captive coyotes’ movements. After a few have shared their data with the rest of the class, Eatough says of the painstaking research, “When you look at everybody’s data collectively, you’re going to get a consensus, and that’s a reason why you take a lot of data.”
He and Way then pull something from Way’s curriculum—a virtual tracking exercise, which the institute expects to implement in other schools next fall. Numbered index cards representing coyotes are scattered across the floor. Students then mark their locations and movements on classroom maps. For homework, they’ll plot each animal’s home territory.
DeRuosi notes that even the students who don’t volunteer for the coyote work benefit from Eatough’s hands-on approach, including his many trips to study salt marsh ecology. “Dave is the kind of guy who likes to go out in the field,” DeRuosi says. “He likes to get mucky. To get the kids out in that is a big plus.”
Eatough can relate. Growing up in Somerville, an industrial city bordering Boston and Cambridge, he was a typical “city kid, playing street hockey and hanging out” in the winter. But come summertime, his parents took the family to a cottage in New Hampshire, where he explored the lake shore and went fishing with his grandfather—experiences, he says, that “had a huge impact on who I have become.”
At 42, Eatough has received awards from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, the Urban Ecology Institute, and the state chapter of the National Association of Biology Teachers. The coyote study, he says, “is just a vehicle for a way to do science.”
Many of Eatough’s students say they, too, plan to make a career of science. A couple are already on their way: Steve Cifuni, 23, studied with the Urban Ecology Institute immediately after leaving Eatough’s classroom. He graduated from Boston College this past summer and is now an animal-care technician in Genzyme Corporation’s department of comparative medicine. Nineteen-year-old Janelle Parechanian, a 2003 Revere graduate, joined the coyote project during her junior year, then took Eatough’s oceanography course. Now a sophomore majoring in engineering at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, she still tracks coyotes with Eatough and Way. So does Cifuni.
Tracking the coyotes is a hard habit to break, it seems, and for sometimes obvious reasons. Consider Fog, a female trapped and tagged in April 2004. She vanished from the group’s telemetry radar on May 1 after traveling south from Revere—over and under bridges and highways—through even more urban Chelsea and Somerville. Way found her sleeping in a Boston railroad yard and tracked her as she journeyed through Cambridge until her radio signal was lost.
During a lull in October’s cemetery expedition, Kevin Welch asks his teacher about the chances of finding Fog again. About three weeks later, he and Eatough’s other students get an answer. A man in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, 59 miles south of Revere, noticed a collared coyote in his yard, found Way’s study site on the Internet, and contacted him. Way and Eatough rushed to the scene, confirmed the coyote’s identity, and have resumed tracking her. In recounting the story, Eatough stresses “how fortunate we were that this person took all the steps he did to find out about the study and contact us. There is a long and important history of the role of luck in science.”
Now Eatough, who already tracks Revere’s coyotes five nights a week for two hours, has added to his duties monitoring Fog’s distant wanderings. “I don’t know how you can be a science teacher and not continue to be involved in science,” he says. “For me, it keeps it exciting and reminds me why I got into science in the first place.”
Vol. 16, Issue 05, Pages 38-41
- Learn more about the Eastern Coyote Ecology Study, led by Jon Way of Boston College. Includes educational materials on coyotes.
- Read "The Eastern Coyote: Documenting the Habits of One of Cape Cod's Newest Residents," an article by Jon Way from Conservation Perspectives, the online journal of the New England Society for Conservation Biology.