A walk on the wild(life) side

Walking our dog, Algren, the other night, I found myself face-to-face with a lesson on the unpredictability of nature and the risk of unintended consequences.

Delivering the lesson was a very healthy looking coyote checking us out from the other side of a chain-link fence separating the park in which Algren and I were walking from a local cemetery. And while the coyote backed off a bit when Algren barked, she quickly showed she wasn’t timid, coming back up to the fence and even striking a play bow! I judged the coyote to be about Algren’s size–roughly 60 pounds–though a little longer legged and quite pretty.

As a city dweller, for many years wildlife experiences have largely been limited to pigeons and squirrels and the occasional rat. In recent years, though, as elsewhere geese have become more numerous in Chicago, and walks through our lakefront neighborhood or in the park have produced sightings of such exotica as possums and raccoons. Efforts to protect migratory bird habitat along the lake, meanwhile, have proven quite successful, increasing the variety of birds we see and hear, and even leading to various wading birds visiting the lagoon in the park district golf course that runs along the lake near our place.

This wasn’t my first urban coyote encounter. Late one fall afternoon a couple of years ago, as the sun sunk behind the high-rises on the west side of Lake Shore Drive, I did see a coyote on the lakefront golf course, first mistaking it for a scrawny German shepherd, then recognizing its true identity as I got a bit nearer. That one never let me get too close, though, unlike our friend in the cemetery, though this latest one could have been smart enough to recognize the security provided by the fence between us.

As in other cities across the country, coyote sightings have become more frequent in Chicago in the past couple of years. The story of one that walked into a downtown Quiznos sandwich shop several months back and settled down in the beverage cooler got a lot of play, and today’s Chicago Tribune had an account of an attempt to catch another coyote in Lincoln Park yesterday that turned into a Keystone Kops-style comedy.

It says something about the unpredicability of nature that this species that once was native only to western North America and was the target of eradication efforts has proven resilient enough to not only survive but to expand its habitat to essentially cover all of North America south of the tundra, and to find a perfectly happy home, evidently, in a most unnatural setting–the modern American city.

As for unintended consequences, they seem to exist on several fronts. One are suggestions by some wildlife biologists that man has helped foster the coyote’s spread in several ways, not the least of which is by dramatically cutting back the population of coyotes’ principal predator in the wild, wolves, allowing them to dramatically expand their numbers.

And I think about a story I read somewhere a few years back that raised the possibility that the coyotes that managed to survive efforts to eradicate them were largely the smartest of the bunch. If true, with evolution taking its course and their primary predator largely removed from the mix, maybe what we’ve got now is a species of super-coyotes, taunting us with their big brains.

Certainly the one toying with the Chicago animal control folks Monday seems to fit that scenario. And I suspect the one I encountered Friday night who’s found the neighborhood near Wrigley Field a nice place to live might as well.

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