The coyotes own Florida now. They own every county from the northern border to the southern mangroves where fiddler crabs hide among the mangrove roots. Coyotes eat fiddler crabs. They eat whatever they can catch, whatever they can sniff out. In west-central Florida, they have developed a hearty appetite for small dogs and house cats.
Jeanne Murphy hunkers on a sand road at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, a 300-acre park in suburban St. Petersburg. She grabs a stick and breaks apart a heaping pile of scat. "Mostly seeds and berries," she announces. "Here's some fur. Probably rabbit fur."
Murphy is Pinellas County's coyote woman. A wildlife biologist, she runs an eco-tour company, Sensing Nature, with her husband, Brian Lane. Lately she also has been the go-to person when people want to know more about coyotes.
"Can you get rid of them?" is the question she gets most.
"No" is the answer she always provides.
It is easier to control mosquitoes than coyotes, a small wolf cousin that scampered into North Florida a half-century ago and bred its way south. We can poison mosquitoes. We can flood their habitat and introduce mosquito-eating minnows. We can swat them.
Throughout the Americas, from Panama to Canada, Homo sapiens have shot, trapped and poisoned Canis latrans. But the stubborn canines, like pigeons and raccoons, adapt.
"We don't know exactly how many we have,'' Murphy says. "But there seem to be more of them than ever.''
Coyotes skulked into the state's most densely urban county about two decades ago. Recently coyotes were documented at Fort De Soto Park at the southernmost tip of Pinellas County. They either slunk across a series of bridges or swam to the island. Nobody knows.
Coyotes, which typically weigh 45 pounds or less, eat virtually everything. They sup on berries, fruit and seeds. They eat snakes, lizards, frogs and toads. They'll gulp ducks, herons and mourning doves. They devour rats and rabbits. They wolf down baby opossums and raccoons as if they were s'mores.
"One day I was in a back section of the park when I heard raccoons chattering," Syd Lemieux, a Boyd Hill ranger, tells Jeanne Murphy. "A minute later a coyote trotted by with a baby raccoon in its jaws. Just then my cell phone went off. It startled the coyote, which let go of the baby raccoon, which scampered up a tree."
Coyotes are smart, but they have yet to learn how to climb trees.
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At 39, Jeanne Murphy still climbs trees for fun; the secret is in the ropes. She also is fond of bugs, birds, fish and snakes. When she and her husband drive across a Tampa Bay bridge they take turns looking at wildlife. Otherwise they'd drive off the bridge and drown.
She was born in coyote-infested Michigan but grew up in coyote-friendly Illinois. She was Pinellas County's wildlife biologist until the job was eliminated in 2008; her responsibilities included convincing residents that they could survive among alligators, snakes and coyotes.
Now she teaches a state-sanctioned "certified master naturalist" program intended to turn city slickers into Thoreaus. She does wildlife consulting for local governments and leads eco-tours with her husband.
She is more likely to leave her cell phone at home than binoculars or the plastic bags containing coyote scat. Lately she has been conducting "coyote workshops" throughout the county. When she talks to nervous residents about the gray-haired, long-eared doglike critters they sometimes glimpse in their moonlit back yards, she pulls out the coyote scat, the ultimate show-and-tell.
"It's easy to tell the difference between dog scat and coyote scat," she says. "Dogs pretty much eat the same food — commercial dog food — every day. Their scat is consistent all the way through. Coyotes are opportunistic feeders who eat all kinds of things. Their scat is varied. You'll see everything from berries to fur.''
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The notorious convict Willie Sutton said he robbed banks because that's where the money was. Coyotes thrive in urban areas because that's where the food is.
From a coyote's vantage point, nothing could be more wonderful than a ripe can of garbage abandoned on the curb at dusk. Leave your dog's dish on the back porch and eventually you will be feeding coyotes. If you're careless filling your bird feeder, coyotes will clean up the mess underneath. They will return for more.
Unlike humans and deer, coyotes seldom overpopulate their home territory. When food is scarce, female coyotes produce smaller litters.
Coyotes are smarter and warier than dogs because they have to be. They have better eyesight and hearing. They learn tasks quicker. They instinctively avoid humans, but they get over that fear with little encouragement. Yes, Murphy has heard that some people enjoy leaving food out for coyotes.
"When I see a coyote I enjoy the experience," Murphy tells people. "But I also try to make it a learning experience for them. I shout. I wave my arms. I stomp my feet until they run off. I want them to be scared of me and other people.
"I am constantly correcting coyotes."
Murphy tells people to do nothing to tame wildlife. Otherwise the animal will associate people with food and become a pest. Don't feed ducks — their flocks will attract alligators and coyotes. Think about whether you really need a peacock. Don't release that pet Easter rabbit. You'll feed a coyote.
Be careful with pets.
Murphy and her husband own five cats, Horace, Dagmar, Ranson, Yogi and Jaspar. Their felines live in an uneasy truce with dogs Elmo, Tanzi and Otto. The cats never leave the house. The dogs go out only under supervision. Coyotes are always hungry.
"If you have a dog, keep it inside a tall fence but keep in mind that coyotes are good at digging. Coyotes will usually avoid a human who is walking their dog unless the coyotes have lost their human fear. If you see a coyote, pick up your dog and make a lot of noise.
"Don't wait until the coyote attacks to try to pick up your dog either. That's how people get scratched or bitten."
How dangerous are coyotes?
They pose a danger to small animals. They pose little threat to humans who use common sense.
In Pinellas County last year, there was not a single documented case of a coyote attack. But there were 1,300 reported dog bites.
• • •
An osprey chases a bald eagle across the sky over Boyd Hill Nature Preserve. A pileated woodpecker swoops among the pines. An alligator lies half in the water waiting for something to edible to come along.
Jeanne Murphy hears no howls, no yelps, no mysterious barks.
But the coyotes are here.
"Nice track," she says, hunkering again. The coyote must have been hunting. It jumped and left a deep track.
Beyond the track is glassy Lake Maggiore. Rising beyond the lake are the tall office buildings and new condominiums of downtown St. Petersburg.
Coyotes like a night on the town.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8727.