Ask a naturalist – A coyote in wolf’s clothing



Q: “Would you believe that I just saw a wolf?” -Tom Roark, North Mississippi Nature Center visitor

Recently here at North Mississippi Regional Park there have been sightings of an exciting wildlife visitor. Tom Roark and his wife Barbara brought their grandkids to play at the Nature Center for the afternoon. Afterwards, while they were outside getting ready to leave, they spotted something surprising and Tom came back in to tell us about it.

While we could not believe a wolf sighting in our urban park, we told him it very likely was a coyote. Though their thick winter coat makes them look rather large, coyotes are the wolf’s smaller, slimmer and narrower-faced cousin. Living in a city can often create a sense of being disconnected from nature, but coyotes are one reminder that a wide array of surprising, seldom-seen, and most of all wild animals coexist alongside us.

In Minnesota, wolves don’t range beyond their northern habitat; urban coyotes on the other hand, are widespread in Minneapolis and its suburbs. An urban coyote’s territory ranges in size from two to 10 square miles or more, which is smaller than their rural counterparts, since territory is dependent on food abundance. In urban areas food is much more densely packed into smaller spaces, making it more accessible. It’s not uncommon to catch a glimpse of a coyote moving in its classic sideways lope across a neighborhood road, in the woods at Theodore Wirth Park or along the Mississippi River. If you listen closely at night, you may hear a distant chorus of yips and high-pitched howls over regular nighttime sounds.

Coyotes first emerged as a species five million years ago (in North America) making them a home grown native. They have since acclimated extremely well to the rise of modern cities. Urban coyote populations have grown steadily in recent years, likely due to a combination of the species’ adaptability, plentiful food sources, and restrictions on hunting and trapping. City coyotes are mostly nocturnal, resting in well-hidden dens during the day and hunting alone or in pairs once humans have gone in for the night. Rabbits, mice and other small rodents make up the majority of a coyote’s diet, but they are highly opportunistic and will also take deer, birds, carrion and fruit whenever available.

Instances of coyotes behaving aggressively around humans are rare, and most coyotes reliably avoid people and domestic animals. No attacks on humans have ever been recorded in Minnesota, but if an unsupervised small pet crosses a coyote’s path, it may become prey. Coyotes that approach, display aggressive behavior, or seem “too tame” around people have generally been intentionally fed or have grown accustomed to poaching food and rodents from exposed garbage bins or from outdoor pet food bowls. Urban coyotes aren’t going anywhere, but limiting reasons for them to interact with you, your pets, and others in your neighborhood will prevent most coyote problems.

So, should you be worried about coyote activity nearby? The short answer is no, as long as you take common-sense precautions to limit encounters. If you’re concerned about nearby coyote activity, consider taking these steps recommended by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources: Always aggressively harass, shout at, and scare off coyotes that do not immediately run from people. Do not intentionally feed coyotes, and keep all cat and dog food inside. Be sure to secure your garbage in closed containers. Keep cats indoors and make sure small dogs are supervised while outside. For more info visit or

To learn more about urban coyotes visit the Nature Center at North Mississippi, located at the east end of 49th Ave N. along the river. Check out a pair of binoculars to try spotting a coyote or our new animal tracking backpack to identify tracks, scat and other signs while exploring the park. Join us for free naturalist programs offered each weekend, such as Leprechaun Secrets, a fun-filled afternoon for families on Saturday, March 17 from 1:30-3 p.m. If you have young children, join the fun with our Nature Nuts playgroup for kids under age six and an adult to explore the outdoors and learn about seasons, plants and animals.

March Public Programs: March 3 – Early Birding: search for birds while on a naturalist-guided hike. 9-10:30 a.m. March 10 – Hike: Birds of Prey (Eagles): look for majestic predators along the river. 1:30-2:30 p.m. March 17 – Leprechaun Secrets: have fun, play games, and learn the ways of the woods. 1:30-3 p.m. March 25 – Family Funday Spring Arts & Animals: meet animals and create spring artwork 1-3 p.m.

March 31 – Earthen Art: make sensational soil-based art. 2-3 p.m.

Kids Spring Break Camps (ages 6-12) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. $150: March 26-30 Neighborhood Nature: discover the wild animals that live alongside us! April 2-6 Animal Scientists: conduct experiments and create concoctions that ooze and explode!

Find registration for these programs at or call 612-370-4844 for details. Do you have a question about nature in your own backyard? Then send it our way by emailing and it could appear in a future article. This month look for signs that spring is coming. Create a drawing or take a picture of what you find. Then come show a naturalist at the front desk to receive a North Mississippi Junior Naturalist button! Any images people would like to share, will be displayed at the Center for the month of March. Like us on Facebook to stay in the loop about what is happening at your park!

This article was written by Eli Skinner, Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board Naturalist at North Mississippi Regional Park