A wild coyote walks on a hill as people run through Piedmont Park on Dec. 27, 2016. (Photo by BRANDEN CAMP)

Atlanta wild: How to coexist with deer, coyotes and urban wildlife

Story by Thomas Bell. Photos by Jenni Girtman.

I first heard heard a rustling: unhurried, sustained and substantial. I was standing quietly by the creekside in Zonolite Park, a little patch of meadow and forest behind an old industrial park that now holds a Crossfit, a Pilates studio, an indoor gun range, and Floataway Cafe. The noisy rush of Briarcliff Road was two blocks away but lost in the water and breeze. The sounds of crunching leaves and snapping twigs came from the brush and trees on the creek’s other side, and they were getting closer.

And from the green emerged a coyote, and then another, the two walking atop the steep creekbank, assured and elegant. They paused and turned their heads across the creek to me. I was still. We looked at each other for a careful while, then they turned away, disappearing into the green.

It wasn’t my first coyote encounter in Atlanta, but it was the one that most vividly revealed to me a parallel Atlanta, one with many residents living in a wilder place. Such experiences are becoming increasingly common.

Scott Burland, a pharmacist and musician, sees that wild Atlanta when red-shouldered hawks hunting for prey descend to his deck in North Druid Valley.

Deborah Tawil, a neuromuscular therapist, hears it in the frequent fox cries that echo in the night in Pine Lake.

And many Atlantans experience that wilder world through deer. Filmmaker Kelly O’Neal finds them early in the morning in a neighborhood park off of Lawrenceville Highway. Marketing director Stacey Lucas sees them strolling down her street off of Briarcliff Road. And neuromuscular therapist Rebecca Leary Safon sees them in Morningside/Lenox Park.

Where the wild things are — now

When creatures with talons and fangs appear so near our strip malls and streets, it may sometimes feel like an invasion. But Atlanta was wild for eons before the first railroad spike or even the first Cherokee. We are the new arrivals, with our concrete and cars, and our encounters with wildlife are largely as trespassers surprised to find the residents still home.

“Over many decades now we have kept building and building, and we’re constantly moving people and homes and businesses into areas that were wild until recently,” says Scott Lange, executive director of the AWARE Wildlife Center, which rehabilitates injured and orphaned wild animals and educates for the peaceful coexistence of humans and wildlife. “And so that has steadily increased the number of encounters that people have with animals.”

“The sheer numbers of encounters are increasing because of the expansion of the urban footprint,” says Drew Larson, a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. For example, as metro Atlanta expands northward, it moves into stable black bear populations on the Piedmont, leading to a rise in black bear encounters over the last five years.

As we move into the habitats of native wild species, Larson says, “some don’t do as well in urban environs, and others do exceptionally well.” Deer, coyotes, foxes, and certain birds like mockingbirds and cardinals all thrive in Atlanta’s greener urban environments. Cliff-dwelling peregrine falcons even adapt to downtown skyscrapers. Wild turkeys and bobwhite quails do not adapt as well. Neither do black bears, but, says Larson, “that’s mostly from a human side where the presence of bears in and around those environments aren’t as welcome by the human inhabitants.”

The coyotes are somewhat new, at least on the scale of ecological time. “Forty years ago we wouldn’t have seen coyotes in populated or developed areas,” says AWARE’s Lange. “Now they are found in every neighborhood in Atlanta.”

“The coyote is here because we as humans wiped out the red wolf,” says Chris Mowry, founder of the Atlanta Coyote Project, which studies coyotes and offers strategies for peaceful coexistence. “It easily allowed the coyote to move into that vacant niche.”

Fear of fang and claw

Most of us encounter wildlife every day in Atlanta, without taking much notice of the squirrels and songbirds. More often the unfamiliar catches our attention: the erroneously perceived threat or the exceedingly rare occasions when the animals fight back.

“I was asked a few months ago about owls that had interacted with humans,” says Adam Betuel, conservation director of the Atlanta Audubon Society. “A couple had scratched the head of a passerby or gone after a pet.” The stories made the news in ways that the far more common “owl hit and killed by car” or “owl’s home cut down to make way for a condo complex” never would.

For an owl or other bird of prey to attack a human or pet is “very, very rare,” Betuel says. “It’s nothing really to worry about. We’re a huge and scary thing for most birds. … And the overwhelming majority of our pets are too large for raptors.”

Todd Schneider, an ornithologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, says that most bird attacks are really just “bluff charges.” Hawks and owls might fly at a human or pet, then pull up, almost always because they’re protecting their nest or their young.

Atlanta’s great horned owls are large enough to view smaller cats or very small dogs as prey, but Schneider says that such attacks are highly uncommon. The largest of Atlanta’s owls, they typically weigh no more than five pounds, so even larger cats are more than a match for them.

Snake bites are somewhat more common, with Georgia Poison Control receiving a few hundred reports statewide each year. According to Larson of the DNR, only six of Georgia’s 46 species of snake are venomous, including the copperhead, which is the only one common in Atlanta.

“Out of the venomous snakes that are native to Georgia, they are the least venomous,” Larson says. And, while venomous snake bites can be serious medical matters, fatalities are extremely rare, with the Centers for Disease Control reporting a nationwide average of only five snake-related fatalities each year.

Even coyotes are no substantial threat to humans. Adult coyotes in Georgia generally weigh 25-45 pounds, about the size of a medium dog. While they are opportunistic omnivores, in healthy ecosystems they feed mostly on rodents and other small mammals, insects such as grasshoppers, and fruit. Some may eat fawns and, less commonly, adult deer. They will, however, take advantage of opportunities to eat food waste, roadkill, pet food, and — on rare occasions — outdoor cats and small dogs.

There are isolated reports of coyotes attacking humans, most of them in California. A report out of Ohio State University’s School of Environmental and Natural Resources documented 142 coyote attacks between 1960 and 2006 in the U.S. and Canada. That’s an average of about three per year. Contrast that with approximately 4.5 million dog bites annually in the U.S. alone, as estimated by the CDC.

The Atlanta Coyote Project’s website has a form for reporting coyotes. The form includes a choice to report a “sighting” or an “encounter.”

“An encounter is more of a conflict,” says Mowry, and “those are really rare.” When encounters do occur, “they don’t involve coyote-human conflict. They’re generally with pets, if and when they do occur.”

A peaceable kingdom?

We can, in fact, coexist peacefully with coyotes as readily as we already do with songbirds and squirrels. We can coexist with owls and hawks, with foxes and deer, with turtles and snakes.

“Very easily,” Mowry says. “It requires the desire to do so.”

AWARE’s Lange says, “It’s almost always possible and really the best course of action to at most deter an animal like a coyote from coming in your yard, but not to do more than that, not to take violent action.”

If you spot coyotes in your neighborhood, keep a respectful distance from them and leave them alone. Don’t threaten them, and they’ll almost never threaten you. If they come too close, make lots of noise, and they’ll likely run away. In the extremely unlikely case that a coyote becomes aggressive, enter safe shelter if immediately available, fight back if you have to (you’re much bigger than them), and call 9-1-1.

The best way for us to coexist without conflict is to preserve the unbuilt spaces and natural ecosystems in our city, so that wild animals have less reason to enter our back yards and roadsides.

“Maintaining greenspace is one of the best things we can do,” Larson says. “It can’t be all concrete and brick.” And avoid “providing any situation that would invite wild animals in to potentially cause a problem.”

Keep food waste in closed garbage cans or secure compost bins. Don’t overfeed your backyard birds, leading to excess seed left on the ground. Don’t feed your pets outside, where pet food may attract scavengers.

And as tempting as it may be, don’t leave out food, water, or salt licks for deer, which may become too habituated to human contact and reliant on the easy supplies. This may lead to more nuisances for humans and more car-related accidents for deer.

If birds attack, Schneider advises avoiding the area of the bluff charge and being patient while their young mature. “It’s just like people growing up,” he says. “When people are toddlers, we’re very protective of them. By the time they’re teenagers, you’re ready to get them out of there.”

And as for the safety of pets, don’t leave very small dogs unsupervised when they’re outside, and keep your cats indoors. This is not only safer for the pets, but, says Betuel, it’s safer for the smaller birds, which are being decimated by domestic cats hunting outside.

Keep Atlanta wild

In an ongoing study that the Atlanta Coyote Project plans to publish soon, Mowry says, “we’re seeing amazing biodiversity in parts of town where coyotes are found.” He explains that “a healthy ecosystem that has a top predator — which the coyote is filling that niche — now helps keep other species in check so that none becomes too numerous.”

Birds serve such purposes as pollinating flowers, spreading berry seeds and cleaning roadsides of animal carcasses. “If we didn’t have hawks and owls, we’d be overrun with mice,” Schneider says. “If we didn’t have songbirds, insects would just go crazy.”

“I would argue that every plant, animal, and microbe has a role in the environment whether we’ve identified that role or not,” Larson says. “They fill a niche and likely provide some ecological benefit.”

About 200 species of birds have been documented in Dekalb, Fulton, and Cobb counties.“We’re so lucky here in Atlanta because we have this amazing tree canopy,” says Betuel, “and we’re situated in this great spot just below the Appalachians … at the confluence of eastern fly-ways.”

And there are less tangible benefits too. Urban wildlife can delight and inspire us.

“We’re part of nature,” Larson says. “It’s one thing to go on a hike. It’s another thing to go on a hike and see some turkeys strutting or see a deer fawn nursing with its mother. Those are encounters that really enhance time in the outdoors.”

Singer-songwriter Kristen Englert-Lenz wrote to me about a late night when she returned home on the eve of her birthday. “After the car turned off, something caught my attention in the periphery,” she says. “I looked to my right. Sitting on top of the mailbox, about one foot away, was an adult barred owl staring directly at me. I started to cry. It’s one of the most powerful interactions with any kind of wildlife, let alone urban, I’ve ever experienced.”

Imagine Atlanta as the birds see it: the stretches of unbroken canopy, the lifeline of the Chattahoochee River. See Atlanta as the turtles do: a network of creeks and rivers, the summer sun quickening their hearts. Prowl Atlanta like a coyote or fox, on the hunt through patches of forest, traversing the bank of a creek one hot afternoon and coming upon a man. Atlanta is so much more than what we have built, more than how we fill our human days. Look to urban wildlife to show us Atlanta, the wild city.

Insider tips

If you see what you believe to be an injured or orphaned wild animal, contact AWARE or a similar wildlife rescue organization before intervening in any way. Humans with the best of intentions sometimes separate baby animals from their parents, who may simply have been waiting for the humans to leave. awarewildlife.org

For more ways to coexist with Georgia’s native animals, see the resources on the Georgia Department of Wildlife’s “Living with Wildlife” page. georgiawildlife.com/nuisancewildlife