Observations on Coyote Ecology: impact, use, interactions, & movement in the environment

PREFACE: I’ve been watching and writing about coyote behavior — their individual behaviors, their family life, and their interactions with people and pets — for the last 15 years, here in San Francisco: I’m interested in finding out WHO each one is as an individual — in the process, I’ve seen their relationship to, and interactions with, the environment, i.e., their ecology and the root of their behaviors stemming to a great extent from their diet habits and territorial imperatives within that ecology. What I write here is purely based on my own first-hand visual observations over an extended period of time, without scientific measuring devices. There’s a short summary of key insights at the end if you don’t want to wade through this long writeup!

PEOPLE: Before I begin about the coyotes themselves, I want to state that, as far as I have seen, the biggest impact caused by coyotes’ return to San Francisco has been on the interface with people and their dogs: on people’s perceptions and the social amplifications of fear engendered by coyote presence. Some of it is profoundly and vocally negative, but a lot of it is very positive: we have many people in San Francisco who are thrilled to have wildlife, including coyotes, around. It’s a constant and often heated source of exchanges online in the NextDoor chat-group. The negative impact is heaviest on those who are unwilling to roll with the punches and slightly change their behaviors.

Coyotes are territorial and therefore keep other coyotes out of their claimed areas, and they do the same with dogs. Coyotes will “message” dogs insistently with scary gaping and an arched back, and sometimes charges and a cattle-dog-fashion nip to the hind quarters to get the dog to leave — it can be frightening if you don’t know how to respond. By leashing, keeping away, and walking away, humans can avoid this kind of conflict. Coyotes have been known to grab cats and small dogs which is why these smaller pets need to be more vigilantly supervised and then removed from the area if a coyote is sighted. A dog trainer today was telling me that even large dogs with mild behaviors have grabbed a small dog and begun tossing it up in the air as though it were prey: small dogs must be kept away from larger ones.

In addition to this human/dog-based impact, there have been some natural ecological changes caused by coyotes’ return to San Francisco, although not to the same degree that reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone had — that impact was big because the deer, who had slowly altered and changed the balance of the flora through their overpopulation, suddenly had significant predators. With the deer diminished in numbers by the wolves or moving to new locations to avoid the wolves, plants that hadn’t grown in ages, having been nibbled back by deer, such as aspen, among others, began to bloom again. The beaver population also increased. The wolves were causing a trophic cascade* (“addition or removal of top predators involving reciprocal changes in the relative populations of predator and prey through a food chain, which often results in dramatic changes in ecosystem structure and nutrient cycling.” — Britannica.com) of ecological change. Here in San Francisco, other things are going on which might prevent us from clearly seeing any direct impact caused by a return of a coyote population.

NATIVISM: A dozen years ago, a friend told me that the only reason the coyotes had returned to San Francisco was “because of the re-introduction of nativist plants“. She had a Ph.D. in the sciences, therefore, she said, “she _knew_”, and she used simply that to back herself up. This was back in 2010 when the “nativist” direction in our parks was fairly new: at that time, only a few small garden-size plots had been converted to exclusively native plants. So her statement was interesting to me for its overarching-reach, made by someone with three letters after her name which was all she used to justify the statement. Others in the program, and even those not involved in the program, have noted that the main ecological changes resulting from the reintroduction of native plants was an increase in a variety of native insects dependent on those new plants.

Consider dens as an example of habitat use here in San Francisco: some are dug into the sandy soil, some buried beneath a tangle of cape ivy, some protected by blackberry brambles. Some dens have been established under our porches, or along culverts behind tall cyclone fences in the right-of-way of the city’s Public Utilities Commission — some beneath the roots of fallen pine trees. Some are among rock crevices and formations along the banks of creeks. Coyotes have denned among the non-native exotics of the SF Botanical Garden, where the pups have played on freshly mowed non-native lawns, and they hide in the non-native golden grasses brought in by the Spaniards long ago to feed their cattle. None of these encompass native components.

Coyote diet staples depend heavily on native species: pocket gophers and voles, and to a lesser degree native skunk, raccoon (usually roadkill or easy-to-grab juveniles or compromised adults), mallard ducks, pigeons, and ravens. But their diets also include plenty of Norway rats, opossums, cats, many exotic fruits from the planted trees here, pizzas and hamburgers, which are not on the list of native species. The species that coyotes live off of did not suddenly appear due to the nativist program — they’ve been here far longer than that.

As for water: we have very few natural water sources here in San Francisco. These include seven natural springs and three natural freshwater ponds. That’s it. The local Eucalyptus trees (non-native), and even pine trees, capture a lot of the fog and create wonderful puddles of water throughout the city, and I’ve seen the thick morning dew licked off of guard-rails along roadways by coyotes. One of the requirements of a den area is proximity to reliable water: it happens that non-native, man-made lakes and spigots are available throughout the city. These are coyote water sources.

So, I wouldn’t say that coyotes returned to San Francisco because of the introduction of native pants or the nativist program. Man-made structures and brought-in-plants, along with rodents and mesopredators who thrive in all kinds of environments throughout the US, are used substantially by coyotes. After all, coyotes themselves naturally inhabit a multitude of environments throughout the country: there’s not any one type that attracts them.

However, our nativist program has had some consequences for them, including contributing to their increased visibility.

INCREASED VISIBILITY OVER TIME: A lot of the clearing of non-native understory thickets has been performed by that nativist program, as well as by other entities in the city: this thick, often impenetrable underbrush is where the coyotes could hide, and there was much more of it when the coyotes first arrived than there is now. Even last year, I observed that a coyote family was compelled to move its den when clearing continued into the denning season in one of the parks. Fortunately, coyotes are adaptive — they simply moved.

Coyotes generally are very elusive critters. The continued clearing appears to have increased coyote visibility over the years — be it due to the native plant program or for other reasons, such as for construction, or to discourage the homeless from trying to camp in the parks. But there are other factors contributing to this increased visibility. For example, more humans out than ever means more eyes are there to see them and report them — a phenomenon which became apparent during the early COVID pandemic. During lockdown, early in the pandemic, there were reports in the papers about sightings in “new” places — for example, Greenwich Street — where, in fact, I and others had seen them there, regularly, even nightly, since 2007. The only thing new was new eyes reporting them. Over the last ten years, use of the parks has increased many times over, with many more eyes around to see things, whereas I remember sitting alone in parts of some of the parks and for a full morning only ever seeing a small handful of other people, all without dogs. There has been a big change.

Another possible factor involved in the increased visibility of coyotes is that they have simply become used to us in their environment — and that is, again, because there are more and more of us than ever in “their parks” as compared to ten years ago. So they are taking us much more in-stride these days than they used to, of necessity. Because of this, some people have been calling them bold, even though they are totally minding their own business. It’s more a matter of us humans having changed their circumstances: humans have become ever-present in their environments.

An increase of humans feeding coyotes has also increased coyote visibility over the years. Feeding them causes them to return to, and hang around in, the areas where they are being fed. If you add “hand” feeding to the equation, you are attracting the coyotes closer and closer to humans, including children, who, because of their smaller size, coyotes would feel safer approaching than an adult human, to message them: “get outta here”.

By the way, remove the food source, and the activity in the area, and therefore their visibility, will diminish, as happened in the Bernal Hill area: the “egregious Bernal Hill feeder’s” photograph was splashed all over the news, which put an end to her feeding them. Those coyotes no longer appear at that location daily, though other factors may also be involved in their all-but disappearance from that area. (Which I’ve written about on my blog).

HABITAT CHOICE: It appears that coyotes have always been drawn to the periphery of human environments, from the time of the Ohlone Indians in San Francisco (see “The Ohlone Way” by Malcolm Margolin), and — I’m speculating here — to the Spanish ranches early on in San Francisco history — where they would have been extirpated, no different from wolves — and now to urban centers where many other animals are also drawn or were brought in, including chickens, goats (no longer allowed in the city), cats, raccoons, skunks, rats, ducks, etc, which in turn have been attractants to the coyotes. Coyotes not only benefit collaterally from our presence, but they appear to be safer in cities than in more rural environments where they continue to be shot in large numbers in some areas.

Coyotes inhabit and use the entire city, all except the San Francisco Downtown area, although they have occasionally even crossed into that area briefly. Coyote habitats in San Francisco run from the expansive grassy and shrubbed golf-courses, to the sandy and often wind-blown forsakenly desolate banks of the ocean, to the lush planted Golden Gate Park, to vast barren but golden and long-grassed hills which form part of our open spaces. They inhabit the areas surrounding our lakes as well as our densely overgrown creeks and ravines. Coyotes can be found in our most densely human populated neighborhoods such as North Beach, to less densely populated neighborhoods such as West Portal, to parks without any human dwellings. The elements that all these habitats have in common are: proximity to water, availability of hunting and food sources close by, and cover for protection, including remote areas and fenced-off areas to dogs.

Coyotes travel their whole territories, which include the surrounding neighborhoods, regularly, and in doing so they use and cross streets regularly, often to their detriment: Animal Care and Control picked up 24 dead coyotes last year (2021) from the streets, and I’m sure there were others not found: this is a huge number out of a population of 80-100. I’ve seen coyotes travel nightly at least 2 miles and back, using paths and roads as part of their routes, as they head over to and return from their food bases. Dispersing and moving coyotes — some have picked up and moved wholesale to a new distant territory — can easily travel the length of the city and further, and then back again. A substantial amount of their travel is on the same paved roads and cleared paths that we take — these being the “paths of least resistance” which involve less expenditure of energy: coyotes are very efficient!

POPULATION DENSITY: Here in San Francisco, the coyote population numbers fluctuate from about 80 to 100, and have until now been limited by coyote territorial imperatives: each of about 20 territories has one family, and a family consists of a mated-pair and their new pups and possibly a yearling or two born the previous year. The fluctuation from 80 to 100 is a naturally-occurring, breathing, expansion and contraction which occurs every year, beginning with the pupping season in April and then gradually diminishing as the pups eventually disperse during a two-year period after birth.

Within the last couple of years, I’ve noted just three exceptions to this fairly strict monogamous family structure, whereby a two-year-old daughter who is normally “behaviorally sterile” has had a litter along with her mother on the same territory: this appears to have been caused in two instances by a disruption in the alpha-male’s presence — he either died of old age or was shot. Only in one instance was there not a disruption in the alpha male’s presence, and I’m still trying to figure out what went on there. I have not seen this “double denning” until the last few years — monogamy and mating for life is the norm.

The ultimate cause of this double-denning might be population and territory saturation here in San Francisco: I emailed Professor Sacks about it and he said he had seen the same phenomenon in foxes due to an increase in their population. Recently and unusually, I’ve also seen a couple of coyote “divorces*” Might population saturation be affecting their family structure? (It appears that most of our youngster coyotes have been dispersing south and out of the city, as seen in a Presidio study.)

The map I’ve created of territories here in San Francisco shows that each territorial family claims about 1.5 to as many as 2.4 square miles of space to themselves: they keep other coyotes out, though I’ve seen several instances of outside dispersing youngsters being allowed to stay for a short time — all resources on that territory belong to the family that lives there. As far as I have seen, their hunting seems to support sustainability, not depletion of supply. They leave enough of the supply to renew itself through reproduction: be it gophers, voles, or even ducks. That being said, coyotes do seem to have reduced the feral cat population — but this is a mostly non-reproducing population because of the city’s neutering program. Also feral cats are drawn to feeding stations which in themselves attract coyotes: feeding feral cats lures both feral cats and coyotes to these areas, and therefore to the cats’ eventual death by coyotes caused by well-meaning but short-sighted humans.

When coyotes first returned to San Francisco in 2002, there were only four breeding coyote pairs (as determined by Professor Ben Sacks and Monica Serrano at UC Davis, based on DNA analysis from scat I collected). The limited population led to a lot of inbreeding. To this day, I continue to see inbreeding. Inbreeding turns out not to be rare in coyotes, but apparently is not an issue for their health and well-being, according to Professor Sacks. Over the past 15 years, I’ve noted that coyote territories have been fairly stable in their size and configurations with only minor changes over the years.

However, two substantive territorial changes have occurred recently that I have seen. Four years ago the Lake Merced families — there had actually been three families on two different golf courses and around the lake — had deaths and divorces which led to those territories reconfiguring into one large territory with the same mated pair of coyotes controlling it all. This reconfigured family has allowed some dispersing youngsters into their fold for a little while, but these always moved on. Then last year, I observed the expansion of one territory onto the periphery of another, a full mile away: so, over extended periods of time, these territories can change.

In addition to coyotes on these claimed territories, I have been seeing — more often than in the past — lone coyotes during the daylight hours, usually early morning or late afternoon, hurrying along a street, who appear to be dispersing: most I cannot identify from what family they came from. Some of these dispersing youngsters find temporary niches in nooks such as backyards, where they hide out during the day before taking off to hunt and explore when it gets dark. As far as I have seen, these temporary refuges are normally used anywhere from two weeks to several months, before the coyotes moves on for good. However, some have been staying longer, so it appears that now we have coyotes staying in the interstices BETWEEN the territories I originally mapped. Will these become family-owned reproducing territories? We’ll have to wait and see.

COYOTES’ EFFECT ON THE ENVIRONMENT. What effects on the environment might coyotes have had over the last 15 years?

I’ve seen that the red fox population — this is a non-native species that was brought to the area in the 1970s, apparently by hunters — appears to have been diminished and pushed to the periphery of the city, very likely because of the coyotes — that timeframe pretty much coincides with the arrival of coyotes here. So foxes — whose population has always been small in the City — have been excluded where the coyotes have dug in. Both coyotes and red foxes are competitors for many of the same resources, so their ecological effect on the environment would be qualitatively fairly similar, though quantitatively more so for coyotes: both are omnivores, opportunistic foragers, predators, and scavengers with varied diets based on what is available, so not a great qualitative change has been caused by the switch.

We have a very small native gray fox population — I don’t know if coyotes have affected their population, though I know a coyote will pursue and attempt to grab one if he/she sees it. One appeared on my trail camera once right where I frequently see coyotes. Once. That’s the only time I’ve seen one.

Coyotes are attracted by all sorts of food sources, but seem to opt for the easier catches when they have a choice.

Coyotes throughout the city, no matter their location, all seem to depend predominantly on gophers and voles, and secondarily on mice and rats as their staples. Our owls and hawks also catch and eat these rodents. They are so plentiful that they are trapped and killed by many people in the city, including on our golf courses and by our city parks personnel, and by private citizens in their gardens. I doubt that coyotes have reduced or affected this population much: coyotes take enough and leave enough so that the rodents can reproduce: the balance really hasn’t changed over the years as far as I can detect visually. Coyotes still hunt to the same degree in the exact same spots as they did in 2007, when I began documenting them. Interestingly, just yesterday I heard folks talking about a new gopher “infestation” in the city!

Rats, raccoons and skunks are hunted and eaten by coyotes, all of which have been considered “pests” by humans. Humans routinely have put out rat-poison and they have hired exterminators to rid their properties of all of these critters. Last year, the City’s Animal Care and Control felt compelled to slaughter over 10 raccoons from one clan which had been fed profusely by humans and began charging towards every human for food as a result. The point is that coyote predation hasn’t had a huge altering effect on these animals which were routinely eliminated by humans before the coyotes even reappeared in the area.

I’ve seen fewer snakes and lizards over the last 15 years here in SF, but I don’t know that anyone knows what the cause is : Might the disturbing omnipresence of people have contributed? Children in the city camps regularly caught little lizards they found sunning themselves on rocks, and slowly these stopped appearing. I know about this trend because my own children attended these camps and told me how each year the lizards were fewer and fewer — that was way before coyotes re-appeared here in 2002.

Now we have one coyote family in that camp park which is in their territory — a mated pair and their 3 yearlings (who will soon disperse) — coyotes didn’t finish off the lizards and snakes because, although rarely, I still do see them. Certainly these lizards are not a preferred food for coyotes: I’ve watched as several lizards and snakes were caught, “toyed with”, and rolled on, but not eaten, by coyotes. That was back a dozen years ago. I haven’t seen any predator with a snake or lizard in years. More hawks in the city may be contributing to their reduction in numbers: I used to see red-tail hawks flying high in the sky with snakes dangling from their beaks, but I haven’t seen this in years.

Kestrels have diminished in the city since 2008 but this has nothing to do with coyotes: my bird specialist thinks it might have to do with a change in the insects they eat and swallowtail butterflies have diminished as more fern plants were removed — but this has nothing to do with coyotes, all in the same timeframe. Hmmm, back again to the native plant program? Native Swallowtails depend on non-native fennel for their survival, which the nativists are intent on removing, leaving nothing for the Swallowtails [corrected].

The quail population went down at about the time the coyotes came, but there has also been an increase in the raccoon population — possibly because of humans feeding them — which eats quail and their eggs, as well as increased hawk and owl populations which do the same. I’ve been told anecdotally that a possible cause for hawk population growth in the city is that we cleaned up the environment substantially over the last score of years — but then again, maybe it’s just the preponderance of gophers and voles that brought more of these raptors into the city. I don’t think we’ll ever know the exact reasons, though we can guess.

COYOTE DIET BREAKDOWN: I wrote a diet summary posting a while back: What Do Coyotes Eat Here in SF? How much food does a coyote eat? I’ve seen a coyote catch five large gophers in a row and wolf all down except the last, which it buried for future use. Having said that, I don’t know what their daily intake is, but I know they can go for weeks without any food at all.

A collaborator in my San Francisco-wide genetics project at UC Davis is studying coyote diet through their DNA. She is creating pie charts and graphs showing the minute breakdown of individual diets within the city. For her minute details, we will have to wait: hers is part of her PhD program. However, without that study, my direct observation can provide a lot of broader information.

To recap, coyote staples here in San Francisco are gophers and voles, with mice and rats coming in after that. Moles (as opposed to voles) are interesting because coyotes always spit these out as though they are too bitter — the same as they do with lizards. They catch and kill them and leave them, or rub on them for their pungent odors. Coyotes love to wallow in smelly items. As stated above, coyotes will head for what is available in their territory, including carrion and roadkill which may include opossums, squirrels, raccoon, skunk, rats, voles and cats. They’ve been seen carrying ducks where there are ponds, red-tail hawks (presumably ones that were injured previously), and owls (many of which we’ve found to have been rat-poisoned, and therefore slowed-down enough for a coyote to catch).

I’ve seen coyotes catch pigeons, bluebirds, ravens, and crows which they expertly and quickly defeather by yanking off large mouthfuls of feathers at a time, and yes, I’ve seen them run off with cats in their mouths: I saw one family bring into their denning area a cat a week for about 4 weeks, and then it stopped. I see them eat fruit such as pears, apples, loquats, by picking these off the ground, or actually picking them off the low branches of the fruit tree, often reaching high by standing on their hind legs. They pick blackberries off the vine one by one: these are seasonal finds but become a major part of their diets during certain times of the year — when they are ripe, which occurs at different times for different fruit — as can be seen in their scat. I’ve seen them eat snails and crickets. Squirrels are caught year-round by coyotes, especially the unwary younger ones, and consumed right down to the last fur at the tip of their tails, as are all the rodents they eat — there’s absolutely no waste.

I have seen scat filled predominantly with loquat seeds and peels for months at a time in one area. In other territories, there might be apples or pears or blackberries in locations that the coyotes will return to regularly until the fruit is gone. Availability is a big factor in their diets. Another example: those with duck ponds in their territories have ducks on their menus: so for example North Beach coyotes’ territory extends to Fort Mason and the Marina where they have been seen carrying away ducks in their mouths as they return to North Beach.

I would estimate, based on my visual observations, that about 3/4ths of a coyote’s diet is animal, whereas the rest is plant-based. However, this appears to fluctuate over the seasons. Seeing long stretches where the scat appears to be predominantly fruit (seeds and peels), usually in early summer for loquats, fall for apples, and then stretches when there appears to be no fruit at all in the scat confirms this. Besides the plant-based fruit I’ve mentioned, I’ve seen coyote eat fresh green grasses, especially when it comes up after the first rains of the season. I’ve seen them nibble on bark and twigs. I’ve seen them nibble on wild radish roots.

Their nutritional requirements skyrocket during pupping season: pregnant and nursing moms need much more nutrition and therefore will be out hunting more, as will dads who often carry prey to their mates. Then, during pup-weaning and afterwards, both parents feed the pups solid food which is initially regurgitated for their pups: this increases nutritional needs many times over for the parents!

HOW DOES DIET IMPACT COYOTE BEHAVIOR? Coyotes have to eat, so a big portion of their behavior centers around hunting and looking for food over long distances. As they trek through their territories, they mark in order to keep other coyotes out, and they scour for food sources as they peruze their territories for any activity or changes that might affect them. Their keen sense of smell takes them straight to any type of food. They have fantastic memories, so they know exactly where to return to after they’ve discovered a new food source, and they will continue returning there until that supply has become diminished.

In urban areas like San Francisco, in order to avoid humans, coyotes have adapted their hours to mostly at night when we aren’t out. Although you’ll see them hunting at dusk and at dawn, and even during daylight hours — after all, they are not nocturnal animals — the majority of their hunting occurs in the darker hours when we are not around. I’ve recorded them trekking distances of 2 miles and even more, as they search for, or return to, food sources. A lot of them follow the same routes day after day, checking out the locations where they’ve found food in the past: where they’ve heard gophers underground, where they find human refuse, where they see the free-roaming cat they plan to nab some day. Please keep your cats indoors.

And, occasionally, they will grab a small dog and run off with it, usually during twilight hours when their hunting instincts are at their highest. Our Animal Care and Control estimates that about 4 to 5 little dogs are grabbed each year — these aren’t a major part of their diet, but rather they are opportunistically grabbed additions to their diets. Still, it is traumatic for any pet owner to lose a pet to a predator. Please keep your small pets leashed and supervised!

When garbage and human food are left outside, coyotes will inevitably find it and check it out. I’ve seen them pick through human refuse predominantly for the protein: I’ve seen the meat of tossed hamburgers eaten, the cheese of pizzas, the meatballs in spaghetti left on the side of the road — the wheat fill is often left behind.

I’ve seen coyotes hang around where they might get free handouts from people in specific locations where they have been given such stuff before: in parking lots, along trails in parks, even by their parked vans. The bad thing here, of course, is that coyotes return to and hang around these spots, increasing the potential for conflict with dogs. Their behavior towards humans is also changed — tolerance for proximity to humans is increased through feeding them. And, our luring them there — because that is what we are doing — pulls them into areas where there is traffic, increasing the potential for their deaths by cars.

There are some customs passed on in coyote families — a culture of sorts — involving their diets. Some coyote families specifically go out looking for, for example, cats, or human handouts, whereas others don’t seek these out. Could it be that where cats are ignored as prey, there is plenty of other food, so “why bother with a cat?” Also, though, I’ve seen cats who through their own feisty fierceness have kept coyotes away: this type of cat is much too much trouble for a coyote and not worth the effort! When they see the odds of potential injury being high, they avoid the situation.

Coyote family hierarchy is strong when it comes to feasting on what’s been caught. Higher ranking individuals always get to eat first, and the others have to wait far enough away, and look disinterested, until top guy is through, and only then may they approach for their share. This happens when larger prey, such as a raccoon has been found. Most eating, though, by a coyote, is on smaller rodents, which are not divvied up but consumed by one coyote.

Also, I’ve seen coyotes find food and attempt to bury and hide it just for themselves, to the exclusion even of their mates! The treasure is often found anyway, and sometimes taken to a new location! More blatant stealing also occurs: say, if a rat is tossed within another coyote’s easy reach during the *toying* with it after capture, the other coyote might grab it: once it it’s in the mouth of the other coyote, it is considered theirs and cannot be grabbed. You’ll often see a coyote hurry away from other family members when he/she has caught something: this is to prevent them from grabbing it!

KEY SUMMARY INSIGHTS: From what I’ve seen, coyotes haven’t caused huge ecological changes in San Francisco since they first arrived — the biggest impact has been on dogs and their humans, and human perceptions of them: leashing and walking away from a coyote seems to be too inconvenient for some people.

Coyote movements within, and interaction with, the environment have their dietary habits and territorial imperatives at their base. They regularly trek more than two miles distance and back, to check out known and new food sources, and to mark their territories and defend it, doing so mostly at night in order to avoid humans as much as possible, though of course you’ll see them out during the day as well.

Coyotes seem to have pushed red foxes to the periphery of the city through exclusion; and they may be reducing the feral cat population, but only because it is a non-reproducing population. These appear to be their most profound impacts. The feral cat population is mostly fed by humans, but these cats also prey on small rodents and birds whose lives might be spared by reducing that cat population, thereby impacting the ecology of the area.

Although coyotes are eating a large number of gophers, they haven’t diminished that population, as seen by their continuing to catch them as often and easily as ever, and by an overabundance of them causing humans to try to get rid of them. Raccoons, rats, gophers, and skunks have all been targeted as pests and removed by people, well before coyotes came to the city — it would be hard to single out coyotes as the ecological changers in those populations, if indeed any change has been noted in them: as far as I can see, these populations are actually increasing.

Coyotes eat what is readily available in their territories which run up to about 2.5 square miles, and they’ll trek nightly over most of this area to the spots where they know food can be found. Seasonal changes in the flora and fauna affect their diets, especially seasonal fruits. They return repeatedly to areas that provide them with food until that food diminishes to the point where it’s easier to find something else somewhere else.

Humans, too are omnivores, and we each eat as individuals, as families, and as cultures according to our customs and personal tastes and habits, and according to what is available — famous cuisine throughout the world was originally based on regional supplies.

© All information and photos in my postings come from my own original and first-hand documentation work which I am happy to share, with permission and with properly displayed credit: ©janetkessler/coyoteyipps.com.

What Do Coyotes EAT Here In San Francisco?

People keep asking me, WHAT do coyotes eat here in San Francisco? Is there enough food for them?

My reply is always that there’s plenty of food for coyotes in cities. They are known as “opportunistic” eaters — meaning they can eat almost anything.

My observations tell me that their preferred foods are small rodents, such as gophers which run from one to two pounds and voles. Rats and mice are part of their diet.There are plenty of these and coyotes catch them often.

Squirrels are harder to catch for them, as are the more scarce brush bunnies and jackrabbits here in San Francisco, but they do catch these as well. I’ve seen coyotes climb the lower branches of trees in pursuit of squirrels. Rabbits, however, often are just not worth the effort for the coyote, so they often just ignore them.

Even less frequently, I’ve seen them catch and eat insects such as crickets, and snails. I’ve seen them catch snakes and lizards, but only seldom have I seen them actually consume these — or maybe they were just chewing on them and not consuming them.

I’ve seen coyotes gorge on fruit when that becomes ripe in the summer and fall, including apples, pears, loquats, blackberries. You can see when this becomes a larger portion of their diet because their scat becomes very different: goopy and full of seeds and peels.

Mature raccoons are ferocious and can fight off a coyote, but not so juveniles. I’ve seen coyotes feeding on raccoon and on opossums here in San Francisco, but I’ve also seen a coyote almost interacting with a raccoon family socially!

And yes, they catch birds as in the video above: I’ve seen coyotes catch ravens, bluejays (see photo below), and pigeons: they are impressively fast at plucking their prey clean by grabbing a huge mouthful of the feathers and yanking them out quickly and forcefully, and immediately going in for a second mouthful. The lactating mother in the video above is skilled at catching ravens and catches them regularly. But not all coyotes have the same skills and therefore not the same diets: often food preferences seem to run in families, making some of their preferences a “cultural” or “learned” thing which are specific to specific families: these predilections are often “taught”. And I’ve seen coyotes pick up owls who have been sickened by rat-poison which slows down the owl’s reaction times. This is very sad because that rat-poison is hurting many animals. I once found a dead coyote and had it analyzed to determine how it died: its body was riddled with rat-poison.

Coyote catches a bluejay, an opossum, a mouse, a lizard

And coyotes eat roadkill, or carrion — these are already dead animals killed by cars — which helps clean up the environment.

Garbage is usually just a small part of their diet, as seen in scat analysis. They prefer natural foods. However, human food which is left out is picked up by coyotes. Sadly, coyotes get used to this human food and start hanging around for it: the salts and fats are as addictive to them as they are to us — and it’s much easier to sit and wait for food than search and hunt for it: we all tend towards the easiest route. Please don’t leave out your leftovers. Worse, of course, is when people toss food to coyotes on purpose, and even from their cars: I’ve known a couple of coyotes who actually chase cars down the street regularly in pursuit of the food that might be tossed to them. Feeding them directly will cause them to start approaching people as they beg.

There are parking lots at park entryways where coyotes actually hang out waiting for food from humans. Food is used as a reward to train many animals: we are simply training these animals to hang around people and our roadways which is endangering them on roadways, and we are altering their natural and usually wary habits. Please spread the word that feeding coyotes is damaging them, not helping them: there’s plenty of natural foods for them in the city as I’ve shown above.

And . . . hey, don’t allow your cat to roam free! Coyotes DO nab roaming cats, though I know a number of coyotes who actually run in fear from cats! Unless a dog is extremely small, coyotes interest in them tends to be more of a territorial issue: coyotes want to exclude dogs from their areas to keep them from hunting there, the same as they do to other coyotes. You can avoid trouble with your dog by simply keeping away and walking away with your dog leashed the minute you see a coyote.

Coyote skillfully hunting by leaping high over his prey and then stunning it with his nose or his paws.

Coyote Mums May Be Very Scrawny Right Now

A hollow, indented abdomen

This is a particularly hard time for coyote mothers whose nutritional needs have skyrocketed. This mother, photographed here, is one who has not been able to keep up with her nutritional needs. She has to find enough food to sustain herself and to provide the milk for the five 2-month-old pups she is still suckling. The pups have begun eating regurgitated semi-solid food brought by Dad and their yearling sister, but they are still suckling from Mom who is stunningly gaunt, emaciated and skeletal looking.

The suckling period of a growing litter of pups coincides with the season for shedding fur, so many coyotes look much thinner right now (and scraggly because of fur loss), even though they in fact may not be, and even though they are not lactating. But Mums indeed ARE thinner, and some are much more so than others, and you can see it, including in their faces and jaws where the skull bones are revealed right through the skin and fur. Moms I’ve known have always gained their weight back over time once the demands of providing milk end, but until then, it’s a strain on the body.

This mum still has her winter fur on her neck which helps hide her scrawniness

You can see the round shape of the femur bone through the skin in her leg and an indented thigh (taken at dusk which makes her look even wispier)


Kangaroo Apple or Poroporo

I watched a coyote forage in one of these bushes. When the coyote left, we went up to examine the berries which I had never seen before. I took a tiny taste, and my friend gulped down a couple to help us determine what they were: the flavor was bitter with a tad of sweet. When I got home, I couldn’t find the plant on the internet, so I turned to my Nextdoor site and posed the question there. They indeed came up with what it was: Kangaroo apple, as it’s called in Australia, or poroporo, as it is called in New Zealand are native to those areas, but have been naturalized into the Bay Area and can be found throughout San Francisco. AND, we should not have eaten them as they are poisonous — they belong to the nightshade family! Yikes!
Once I had the name of the plant, I looked up more about it. Interestingly, it’s flowers are hermaphroditic (having both male and female organs). They are blue-violet or white in color, and a little over an inch in size. Flowers are followed by berries of about the same size. The berries, it turns out, are poisonous only while green — they become edible once they turn orange.  Whew!
The next day I went back to see if the coyote would appear again: I wasn’t sure it was eating the fruit or possibly foraging for snails or slugs on the plant. I wondered why a coyote might eat toxic material. As I watched, I saw that the coyote eating only the orange colored fruit! Maybe the green ones were unsavory and bitter as well as toxic? Smart coyote!


Apples, Blackberries and Pears, Oh My!

This fella found quite a smorgasbord this morning, all within the space of about 4 square feet! He must have been in coyote heaven. Right after he had picked up and eaten some voles without expending much effort, he walked just a couple of feet to a patch of fruit. There were blackberries, apples and pears either on the vines and trees which he could reach, or just lying around on the ground where they had fallen. I watched him eat one and then another and then another and . . .

He ate for a long time. He ate standing most of the time, but for a while he ate lying down in the cool ivy under the fruit trees. He crunched through the apples and pears the way we would, chomping on mouthfuls at a time, and sometimes taking bites that were too big so that part of the fruit fell to the ground. Then he got up and walked away. There was still plenty of fruit left lying on the ground by the time he departed, so I guess he had his fill!

As he ate, he kept his eyes up, high above himself, and on the lookout constantly. I wondered what was going on above him!? I never did figure it out for sure. It crossed my mind that at one time he may have been hit by falling fruit — a la Chicken Little. I have seen gum nuts fall off of Eucalyptus trees which startled coyotes enough to make them run. Or, it could have been a waving tree branch which he was wary of. Coyotes appear not to like things moving over themselves.



Two youngsters dart in for food from Dad — the two very active coyotes in the video are pups who are approaching, but not quite yet, 6 months of age.  Dad regurgitates the food — it looks like whole voles — and the two pups feed in a frenzy. They continue to insert their snouts in his mouth in an attempt to get more food — it’s like an assault!  He gently and repeatedly clasps their snouts in his mouth: Is he indicating that there’s no more food to be had, and/or is he confirming his dominance?  Note at 42 seconds that a pup crosses Dad’s path by going under him!

It appears that Dad is the one to approach for food like this these days. I have not seen this set of pups approach their mother recently in this fashion. Rather, she sits in the distance and watches all the activity — safe from the onslaught!

How Much Food Does a Coyote Eat In A Day?

the menu at a wildlife rehabilitation center

the menu at a wildlife rehabilitation center: this menu will be fed at least twice a day and dry chow is always available

Coyotes are opportunistic eaters: they eat what they can find when they need to. However they’ll concentrate on obtaining their favorite foods, when available, which include freshly caught gophers, voles, squirrels, mice, rats, opossums. They eat roadkill and other carrion. In areas where there are deer, they scavenge for deer hit by cars and they can take down the infirm and younger ungulates. And, yes, they will capture cats when these become opportunistically available to them: please keep your cats indoors so that they don’t become part of the food chain .  They eat birds as big as chickens and as small as sparrows. But they are not totally carnivores. They eat fruit, nuts and bugs, including crickets, peanuts and watermelon. And they will nibble at human leftovers from picnic areas or the street, though this is clearly not the biggest part of their diet as shown by coyote scat analysis. Sandwich baggies have even been found in their scat!

Although they find and kill snakes and lizards, I have not seen them eat these. They prefer rolling on them to absorb their acrid odors, but might eat them when other food is scarce.

They’ll expend a lot of effort digging up what turns out to be a mole, only to reject it. There must be something about the flavor they don’t like. They roll on them, as they do with reptiles, to absorb the odors, and, again, when no other food is around to satisfy their hunger, they will eat them as a last resort.

I’ve wondered how *much* a coyote eats in a day, or over several days.  I’ve seen three full gophers caught, chomped and gulped down, all in a row. I thought that was a lot of food all at once. I’ve seen coyotes eat a raccoon carcass, but only part way at any one time. They returned on successive days to finish it off. It appears that they stopped eating each day when they had had their fill.

The image above is the coyote — and juvenile coyote — menu offered to injured coyotes at an animal rehabilitation center. This amount of food is obviously enough to sustain a coyote comfortably when it is not active. An active coyote would need much more than this, as would a female during gestation and while nursing young pups. The menu above looks scrumptious! There’s more variety than most dogs get. Maybe when times are tough coyotes should learn to check into their local wildlife rehabilitation center for a gourmet meal!!

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