RALEIGH — It was 5 a.m. when Barbara Barron saw it, loping past her window under a streetlamp, tail as long and bushy as a feather duster.
Too big for a fox. Too lanky for a German shepherd. She had a coyote on her street a block off Wade Avenue, trotting distance from downtown Raleigh.
Coyotes have long stalked North Carolina. The lop-eared predator now occupies all 100 counties of the state, from the Smoky Mountains to Hatteras Island.
But seeing them in the densest part of Raleigh, inside the I-440 Beltline, is a new wildlife experience for people leading urban, apartment-dwelling lives.
It never occurred to me, said Barron, an environmental consultant. Its extremely dense and urban here. Im on the lookout now.
Coyotes conjure images of the dusty prairie and the mythical West, an animal as independent and hardy as the pioneers. But their range is extensive enough for them to thrive in Chicago suburbs and in Long Beach, Calif.
In a 2012 report, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission described them as the most adaptable animal in North America, growing in population and pushing deeper into territory once thought unsuitable. Between 2010 and 2011, hunters took 36,041 coyotes statewide an 85 percent increase over five years.
As a species they succeed partly because they can stomach most any diet, subsisting for a week on berries and persimmons then for another week on rabbits. But also, although theyre wide-ranging, they learn their territory well enough to spot a tiny detail thats out of place, making it hard for hunters to approach with an unfamiliar sound or scent.
They live in a food-rich environment, said Coleen Olfenbuttel with N.C. Wildlife. Theres no place they cant live as long as theres food.
The streets around downtown Raleigh, with ample bird feeders, rabbits, squirrels and no chance at meeting a hunter, make comfortable habit.
In recent weeks, theyve been spotted walking alongside the Beltline near two exits. The coyote Barron saw trotted past OBerry Street in November, but the listserv in her neighborhood of University Park has lit up with recent sightings.
Bailey Tucker was pulling into his driveway on Furches Street Saturday when a coyote darted out of the way, as big as a collie, maybe 40 pounds. Rabbits are plentiful in his backyard, to the extent that he cant grow a blade of grass, so he figures the predators stop over for meal.
He isnt scared of the animals, which are notoriously skittish around people and run when confronted. But he does want to warn neighbors about feeding cats outside.
Its not his first brush with big wildlife. Hes noticed scat on the ground. Still, a coyote is an unsuspected sight in a neighborhood with a Snoopys hot dogs on a nearby corner.
You dont typically think of the outskirts of downtown Raleigh and N.C. State as a wildlife refuge, Tucker said.
A healthy coyote poses no danger to humans. The Humane Society of the United States ranks coyote attacks as less likely than getting hit by a flying golf ball or poorly aimed champagne cork. Two people in the United States and Canada are known to have been killed by the animals since 1980, the group reports.
The streets around downtown are already used to foxes, hawks and snakes, a proximity to critters that other cities cant offer. Theyll just have to get used to a few new ones.