Urban Coyote Myth: Coyotes Luring Dogs to Their Deaths

[The following post was contributed to my blog by M.Paglieri]

People’s interactions with urbanized coyotes have given birth to several myths over the years. These stories start from subjective interpretations of observations people make of coyote behavior interpreted through the lens of personal beliefs, biases and the deep-seated evolutionary fear of predators, and have no basis in reality or scientific fact. Which brings to mind a quote by Anais Nin: “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

One of my all-time favorites is the story that has been repeated over and over again about how a single coyote intentionally lures unsuspecting dogs away from their homes to become a meal for a hungry pack of coyotes that are waiting to devour it. Another popular version of the myth is that it’s a female coyote in heat that intentionally targets and lures male dogs away to be eaten.

I can understand the mechanism by which these myths can start: through lack of knowledge of animal behavior, specifically, how dogs and coyotes interact. Most times, animal behaviors have simple, uncomplicated explanations and it is important to objectively evaluate that natural behavior, if we are to gain an understanding of how to peacefully and safely coexist with wildlife that are sharing the environment with us.

So, what appears to be “sinister” motivations on part of the coyote is simply this:

1. A coyote investigates another canid (dog) in the neighborhood. Younger coyotes are more curious about new things in their environment. Alpha coyotes will also investigate if there is another canid (dog) in their environment to determine whether it’s a threat. Close encounters, interactions and direct eye contact is made.

2. Dogs are also curious about other canids such as coyotes, and the dog will sometimes follow/chase the coyote as it returns back into the woods/hills.

3. The dog at that point may encounter other coyote family members because young coyotes and alphas sometimes travel together – a natural behavior of social canids.

4. The dog entering the coyote’s domain may then be interpreted as an “intruder.” Either as a competitor over resources, or as a threat to their offspring if there are pups around (or the dog becomes defensive like in the video of the dog and wolves that was posted earlier).

5. An altercation ensues with the dog. Depending on the size and strength of the dog, it can either be injured or killed. Severity of the attack is also dependent on the coyotes’ risk/benefit assessment. During such altercations, coyotes are injured as well – and sometimes, nothing happens…

Traditionally, urban myths and legends always have a moral. The moral of this story is to have the proper fencing to keep your dogs confined to their yards and to keep them on a leash when walking them in areas known to have coyotes.

There are many instances where people have had their larger dogs run off and intermingle with coyotes without incident, as well as times where large dogs have chased down and killed coyotes.

 

 

Ear Trouble

2015-10-08 (1)


Coyote ears are large and their hearing is keen. Ears are crucial for a coyote’s hunting and self-protection. Even though protected by fur, sometimes, a foreign object can get in there and get stuck. The usual response of the animal is to shake its head, rub the ear with a paw, or scratch at it with a hind leg. All those tricks had been tried by this young coyote here, but these activities were not intense. As I watched her during the afternoon, what stood out was the way she held her one ear — the left one — really low.

What could have been causing the problem? Could something have entered into and be lodged in her ear? It’s well past foxtail season. Foxtails are the nemesis of all dogs in the area. These foreign objects have to be surgically removed because, since they are grass awns — barbed seeds — they work their way IN and can’t come out — it’s a one way journey. These barbs can cause infections in many dogs and having them removed helps keeps our vets in business.  I’m wondering how a coyote might cope with one of these, especially if it causes an infection. Since the next day this gal was okay, I’m going to assume the ear problem, however annoying and irritating, involved something small, such as a bug or small grain of debris.

2011-05-02

photo by Charles Wood

“Mom” in the Los Angeles coyote family which Charles Wood wrote about for this blog (enter “Charles Wood” into the search box to find his postings) had an ear which shriveled up due to end stage otitis, according to a vet contacted by Charles. It resulted in a permanent disfiguration and therefore an identifying mark for her.

Found Treasure

This coyote began heading off of the path and into the bushes when she eyed something on the path ahead. She must have known what it was because she went straight to it and, without sniffing it, picked it up and carried it, doubling back to where she originally had been headed off the path, then into the bushes she disappeared with her treasure!

It was just a little solid piece of wood — a stick. I’ve picked up little rocks simply because I liked them. Maybe she liked the look of the stick, or maybe it was a stick which she had already previously possessed as a treasure — so she may have simply found “an old lost friend”.

Coyotes enjoy picking up odd shaped or unusual things to play with, either chewing on them, tossing them up in the air to catch them, or playing tug-of-war with a companion. Certain of these items become “owned” for a while until they are either lost or tired of. Here are some other posts about finding special things and treating them in unexpected, or expected, ways:

Entertainment: Abandon and Fun With A Ball!

Mischief or Just A Diversion?

A Coyote Buries A rock, or Leaves a Present For Ailing Squirrel, by Heather

Multilingual Outreach Has Been On Our Agenda Since Our Inception

My field-research and advocacy site, CoyoteYipps, and the educational outreach organization I co-founded, CoyoteCoexistence.com, to date, are and have been the only organizations in San Francisco to provide multi-lingual information and guidelines about coyotes to our diverse communities — this outreach has been part of our agenda since our inception. We’ve worked hard to reach those who are not comfortable speaking English, providing information in videos, posters and flyers to those who find it easier to speak Chinese and Spanish. Our goal has always been to reach everyone, and we are proud to be the leaders in this direction.

Español

Español

Chinese

Chinese

English

English

These signs above were created and put up on bulletin boards in some of the parks at the request of various San Francisco communities years ago — no other outfit concerned with coyotes, including the city, offers any information in any language other than English here in San Francisco. Now, these signs may be accessed and downloaded from the “Downloadable Flyer” sections in the sidebars of this website and of the coyotecoexistence.com website.

2015-10-13 at 21-50-16Our videos, too, are and have been available in English, Spanish and Chinese for over a year. They may be accessed through the links at the top of this website, and at the top of the CoyoteCoexistence.com website.

In addition to our downloadable multi-lingual flyers (accessible from the sidebars of this site and of the coyotecoexistence.com site), at CoyoteCoexistence.com we have folks on hand who speak a variety of languages, and if your language is not spoken among us, we will find someone to help us understand and solve your issues and get the information you need across to you.

The Squirrel Wins Again

2015-10-11 at 08-41-42Coyotes don’t regularly climb trees, but if a coyote is motivated — for instance, if it is after a squirrel — it can get higher in a tree than you might expect. Coyotes can jump high and they have very sure footing. The crook in the trunk of this tree is about 6 feet off the ground — I measured it — the foliage in front of the base of the tree hides how far up that coyote actually is.  The coyote was able to leap up and then use her forepaws to grab the rough bark of the tree and boost herself into this spot. The squirrel, of course, being a better tree climber, scampered up higher and got away. It would have been difficult for the coyote to go higher than this, though, technically, she could have made it to the next branch up in the same manner she made it this far.

But when she got this high, she stopped. She must have liked it, because she stayed and looked around, with a new higher vantage point than normal. She kept looking up for the squirrel. Maybe she was hoping the squirrel would drop — it has happened before when a squirrel lost its footing. She waited and waited, but it didn’t happen. So she licked her chops anyway, yawned, jumped down and went on her way without the squirrel she was hoping for.

full length of lower trunk to the crook

full length of lower trunk to the crook

Here is a photo of that same tree trunk taken a little later in the day from the backside so that you can better see the distance that coyote leaped.

I took a measuring tape to measure the height of the crook: it was six feet above the ground. The bushes hiding the length of the trunk are some distance in front of the tree.

“Dispersal Season” And Other Misconceptions About Coyotes

2015-10-01 at 18-18-26

I have recently heard several reasons given for why there have been more coyote sightings in San Francisco: “It is dispersal season”, “there has been a population explosion”, “garbage being left out is to blame for sightings and for all dog related incidents”.  These reasons are incorrect according to my own observations, and this has been confirmed by others who study coyote behavior. I will try to explain what is going on.

“Dispersal season”. Coyotes are raised in monogamous families by both of their parents. When coyotes mature, they are either allowed to stay on in the family territory — they will be called “betas” — or they are driven out, a phenomenon which takes place throughout the year, not at any one time of the year.

The dispersal is dependent on a variety of factors specific to the territory’s carrying capacity and to the family situation.  For instance, I’ve seen a mother become intolerant of the presence of a daughter who could possibly displace her as the breeding female, therefore becoming the dominant female — the youngster was driven away by incessant attacks. A mom drove out a jealous male yearling to protect a new litter. A dad drove out a son who didn’t get along smoothly with the other siblings. A widowed father drove out a son exhibiting possessiveness of a new female. A domineering brother drove away his brother, probably for reproductive advantage.

Although I have not been able to see where these dispersed individuals go, I have been able to watch the strife that preceded the sudden departure of these individuals. The departures occurred in January, in February, in June, in April and one in November — not during any set “dispersal season” — coyotes don’t just pick up and go in the fall, nor are they driven out specifically at this time of the year.  And I’ve seen intruders in established territories in January, February and early March — not in the fall during the purported “dispersal season”. Although more coyotes might disperse when the food supply is low — which would be throughout the winter in most places — this is not occurring now, in September-October, when pups are a mere 6 months old.

Although a family group can be as large as nine in a large territory, and indeed I have read in the news that a family of 9 was seen hunting together in Southern California, which would mean that the family of 9 has remained together, I have never seen such a large family unit here in San Francisco. Also, in San Francisco I have not seen a steady increase in the number of coyotes over an extended period of time in families within their claimed territories. I have seen constant fluctuations in coyote populations in these territories — territories in our parks and golf-courses. All of these territories still have only one family unit, with populations which have remained incredibly stable. The fluctuation over a six year period in one family ran like this: 2 -> 3 -> 2 -> 5 -> 3 -> 2. This year, in one of the parks, just one pup was born, which suggests to me that saturation might have been reached in their numbers.

Since coyotes appear to need about a square mile of territory per coyote to support themselves, and even if they needed half this amount of land, San Francisco will never be “overrun” by coyotes. There has not been a “population explosion”. Coyotes population numbers are regulated depending on the resources and carrying capacity of the land. When the land no longer provides for their needs, they will no longer increase their numbers. They don’t need “human management” to interfere with this.

“I do agree with you that there isn’t any set dispersal season and I would say that early fall would be very early for young pups that are just getting to 6 months old. I would agree that it occurs any time of the year with some delaying dispersal to form packs with their parents/family, but I would also think that winter [on the East Coast] would be the normal time for the majority to disperse due to food issues in an average territory as well as sibling interactions which often seem to be the largest indicator of dispersal.” Jon Way


2015-10-02

Coyotes-seen-in-the-neighborhoods recently in San Francisco is not necessarily an indication that there has been a population explosion. Coyotes “trek” every single night through our neighborhoods. They always have. This is normal, healthy, coyote behavior. They are marking their territories and searching for good hunting areas. They’ll mostly dig for gophers and voles — these are their staples here in San Francisco, but they also eat fruit, and larger prey if it presents itself, and they’ll eat food left out in your yard. If, as they are trekking through, they find a cache of gophers, or even skunks, raccoons or even a free roaming cat if one should appear opportunistically, they will keep returning to the area for a while in hopes of finding more of the same bonanza.

An increase in the number of sightings could be due simply to more people in the city to notice them, more folks out of doors in the city, more internet use, and more social media such as Facebook and Nextdoor, and to there being more dogs than ever before: all coyote issues revolve around pets. It could also be due to the drought, as proposed by Mary Paglieri, which might be diminishing their gopher supplies, causing coyotes to expand their home ranges and hunt more during daytime hours.  But coyotes are not overrunning the city.

“With lack of food and drought I could definitely envision [coyotes] either expanding their territories or probably more likely, within their normal territories, spending more time than average near people and houses looking for food and water. There is a lot of individual variation in this and regardless of drought, etc, it only takes a couple of individuals (maybe 1 pack) in a given area to become more visible – which to us means being more active during the day vs the night – to make them appear that they are more numerous…. but yes, over time the territoriality of a pack (3-5 individuals on average) would prevent them from exploding (or whatever term is used) in numbers like many people (and managers) mistakenly believe.”  Jon Way


2015-10-05 at 12-30-52 (1)In one of the parks here in San Francisco, two small dogs were grabbed by coyotes within a month of each other. The city has told residents that all coyote incidents, including these, were due to feeding coyotes, in this case leaving garbage out. The thinking seems to be that the coyotes are being drawn by the garbage into the more populated parts of the park where they are becoming more familiar with dogs and people, and that it is because of this that they grabbed the two dogs.

But garbage lying around does not cause coyotes to grab dogs. Whether there is garbage or not — and garbage has been in these parks for years without incident — small dogs may very well be taken unless the owners are vigilant and follow the guidelines. These incidents were not due to garbage being left out. They were due to the opportunistic behavior of coyotes which will continue whether or not garbage is out in the parks.  In addition, these incidents were not due to habituation of the coyotes. In an urban setting, ALL coyotes become habituated — they become used to seeing people. Habituation does not cause coyotes to approach people. However, habituated or not, coyotes could very well approach little dogs who are not intensely supervised, be they on or off-leash if they think they can get away with it. And, coyotes may message larger dogs, and they may even message leashed dogs, again, if the opportunity is right. You can prevent this.

What actually is habituation? “Habituation is a natural process by which an animal adapts to its environment and the stimuli within that environment. It is the diminishing of the flight response due to repeated stimulus which is inconsequential. Passing interactions between coyotes and people/pets are constant and inconsequential for coyotes: humans are not seen as competitors nor as predators to a coyote.”  You indeed CAN condition and shape coyote behavior through food conditioning, but this is not going on in the park: no one is using food to make the coyotes come down and grab a dog. Note that food conditioning and habituation are totally different phenomena. 

Both little dogs were taken in a park known for its coyote sightings. One of the little dogs — a 7-pounder — had been allowed to run ahead of its owner on a wilderness trail which had a small sign stating that it was an on-leash only area. The little dog ran into the woods in pursuit of a coyote and was grabbed. Why hadn’t simple common sense been exercised? Why hadn’t the owner listened to folks warning him? — many folks had warned him. And most importantly, why was not the sign more prominent?

The other dog survived his ordeal. The owner visited a park at 6:30 in the morning. As he unleashed one of his two little dogs, he looked up to see a coyote right there in front of him who grabbed one of the little dogs. There were signs and there had been warnings, but the owner stated, after the fact, that he thought it would never happen to him. Vigilance, and a quick scan could have prevented this incident. Also, folks need to be aware that coyotes are diurnal and therefore may be out at any time of the day, and that their prime hunting and trekking times include the hour or so before dusk and the hour or so after dawn. Small dogs are least safe at these times when few other walkers are out.

If folks don’t want to learn about coyote behavior, and if they can’t watch their dogs more carefully, might it be a good idea to put in a fenced area in this particular San Francisco Park? The fenced area would keep dogs, both large and small, from running off after coyotes into the wooded areas. Although it wouldn’t insure 100% protection unless it was coyote-proof (i.e. 6 feet tall with a roller bar on top), it would discourage and deter coyotes from the area, and with humans around to shoo off the rare coyote who gets in, it could increase little dog safety immensely. Folks would still need to be vigilant.

Addendum: This posting was written because of “the misinformation tossed at us” See comments.

I Am Coyote, by Geri Vistein

My bookPlease check out Geri Vistein’s new book, “I Am Coyote”, available through Amazon beginning on October 9th! Congratulations, Geri!

The brief review on Amazon states the following: “Coyote is three years old when she leaves her family to seek a home of her own and a mate to share it with. Journeying by night through a Canadian winter, she doesn’t know that her search will become a 500-mile odyssey. Nor can she know while enduring extreme cold, hunger, and harrowing brushes with death that she and her descendants are destined to play a vital role in the forests of the eastern United States, replacing wolves (exterminated a century ago) as the keystone predator the landscape desperately needed.”

“Combining rigorous science with imaginative storytelling, I Am Coyote reveals the complex outer and inner lives of coyotes. We are not the only sentient beings on this planet; we are not unique in experiencing love, fear, grief, joy, and acceptance. This magical story will change the way you think about the animals with whom we share the world.”

A few more reviews are in order:

“This is not a book about ‘a species of animal’ and what ‘it’ does. Geri Vistein takes us so deep into Coyote’s skin and behind the eyes and nose that she reveals for us the intricacies and perceptions of creatures who lead lives among us. This is the right perspective for understanding who we are here with on Earth. Vistein has chosen one of the absolutely most wondrous fellow-creatures in America to make our introduction.” –Carl Safina, author of Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel.

“For wild predators every day is a drama of life and death – Geri Vistein uses these daily theatrics to tell the tale of the colonization of eastern forests by coyotes.  The story invokes the spirit of Ernest Thompson Seaton’s classic “Animals I Have Known” but is more firmly rooted in modern scientific findings not available to Seaton”. Roland Kays, Ph.D.Professor, NC State University, Dept Forestry & Environmental Resources, Lab Director, NC Museum of Natural Sciences.

“Vistein, a carnivore biologist, tells the story of one of the early migrants from the coyote’s point of view and asks readers to consider coyotes as “intelligent, sentient beings” able to experience “fear, joy, affection, loss, grief, puzzlement, and acceptance but never anger.” Vistein’s writing is impassioned and poetic as she tells of the female Coyote who travels east—facing danger from traps, traffic, guns, and dogs—to finally find a refuge in Baxter State Park. When Coyote finds a trapped coyote, she helps him to free himself (he chews off his paw). They become mates and, as seasons and years pass, raise four litters of pups. Readers learn about the complex social structure of coyotes (previous years’ siblings help out) and that life as a wild creature is often tragic—though Vistein balances the harshness of death with a wider, natural-order-of-things perspective. A sensitive, passionate story told from an intriguing point of view”. -Kirkus Review

Previous Older Entries