John Ciccarelli and his buddy Ernest Slavis were out for an innocent Christmas Eve of Catholic Mass followed by some gambling.
After worship at St. Maurice at Resurrection Catholic Church, they headed across the street to the Casino @ Dania Beach, where they expected an adrenaline rush from a good hand, not a wild animal.
Around midnight, when their luck flattened, they took a break in Slavis’ car. That’s when Ciccarelli noticed what he assumed was a mid-sized stray dog moving confidently across the nearly empty parking lot.
“He was trotting, almost like a beeline,” said Ciccarelli, a professional golf instructor from Jupiter. “He got to the front of our vehicle, and I had my peepers on him, and I said, ‘Boy that’s an interesting dog.’ When he got within 20 feet I said, ‘My God that’s a coyote!’” — the first one he’d ever seen.
The wild canine stood motionless in front of the car for about 20 seconds. “He came just far enough for us to see, like he was showing off, maybe. I was shocked.” said Ciccarelli. It turned around and trotted back west at the same pace, and disappeared around the building.
Coyote sightings like Ciccarelli’s are not new in South Florida, but they seem to be happening more and more in urban areas.
Recent sightings in the region include a spate in Margate, where several residents believe their cats fell victim to coyotes, and another resident spied a coyote patrolling a canal and snacking on an iguana. Parkland hired a trapper after being told by the state to learn to put up with the coyotes. More cats have fallen prey in Palm Beach Gardens and back in 2019, a dog was mauled in Delray Beach. Residents in Sunrise believed coyotes are hunting the ducks there. In 2020, one of the wild canines sauntered into a fire station in Fort Lauderdale.
Are coyotes going through a population boom?
“That’s a difficult question to answer,” said Jayne Johnson, senior wildlife assistance biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “There’s certainly been a much larger human population growth in the area … Coyotes tend to encounter more people because there’s more people there.”
A look at the FWCs interactive public coyote map indicates that most sightings indeed occur not in wilderness spaces, but in areas with high human population densities — there have been hundreds of sightings in both Palm Beach and Broward counties in the past 24 months.
Migrating, but not invasive
Coyotes are relative newcomers to Florida, but the FWC says they are not invasive because they’ve naturally expanded their range. Their success story is closely tied to the human impact on the continent.
Back in the 1700s, coyotes were limited to western regions, thriving in the prairies, deserts and Rocky Mountains of North America and Central America, according to the Urban Coyote Research Project.
European settlers eradicated wolves and bears and turned forests into cropland, giving coyotes fewer predators and more open space. They expanded their range, which now spans from Southern Mexico to Alaska, east to Nova Scotia and south to Florida. The FWC says the predators first showed up in the Sunshine State in the 1970s, and are now present in all 67 counties – even in the Keys, where the first sighting occurred in 2011.
Coyotes in Florida grow to about 28-30 pounds, a bit smaller than a border collie, but larger males can reach 40 pounds.
Johnson said that suburban development often converts forested areas into fairly open, pasture-like land with pockets of woodland — just the habitat coyotes prefer.
“In a natural space, a typical male and female pair will have a territory of 15 square miles,” she said. “There are so many more resources available in suburbia, because of humans, a pair will only need 3 square miles.” The result is more coyote family groups in a smaller area, all overlapping with humans.
Johnson said they hide and sleep in preserves, under sheds, in abandoned houses or in thick shrubbery — “wherever they can be away from people.”
Ciccarelli’s Dania Beach sighting jibes with Johnson’s description. Even though the casino is 17 miles from the wilderness of the Everglades, the property is adjacent to the mangrove forests of the Anne Kolb Nature Center, and just south of the prairie-like environs of the Fort Lauderdale International Airport, where officials shot a coyote several years ago when they feared it might wander onto the runway.
Johnson said that coyotes look for prey that’s easy to kill.
It turns out that South Florida’s suburbia offers a smorgasbord for the adaptable predators. An FWC diet study found lots of food associated with people: dog food, food wrappers, insects, berries, nuts and seeds. They also take neighborhood rats, mice, rabbits and squirrels — the study found one coyote with 47 rodents in its stomach. Racoons and opossums are also on the menu, as are invasive iguanas.
“Our biggest conflict in suburbia appears to be with free-roaming cats,” said Johnson. Coyotes take both feral and domestic. And they’ve been known to attack small dogs.
Likely here to stay
A few years ago, Sunrise residents were spotting coyotes on the abandoned Sunrise country club, which is slated for development. What happens when the construction crews break ground? “They don’t want to encounter the two-legged person, so construction activities are going to disturb them, and get them to move somewhere else in their range” said Johnson.
But once the construction and landscaping is done, Johnson said they’ll move right back in. “They’ve established that as their home range. That’s where they’ve known their whole lives and where they’re going to raise young as well.”
Alpha pairs have an average of six pups, and they live as a family unit, often giving the impression of a pack.
“That can be intimidating,” said Johnson. But “their goal is to raise the pups so they can disperse and find their own mates and territories, which they typically do in the fall.”