2012 Update on Coyotes in the County
Is it a fox or a coyote? Look closely at the profile. A coyote walks with its nose pointed down at about a 45-degree angle and its tail down. A fox walks with its head up and its tail fairly straight out.
About three decades ago, they started moving into northwest Virginia. Five years ago, former Fairfax County Police Department Wildlife Biologist Earl Hodnett said they were established and widespread in the county. Today, coyotes are "naturalized and part of the natural environment" in Fairfax County according to Fairfax County Park Authority Natural Resource Management and Protection Branch Manager Charles Smith. There are reports of coyotes going back over 20 years, and they've been documented in every part of the county over the last 12 years. They are no longer a curiosity. They are an established part of our local environment.
Smith says coyotes probably have filled most of the niches available to them in the county. "The issue is food," he says. The availability of food determines where they roam. Coyotes will frequent fields, hunt along stream beds, and prowl woods for food, balancing nature by preying on small deer, turkey and geese. They also readily forage in back yards and roadways, finding trash, road-killed animals, pet food, and even cats or small dogs.
Socially, coyotes have a lifestyle between the generally solo existence of foxes and the pack tendencies of wolves. Coyotes will pack when there's room, as in a large woods, but their behavior will be more solitary in urban areas. That means most of the coyotes in Fairfax County are solitary travelers, although there are a few areas large enough to encourage small pack behavior.
Coyotes are territorial, and Smith says that "if they're not challenged, they can get bold." If you happen to cross paths with a coyote, challenge it. Yell at it and wave your arms. Let it know that you're in command. Hodnett calls it a "don't feed the bears attitude." Don't encourage it by making food available.
Smith says that "the number of encounters has risen" between people and coyotes in recent years. He's not certain if that means the number of coyotes is up or if it's just that people know coyotes are around and are seeing them.
There also have been encounters between pets and coyotes, and that's one reason for the Park Authority's rules on dogs and leashes. In March 2012, a resident wrote to the Northern Virginia Park Authority about a walk he'd taken with his dog on the north side of Burke Lake Park. The dog was off leash and out of sight when the owner heard a yelp. His dog, which he wrote weighs about 65 pounds, returned to him being chased by another animal of similar size. The dog owner identified it as a coyote and knew from experience to yell and wave his arms, which ended the chase, but not before the coyote had drawn within about 15 yards.
Huntley Meadows Park Resource Manager Dave Lawlor speculates that the coyote was probably denning and raising young in the area since it was spring. Smith adds, "The off-leash dog likely triggered a territorial response in the coyote."
A smaller off-leash dog or a dog without an owner nearby may not have escaped. A coyote may view a large dog as competition and a small dog as prey.
Coyotes, by the way, will readily breed with domestic dogs. See your vet for advice if that happens to your pet.
Our relationship with coyotes has similarities to our relationship with deer. Recognize that they are there and, just as we might adjust our driving technique in areas frequented by deer, so should we realize we can safely share the woods with coyotes. Keep outdoor dogs leashed. Dogs and cats can kill wildlife and become wildlife victims. If you encounter a coyote, just wave and yell at it.
If you have trouble with a coyote on your property, call the county police non-emergency number: 703-691-2131. They'll dispatch an animal control officer.