An Instance of Seeing A Coyote One Day

I met Jona with her rescued greyhound on the leash in a park early this morning — she called out hello to me, asking if I had seen the coyote which lives there. As I answered, she spotted the coyote! The coyote disappeared, but as we talked it reappeared. Ahh, it always is nice to talk to people who understand and love the coyotes. I found out about Jona’s previous park work within the national parks  – I hope she can help us with what is going on in the parks here.

As we spoke, a woman with two active dogs began up the path. I warned her that a coyote was around: if her dogs might chase, could she leash them? It did not happen immediately, but she was able to grab them and leash them. She did not want to be followed by the coyote and anxiously asked if the path she was on would be okay. The coyotes make some peoples’ day, and unmake others’!

Then Hunter showed up with his dog. The coyote still was perched high above, observing us below. Hunter’s dog ran up to me but then calmed down. As he and I talked, the coyote watched us, but particularly it watched the large labrador. Hunter told me that when he encountered this coyote several nights ago, he was surprised that his dog actually greeted it “in its own fashion”: a crouch and then a leap up! Coyote behavior, and dog-coyote behavior are always favorite topics of conversation.

Hunter walked on, while I snapped some pictures. The coyote was grunting, which means it was preparing for a barking session, as it watched Hunter and the dog leave. The coyote suddenly decided to follow them, so it raced down the hill, keeping its distance, and I, of course, followed too. So we ended up in a long single file: Hunter in front, the lab, the coyote and me at the end. At a certain point, Hunter’s dog decided to let me know that he was happy I had re-joined them. As he came running at me, the coyote wandered off to the side. I’ve been knocked off my feet before by this dog, so I crouched low, so that a fall would be a short one. The lab danced around me. The coyote became agitated with all the commotion and started its barking: a very high pitched and continuous bark. We knew the coyote was already in a mode for barking because of the grunts we had heard earlier: there had been enough dog activity earlier to set this off: coyotes do not seem to like a lot of commotion. This particular coyote really gets into its barking. The barking sessions sound like arias, so we call this one a “real drama queen”. She sits still when she barks, sometimes rearing up on her hind legs, sometimes raising her hackles, but always tilting her head back. She really gets into it.

So Hunter walked on out of the park — he doesn’t want his dog to be the reason for prolonging the barking — and I watched. Another dog walking on the trail, seeing and hearing the coyote, started to chase her. I pleaded with the owner not to allow this, and she was able to grab her unleashed dog. Then two more walkers with leashed dogs walked by as the coyote was still barking away. I think we all appreciated the “drama queen” and her performance. Things then became calm and the coyote settled down to rest and sleep — yes, right there in the open and in plain view.

Then suddenly, well before I had noticed any change in the surroundings, the coyote took off like a flash into the far distance and was gone. The “cause” of the fleeing appeared: it was a dog running up to where the coyote had been. The dog had not seen the coyote’s split-second departure. I approached the owner who didn’t have verbal or leash control over the dog — she had been yelling ineffectively for the dog to return to her. Our Animal and Care Department has been sending out someone to enforce the leash law at odd times — I thought I should warn her. This person was very upset that she might have to keep her dogs leashed, and she was upset that Animal Care and Control was coming to the park in order to protect a coyote. Dogs have always been fairly free in the San Francisco parks — and dog owners don’t want to give this up.

I’ve been speaking to a wolf specialist who said there really is “no middle ground” with coyotes. We need to protect the coyotes. The park situation has changed since our coyotes have moved in. We are the ones that need to adapt to this with stricter rules.

It was time for me to go. I had been in the park almost two hours. It is always nice to see a coyote. More often there is no coyote to be seen, or a coyote is much further off.

I want to add a conversation I had several days ago with Jacob, who has two dogs and is very enthusiastic about the coyotes and about his dogs’ behavior towards them — behaviors in which they engage at a distance from each other. He has noticed that some dogs, including one of his, are totally in-tune to eye-contact and communication with the coyotes — this translates into them being wary; whereas other dogs are totally oblivious to a coyote, as is his other dog. Jacob has noticed that the particular coyote we have lately been seeing will “lock” into eye-contact with some of the dogs, and he has noticed that this is an indication of this coyote’s dominance, which only those dogs who are in-tune to are able to discern.

Native Plant Program Damage

Today one of the coyotes was basking in the sunshine in one of many favorite spots — there was no activity, so there was not much to write about regarding her.

However, in the park this morning there was a huge crew of volunteers cutting down a beautiful area of old growth, lichens, moss and overhanging picturesque branches — all to be replaced by a damselfly and butterfly habitat of native plants. This “nativism”, which involves substantial clearing of existing growth, has impacted the coyotes who live here. The area the coyotes use the most is an area that has been impenetrable to humans, because of both the extreme incline of the hills and because of the density of the poison oak and blackberries. No footpaths are in this area. Since no one has ever cared to go into this area, it has been a perfect coyote habitat. However, last fall we found out that the nativists were pulling out poison oak in this area and as they did so they uncovered a coyote den. Poison Oak actually is a native plant which serves as a protective barrier for the animals. Instead of leaving the area alone, they returned this spring to pull out even more poison oak whereupon they uncovered several more dens. This interference with the dens has impacted the coyotes — they are much more out in the open than they ever have been before. Is this plant program more important than the existing wildlife in the area?

The nativist plant program, referred to as NAP has received a full 1/3 of our parkland for their program. Any plant that was in California before 1750 is a “true native California plant” — these are mostly scrub and dune plants. That these plants never existed in some of our parks doesn’t seem to matter — they are being ‘restored’ anyway. And neither does it matter that people love the park the way it is. This park has never been managed in the past — and that is where its charm and beauty have always resided. It has always felt “wild”, untouched by humans, where you could see what wild-growth was really like if it were left alone.

For this program, the dense, existing growth which has been in place for a long time, is being removed: dense thickets, underbrush, old-growth with lichens and moss. Hundreds of the eucalyptus trees, which serve to collect the fog water and moisten the ground, have been removed; so much of this very special natural beauty which has always been the signature character of this particular park is being taken out in the name of “restoring native plants”. Most importantly, the removal of this growth is impacting animal habitats and removing animal hiding places. The coyote dens are a specific example. Another example is the so-called “invasive” “non-native” flowers growing on the grasslands which have been removed by poisons, even though they add color and variety. Poisons such as Brush-B-Gone are being used, affecting gophers, voles, bees, snails and worms. These small animals are the food source for our hawks, owls, raccoons, and coyotes.

So, the forestry character of some of our parks is being altered and existing habitats are being interfered with or eliminated in favor of landscaped areas which will require continual maintenance and weeding to keep out what will continue to grow there on its own. I myself have spoken to the planning director for the parks and to the head of the day-to-day operations. Submitted comments won’t even be addressed until the springtime.

Volunteers with no supervision continue the clearing. Our Park Department has few gardeners because of the budget cuts, so volunteers do most of the work using their own directives and a one dimensional credo to remove anything “non-native” and “invasive”: we now have barren patches along paths and a mud-hole in place of the once lushly vegetated creek are. This week, a huge swath of willows — again, a native plant — was cut down and chopped up to preserve 7 small native brush plants higher up on the hill — and at a distance from the willows that defied comprehension for how the two were even connected. Today, beautiful long tendril-like branches, 6-8 inches thick and covered with lichens and moss were chopped down in order to create a damselfly and butterfly habitat, irregardless of the use of this area by other animals: every morning I had been watching the Coopers Hawks perched in this area as they hunted -– the perches are gone now. There are plenty of places in the city where “native plant gardens” can be created — why does this beautiful old-growth have to be cut down. The “gem” character of this particular park is being altered totally.

We all need to be included in the planning of the park, not just the vehement and well organized native plant group who seldom have frequented the park. There is a lot here that needs to be saved, including the animals habitats and, of equal importance, the wild and overgrown character of the park we all love so much. Nativists have an arsenal of politically correct catch-phrases: “invasive” “native” “non-native” “biodiversity” “scientific”, which are used to impose their own biases. However, in just a few weeks, I have seen that just removing the “invasive cape ivy” is not where the plan is headed, even though this is what is talked about. The program is changing the entire nature of the park, altering the overgrown wildness which is its signature and primary characteristic by letting a nativist program take over the park. This, in turn, is interfering with existing animal habitats.

We all are for native plants and some clearing, the extent of this work is what is of concern.

A Coyote Blog For Those Who Love Coyotes

Thoughts about not-so-shy little coyotes:                                                       why it is this way and what we can do to coexist peacefully.

Coyotes can be seen occasionally  in various parks in the Bay Area. Most stay fairly hidden, so a glimpse might be all you get. But in several of the parks there are coyotes who are more “out-in-the-open.” Aren’t coyotes supposed to have fears and flee from humans and dogs?  People have been accused of causing some coyotes to lose fear by approaching to watch or photograph them — they advocate that we need to throw stones and scream and shoo them off at all times. I disagree with both of these premises. I want to address why some coyote are not so shy, and that we need to concentrate on preventing dog encounters for the dogs’ and coyotes’ safety. I’ve added a footnote about my own approach to wildlife.

First of all, these coyotes have been acclimated to humans for at least three years now — that is as long as I have seen any in the parks. This is due to their living in an urban environment where they see people daily. Coyotes are fast learners: a coyote would quickly learn that humans do not harm them: there have not been any adverse consequences to coyotes from humans so far. It might also be that some coyotes are individually less fearful than others — animals are individuals and do not all fit a “norm”.

People are fearful that some of the coyotes are being fed: walkers have seen food left out, and residents along the periphery of the park have let me know that they would talk to household members who “might” be leaving food out when I went to each house requesting that they not do so. Those of us who care for the coyotes know that you never feed wildlife, because this could lead to a coyote’s “demanding” food at some point — it could lead to aggressive behavior towards humans. However, these tendencies do not exist in the coyotes I have seen. Although these coyotes can sometimes be spotted blatantly out in the open with no need to run for cover, they cautiously keep their distance from people.

I have seen coyotes going about their business of hunting gophers, observing, walking up a street. I’ve seen one doze off, eyes closed, in full view of a stream of walkers. However, they do move off, keeping their “critical distance” if approached too closely — the distance is a measure of a coyote’s feeling of safety.  Most of us who love coyotes see the parks as their home — respectfully. After all, we have an entire city, they have only a park, where they have asked only, if not blatantly and clearly, that we not let the dogs chase them.

The only problem I have seen is with the dogs. Dogs are seen as a threat to coyotes — a much bigger threat than dog walkers realize, a threat we may not really comprehend until our dog gets hurt. Dogs approaching a coyote have caused every incident of concern in our parks. That coyotes communicate visually is something domestic dogs do not often respond to.  A coyote may need to communicate more forcefully to dogs who chase it: short bursts of charging and retreating, a long and piercing barking session up on its hind legs, or nips at the haunches of the offending dog in a cattle dog’s herding fashion — all of this accomplished with intensity. We need to prevent these incidents. We can prevent them by leashing our dogs in coyote areas.

In response to these dog intrusions, some coyotes have taken the initiative and become somewhat bolder with some of the dogs.  Although I have not seen coyotes follow humans walking alone, coyotes have sometimes followed dogs and their walkers. No one has been particularly bothered by this until very recently, when a couple of walkers said this made them uncomfortable: they felt that they were being “escorted” out of the park more than just curiously observed, and they felt they were being followed a little more closely than before. But most people in the parks are still thrilled to catch a glimpse of this wild creature in an urban park, even if it is following them.

It seems that the best way to make co-existence work peacefully — coyotes, humans, dogs — is to keep our dogs totally away from any coyotes by keeping them right next to us in sections of parks where we see a coyote most often. Even with this precaution, there is the element of a surprise appearance that easily can catch anyone off guard. So, a dog owner needs to look ahead, think ahead, and leash up. Animal Care and Control has told me that a coyote is allowed to protect itself. What dog owners need to know is that to prevent a coyote’s need to protect itself, we need to keep all dogs totally and absolutely away from it and from any possible pups. Coyote activity mostly occurs early in the day, although it is not limited to this time.

The return of coyotes to urban settings is an exciting development which points to an ideal that many of us have hoped for: an environment which is becoming more and more balanced in all of its aspects. It is an example of where, rather than controlling all aspects of our surroundings, we are accepting what is out there and learning to appreciate it and live with it. A coyote is a wild animal. We need to remember this. However, in an urban setting the edge of this wildness is going to be lost — but not all of it will be lost. So, a coyote will stand up for itself when threatened by a dog that chases or startles it.  We can eliminate their need to stand up for themselves by ensuring that our dogs never approach them. It is only through each dog owner’s taking responsibility that this can happen. I’m hoping that everyone will help.

I wanted to add a footnote about wildlife and communicating with it. I know an animal person who truly believes that one should keep a huge distance and never even make eye-contact with a wild animal to keep it wild. I can’t imagine a more soul-less approach to animals. It is only by branching out and truly seeing other people and animals that our world acquires layers of meaning. To absorb as much as there is out there, we have to be open to it. Fortunately, one of my favorite people, Jane Goodall, agrees. In the September 21, 2009 issue of Time Magazine, she says, “I’ve always been very attached to the animals I work with, and although a scientist is supposed to be subjective and lack empathy, I’ve always thought that this is wrong. It’s the empathy you feel with a living, individual being that really helps you understand.”

Any suggestions for keeping our urban coyotes as safe as possible? Back to first page of blog.

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