Susan Wachtel was surprised when she looked through her kitchen window and saw a fox sitting on her deck. She was even more surprised when she pointed it out to her husband.
"He said, ‘That’s not a fox,’” Wachtel recalled. It was a coyote, and the couple saw another one in their yard the next day.
Wachtel, who lives off of Glen Road near Wayside Elementary School, is one of several residents in her neighborhood who have recently spotted the canine predators.
Sightings throughout the county have spiked in the last five years, according to the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission. After some 25 years in Maryland, coyotes have established their place in the ecosystem. Now, they’re settling down in suburbia.
UNTIL THE LATE 19th century, coyotes were strictly a creature of the western states. They spread eastward slowly and are now present in every state in the continental United States, arriving in Delaware and Maryland last of all — probably in the late 1970s or early 1980s.
“They prefer forested areas, but like anything else, they do well around people,” said Steve Bittner, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife and Heritage Service.
As suburbia sprawls outward, “It’s getting to be a natural habitat,” he said. “They’re adapting to what’s there. They’re a very smart animal and they’re just adapting to what’s on the landscape.”
A Park and Planning brochure for residents points out that coyotes are “extremely intelligent and adaptable and have taken up residence even within the limits of many large cities.” Earlier this month, police and wildlife authorities in Manhattan captured a coyote in Central Park.
"We’re certainly hearing more sightings now than we have in the past," said Rob Gibbs, a natural resources manager for Park and Planning.
He said he has received reports from Potomac, Rockville, Chevy Chase, Poolesville and Olney, including some reports from urban areas.
"We just found a dead coyote down off of New Hampshire Avenue," he said. "There really isn’t any place in the county that I would be surprised to hear about them at this point."
Coyotes' favorite meals are small rodents like squirrels, rats and mice but they are able scavengers and will happily eat fruit and nuts, garbage, spilled bird seed, carrion, pet food and small pets.
That worries Miriam Weiner, a neighbor of Wachtel.
“What bothers me is that people might leave their children out,” said Weiner, whose family has seen and heard coyotes. “People have to be really cautious, especially at night. … [But] nobody’s really that interested in [the coyote problem] until they take a child.”
WHILE COYOTES are known to attack and eat small pets, attacks on humans are rare, although not unheard of, Bittner said. So far, no attacks on humans have been reported in Maryland.
“Small pets definitely people need to be concerned about,” Bittner said. In some areas, coyotes have become desensitized to the presence of humans.
“There has started to be — in some of the other Northeastern states — some aggressive behavior,” Bittner said.
He said that small children should be supervised in areas where coyotes have been sighted, but that the presence of coyotes shouldn’t itself be an impediment to letting children play outdoors.
A better strategy is to consider what might be attracting coyotes to the neighborhood. Small adjustments like taking out trash shortly before pick-up rather than the night before can make a big difference.
IN THE WEST, where coyotes have been established for decades longer than here, the situation is worse.
The Hopland Research and Extension Center at the University of California published a 2004 report entitled "Coyote Attacks: An Increasing Problem" that documented 48 attacks on humans between 1998 and 2003, compared with 41 in the 10 years prior.
Those numbers include only attacks that resulted in injuries and were reported to authorities, but by contrast there were an average of 835 dog bites resulting in hospitalization every year in California between 1991 and 1998, according to the American Journal of Public Health.
The report includes short descriptions of the confirmed attacks that paint a picture of the coyotes' growing fearlessness.
"Coyote bit 3-yr-old girl in head; grabbed her shoulder in attempt to drag her off," read one.
Another: "Coyote scaled 6-ft. wall into yard, attacked and killed small dog in presence of owner; in melee, woman kicked coyote, then fell and fractured her elbow and was attacked and scratched by coyote (1 PM)."
The thrust of the report is a familiar refrain: that the attacks on humans and pets increase dramatically after coyotes become habituated to the presence of humans and particularly when they are fed.
The writers document a progression in coyote boldness, beginning with nighttime appearances in suburban yards and continuing with dawn and dusk attacks; daylight observances; daylight attacks of pets on leashes; and aggressive behavior toward adult humans in daylight.
The report suggests that the best strategy for controlling coyotes is to nip aggressive behavior in the bud.
"Any animal will learn over time you’re either something to be afraid of or something to ignore," Gibbs said. "The more you can keep them wild, the better."
Shouting, making noise, and driving away coyotes reinforces a fear of humans.
In light of such evidence, Weiner thinks the coyote problem merits attention from local legislators. She has contacted members of the County Council to ask that they budget money to study the population and implement management practices.
“I’ve called some of the representatives’ offices and gotten absolutely nowhere,” she said.
Currently, Park and Planning takes note of citizen phone calls but does not have a comprehensive coyote plan or even plans for trapping or killing coyotes if necessary.
But, "I have no doubt … at some point down the road that’s going to have to happen," Gibbs said.
In the meantime, every call Gibbs receives about coyotes reminds him that he needs to ramp up education efforts — by posting information on the Web and putting brochures and signs at trailheads, for example.
COYOTES BREED in the winter and following a roughly two-month gestation, bear young in April and May. If the coyote population has the foothold in suburbia that naturalists believe it does, Potomac residents could start seeing even more coyotes in the coming months, including mothers and their pups.
The period from March through August, when food demands increase for the pup-rearing coyotes, accounts for 67 percent of the attacks in the California study.
But experts say that coyotes are still naturally very shy. They will try to avoid humans and are usually scared away by a shout or loud clap.
More than anything, the coyotes’ presence parallels that of the now-ubiquitous whitetail deer. Both species have the potential to be nuisance, but both are surely here to stay.
“I don’t think [the coyotes] are going away,” Bittner said. “Fortunately there aren’t as many coyotes as there are deer. Or if there were there wouldn’t be as many deer.”