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.
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 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
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
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. Mary Paglieri.
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.