Territories and Population in San Francisco

Abstract: Key summary concepts and conclusions:

  1. Coyote population in San Francisco is self-regulated.
  2. There are just about 20 coyote territories in the city — I know of 15-17 (2 appear not to be full territories) and I’m allowing for a few more in this count [this map was updated 6-22-22]
  3. Territorial map update 6-22-22--
  4. Territories are owned and occupied by just one family.
  5. Outsider coyotes are kept out of these territories with few exceptions.
  6. Each territory within San Francisco is 1.5 to 2.5 square miles.
  7. Each territory has been stable since I first observed them, some since 2007, some since 2014, with minor exceptions. 
  8. Families consist of the alpha pair (Mom and Dad), pups born this year, and possibly a couple of yearlings from last year’s litter. There are variations, and a few exceptions as discussed below.
  9. This map and the work behind it has been assembled by me, visually, working alone up until this year, using my facial recognition of coyotes, and through documenting their behaviors and family life — I know each of these families and the relationships (and often ages) of the coyotes within the families, and can identify them — without tags or radio collars. Mine is a private passion. I have not been associated with any agencies, and I’m not paid for my work.
  10. I’ve been collecting scat since 2008 for DNA analysis at Dr. Benjamin Sacks’ Genetics Lab at UC Davis to confirm the relationships I’ve seen, dispersals, and origins. Last year my project was turned into a collaborative effort, joined by Monica Serrano who is analyzing the DNA, and Tali Caspi who is also collecting scat for a diet study: both students are PhD candidates working with or through Dr. Benjamin Sacks’ lab at UC Davis.
  11. **I want to emphasize that this posting is about what the situation is now and what it has been, I’m not predicting what it will be moving forward, but this is what we have as of Summer, 2021.                                

Coyote Territories and Population in SF

I keep hearing rumors and reading on NextDoor, that coyotes are “running around haphazardly and multiplying wildly” throughout San Francisco, that we are being “overrun” by them, that the city needs to “manage” them.

So I want to delineate what the coyote population situation is here in the city. I’ve defined most of the coyote territories here — and I’m likely the only person who has done so: all based on my own first-hand field research. I know and can identify the individual coyotes — their families, their relationships, and many of their ages and behaviors — that live on these territories.

Please note that “More sightings” do not necessarily translate into “more coyotes”.  I have studied the territories where people have claimed there are more and more coyotes, and there are not more. In all of them, I can identify the single family that lives there. Several factors enter into why people are having more sightings: First, increased awareness of coyotes in the city by everyone makes it easier to tune in to their presence. My best example of this is when I adopted my own first dog: suddenly there seemed to be hundreds of dogs which I had never seen before. Of course, there weren’t suddenly more dogs, I had just become tuned-into their presence. The same with babies: when I had my first kid, suddenly it seemed there were babies all over the place. Again, there hadn’t been a sudden change, but my perception had changed. A second factor is that Covid-19 has encouraged many more people to be out-of-doors, either around their homes or in the parks: the parks have been one of the few areas where people have been allowed to be during the pandemic and these areas are where the coyotes are, so there were more sightings with more people there to see them. Another factor, NextDoor spreads the word so more people now feel as though more are around. I recently read on NextDoor that coyotes are multiplying wildly in West Portal: not so. I know these coyotes well and there is still just the one family there, albeit they moved their denning area this year. During the early part of the pandemic, I read in the news that coyotes were suddenly congregating and howling on Greenwich Street: the one family that lives there, in fact, has been traveling this street nightly for years, and has been in the area at least since 2007. I can say this about a handful of places where there was a reported an “uptick in coyotes”. So, as I said, “more sightings” do not necessarily translate into “more coyotes.” I’ve been documenting SF coyotes now for 14 years, and I know the population on these particular territories. Lastly, as far as I have seen, as coyotes have become more and more used to the urban environment, although they retain their wariness, there are individuals who haven’t been keeping so carefully hidden as in the past, so there have been more opportunities for sighting them.

My awareness history: It’s by word of mouth and through the newspapers that I first learned about coyotes in San Francisco: 1) the first coyote was sighted in the Presidio in 2003 and 2) another was observed at Bernal Hill in 2004. It was not until 2007 that I actually met my first coyote — it was on Twin Peaks — that’s when I began my focused investigation into coyotes here in San Francisco. By the end of 2007 I had seen coyotes in many of the same territories where you see them today: at Lands End, the Presidio, Glen Canyon, North Beach and Fort Mason, Golden Gate Park, McLaren Park, Lake Merced. As I said, that was in 2007. As of today, those territories, as territories, have not changed. Their size and borders appear to have remained very constant, as has the the number of families on them: there is still just one family on each of those territories, though the specific families on some of those territories has changed over the years. In several of the territories, different generations of the same family still occupy that territory. So, these territories have been amazingly fixed since I first encountered them in 2007.

After 2007, I recognized even more territories: I don’t know when these became territories, but most of these, too, have remained stable and consistent since I first became aware of them in 2014. When instability did happen to the resident coyote family, it was because a coyote mated pair got old or there was weakness: they either were fought off by a younger, more energetic mated pair, or they simply left the territory which was soon filled by others, but the territory, as a territory remained stable as did the size of its population: one family. A rare boundary shift has occurred in one of the territories I’m following when a couple of adjacent territories had departures or deaths, and then there was some merging into what today is a standard family: an alpha pair, two yearlings and this year’s litter. 

So, within any area, where a human would notice them, there are not more coyotes, except for the accordion-like seasonal variations after pups are born, wherein afterwards the population on that one territory has shrunk back down to the alpha parents and possibly a yearling or two before the next pupping season which then produces, again in the next year, an expansion and then contraction in coyote numbers. The youngsters eventually and inevitably leave (disperse). Dispersed yearlings (and even elders) normally disappear forever from my visual radar — they appear to leave the city moving south, or be killed or die during the process, which is pretty much supported by a Presidio radio-collar study.  However, I’ve been able to follow a number of these dispersed individuals to final destinations within the city. These that remained within the city have moved into previously existing territories, either through a takeover battle usually from an older or weaker pair (say, if a mate died), by joining an existing territorial singleton (or divorcee in one case), or finding a vacated territory — one that had either been vacated by a death or abandoned. A wonderful example of all of these situations can be found in the situations of the litter born in 2017 in North Beach (see above link).

My work and methods: You might ask how I know this since I don’t use interfering and harmful gadgets such as radio-collars or colored tags, so I will briefly give a rundown of what I do and my methods.

I’m a self-taught naturalist and coyote specialist who’s been documenting coyote behavior here in San Francisco every day for the past 14 years. I’ve been called a pioneer in the photo-documentation of the lives of urban coyotes and capturing their intimate lives”. Specifically, I look at individual behaviors (what coyotes are doing and why), family life and interactions and structures, and their behavior towards pets and people. Then, in addition to their behaviors, I also look at their relationships and population dynamics which include mapping the extent of each family’s territory. To confirm my findings with hard data beyond my visual ones, I’ve been collecting scat since 2008 for DNA analysis at UC Davis, where Ph.D. candidates Monica Serrano and Tali Caspi are now collaborating with me in a city-wide population study.  I know most of the families and their members and relationships by sight and I’ve even been able to keep up with numerous dispersals to other locations within the city, though most dispersing youngsters, as I’ve stated, I never see again. These visual observations, as I’ve said, should pretty much be confirmed by DNA analysis from scat for which I’ve collected 500 samples so far.

I always begin my observations by figuring out and identifying who each coyote is as an individual: to do this I need to tell them apart. Each is unique as you can see in these photos below.  I spend a lot of time watching them and then examining the photos I take of them. So I am able to tell them apart by their faces. Coat markings are notoriously unreliable because they change too much with the summer shedding, however, distinctive silhouettes and even individual behaviors help distinguish them at a distance.

faces presentationSo each coyote face is unique, and the differences run deeper than their faces, into their various personalities. These become apparent by comparing and contrasting them. So, for example, some are much more curious and inquisitive, whereas others are more cautious and careful. Some are more playful, gregarious and love to tease, whereas others are more serious, watchful and withdrawn.


Some are curious and inquisitive, others are more cautious and careful


Some are more gregarious and playful and love to tease, others are more serious, watchful, and withdrawn.

Then, on top of personality differences, their different social situations or stations in life also distinguish them, and these evolve over their lifespans: 1) They all start out as pups, with siblings, in families, on territories, in highly social situations. Then most move on to become 2) interloping loners without territories and without social networks — it’s a complete change for them. Eventually 3) they find mates and become parents defending their own turfs, and 4) at some point, they get old and lose their mates and leave or lose their territories. Each social situation or station engenders different behaviors, all of which help to define who the coyotes are and to differentiate them.


They all begin in highly social families with siblings, and then most move on to becoming interloping loners, without territories or social networks — it’s a big change for them.


Eventually they find mates and become parents and defenders of their own territories.


And then at some point they get old and lose their mates, and leave or lose their territories.

Above three rows of photos: coyotes have different social situations which help distinguish them.


Family resemblances are strong: I have difficulty distinguishing this father and son

Of interest, nuclear family resemblances which we all are aware of in human families, also exist in coyote families! Similar and distinguishing characteristics and traits which often run in families have proven to be both an asset and a hindrance for me in identifying them. Family resemblances have helped me go back to families where I saw some amazingly similar facial configurations, allowing me to match up a coyote with his/her younger images. At the same time, these extremely close resemblances in siblings, especially from the same litter, have forced me to spend a lot of time pouring over photographs trying to tease out the defining differences! In some cases, it has taken a lot of time.

So, being able to identify each coyote visually is a huge tool I have for figuring out other things, including their population as a whole: structure and dynamics and mapping. Once I’ve come to know individuals and their families, I notice that only the coyotes of that one family, and no others, ever appear in any given area — this would constitute that family’s territory. I began seeing the extent and where they would go. I was able to tell who belonged where and their boundaries. Friends also occasionally sent me photos of coyotes seen in different places: it was always the same coyotes in the same places which confirmed what I was seeing.  I also have relied at times on automatic trail cameras at night, which involve another learning-curve for being able to identify individuals under infrared light. This is not easy to do. I place these cameras in strategic locations, such as by holes in or under fences, by watering areas such as dripping spigots, along coyote pathways which are easy to recognize as narrow grooves in the grass or terrain, and also, when/if the situation opportunistically presents itself, facing trash left by humans. By the way, food attracts many more rats, skunks, raccoons and crows than it does coyotes.

Again, the results of my findings show only the members of the one family in any of these territories: dispersing outsiders passing through are not common and can be identified as such. Territories and their populations, including seasonal pupping expansion and contraction, have been extremely stable, in spite of several coyote family disruptions that I’ve been able to follow.

During turmoil/disrupting times — such as times of dispersal of the alphas or injury or death of an alpha — there have been palpable upheavals at a site, but always, and soon, the population would settle back down and stabilize to what it had been before, or it would incorporate a change and then settle down. At the time of upheaval, there would be frantic energy and activity that was very different from everyday life, and frantic and increased vocalizations. It was easy to tell that something was going on if you were tuned into their everyday life.

Background coyote population history from other sources: For those who don’t know it, coyotes are native only to America. They inhabit every state except Hawaii. Below are three maps depicting their presence here over time [click each image to enlarge it for better viewing], or see Hody, J.W. & Kays R., “Mapping the expansion of coyotes across North and Central America”, Zookeys, 759:81-97, 2018.

There are 19 sub-species of coyotes running from the 35-55 pound Eastern Coyote, to a tiny 19 pound coyote in Florida which is sometimes though rarely melanistic or black, to our very own little western coyote weighing 25 to 35 pounds and averaging about 30 pounds in this area. [SOURCE: WIKIPEDIA]


Eastern Coyote to the left; small coyote found in Florida to the right

It’s just during the last 20 years that coyotes have been moving more and more into cities and urban areas, where they claim territories in parks and open spaces, including neighborhoods, reservoirs, and the no-man-lands on the shoulders of freeways, including in San Francisco. I’ve written about how coyotes RETURNED to San Francisco — they are a native species which had been exterminated here in San Francisco in the 1900s. One old fellow I spoke to remembers when the city offered $4.00 for two coyote ears in the 1950s.

Back to their territories: Of prime importance, coyotes here in SF are not wandering around haphazardly nor multiplying wildly as some people claim. Here is my summary map, created for and first published in my presentations last year, showing HOW the population is divided and situated into discrete family units on distinct territories, with fairly exact borders. I will tweak it as needed. I have been able to delineate just about 20 territories (I’ve counted 14 and am allowing for several more) which cover the whole of the city. Nine of these territories I know extremely well, the ones I know less are proving to be very similar in their composition, dynamics, and extent. 

Territorial map update 6-22-22--

This is my map: I’ve poured heart and soul, work, time, energy and thought into it, mainly to show folks that coyotes aren’t running around haphazardly, and that the population is self-regulating/managing. Please give me credit if you share this information. ©

Of high interest is that all these territories, as territories, have been stable and unchanging since I first encountered them in 2007 and others in 2014, notwithstanding sequential families.  A couple have had minor alterations in their borders. But the coyotes themselves have also been amazingly stable, in spite of coyote family disruptions, or in one case, the movements of one gypsy family which included an unusual “divorce”. [Map updated 6-22-22: blue borders show territories that have changed substantially]

Only one coyote family, and no other coyotes, then, appear on any one territory, with rare exceptions, which I’ll explain below. The family members from that territory trek routinely through their areas which include the surrounding neighborhoods, as they, among other things, mark their territories in order to keep other coyotes out.

Rarely, I’ve seen a dispersing outsider passing through as quickly and inconspicuously as possible, and here below-left is a photo of a dispersing youngster (on the right) being repulsed by a territorial owner (on the left).

In addition to these territories, there are what I call temporary stopping-off spots where, over the years, I have seen any number of coyotes remain temporarily for a day, 2 weeks, 6 weeks, or several months before moving on. For some reason, these areas don’t seem to have sticking power, and the coyotes have always moved on after very short stints of stay there. Golden Gate Heights area has notably been such an area — almost a cross-roads — used by a number of dispersing coyotes over the years. I’m not saying this will remain so, but this is how it has been up to now.


left: intruder being repulsed by a territorial owner; right: trekking the neighborhood to keep other coyotes out

In several rare instances, I’ve seen an individual remain longer. For instance, a dispersing youngster with a leg injury allowed to stay for several weeks before moving on. This individual was obviously not a threat to the resident coyotes and that may be why he was allowed to stay. I’ve also noticed a couple of what I call, “adoptions” by families of outside dispersing youngsters who don’t appear ready to make it on their own: eventually they move on. And I’ve seen a four-year old who seems to have been welcomed as a nanny to a large litter. All of these are rare exceptions to what I’ve seen.

The alpha/parents of each family, then, exclusively OWN their own vast territory and all the resources contained thereon, and they keep other coyotes out. This explains some of their antagonism towards dogs: it’s a matter of excluding them for the resources.This is what their territoriality is about. It’s this territoriality which limits their population in any given area. Territories I’ve worked out here in San Francisco run between 1.5 and 2.4 square miles. Please refer to the map above. The darker outlined territories on the map are those I know extremely well. 

The Alpha parent-pairs — the owners of the territories — provide long-term stability to the area’s population. I’ve seen some territories occupied for 12 years by the same pair or by their descendents who took over from them once they were no longer viable, whereas all their offspring inevitably and eventually move on. Eventually, even the old alphas may abandon their long-term homes, after losing a territorial battle, or even without such provocation — possibly because their reproductive years were over, or they died. Within a year, the territory has always been taken over by a new alpha pair, or in one case, a loner initially.


The alpha pair own the territory and create stability in the population

SO, territoriality limits the population, but so does biology: the fact that only the two alphas in a family on any territory reproduce [though I have found one exception — a rare exception that seems to prove the rule]. I’ve seen  mothers wallop their yearling daughters to either disperse them or to instill fear so they won’t reproduce. Inter-coyote interactions can be intense — there is no question about any meaning and never room for interpretation — it’s a clear message. Younger females are therefore referred to as “behaviorally sterile”. Culling/killing/removing them disrupts this process, and they’ll produce more litters and will make up the difference (see FF Knowlton, 1972]. My own observation, aside from this documented biology, is that female offspring usually disperse before they become reproductively viable at two-years of age. So, coyote population is self-regulating.

Pups are born just once a year, in the springtime, which distinguishes them from dogs who can breed twice a year. Litter size averages 3 or 4, though I’ve seen as few as one and as many as seven here in SF, with a fair pup mortality lowering those numbers. They dig multiple dens which may lead folks to believe there are pups in each — but this is not the case. Most of these extra dens are reserved for emergency use. In different years, the same coyotes may use different parts or fragments of their territory for denning, as far away from each other as a mile, leading people to believe it’s another family when it is the same resident family or a single replacement family: this has happened at West Portal, in Glen Canyon/Twin Peaks/Mt. Davidson/Laguna Honda (this is all one territory), at Buena Vista, in McLaren.

Territory population then, like the bellows of an accordian, grows during the pupping season, but it shrinks back down to just the alpha pair, with possibly one or two yearlings lingering a little longer before moving on. Yearlings are defined as the pups born the previous year. Pups normally disperse sometime during their second year. They are either driven out by a sibling or parent, or they just pickup on their own and leave based on their own internal clock. Dispersal is a dangerous time for coyotes, due to cars (cars are their chief killers in cities), due to hostile coyotes, and due to unfamiliarity with the terrain. So, discreetly and mostly at night is when they search for new homes.

Here are some dispersal directions and final destinations within the city that I’ve tracked visually through facial recognition. Again, my direct visual observations should pretty much be confirmed by DNA by Dr. Benjamin Sacks’ lab at UC Davis. By the way, for a high number of the scats I’ve collected, I’ve seen which coyote produced them, so we’ll be able to match up exactly who is who. :))  The dispersal routes I’ve depicted are summary movements: in fact, dispersing coyotes may cover every inch of the city before moving on out or claiming their turf. Once they claim their turf, they stick to that area, without venturing out, and without allowing other coyotes in.


Some dispersals and final destination within the city of San Francisco

In their quest for new homes, a few coyotes have remained in the city after fighting for a territory where they detect weak alphas: this happened last year at the Presidio. Or taking over a territory from a weaker loner as at Bernal Hill (though this was a temporary situation). And a lucky coyote just might find a vacated niche in the city, as happened at Bernal Hill six years ago. Those territories within the city which were moved into were only 4 or 5 miles from the coyotes’ birthplaces. However, many, or most of the dispersing coyotes, as I’ve said, appeared to move south and out of the city as noted by Presidio ecologists.

In conclusion, we appear to have the same territories today that we had in 2007 and those I discovered in 2014 have remained the same since that time. We have no more coyotes in the Presidio, Lands End, North Beach, Glen Canyon, Bernal Hill than we had back in 2007; we have no more coyotes at West Portal, Portola, Sunset, McLaren, etc. than we had in 2014 when I first became aware of them. Dispersing and interloping coyotes tend to be very temporary situations, with these territory-less coyotes much less secure and much more wary and evasive than the territorial ones which are the ones you are most likely to see. For instance, in 2019 the coyote pair seen regularly at Alta Vista and Lafayette Parks have not been seen in those parks since they claimed Lands End which they took over: that has been a territory since 2007. We have had other coyotes around Japantown and Grace Cathedral who will follow suit. Coyotes at the Sunset Reservoir are only seen there sporadically — I haven’t figured out their territorial boundaries yet.

*The images in this posting all come from my presentations where I first published this material.

© 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.

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