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Chicago's GPS-Enabled Coyotes

Posted by Josh Rothman  January 5, 2011 06:38 AM

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Boston and Chicago are pretty different cities - other than Sox-themed baseball, about the only thing we have in common is Pizzeria Uno. Here's one more item for the 'difference' column: Chicago is using GPS-enabled coyotes to control rats and mice.


A coyote on patrol in Chicago, courtesy WGN-TV.

The coyotes are part of The Cook County, Illinois Coyote Project - an effort by zoologists, ecologists, foresters, and the Cook County Animal and Rabies Control agency to understand how coyotes and cities get along. In the midwest, thousands of coyotes roam from city to city, crossing highways, forming packs, and eating geese, woodchucks, mice, and rats. A lone coyote might range over 25 square miles. The Project has captured and collared around 250 coyotes, and has recaptured them more than 40,000 times, hoping to "peek into the hidden lives of urban coyotes."

Some coyotes live right in the middle of things. The Project's "featured coyote," Big Mama, lives with her coyote mate, the mysteriously named Coyote 115, within a few miles of Chicago's O'Hare Airport. Using GPS, the researchers can track their whereabouts on a map of the area. They write that Big Mama and Coyote 115 are "similar to many married couples": while "at times they are inseparable, and other times they take short breaks from each other... they have defended the same territory together continuously" since they met in 2004.

While researchers track the coyotes, animal control officers watch them munch on area pests, and explain the program to alarmed and surprised residents. After a coyote was filmed loping through downtown Chicago one night this fall, Brad Block, an animal control supervisor, had to provide reassurances. "He's not a threat...He's not going to pick up your children.... His job is to deal with all of the nuisance problems, like mice, rats and rabbits." Block wisely chose not to mention that the coyotes sometimes prey on housecats. The researchers admit that cat-owners "view this function of coyotes as strongly negative." They point out, though, that there's a silver lining: a study of California coyotes found that fewer cats meant "greater nesting success for songbirds."

In the long term, can coyotes make it in the big city? The coyotes seem to be adapting quite well: the animals brought in by the researchers are in good health. And it's looking as though residents will end up adapting, too. They have no choice: It's impossible, in the end, to run the coyotes out of town. Although troublesome individuals can be relocated or put down, wholesale removal of a whole group just opens up the territory for new coyotes. Anyway, the coyotes usually keep out of sight. The project has revealed that they're more comfortable with urban life than one would have thought. Today, the researchers conclude, "coyotes are still serving as ghosts of the cities, much as they did on the plains."

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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