San Francisco’s Coyote Population

After his

After his “sentry” duty on a hilltop during the wee hours of the morning before walkers arrived, this coyote stretches and then heads into the bushes to sleep during the day.

Just because the City doesn’t have a lot of information about San Francisco coyotes doesn’t mean that the information doesn’t exist. I myself have been observing and documenting coyote behavior in San Francisco over the last 9 years.*  I am rewriting this posting from questions I received on the Stern Grove Dog Owners’ Group site, where there has been a lot of questioning and apprehension by dog owners about our coexistence policy and about a general lack of information regarding San Francisco coyotes.  I hope it answers some basic questions.

POPULATION NUMBERS: Based on my observations, I would say that coyotes in San Francisco number in the dozens, not in the 100s. Their numbers here and elsewhere are limited by their territoriality: they exclude outsider coyotes from their territories, and their territories must be big enough to support them and their families — this has been estimated to be about a square mile per coyote, or 2 to 4 square miles per family as noted by Professor Stan Gehrt in Chicago, and coyote families fluctuate between 2 and 5 coyotes. Even if they needed 1/2 this amount of space, you can see that SF’s 49 square miles isn’t going to become overrun with coyotes.

POPULATION GROWTH. Within their established family territories, which include nearly all the parks, coyote numbers have not been increasing over the last six or so years. Rather, the number of coyotes has been fluctuating from about 2 to 5 and then back down again — it depends on what is happening interpersonally within the one resident family which lives in that claimed and exclusive territory — most parks or golf-courses have only one family with family-size in continual flux but stable over time. This is what I’ve observed.

And I don’t think there’s a sudden population “explosion” going on right now in San Francisco. This year I’ve seen small, including one-pup, litters. The drought might be playing a role in the low survival of pups. And also remember that under normal circumstances, survival rates for coyote pups within their first year of life is only around 30%.

The coyotes’ chief “predator” in the city is cars. There have been lots of coyote deaths-by-cars in San Francisco. I’ve seen or been told about them on Mansell Street (off of McLaren), on Portola, on O’Shaughnessey, on Sloat by the zoo, on Marview below Twin Peaks, on Lake Merced Avenue, etc. Professor Stan Gehrt in Chicago thinks cars are what kills most urban coyotes. Besides cars, malnutrition and disease end lives in the city, as in rural areas. But in rural areas thousands lose their lives through brutal hunting and shooting. The city is actually a sanctuary for them, but even in a city few coyotes live out their full potential life-span.

DISPERSAL. I’ve observed that coyotes disperse throughout the year, depending on interpersonal family dynamics and resources: I myself have never noticed a set “dispersal season”, and at this early autumn time of year, when coyote pups are only 6 months old, it would be too early for them to disperse anyway. I’m troubled by claims from the city about a “dispersal season” being the reason for more sightings right now. Coyote specialists I’ve spoken to, including Jon Way, corroborate my own observations that coyotes disperse throughout the year. I hope we can clear up the misinformation out there.

The “extra” coyotes, in time, will move out of the city or fill vacant niches: they appear to have their own built-in GPS systems, like migrating birds — coyotes who are relocated can find their way back, and those who leave on purpose can find their way out of the city. For those who don’t leave the city, vacant niches might be found in smaller parks, and maybe even in areas in some neighborhoods: you can prevent the latter by creating disturbances, and by eliminating the foods that attract them, whether it is dog food, raccoons, skunks, rats or even free roaming cats. Rather than move into neighborhoods, they are more likely simply to trek through, doing their job of balancing the environment by eliminating excess rats and other rodents, most of which they do when it’s dark outside. Remember that their territories must be big enough to support them, and their territorial boundaries do not overlap: if there are a number of sightings in an area, it will likely be the same coyotes over and over again which are being seen.

Always and everywhere, the main issue with coyotes is pets. So keep small pets out of harm’s way by supervising them and not allowing them to roam free. Keep larger pets leashed when you see a coyote — coyotes and dogs do not get along. Please watch the online video “Coyotes As Neighbors”, which can be Googled, and look for additional pertinent coyote guidelines at

SIGHTINGS (as opposed to, and irregardless of, actual numbers) also fluctuate up and down throughout the year, usually also depending on what’s going on within the coyote family unit. And now, there is a drought which may also be affecting sightings. Garbage has been implicated by the city as a cause for more sightings and incidents. I think garbage has very little to do with it, and will explain:

“That there is very little anthropogenic (human-generated) material in a coyote’s diet as shown by scat analysis” is a proven fact — yet isn’t this contradicted by the city when they say that, “garbage is their main attractant and the cause of all dog woes in the park.” The city is now telling folks to, “restrict garbage food waste to wildlife-proof trash cans” to solve coyote/dog issues. My own view, however, from my own observations, is that too much is being made of the garbage and wildlife-proof-container-lids issue, and that it has little to do with the dog issues in the park. The wildlife-proof lids may keep raccoons out, but these have little to do with coyotes who are not jumping up into the containers. Coyotes may be attracted by the raccoon activity there, but that only occurs at night when dogs aren’t around. Coyotes may hunt rats around dumpsters during their daily treks, but stopping at these is just like any other stop during their trekking activity. Coyotes are going to go out trekking anyway — and “no garbage” isn’t going to stop them. They are not like seagulls or pigeons which flock to garbage containers for food. Coyotes might check out some garbage, but that’s not what they are waiting for, nor is it where they spend the bulk of their time, and that’s not where most of us sight them. We are more likely to see them far away from any garbage containers. Whether or not there is garbage in an area, coyotes are still going to be visiting and trekking through open areas of the parks. And available garbage isn’t going to make them attack dogs. Of course garbage needs to be cleaned up, but I don’t think this will prevent dog/coyote issues.

In fact, coyotes are not being seen more in the San Francisco parks which I visit regularly. In Glen Canyon, Mount Davidson, Lands End, Lake Merced and others they are being seen far less right now than at previous times — this normal flux, again, has to do primarily with internal coyote family dynamics. If there have been more sightings in some places, it may have more to do with the number of people and dogs who are out, and with social media. We have more people and more dogs than ever before in our parks in San Francisco, and this growth has taken place in the last couple of years — the playing-table is getting crowded, there are simply more ping-pong balls to knock into. Social media, such as Nextdoor and Facebook have made sightings seem more prevalent, and without proper information neighbors may exaggerate the dangers. Environmental factors, such as the drought, may also be the cause of more sightings: coyotes may be wandering further afield to hunt and they may be out longer hours because it takes longer to find food — so for such reasons too there’s more opportunity to see them.  And, by the way, folks have noted a preponderance of raccoons this year, which could be attracting coyotes to areas during their treks. Habitat removal, as well, as is going on with RPD’s Natural Areas Program (NAP), is having an impact: in wild areas coyotes might like chaparral areas, but in a city they need more protective impenetrable cover, especially if there are dogs around. And finally, habituation, a natural development in urban coyotes, is causing some of the animals to hunt and wander within sight of more humans: they are more visible by park goers. These animals do not pose any more of a danger than their shyer counterparts, but pets must be kept far away from them.

DENS. In my estimation, we don’t need to thoroughly monitor coyotes in order to coexist with them. It’s almost impossible to do so and a waste of time because the population ebbs and flows with pupping and dispersal. We know all we need to know to coexist with them through a few sightings and through knowing their behavior. We don’t need to know where dens are for the most part, unless a den is close to a pathway, as has occurred in Golden Gate Park a few times. The dens are used only for a limited period of time, until the coyote youngsters become proficiently mobile: think of a den the same way as you do a bird’s nest: it’s temporary. Since almost every park in San Francisco has a coyote family, it’s more important to know that coyotes feel especially threatened and defensive during pupping season, so be vigilant and avoid areas where you see them on a regular basis. Parents will defend their pups against perceived threats, regardless of where they are.

COEXISTENCE and SUSTAINABILITY: Coexistence is not difficult, but pets and coyotes must be kept apart, and it is up to the owner to do this. Where does that leave us in terms of guidelines? Basically with the same tools as before, but with a better understanding than before: be vigilant; keep your distance to begin with; leash your dog when you see a coyote and walk away from it; pick up a small dog; if a coyote approaches you directly, shoo it off, and if it doesn’t leave then you leave yourself by walking away and not running. The vigilance you need to exercise is no more than is necessary all the time on the part of any dog owner, not just because of coyotes, but for any number of reasons: for instance, dogs also have altercations between themselves, and dogs should be kept away from skunks, raccoons, small children and refuse. If folks feel that one particular coyote is bothersome, I would be happy to help with the situation. Another thing to make folks with dogs feel safer, during murky daylight hours, is some kind of “buddy” system, where a couple of walkers could walk together, thus shoring up each others’ confidence. Please see the website,, and watch the video, “Coyotes As Neighbors” at the top of that site — it’s available in three languages so far.

The driving ethos these days is “environmentally friendly” and “sustainability”. Environmentally friendly means not destroying what nature has given us: it means developing guidelines which inflict minimal or no harm on the environment — coyotes are part of our natural environment. The idea of sustainability resulted from concerns about how humans and our “needs” were altering healthy and balanced ecosystems, which was coming back to haunt all of us. It turns out that we don’t need to destroy so much — we don’t need to kill these animals, and we actually should not do so. They, in fact, are part of the system and help keep it balanced.

*I’m in my 9th year of daily observations, photo-documenting and writing about San Francisco urban coyotes, including their individual behaviors, their family life and their behavior towards people and pets in San Francisco city parks. I’ve been told by professors, graduate students, and other authorities in the field that few of them actually get to observe the daily lives of coyotes as I have — this is what I have to offer. Mine is first-hand field-work, which no one else is doing here in the city — it is the only ongoing, long-term San Francisco coyote study that I know about. I’m suggesting that folks not allow “officialdom” to prevent their looking further for information, that a Ph.D. after a name is not an indication that that individual has up-to-date information or engaged in first-hand field work on urban coyotes, especially coyotes in San Francisco.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Gail
    Nov 05, 2015 @ 02:32:32

    Excellent! And interesting that you mention the possibility of cities being more or less a “sanctuary” for the coyotes in light of the war on them from thrill and trophy hunters, as well as participants in disgraceful predator killing “contests”. They all must have read the same fables.


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