By Ed Brock
Leon Lord of Jonesboro is sure he saw a coyote in the early morning gloom this week as he drove through Riverdale.
As far as local and state animal control and wildlife officials are concerned, that's entirely possible.
"We do have them and they're probably here to stay," said Don McGowan, wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
It was around 6:15 a.m. Monday when 46-year-old Lord was driving near the intersection of Taylor and Rountree roads near Riverdale High School.
"Just as I went through the traffic light the animal came out of the woods," Lord said.
At first the animal had its nose to the ground as if sniffing a trail, but then it picked up its head and looked in Lord's direction. The sun wasn't up yet, but Lord said his headlights illuminated the animal directly at one point and there was ambient light from the nearby school and a street light.
The animal was about 2 feet tall with coloring "like a squirrel," light brown with some gray, Lord said. When he worked as a security guard at a Georgia Wildlife Federation exhibition he saw stuffed coyotes and foxes on display.
"I'm pretty sure I know what a coyote looks like," Lord said. "It's kind of hard to miss that long, narrow snout."
While she can't remember getting calls about coyotes, Clayton County Animal Control Capt. Toni Tidwell said it's quite possible that that is what Lord saw.
"They are all over," Tidwell said. "I've seen them down by the county line."
According to a DNR fact sheet on coyotes, they began coming into Georgia to fill the void left by the extermination of the red wolf. A native of the southwest United States, the coyote is believed to have colonized all of the lower 48 states, McGowan said.
"We know they're in every county in Georgia," McGowan said, adding that DNR doesn't know the exact population of coyotes. "They're probably still on the increase."
McGowan said that coyotes were sighted in south Georgia as early as the 1920s, and about 20 years ago they were sighted in north Georgia and the metro Atlanta area.
Coyotes are highly versatile animals that, during the spring and summer, have been known to eat plants and insects. Their closest predator competition comes from red foxes, but "when they compete the red fox usually loses."
Normally the coyote preys on small mammals, including rabbits and squirrels, and they are quite capable of living in urban environments.
"That's something they've been doing in the southwest for some time," McGowan said. "It's a new experience to us in the east."
Coyotes and foxes are more active in the summer months as they hunt for food as they wean their pups, said DNR senior wildlife biologist Nick Nicholson. As long as the coyote is acting normally and not showing signs of having rabies they are generally no threat to humans.
However, he urged cat owners not to let their pets roam free as they are prey to both coyotes and foxes.