Homeowners near The Turner Farm are reporting seeing wild coyotes roaming the suburban streets of Great Falls with alarming frequency. Vickie White is keeping her Chihuahua Pepe on a short leash after her recent run-in with a coyote. Sante Esposito has seen a coyote on two occasions and is swapping coyote sightings with his neighbors.
The increase in coyote sighting in Great Falls this summer indicates the local animal population is thriving and likely to become an increasingly familiar sight to residents. Fairfax County wildlife biologist Earl Hodnett says coyotes have been in the area since the 1970s but have now gained a permanent foothold.
“Coyotes are now part of the environment in which we live, and people need to plan their lifestyle accordingly,” said Hodnett.
Falls Church animal control officer Becky Keenan has been dealing with coyotes for a while. Her office recently issued a press release with coyote information to alert the public to their presence because so little is known about them in the general population.
“They are considered a nuisance animal,” said Keenan. “We can’t go after them. It would be like trying to remove all the raccoons in Great Falls.” Keenan suspects there is a den somewhere in Great Falls.
Coyotes have always been native to Virginia, but until recently they were not witnessed in Northern Virginia. “We’ve known they’ve been migrating East for some time,” said Keenan. People typically think of the West or Southwest when coyotes are mentioned. “They’ve moved in here mainly because of the food source. They do very well here. They are coexisting beautifully,” said Keenan.
Coyotes eat vermin and small domestic animals, rummage through trash for food, and can kill larger game. Coyotes are nocturnal predators and are rarely active during the daytime except for dawn or dusk. They will inhabit an area until their food source is depleted.
“I couldn’t believe it when I saw it,” said White. “My husband knew right away it was a coyote, but I couldn’t believe it. It was 11 a.m. on Wednesday, and he was just standing there before he sauntered off, loping slowly, actually,” said White.
“It’s scary. We all have dogs and small animals in this neighborhood. These [coyotes] aren’t small animals, either. We’ve always let our little dog go down to the woods at night, but we’re not going to do that anymore,” White said.
Hodnett said people should not let small dogs and cats out at night because they are a top food source for coyotes. “Coyotes have a special affinity for house cats,” said Hodnett. “We’re just begging people not to let their cats out,” said Keenan.
Keenan said coyotes will also take down and eat deer. “They are the top predator in our region. There’s nothing in our nature cycle to take them out,” said Keenan. Disease or famine will be the only things that thin the coyote population, according to Keenan. She said this year’s cicada explosion may have led to an abundant rat population because the rodents fed on the slow-moving cicadas. The coyotes in turn dine on the plentiful rats and make little coyotes.
There is very little that authorities can do to curb the coyotes. “They are very smart. They’re almost impossible to trap,” said Keenan. They are also fast and known to travel at 40 miles per hour. In rural areas coyotes can be shot, but Keenan says that’s not a possibility here. “How are we going to shoot something running 35 to 40 miles through a neighborhood?” said Keenan. “We have enough trouble getting a rabid raccoon cornered in a garage.”
Over the past five years, only one rabid coyote has been documented in Virginia, according to Virginia Health Department statistics,
“We can’t go after them like they can in rural neighborhoods. We can’t go around shooting in neighborhoods, even Great Falls,” said Keenan. “At this point, especially in Great Falls, there’s nothing we can do unless they appear sick,” said Keenan.
Esposito said the coyotes he’s seen aren’t pretty. “It was somewhat tall, scrawny and gray. We kind of startled each other because he was just about 25 feet away. It was early, about 6 in the morning, and I was getting ready to go to work,” said Esposito. “The thing that made me concerned is that he’s very skinny. It turned toward me and showed his teeth. I didn’t know whether to go back in the house or make for the car, which was closer,” said Esposito.
After that encounter with the coyote, Esposito called the local police department because he knew schoolchildren would soon be at the bus stop on that street, and he feared the children would be menaced or harmed by the snarling coyote.
Esposito said the coyotes he and his neighbors have run across are not shy. “One of my neighbors has seen one come up on her back deck and look through the glass door at her dogs,” said Esposito.
Hodnett cautions that unhealthy foxes can be mistaken for coyotes. “We’ve investigated many coyote sightings that in fact turned out to be a fox, a fox with mange, or a dog. I even had a veterinarian call about a coyote, and it turned out to be a purebred husky,” said Hodnett. “Not all coyote sightings are coyote sightings.”
Coyotes are nocturnal predators that tend to hunt alone. They weigh between 25 and 40 pounds and have relatively thick fur that can range in color from tan or reddish brown to black. A coyote has a long, slim nose; pointed ears that are held erect; and a long, bushy tail that is tipped black and usually pointed downward.