A survey of coyotes and feral cats in urban Chicago shows that outdoor cats in the city do their darnedest to steer clear of a one the nation's best-studied pack of urban coyotes. The cats successfully use a human shield to separate themselves from the coyotes. They live longer and healthier lives than previously thought. In addition, the natural wild preserves in the area don't suffer cat predation on wildlife because of the coyotes.
"Free-roaming cats are basically partitioning their use of the urban landscape. They're not using the natural areas in cities very much because of the coyote presence there," says Stan Gehrt, a wildlife ecologist in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University.
"It reduces the cats' vulnerability to coyotes, but at the same time, it means the coyotes are essentially protecting these natural areas from cat predation," he says.
The study was previously released by Ohio State University's Office of Research and Innovation Communications, http://go.osu.edu/X87. It is the first to show how coyotes and free-roaming cats share space and interact with each other in urban areas, Gehrt says.
Gehrt and his colleagues monitored the health, home ranges, habitat selections and other characteristics of 39 feral and stray cats near six parks and nature preserves in greater Chicago. The Chicago area has some of the densest populations of coyotes ever recorded.
The scientists found that most of the cats shunned the urban coyotes' "core activity areas" – fragments of natural habitat within the city, as represented by the study's parks and nature preserves.
Instead, the cats restricted their own core activities to developed parts of the city, such as near homes and shops. Core activity areas are the areas within an animal's home range where the animal spends most of its time and concentrates most of its activities, including hunting.
"Coyotes essentially exclude cats from natural habitat fragments in cities either directly through predation or indirectly through the threat of predation," says Gehrt. "The cats avoid these areas."
Coyotes are known to prey on free-roaming cats, whether ferals, strays or pets, while free-roaming cats, on the whole, have been shown to kill great numbers of birds, small rodents and reptiles.
Both cats and coyotes can annoy city dwellers by howling at night, digging through trash and threatening pets. And both can pose a public health risk: Cats can spread a disease called toxoplasmosis; on rare occasions, coyotes have bitten humans.