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Cats Don’t Roam in Places Coyotes Call Home

By Michelle Z. Donahue

A coyote investigates a camera trap set up in a wooded area. A two-year study looking at occurrences of cats and coyotes in protected areas, urban forests and suburban habitats showed that where coyotes are common, cats are not.

A coyote investigates a camera trap set up in a wooded area. A two-year study looking at occurrences of cats and coyotes in protected areas, urban forests and suburban habitats showed that where coyotes are common, cats are not.

In one of the largest studies of its kind, a volunteer-fueled camera trapping effort showed that where coyotes have moved in, cats are nowhere to be found.

Smithsonian research associate and North Carolina State University zoologist Roland Kays wanted to know more about the extent of domestic cat hunting in residential areas, urban forests and protected natural areas. So from 2012 to 2014, Kays and several other Smithsonian researchers, including conservation biologist Tavis Forrester, coordinated hundreds of volunteers to set up motion-triggered camera stations to look at where cats were actually hunting.

What they found, almost without exception, is that where coyotes are, cats aren’t.

“Given the fact that we know domestic cats kill a lot of native wildlife, if cats are getting in our natural areas, it’s a big conservation concern,” says Kays. “That’s not what we found. There were basically no cats in 30 of the 32 protected areas we surveyed, and the one consistent variable was the presence of coyotes. The pattern was obvious and striking.”

The average detection rate of cats compared with coyotes during a two-year study looking at how common the two predators are in various habitats showed that cats are 300 times more common in backyards—where coyotes are rarely found—versus in protected wooded habitats, where virtually no cats are found.

The average detection rate of cats compared with coyotes during a two-year study looking at how common the two predators are in various habitats showed that cats are 300 times more common in backyards—where coyotes are rarely found—versus in protected wooded habitats, where virtually no cats are found.

“Basically no cats” means that over the course of the study, 16 parks had zero cats, and in 14 of the protected areas, a single cat was detected. Cameras were set up in state and national parks in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, and in 177 sites in small forested patches and suburban areas around Raleigh, N.C.

One concern researchers wanted to address was whether protected areas directly adjacent to inhabited areas could be so-called “ecological traps”—areas that are abundant in resources and attractive to native species, but have some hidden aspect that’s a detriment, such as proximity to a high domestic cat population.

“If the reserve is large enough and connected enough to wilder areas where coyotes can live, that basically protects that area from the massive problem of cat predation,” says Forrester. However, the study didn’t directly prove that urban forests near protected areas do indeed have more coyotes.

During the two three-month period when camera traps were set up in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., a single cat was detected. Coyotes are relatively common in the park, despite its location in the middle of a city.

During the two three-month period when camera traps were set up in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., a single cat was detected. Coyotes are relatively common in the park, despite its location in the middle of a city.

These areas don’t need to be hundreds of miles from civilization, either. Rock Creek Park, in the heart of Washington D.C., supports a healthy coyote population, and they seem to be doing a good job of deterring cats there. Cameras in the park picked up only one individual cat during two three-month survey periods; during the same length of time, cameras captured 126 images of coyotes.

But on the other hand, no matter how large and wild the area, no coyotes means a welcome mat for cats. Gambrill State Park in Maryland, is heavily wooded and undeveloped but lacks coyotes. The park had some of the highest incidences of cats in the survey, with five cats detected.

That makes Gambrill more like most backyards, places also devoid of coyotes and, not surprisingly, where cats were found to be much more common. These areas had 300 times more cat activity than protected areas.

A coyote investigates a camera trap set up in a wooded area. A two-year study looking at occurrences of cats and coyotes in protected areas, urban forests and suburban habitats showed that where coyotes are common, cats are not.

A coyote investigates a camera trap set up in a wooded area. A two-year study looking at occurrences of cats and coyotes in protected areas, urban forests and suburban habitats showed that where coyotes are common, cats are not.

But in the middle ground, urban forests, the smaller wooded areas in suburbs and near cities, coyotes and cats seem to overlap. Researchers are still looking into why this is, but speculate it may be due to lower coyote populations, fragmented habitats that allow cats to hide better, and cats hunting during daylight hours to avoid the nocturnal canines.

The scale of the study couldn’t have been accomplished without the help of hundreds of volunteers. Researchers trained and coordinated 486 volunteers to deploy the cameras in 2,000 preselected locations. Those citizen scientists also collected the camera data and made the initial identifications of the individual animals that walked across the camera’s path. Their IDs were vetted by Kays and Forrester, making this one of the largest, most rigorous studies of its kind.

A domestic cat is captured on a camera trap during a two-year study, which surveyed the abundance of cats and coyotes in various habitat types in six states.

A domestic cat is captured on a camera trap during a two-year study that surveyed the abundance of cats and coyotes in various habitat types in six states.

“It takes a fair amount of work to put out all these cameras,” Forrester said. “Using citizen scientists, we were able to get a much larger spread of cameras, and it allowed us to ask this question of coyotes and cats, and whether it holds true across different habitat types. This is an actual ecological thing that’s happening, and not just a characteristic of one town or study site.”

The volunteers submitted their collected images—two million individual frames—through the Smithsonian’s built-from-scratch eMammal software, which allows the data to be archived at the Smithsonian. One benefit of this central collection and storage, Forrester says, is that the data is available for other researchers to analyze and use.

“Whether we plan to keep them out or draw them in, coyotes are coming,” Forrester says. “All predators aren’t the same in terms of interacting with people, but understanding more about predator interactions in urban areas will be important for conservation going forward. There are conservation benefits to them being here.”

The study, also co-authored by Smithsonian ecologist William McShea and Smithsonian researchers Megan Baker and Robert Costello, appeared in June 30 edition of the Journal of Mammalogy.

 

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  • Kim Rogers Bartlett

    Cats end up living in the woods because people have dumped them there. It is not a choice habitat for a homeless cat, who would much prefer the shelter of a barn or even a dumpster. Likewise, free-roaming pet cats hunt because their people allow them to do it. Irresponsible people are the problem but the cats are hated for being natural predators. I share everyone’s interest in keeping cats from killing wildlife, but I love cats as much as I do all other animals. Cats shouldn’t be blamed – much less despised – for doing what comes naturally to them or for just trying to survive in an alien habitat.

  • guestagain

    Very interesting. As usual with media coverage of scientific studies, it is light on the details. It is not clear how the null hypothesis fared, the size of the dataset and the statistical significance of the findings, etc. and as some others have implied, it’s also not clear what else was controlled for, as likely there are other things in common between areas with lots of coyotes that could be a common cause (i.e. maybe it’s foxes, or just distance from houses, etc., that cause the absence of cats.) Personally, I suspect more is at play, because I live where there are plenty of coyotes and I commonly see domestic cats hunting on hillsides.

  • Aili McKeen

    What about coyote predation? Especially in areas that coyotes are not indigenous, don’t they also predate small mammals, birds, and often larger mammals? Some have said they fill a niche left vacant after the last eastern wolves were killed, but coyotes are FaR more plentiful, more efficient, and more stealthy than wolves ever were. They’re a super-predator.

    • Nora Cox

      Interesting question, just what are all these coyotes eating if the cats aren’t there? And the cats are random predators of voles, moles, a few birds. All critters with high reproductive rates. Are the coyotes reducing or decimating meso-predators such as raccoon, skunk, possum, and what about beaver, muskrats, otters, groundhogs? There are still many questions ….

  • Momcat 11

    I have lost several cats, chickens and a bunny to coyotes. My friend lost two poodles. I am not a fan of wylie coyotes. My thoughts exactly:
    The only good coyote is a dead coyote

    • guestagain

      Shame on you for vilifying wild animals doing what is natural to them. You and your friend are to blame for those losses – you are obviously not responsible pet owners.

    • Old Man

      Clearly you’re a lazy person and not smart enough to keep your pets inside. That’s on you.

  • Ben Shrader

    In giving programs about coyotes, a FAQ concerns
    coyote predation on house cats. This
    data is very useful in filling a void of studies on the subject for Eastern US.

  • Steve Wendt

    I would have liked to see also the data on foxes.

    • Nora Cox

      The woodland pics had an occasional fox with a squirrel in its mouth. Now a squirrel is hard to catch! (I was on one of the surveys). Really wonder if coyotes exclude foxes because we do have foxes in our town but not sure about coyotes. Some folks have heard them on the edge of town.

      • I live right outside the White Mountain National Forest in Maine (only a small portion is in Maine, most of it is in NH). My dog and I walk up into the forest every day and quite often in the winter I’ll see the tracks of coyote and fox walking up the same road (I’m assuming at different times) but they clearly don’t exclude each other…I have also seen house cat tracks on the same road, there are a couple people that live in the area that won’t keep their darn cats inside….not doing the ovenbird/hermit thrush/wood thrush (all ground nesters) population any good…

  • rusty

    Seems pretty obvious…….the coyotes eat cats….they are prey. I can not believe time and money was wasted on this “study.”

    • Alan Kneidel

      To put forth real agendas you need proof, not suspicion – otherwise your opposition will rip you apart.

      • Williamhuard

        Now if only we could get FG agencies and politicians to stop picking winners and losers in our wildlife populations- that would be a good start. Coyotes, like wolves, are critical to healthy ecosystems- yet, “fake” hunters kill them just for being coyotes. They kill them in killing contests- against the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. Real hunters appreciate the value that each species brings to the environment- and, they don’t kill certain species because they hate them.

    • Williamhuard

      Rusty is a critical thinker. Science schmience!

      • Nora Cox

        The study was not so much about cats or coyotes I don’t think. Just camera trapping, and tallying the numbers. The info just fell out once analyzed. One real find that we already know, way way too many deer! Way way way! They are eating the forest and we will pay for that some day.

        • guestagain

          What was the study’s conclusion on whether or not there are the right number of people, or too many, or too few?

        • Kim Rogers Bartlett

          State “game” departments manage habitat and hunting permits to provide an overpopulation of deer for human hunters to kill. Populations of deer would soon crash and gradually return to a more “natural” population size without the intervention of state game officials, who also keep deer predator populations low. The same is true for elk, moose, etc. Look to Alaska for the most blatant examples.

  • Caracalover

    Bobcats and mountain lions are able to coexist with coyotes and help keep the coyote populations moving. House cats only have one area they are native to, and that is a house. Sad that the east coast has eradicated the native cats as it sounds like no bobcats were found on these cameras either.

    • Eric Anderson

      Bobcats were not mentioned, but they can and do live in the same areas that Coyotes live. While I have never seen a bobcat on my farm next to Charlotte NC, I have seen their tracks and scat, and i have seen the coyotes.

    • Nora Cox

      Was involved in the previous camera survey, in more far flung areas in the National Forest in VA. We had lots of coyotes, few raccoons, tons of deer and squirrel, a few turkey with young, and each month one bear and one bobcat on each set of three cameras. So coyotes may be taking care of possums and raccoon, skunk even. Hard to say who is preying on whom, but it is possible the mesopredators are being removed by coyotes (small fur bearers). Occasionally even an owl hitting on a rodent was captured!