Increasingly aggressive coyotes in New York state are being targeted by a Cornell University study aimed at finding out what’s causing the unlikely behavior.

Coyotes have been attacking neighborhood pets on the fringes of urban and suburban areas in much of the eastern United States, say researchers at the Ithaca, N.Y., university.

“This kind of aggressive behavior is usually the last stage before coyotes actually start attacking humans, such as small children that are perceived by the coyotes as a potential food source,” said Paul Curtis, associate professor of natural resources at Cornell University.

He said that in the past two decades, several dozen attacks on humans have been reported in California.

No similar human attacks are on record in Maine, said Mark Michaud, a spokesman for the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

But Michaud said the department has dealt with complaints related to coyote attacks on pets in some urban areas.

Several calls were logged by the department from people in the Portland area about a year ago, Michaud said. The callers suspected coyotes were to blame for pets that had gone missing.

“I don’t know if it was real or imagined,” he said of the complaints.

Coyotes are common across much of North America but are rarely a danger to humans. Wary of hunters and trappers, the carnivores typically keep to wooded areas and away from humans.

But now that coyotes have been sighted foraging in populated areas, additional research is needed to find out why and how to prevent potential human-coyote conflicts, the Cornell researchers say.

Curtis and his colleagues are launching a five-year study of coyote ecology and behavior in urban and suburban areas of New York state, funded with a $428,000 grant from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Additional funding from DEC is being provided through an existing study with Dan Decker, director of the Cornell Agricultural Experiment Station and associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell; and Tom Brown, leader of the Human Dimensions Research Unit in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell. Both will work with Curtis to survey public attitudes and behaviors relating to coyotes.

“As coyotes become more adapted to living near people, hearing or seeing coyotes may become more common,” said Gordon Batcheller, a supervising wildlife biologist with the DEC’s Bureau of Wildlife and Curtis’ primary DEC collaborator on the coyote study.

During spring and early summer, coyote sightings in rural and developed areas are likely to be more frequent because the animals are raising their litters and require more food, they said.

Michaud said that because of Maine’s more rural nature, coyotes can easily remain hidden in wooded areas. As a result, they are seldom seen and rarely “come into contact with humans.”

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