They’ve been sighted coming out of the woods at dusk and dawn looking to chow down on rabbits, rodents, and other small mammals–like, say, cats.

This spring, a neighbor spotted one “coming out of or going into Dicken Woods,” says Stephanie Hunter of the Friends of Dicken Woods. Hunter says a coyote also was seen in Pioneer Woods a few months ago. The Orchard Hills-Maplewood Homeowners Association reported a coyote on the northeast side three years ago, and another was sighted at Miller Park in the northwest three years before that.

This is a very good thing, says Jason Frenzel, volunteer and outreach coordinator for the city parks department’s Natural Area Preservation Unit. “In an ecosystem sense, they’re great,” Frenzel explains. “Right now there are a lot of herbivores out there that are not being checked by any predators. People love their bunnies, but the fact of the matter is that they eat our vegetables–and not just our vegetables. It is a significant ecological concern, and coyotes are a big help in keeping their numbers in check.”

Not everyone is so happy to see them. Folks on the northwest side reported one or more coyotes in their backyards and even on their decks in 2007. And Hunter says that one person in her neighborhood was upset because he feared the coyotes would eat his cats.

Frenzel allows that a coyote might eat a cat if it got the chance. “As a full-sized human, there’s not much reason to be afraid of coyotes,” he says. “They’re much more scared of us than us of them. I suppose small, small babies could be preyed on if left alone in the woods at dusk–but how likely is that? Seriously, though, any small mammal we love, we should keep an eye on them at dawn and dusk.

“But the best thing is to prevent the interaction with coyotes,” says Frenzel. “Keep house pets inside or under watchful eyes. Lock up outside food sources–and not just for coyotes but also for large rodents and raccoons.” If we do, Frenzel says, the coyotes will go after rabbits, squirrels, and other rodents, along with roadkill–all things we humans would like to see kept under control by somebody other than us.

Frenzel says there are likely “only a small handful” of coyotes in town. “It could be half a dozen, but probably not more. They’re solitary animals, and they cover a pretty large tract of land. We usually see them in late spring and early summer…When mothers are trying to feed their young, they’re out a bit more during daylight hours.

“They’re bouncing back from less hunting,” continues Frenzel. “It’s all part of the resurgence of small predators and flying predators. If you’ve noticed, there are a lot more hawks in town these days, plus there are the falcons at Burton Tower. And all these increases in predators are historically and scientifically correct.

“We’re getting the sense that a lot of different animals are adapting to urban life,” concludes Frenzel, “and the return of coyotes is seen as a great success in restoring natural areas. It’s just something of an adjustment for us humans to realize what we’re sharing our neighborhoods with.”