Why Are Coyotes Sighted Regularly in The Neighborhoods?

Summary/Abstract: Coyotes have been seen repeatedly in the parks’ surrounding neighborhoods and beyond ever since they first appeared in San Francisco. Their trekking is a build-in part of their behavior and occurs mostly during the darker hours. These sightings are not so anomalous as we’ve been told they are.

Sightings. The following was posted on the Golden Gate Heights *Nextdoor* site here in San Francisco yesterday morning: “I now have seen Coyotes in many unexpected places in SF This time a block from where I live. this one was a pretty small, healthy looking, probably female. I hope she eats the 15th Ave Skunks!” On the same day, in another *Nextdoor* site, Westwood Park, this was posted: “Saw a young coyote walking down Colon Ave about 10am this morning. Please watch your cats to be sure they are safe.”

Many similar postings on social media, and many more by word of mouth, reach me regularly, be these from Filbert Street, Cow Hollow, Park Merced, Diamond Heights, Mission Street, etc.  Sightings of coyotes in neighborhoods have been noted since I started documenting San Francisco coyotes over ten years ago, though more people now know about them due to the social media. Coyotes have been seen trotting down my own street in the late mornings, infrequently but repeatedly for some time — nowhere near a park.

Some of my neighbors are thrilled and accept this in stride; others worry for themselves and their small pets, or they say it’s “wrong”. The sightings are usually in the very early morning or in the evenings, but not always — coyotes are not nocturnal animals, though they do tend mostly to avoid human activity times and areas.

When coyotes are seen in neighborhoods — trotting down a street or standing at an intersection, passing through yards or resting there — it is still reported with a bit of surprise because it’s not where people expect to see coyotes and it’s where, purportedly, “they should not be.”

Backdrop: Coyotes are native only to America where their range has expanded considerably over the last 100 years or so from the southwestern part of the continent to all over. More recently, over the last 20 years or so, they have been moving into most urban areas. It’s a relatively new development which is being studied all over the US and Canada: Chicago has 2000 of them, Los Angeles reports 5000 of them. They are in Central Park in New York City, in Atlanta, in Westchester, NY. There are multiple dozens here in San Francisco — but not hundreds and hundreds of them — we are a small peninsula, and territoriality limits their numbers in any particular area.

Various reasons and explanations have been given for coyote sightings in neighborhoods or outside the parks. For instance, we have been told that adverse weather conditions — say, our recent 4-year drought — was a factor in neighborhood sightings — that coyotes were expanding their hunting range into neighborhoods and increasing their time there to compensate for the diminished food supply in the parks — therefore, the sightings there.

Weather may be a contributing factor, but it is not the sole nor the primary factor for their being in the neighborhoods, otherwise I simply wouldn’t have been seeing them outside of the parks so regularly, in some cases daily, over the last ten years, well before the recent drought and when their population was sparser, and even now after the rains this winter.

An explanation for increased coyote sightings within the parks at certain times is when pups begin venturing further from their dens, or when parents can be seen patrolling and protecting den areas — they suddenly appear from nowhere. Throughout the year dispersing individuals (juveniles who leave home) may turn up in unexpected places until they eventually find their own niches, which may lead them miles outside of the city. All of these explanations — all valid — are offered as anomalies to the norm (the norm being that they aren’t in the neighborhoods), and they all add a little more to our understanding of coyote movements in an urban area, but they miss the bigger picture which I have been seeing.

The bigger picture. Each coyote requires about a square mile to sustain itself, though it has been found that smaller areas sometimes can support them: need for the resources on the land is what drives their territorial behavior. To this end families claim areas and drive out non-family coyotes in order to preserve the resources there for themselves and their youngsters. This is how territoriality works in the parks and open spaces. It helps keep the population down in those places.

But these same coyotes who often claim some of the largest and lushest parks (with streams of water, grasslands and plenty of thickets as resources), have been seen trekking through neighborhoods routinely. Why don’t they stick to the parks and hide out just there? Why are we seeing them in the neighborhoods? It appears to be because of that same territorial imperative — an instinct built into their behavior through years of evolution — causing them to reach out to know the wider area, to confirm or redefine their boundaries, to know what is going on there and check it out, to push the envelope or be pushed back, to move into unclaimed or vacated areas, to search for a mate.

It is because of this behavior that they came to most of our cities, and then city parks in the first place. And it is because of this behavior that they are seen outside of the parks, not only close to the peripheries but in the neighborhoods even further out. Truth be told, trekking through the ‘hoods and outside of park boundaries is part-and-parcel of urban coyote behavior: It’s what coyotes do. It’s a function of their daily territorial behavior. If and when they linger in any particular area, it is because of some attractant. These are my observations, supported by the reported observations of others in the city throughout many years.

In addition, coyotes who claim smaller parks as their territories may occupy several natural open spaces — their territories are fragmented and they must move between them, crossing through neighborhood areas to do so. So neighborhoods are not excluded from their ranging areas.

Several years ago I was able to follow along on a number of early evening coyote treks which I wrote up. I went along to find out where they went and what they did — it was a real honor that they allowed this. Here is an example of one of their shorter treks: Mapping Trekking Behavior.  Other posts about coyotes in neighborhoods include Coyotes in Neighborhoods, and In The ‘Hood.

What to do. So, seeing coyotes in neighborhoods is something that does occur regularly, whether or not the weather has impacted their food supply, or whether or not they are dispersing. What can be done? Is there an issue to be resolved? Not really, except to please just be aware of it so that you won’t be startled by one. Also, please don’t allow pets to be out-of-doors without supervision: even though coyotes avoid humans (unless they have been taught to approach by food-conditioned) coyotes don’t have the same aversion towards pets. If you are walking your dog and see a coyote, please tighten your leash and continue walking away from that coyote, dragging your pet if you have to.

If coyotes begin hanging around your home and you don’t want them there, please remove all attractants, including bird-seed and compost which attract small rodents which, in turn, attract the coyotes. If you need help with diverting a regular trekking pattern away from your yard, please send me a comment which I will reply to privately: I can put you in touch with the right hands.

For an introductory summary of what to know and what to do about coyotes in the city, please see Coyotes As Neighbors or see the list of resources listed on this website on the first page, at the top.

The Social Amplification of Risk and Fear

There are many coyote discussions happening on social media platforms such as Nextdoor and Facebook which are engendering and heightening fears of our urban coyotes, and which, for the most part, stem from fear based on misinformation and lack of information about coyotes.

My observations about the effect of social media were confirmed last year at an annual neighborhood association meeting in San Francisco by a police officer who was updating folks on the most recent crime reports. He made a huge point of saying that crime, in fact, had remained the same in the area over the last year or so, but that the perception of the extent of crime had changed tremendously, for the worse, due to social media such as Facebook and Nextdoor. Specifically, there were two crime incidents which social media discussions had so blown out of proportion and altered that they were no longer recognizable from what had really happened. And all of this, of course, increased fear to a crescendo which was simply uncalled for, according to the officer. Sounds exactly like what I’m seeing in discussions about coyotes.

These social media comments appear to be no different from the coyote rumors, passed along by word of mouth, which preceded social media. I became fascinated with how these rumors and myths about coyotes got started, survived, and then became amplified along the way. I happen to be in our parks for many hours every day, so I’ve actually watched and heard tales spin themselves from an inconsequential situation or comment into monster terrors.  My favorite was: “Seven coyotes surrounded my car and wouldn’t let me get out”. The story of fear spread far and wide, the fear level mounting, with folks afraid that the coyotes were coming to get them, until it actually reached one of the City’s governing Supervisors. The Supervisor was promptly educated by coyote experts and the rumor was put to rest. By the way, the single coyote family in the area consisted of just three coyotes, a mom and two pups, and they were a particularly flighty bunch when it came to people and cars.

What actually are the risks of injury by a coyote? Folks need to know that there have been only TWO recorded human deaths IN ALL HISTORY from coyotes and one of those involved the feeding of a coyote. Bites or scratches to people from coyotes for all of North America amount to fewer than 20 a year — and most of these are caused by feeding coyotes or from interfering in a coyote/dog altercation. For comparison, there have been about 20-30 deaths PER YEAR caused by dogs, and over 1000 people A DAY go to emergency rooms for dog bites. There are more interesting statistics which should help folks understand how minimal the risks are of being hurt by a coyote, for instance, did you know that champaign corks kill 24 people a year?

WP-ChampaignCork

One thing I have observed recently is that there are many, many more dogs than ever before visiting parks, and many more people who walk their dogs are glued to their iPhones and don’t have their dogs leashed in areas where they know there are coyotes. Meanwhile their dogs are running wild and out-of-control all over the place. The situation is ripe for the possibility of more dog/coyote encounters, and for these, indeed, precautions must be taken to keep coyotes and pets apart.

Every single dog/coyote incident I’ve seen and heard about could have been prevented by following very simple guidelines, which can be found at the top of the home page for this blog. These include:

  • don’t leave out food attractants
  • don’t let pets roam free — always closely supervise your pet out of doors
  • be vigilant when walking your pet
  • keep your distance from coyotes in the first place
  • if you see a coyote, leash and walk away from the coyote
  • don’t let your dog chase coyotes
  • know how to shoo away a coyote who is approaching your pet and WALK away without running.

To avoid car accidents, we learn and abide by traffic rules and guidelines. Guidelines for coexisting with coyotes are far fewer and simpler than those for the road, but there is a huge resistance to using them for some folks. Their response often is: Wouldn’t it just be easier to kill them?

The knee-jerk solution to many fears has often been to remove its source. Several years ago a tree limb fell on a visitor in a park and killed that person in San Francisco. It was an extremely unfortunate freak accident. But what was interesting was the way some people wanted to deal with their new-found fear: they wanted to cut down all the trees!

I’m now hearing that swing sets will be removed from our parks because they’re too risky. Swings of course are no more dangerous than they ever have been, but as a society we have changed how we interpret risk and fear and how we deal with it. Might our fears have less to do with the object of fear itself than with ourselves, the media and the tenor of the times?

I went to the internet to find out more about fear and risk. What I found is a fascinating exposition on precisely this subject. It’s long, but very, very interesting. I’m including the link in case anyone cares to explore it: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/3053#.VQnN0mTF-94

Getting back to coyotes, you can learn some of the behavior patterns to expect between dogs and coyotes, along with how to shoo off a coyote, and why killing does not work as a solution from the YouTube video “Coyotes As Neighbors”, also found at the top of the home page of this website. If you need or want help beyond this, contact the folks at Coyotexistence@gmail.com for one-on-one help.