Mike Weilbacher stands next to a pine grove and, with a sweep of his hand, gestures to where an unusual track was spotted during a February snow.
“There was clearly a big dog footprint. And the dog was walking very purposeful. Straight. It knew where it was going,” said Weilbacher, director of the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education. “Our staff thinks it was a coyote. … It had the traits of a coyote.”
If so, the observation by a member of his staff would put a coyote in Upper Roxborough -- within Philadelphia. Granted, the Schyulkill Center, with its 340 acres of fields, forests, and waterways in the city’s far northwest corner, is not a typical urban environment. Still, that would put the coyote less than a mile from densely developed Ridge Avenue. Roxborough is bordered by Wissahickon Creek to the east and the Schuylkill to the west.
There have been suspicions for a while. Sean Duffy was working at the center about 2½ years ago when he spotted a coyote on a service road outside the visitor area.
“It was early morning and quiet,” Duffy recalls. “The center wasn’t open yet. It stopped and looked at me for 10 or 15 seconds. At first I thought it was a fox or a dog.”
Duffy described the animal to a staff member, who confirmed that the description fit that of a young coyote.
“There definitely are coyotes in Roxborough and elsewhere in Philadelphia,” Weilbacher says. “I’m getting emails from someone saying they saw them in the Belmont Plateau. So the question is exactly what coyote is this?”
He and others agree the animal is likely an Eastern coyote, also known as a coywolf. The coywolf is a hybrid of a coyote, wolf, and dog. Coyotes have been spotted in suburbs for a number of years, but the Philadelphia sightings are more recent.
The bottom of their range is New Jersey and Maryland, and they go up through Maine. They feed on mice, voles, rabbits, and woodchucks, so the Schuylkill Center would provide a good feeding ground.
Philadelphia officials, asked whether there had been reports of coyotes in the city, deferred to an animal control service provider that has a contract with the city.
Ame Dorminy, who is with the contractor, the Animal Care and Control Team (ACCT Philly), said she knew of no complaints about coyotes. She also said that ACCT would not necessarily be notified, since it handles wildlife only under very limited circumstances, such as an animal in the bedroom.
That is not surprising. Coyotes normally avoid people, according to Jon Way, a Massachusetts-based wildlife biologist who runs a website devoted to the Eastern coyote. Coyotes have been in urban areas out west for decades. But they are resilient.
“They’ve been in the Northeast 25 to 50 years. They completed colonization about 20 years ago. The final part of their colonization might be hitting cities we’re talking about,” Way said. “So they’re obviously newer to the east, especially in cities with natural areas. But they are even in the Bronx.”
Way said the coyotes migrated from Canada, breeding and mixing along the way into New England to develop as hybrids over hundreds of years. They picked their way through forests and rural areas and into suburban landscapes, which are often surrounded by woods and other habitat frequented by mice, deer, and other potential prey.
He said the Eastern coyote is about 65 percent coyote, 25 percent wolf, and 10 percent dog, but those mixes can change. Eastern coyotes live in packs of four or five and have a range of about 10 square miles in more densely populated areas. They shun people and are thus hard to spot.
“The way they survive is to avoid people,” Way said. “That doesn’t mean an animal isn’t going to come in now and then and become aggressive. But, on average, there are three coyote attacks per year in all of North America. There’ve been two fatalities in all of recorded history. Meanwhile, five million people are bitten by dogs every year.”
Pennsylvania Game Commission literature says adult male coyotes in the state weigh around 45 to 55 pounds and females 35 to 40 pounds. Body lengths range from 48 to 60 inches, with fur ranging from gray to something like a German shepherd's. Their legs are gray, tan, and reddish, often with black lines down the front. They have erect ears and a bottle brush tail, usually kept in a downward position. Their eyes are typically yellow.
At the Schuylkill Center, Weilbacher said he was glad a recent article he wrote on the coyote paw print drew attention. It featured a photo by Eduardo Duenas, a Schuylkill Center staff member, of a paw track in the snow. It clearly shows two claws facing forward, a clue that would distinguish a coyote from a dog. The animal was traveling alone.
“It’s a dog-like animal walking by itself, and it’s big,” Weilbacher said.
The animal was walking in a straight line, as if on a mission. Scat also found in the area buttresses his belief that it was a coyote. The scat was different from what a fox would produce, and it contained fur.
“If you’ve ever seen a dog walk off leash, it does not walk in a straight line,” Weilbacher said. “This dog knew exactly what it was doing. It has the coyote purpose and the coyote size.
“I debated writing about it because I didn’t want to panic people.”
He notes that wolves and coyotes were often exterminated. So a hybrid that is expanding its territory, he says, is “evolution right before our eyes.”