Deer, geese and the occasional cougar have paraded through metro neighborhoods, and now come the wily coyotes, which are infiltrating the metro area in record numbers.

Warnings about coyotes -- once known as "ghosts of the prairie" -- are becoming a staple in metro police departments from Roseville to Minnetonka to Eagan. While they're difficult to count, coyotes could number in the thousands, drawn to parks and lakes and even neighborhoods where they feed on rabbits, squirrels, rodents and family pets.

The coyote boom in the Twin Cities mirrors trends in Chicago, New York and other major U.S. cities where the shy animal has taken up housekeeping even in congested districts.

"We're seeing lots of pairs right now because of mating season," said Karen Grimm, Eagan's animal control officer. The city had 47 coyote "incidents" in 2009 -- mostly sightings -- and another 13 already this year. Coyotes are now so frequent in Eagan that the city posted a map showing all the places where coyotes were seen crossing streets, visiting back yards, even approaching decks.

"They're very adaptable," Grimm said. "They just need a place to bed down -- and food."

"These animals inhabit cities in numbers we wouldn't previously believe," said Bryan Lueth, a wildlife specialist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. "Because nobody is bothering them, successive generations of these animals grow up among people."

So significant is the influx of coyotes that a new attempt at a bounty bill is alive in the Legislature. More people than ever report maulings of their dogs and cats. And a recent search for a Mexican gray wolf missing from the Wildlife Science Center in Anoka County led to dozens of public sightings in a single day -- of coyotes.

Minnesota has no documented cases of attacks on humans, but it has happened in other states. In October, two coyotes killed a 19-year-old Canadian woman.

Police in various Twin Cities suburbs urge caution around coyotes but advise residents not to panic. Coyotes are shy by nature, tend to avoid people, and by all accounts are less likely than the neighbor's dog to attack and injure someone.

St. Paul's animal control supervisor, Bill Stephenson, said the first time he saw a coyote in his city was about 20 years ago. Now, he said, they're everywhere, including in Como Park.

"We're taking away their habitat," he said, as suburbs encroach on once-rural fields and forests. City residents should realize that coyotes are wild animals and therefore unpredictable in nature, he said.

"Don't leave small children unattended," he cautioned.

Coyotes resemble German shepherds "but obviously they're not wearing collars," Lueth said. In most instances, they're smaller and lighter than wolves. Still, Lueth said, many people who see a coyote think they're watching a wolf.

"You get a glimpse and your brain kind of jumps to conclusions," he said.

Rep. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, said he introduced the bounty bill because constituents worry about growing numbers of coyotes that threaten sheep and calves. The bill would allow each of Minnesota's 87 counties to decide whether they wanted to pay a bounty, but Koenen said he doesn't know if a bounty for coyotes is practical in metro counties.

"The only thing I'm sure about is that the population is growing," he said.

But Lueth said the "conventional wisdom" among wildlife specialists is that bounties don't control coyotes but instead create other problems. "People could bring them from Wisconsin and claim a bounty on them," he said.

Coyotes are now in breeding season, which Lueth said results in more activity and a jump in calls to animal control officers.

Coyotes are "nature's garbage bin," Grimm said, and will go wherever they can find food. People who let cats roam at night or tether small dogs in their yards are asking for trouble, she said.

Still, people shouldn't fear coyotes, Lueth said:

"There are far more dangerous things in our everyday lives, like riding in a motor vehicle."

Kevin Giles • 612-673-4432