“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 self-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


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 a number of ecologists, 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 (feeding is what causes this). 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.

“Habituation is a basic activity whereby an animal responds less to repeated stimuli in its environment. Habituation need not be conscious for it to occur. Habituation enables [animals] to distinguish meaningful information [i.e., threats] from background stimuli [non-threats]. It occurs in all animals.” [Wikipedia] In other words, coyotes who are around people begin slotting them more as “background stimuli” instead of responding to them by fleeing, as they would to a “meaningful danger”, i.e. predator. 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 visual scan of the surroundings before unleashing 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.

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. pierceflynn
    Oct 07, 2015 @ 00:34:57

    Excellent piece. Thanks very much!


  2. Barney Sharp
    Oct 07, 2015 @ 05:18:42

    Thank you, Yipps, for correcting some of the stuff that has been tossed our way. ACC’s GO-TO PERSON/ORGANIZATION has saddled ACC with incorrect information about coyotes and the situation in Stern Grove, and ACC in turn sent it to Supervisor Katy Tang who sent it out to anyone who was interested. If you want to read bad information — most of it appears to be made up with absolutely no research behind it — read this:

    “In almost all cases of wildlife conflicts, we find out that problems are arising from people either intentionally – or unintentionally – feeding the coyotes (and other wildlife.) This habituates them to humans and they lose their natural fear. Problems occur when coyotes see humans as the providers and their populations increase according to the food sources available. The situation at Stern Grove is tied to a den site, and the behaviors observed are the parent coyotes reacting to dogs and people near the site. Coyotes will observe dogs and people until they move away from their den, and sometimes follow for a short distance to escort the ‘threat’ a safe distance away. We are aware that people have allowed dogs to chase and interact with coyotes, which further exacerbates the problem. Wildlife of all species are incredibly visible and active now because of dispersal season (late August – September.) Over the years, since coyotes were first observed in San Francisco, we’ve seen this pattern again and again: lots of activity and sightings in August and September that dies away as we get further into fall.”

    The facts are these:
    1) Coyotes are not being fed in this park
    2) Garbage left out (is this included in feeding?) does not cause conflicts with dogs
    3) Are they implying that “habituation” leads to conflicts and aggression? — It doesn’t.
    4) There is no den site at this time of year — they were abandoned long ago
    5) Coyotes in the park are not displaying den-protective behavior around dogs
    6) There is no dispersal season — so they could not have seen this over the years.


    • yipps
      Oct 07, 2015 @ 12:35:37

      Thank you, Barney, for weighing in and thank you for your knowledgeable response. The posting with this incorrect information which you refer to, along with some of the comments, is what inspired my posting. Janet

  3. Charles Wood
    Oct 07, 2015 @ 21:46:07

    Here in Southern California near where the 405 meets the 605 are 7 coyote family members (circa 2010) and not pictured are the two parents and possibly other siblings: http://photo.net/photodb/photo?photo_id=11258149 . A few years later the parents were still in that territory with two or three of their kids of different ages. A year or so after that a female child of about 2, Mary, paired up with an unrelated older male, Rufous, and together the new couple ‘dispersed’ her mom and dad. I mention those events to suggest that conflicts in a coyote family don’t always resolve in favor of the parents.

    What I saw in my coyote family were parents working to provide their children with lessons that would help them succeed. I wasn’t around to witness conflict based dispersals and not doubt there may have been some. Some of the young I stopped seeing certainly could have been driven off, it’s just that I wasn’t there to see it. Neither can I see or smell a female coyote in heat. Rufous (http://photo.net/photodb/photo?photo_id=16731412 ) could smell a young female coyote coming into heat. He came into occupied territory, stayed, and prevailed. So for me It isn’t hard to imagine that other unpaired younger male coyotes were attracted to other young female coyotes coming into heat and left home because they were attracted away. I say imagine because, as with any instance of conflict based dispersal in my coyote family, I wasn’t there and I wasn’t equipped to sense what may have been in the air.

    Growing up in suburban southern California more than 50 years ago, spaying and neutering of dogs didn’t seem to be all that common. When I was a kid our dog Aggie would come into season and I would see male dogs hanging around outside our house. Of those male dogs only a few were ones that I was familiar with. All of them were the unaltered males from far and wide would could get out of their house or yard by hook or by crook.

    So one thing to consider is that what I haven’t heard about at all are droves of male coyotes attracted to a human house where a female dog is in heat. I have heard false tales of how a female coyote in heat supposedly lures an unsuspecting male domestic dog to it so that a ‘pack’ can then gobble the dog all up. People do know of pheromones, but they don’t seem to understand is that a male dog will know about a female in heat and head toward her from miles away. A female coyote wouldn’t have to skulk around all close to a male dog and act all alluring and perfumed to win him. What I also don’t hear or read about are what would at least be more realistic sounding stories of steams of unaltered male dogs heading toward known coyote areas during coyote breeding season. Season means pheromones in the air together with its allure. That scent makes a male dog forget kith and kin and head for the source. What we apparently don’t see are male coyotes streaming out of their areas and heading for female dogs in heat. But I don’t think we can speak to coyote dispersal without also discussing the power of love and of the wisdom of spaying and neutering our domestic dogs. From that perspective it is kind of an amazing puzzle that we don’t have more coyote/dog interactions than we do.


  4. Jewil
    Nov 02, 2022 @ 19:00:24

    Stating “facts” based on the behavior of urban coyotes has little bearing on behavior traits of rural coyotes. There actually is a dispersal season, usually Sept through November, when “newly liberated” youngsters will often form packs for a period of time and are typically very vocal. (This is not to say that individuals are not cast out throughout the year, but that is not what is referred to as dispersal season.) This congregating usually wanes when winter hits, although coyotes will form winter hunting packs to take down large game if smaller game is not adequate to maintain lone animals and mated pairs with or without offspring.
    Behavior habits between urban and rural coyotes can be, and usually are, different, often markedly so, and it is a mistake to assume the behaviors of one population defines that of the other.


    • yipps:janetkessler
      Nov 02, 2022 @ 19:50:20

      Hi Jewil —

      Thanks for your comments and input.

      My observations are what I have seen first-hand here in San Francisco — an urban center. This blog is about San Francisco coyotes and may apply elsewhere. There is no Sept-through-November dispersal season here: the numbers dispersing at that time are not greater AT ALL than during the other months and haven’t been over the 15 years that I’ve been observing them. There are no winter “packs” formed in San Francisco to take down large game — we have no large game for them to take down, the biggest game being a raccoon, which a family will take down cooperatively, but not with anyone from outside the family. A sick goat was killed several years ago by coyotes, so maybe if we had larger game things would be different. Over the bridge and into Marin coyotes do hunt deer.

      Also of interest, it’s the territorial coyotes who are vocal here, the dispersing youngsters tend to keep quiet as they pass through these claimed lands.

      Might you be talking more about the Eastern Coyote, or Coywolf? That’s a larger animal than our small Western Coyote and it indeed regularly hunts larger game in the winter, especially when snow inhibits their catching gophers or other burrowing rodents.

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