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What’s behind the coyote sightings in Richmond?

Coyote stands in parking lot
Coyotes, which first moved into Virginia in the '80s, thrive as scavengers in urban environments. (Photo: Connar L'Ecuyer/Public domain)

This story was produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

There are more reports of coyote sightings in the area this spring, according to Richmond public safety officials. It may come as a surprise to some, but David Garst, a wildlife biologist for the Department of Wildlife Resources, said the animals are remarkably adaptable and can live just about anywhere.

“Richmond, D.C., New York, Chicago, I don’t care what city you go to, there’s loads of coyotes in every city around,” he said.

The animals are not native to Virginia, but migrated to the Commonwealth in the 1980s. They’re often seen on the perimeters of urban and suburban neighborhoods that border wooded areas and farmland. They’ve been spotted downtown along the James River corridor. And last year a coyote was found under a car in Carytown.

Garst said wild animals become more active in the spring and people report seeing a variety of species from year to year.

Most of the time, Garst said, they are relatively invisible, obscured by vegetation. But coyotes can get into trouble when they become comfortable around people. That’s why he said it’s important to scare them away and avoid leaving out any kind of trash or food that attracts them. 

“If you live in a neighborhood, say in Chesterfield, and you’ve got a  coyote that keeps coming around, you want to get one of those little air horns like you see on a boat,” he said. “You see him, step out on the deck and blow that thing at him and make him feel unwelcome. Make him want to move on.”

Residents can contact the Virginia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Conflict Helpline to report a sighting.

Last week, James Anthony Loudermilk was at the park in North Chesterfield with friends when he heard a rustling in the bushes.

“We looked over and we saw a coyote just poke its head out and it just walked over a couple of rocks and it was just looking at us,” Loudermilk said. “It was super calm. It didn’t seem scary at all. It even yawned in one of the pictures I got, which we were excited to see, but we were also a little nervous because usually the animals are a little more afraid.”

He and his friends were nervous as they stayed still and quiet waiting for the animal to pass through. 

“There might have been more following. Or it was following a pack,” he said. “Because everybody’s been saying they hear a lot of them calling and howling at night in the woods.”

Loudermilk posted about his experience in a Shenandoah neighborhood Facebook group. It’s one of many recent wildlife sightings that highlight the consequences of urban expansion into what was once farmland and forest.

Robert Leinberger, a supervisor with Richmond Animal Care and Control, said his office receives a couple of calls a week about coyote sightings. But he said there’s no need to call his office unless an animal appears sick or injured.

“For example,” Leinberger said, “you come home from work and there’s a coyote laying down in your backyard not moving. You’ve yelled, you’ve screamed, you’ve stomped your foot, used an air horn or whistle and it will not leave. Or maybe it’s staggering around in your backyard in circles; you see that it’s obviously injured; if your pet has gotten into a fight with a coyote.”

Otherwise, Leinberger said, if someone  spots a coyote in the distance, or in their backyard, and it quickly moves on and disappears, “fantastic.”

Correction: This story previously misspelled Robert Leinberger's name. We have updated the article and apologize for the error.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.