Responding to Recent Postings on Social Media: A Recap of Some Urban Coyote Behaviors and Some Explanations

This posting is a slightly revised and expanded version, with photos, of what was originally written for, and posted on, Bernalwood.com on May 27th.

our Bernal coyote at dawn

coyote at dawn

We have coyotes in most of our parks here in San Francisco, and most folks I’ve spoken with are thrilled about it!  Enjoy it and respect its wildness! At the same time, there are some people, especially pet owners, who are not so thrilled. Here is some information I’ve put together about coyotes, much of it based on my own observations, as a response to concerns and comments which have appeared in some of the social media recently. This is information that applies to urban coyotes everywhere, not just here in SF.

COYOTES ARE TERRITORIAL AND LIVE IN FAMILIES

coyotes in our parks

coyotes in our parks

Most parks in San Francisco have one stable resident family, or a loner. Coyotes are not “pack” animals of unrelated individuals. Families “claim” territories which they “own” from which they exclude other coyotes — this is what keeps the population density down. They trek through the neighborhoods every night, during the early morning or early evening hours — and, more rarely, during the brightest hours of the day — marking their territories to keep other coyotes out and looking for hunting opportunities. Studies show that in urban areas, there is generally about one coyote per square mile — a family of 4 would require about 4 square miles. You will always be seeing the same individual coyotes in any particular area.

Although we have parks with loner coyotes, most parks have mated pairs with families. Coyotes mate for life, and both parents raise the young. Coyotes mate in January or February and produce young in April — births occur only once a year. 

The number of family members fluctuates up and down continually over time. In one park, it went something like this: 2-5-3-4-2. The fluctuation is due to new pups, and then to their dispersal or deaths. There is only about a 30% survival rate of pups during their first year — disease and nutritional issues take their toll.

When it’s time for youngsters to “disperse”, the parents will drive them out, or they may just pick-up-and-go. This usually occurs between one and two, and sometimes three years of age, and it occurs throughout the year — there is no “dispersal season”. However, the breeding adult pair will remain in the same territory over many years. Interestingly, wolves will actually kill their own kin in order to preserve their own statuses and territorial rights. I’ve not seen this in coyotes, but I have seen the altercations that drive coyotes out of their birth territories.

Cars are urban coyotes’ chief cause of death — please drive carefully! They often trek on our traffic grid — it’s often the “path of least resistance”.  A few days ago, in our Diamond Heights neighborhood, a car swerved right into someone’s house to avoid hitting a coyote during the early morning hours.

MORE ASSERTIVE OR INSISTENT BEHAVIOR

coyote shows her anxiety and displeasure with a dog by jumping up and down

coyote shows her anxiety and displeasure with a dog by jumping up and down

As the individuals in a family mature, some of them may go through phases of what might be called more “assertive”  or “insistent” behavior, such as: following or running in the direction of a dog. During pupping season, the assertiveness is strongest, with coyotes even approaching and possibly even nipping at a dog’s haunches. These are coyote “messaging” behaviors: coyotes want dogs to move on and to know the territory is taken. These behaviors don’t “define” a coyote, and they don’t last. Think of these as phases in a teenager’s life, or in a parent’s life — there’s an ebb and flow to behaviors for each coyote, often based on what is going on within the coyote’s individual family: Are there new pups? Is there increased sibling rivalry? Are parents having issues with the offspring, or trying to get one to disperse? I’ve seen no evidence to indicate that such behaviors build up towards more aggressiveness. Many of the more apparently “assertive” behaviors, both in juveniles and adults, are based solely on circumstances and happenstance encounters, so keep your distance.

SIGHTINGS

trekking through the neighborhood

trekking through the neighborhood

A substantial increase in “sightings” doesn’t necessarily translate into a spike in the coyote population, though this is what many people assume. Again, increased sightings could be due to their current family dynamics which may cause individuals to wander farther afield.

Unusual weather conditions can have an effect on sightings. San Francisco has just been through a four-year drought. Drought conditions cause coyotes to hunt further afield and for longer hours. They become more visible to humans and more prone to incidents during these times when their activity overlaps with ours. It takes 8 full months for an ecosystem to recover from a drought.

Human changes to the environment, including new construction, will affect coyotes in an area. In San Francisco, coyotes may be lingering longer in neighborhoods recently, and therefore be seen more, because of the current program of thinning and eliminating dense and protective thickets in the parks, reducing coyotes’ normal secure habitat.  Stopping the destruction of the habitat, and compensating for the exceptional weather or drought in various ways until the ecosystem has recovered, both are steps that could be taken to reduce sightings, and possible dog/coyote encounters, and coyotes’ spending the past-twilight hours in neighborhoods.

FEEDING

feeding coyotes is not good

feeding coyotes is not good

Please don’t feed the coyotes. Feeding breaks down the barrier that keeps coyotes wild. If they become food conditioned  — which is different from “habituation” (see below) — problems could develop, including approaching people, which increases the chances for a negative incident to occur. Feeding them also encourages them to hang around yards where people don’t want them.

Coyotes are opportunistic eaters, which means they can eat almost anything, but their preference in San Francisco is for gophers, squirrels and voles, which they eat whole: they need the meat, muscle, bones, fur — all of it — to nourish themselves properly. They also eat fruit, nuts, bugs, weak or juvenile raccoons, skunks, opossums, and possibly snakes. They prefer their whole foods over human-made foods, but if that human food is available, they’ll try it. And they will eat the occasional cat or small dog if circumstances are right — they don’t know who is a pet and who isn’t. Don’t create the right circumstances that could add your pet to the food chain. Please protect your pets by not allowing them to roam free and by supervising them closely when out-of-doors.

As top predators to an area, coyotes have helped rebalance the environment: they control rodents and some mesopredators, such as opossums, skunks and raccoons.

HABITUATION

a habituated coyote is not a dangerous coyote

a habituated coyote is not a dangerous coyote

Urban coyotes do not “fear” humans — that is an incorrect term. Rather they are “wary” of humans. This means that, although a coyote won’t flee lickety-split in fear when they see a human, they nonetheless will maintain distance and not approach us. And we, in turn, need to respect them and their wildness by keeping as far away from them as we can. “Habituation” is a normal progression in urban areas — you cannot prevent it because you cannot stop coyotes from seeing humans on a daily basis — they get used to seeing us. A habituated coyote is not a dangerous animal. In fact, the term “habituation” was first used to describe bears as being more dangerous if they got used to people and lost fear of us. This assumption has been turned on its head: scientists now know that bears who are habituated tend to ignore humans, whereas bears who have never seen humans become reactive. In Africa, to make gorillas less reactive to humans, for the tourist trade, people purposefully habituate them — they become less dangerous.

Coyotes also habituate to “hazing” tactics, which is why such tactics should not be used if a coyote is way out in left field. Scaring off a coyote should be used sparingly. It should be reserved for when a coyote has come too close to you. It is a useless tactic unless the coyote is closer than 50 or so feet to you, which generally delineates its critical distance for discomfort.

Note that “habituation” is different from “food conditioning”. When visibly feeding or hand-feeding a coyote, you are conditioning it to approach humans. Don’t feed coyotes.

THE ISSUE IS WITH PETS

suspicious coyote mother and a dog owner not being vigilant

suspicious coyote mother and a dog owner not being vigilant

Whereas coyotes don’t approach humans, dogs are a different story because of territorial issues and because of prey issues. In many ways, coyotes and dogs look alike, but coyotes and dogs are naturally antagonistic towards each other. Remember that coyotes keep other coyotes out of their territories. Coyotes are also both curious and suspicious of dogs: they may feel compelled to come in closer to investigate. Always supervise your pets to prevent incidents: the minute you see a coyote, leash and go in the other direction. Most dogs have a tendency to go chasing after coyotes. Please don’t allow your dog to do this.

coyote messaging a dog -- the dog should have been kept away from the coyote

coyote messaging a dog — the dog should have been kept away from the coyote

Coyotes have approached dogs. If they get too close, they could either grab a small dog or “message” a larger dog who the coyote considers a threat to its territory or its personal space. They can only do this when they get close enough. Don’t let them. You can prevent an incident by keeping your dog away from coyotes in the first place, by leashing when you see one, and by walking away from it. It’s no different than when you encounter a skunk with its tail up: keep your dog off of it, and move away from it. 

coyote following

coyote following

 IF, inadvertently or by surprise, a coyote gets too close, that is when to scare it off, otherwise just walk away without running: see http://baynature.org/article/how-to-get-along-with-coyotes-as-pups-venture-out/

Coyotes may follow dogs to find out what the dog is doing and where it is going (they do the same to non-family coyotes). If you and your dog are moving away from the coyote, and away from any denning site, the coyote soon will no longer follow. If you don’t want the coyote to follow at all, toss a small stone in its direction (not at it), and/or approach it (but don’t get too close) using your own blatantly angry body language and angry yelling. Noise alone, or waving flailing arms, is not always effective in making a coyote move — something has to move  towards the coyote. And it isn’t going to help if you are too far away. You’ve got to get within the coyote’s critical distance — at most 50 feet — and you have to be assertive about it. Walking towards the coyote while slapping a newspaper viciously on your thigh works, but tossing stones towards it is probably more effective. However — and this is a very important “however” — if the coyote doesn’t budge, it is probably protecting a nearby den site. In this case, turn around and leave. Do not provoke an incident. See the above link in Bay Nature.

It’s always best to be proactive in keeping a coyote away. The minute you see a coyote, leash up and move away from it, and know how to shoo it off effectively if it comes closer to you than 50 feet.

Note that practically all scratches or bites by coyotes to humans are due to feeding the coyote, or to an owner getting him/herself between a coyote and a pet, so don’t do these things. And, never run from a coyote: this activity actually initiates the chase response in a coyote who may also nip at your heels. They also sometimes nip at car tires when the car is in motion. The phenomena is called “motion reactivity”.

ENCOUNTERS CAN BE SCARY

Encounter: the dog chased the coyote and the coyote stood up for itself

Encounter: the dog chased the coyote and the coyote stood up for itself

Encounters CAN be scary if you are unprepared and don’t know what to expect or what to do. Please learn what coyotes are like, not what you think they “should” be like — for instance, that they don’t “fear” humans but are “wary” of them, and not that “coyotes should be heard and not seen”. By knowing their true normal behaviors, and by knowing what to do *IF* they approach your dog, you will be informed and you will not be so fearful. For starters, watch the video, Coyotes As Neighbors:  https://youtu.be/euG7R11aXq0, which will spell out normal coyote behavior and what you can do to keep coyotes away from a pet.

MANAGING COYOTES

The number one method of managing coyotes for coexistence is through human education and human behavior modification: that is what this posting is trying to help with. These have been shown to be extremely effective. The City of San Francisco has been lax in putting out signs or getting educational material to folks. Some of us have been filling the void, getting material, information and guidelines out to people, but as individuals or as small organizations, we have not been able to reach everyone. Please visit coyotecoexistence.com for specific information, and  coyoteyipps.com.

Many cities have coexistence policies — they all work when folks abide by the guidelines. BUT, as with car driving laws, even if you know them and follow them, there will be some fender-benders that might be frightening. We have fewer than 100 coyotes in the City; the number of dogs is in the 250,000s. There is bound to be an incident now and then.

The number of real coyote incidents in the City is not many. There have been less than a handful of dog fatalities by coyotes — all were unleashed small dogs in known coyote areas — all were preventable. There have been many incidents of people being frightened and reporting “attacks” on their dogs. Few if any of these attacks were reported on a questionnaire which would tease out what actually occurred. Instead, these incidents have been spelled out on the social media with warnings of doom that is awaiting us all.

Most of the sightings of coyotes have been reported as charming. But there have been some fearful encounters, and recently groups of dog owners in some of the parks have turned decidedly against them. Social media tends to perpetuate, spread and amplify the fears, and encounters are inevitably worded as deliberate “aggressive attacks”. For instance, recently, there was a report of an attempted “attack” on a dog at 5:30 in the morning. However, a lone coyote, who weighs 35 pounds, is not going to “attack” a 130 pound Mastiff… Coyotes may watch dogs, follow, or hurry in your direction for many reasons, including curiosity, or investigation. They may jump up and down because of anxiety. These are not “attacks”, nor are they “attempted attacks”. Hopefully, by learning about coyotes, we can diminish the very real feeling of fear which comes from not knowing what is going on.

a coyote standing on a pathway, watching

a coyote standing on a pathway, watching

Our Animal Care and Control Department has had many people report “aggressive” coyotes: but when questioned further, the majority of these reports were of a coyote just standing, or doing nothing but looking at the purported victim.

Two years ago I watched a man, straight faced, tell me that he had been frightened “out-of-his-wits” by a monster 100-pound coyote just a few moments before seeing me. He was visibly shaken. He hadn’t seen me watching the whole incident a little way down the path. The incident involved his dog chasing a coyote. The coyote turned around to face the dog. When the dog ran back to its owner, the coyote proceeded on to where it had been going. But the owner was left frightened, and justified his fright by saying it was a “monster 100-pound coyote”. If the dog had been leashed, the incident would not have happened. It happened in a park where everyone knows there are coyotes.

If you have questions, or if you want help with specific issues, please contact me or anyone at coyotecoexistence@gmail.com

How Might A Lone Two-Year Old Urban Coyote Spend A Morning?

I spotted this fellow hunting intently at daybreak. He was out on his routine morning trek, and I wondered what else he might be up to on this particular morning. I decided to follow him for a while. It turned out to be an average day-in-the-life morning with the usual ups-and-downs which are commonplace for urban coyotes.

After not catching any prey at all, he headed over to a grassy field and watched some joggers. Here, a raven who didn’t like the coyote caught sight of him and let the coyote know it. The raven did this by sky-diving the coyote a couple of times and then by cackling unrelentingly at the coyote in a harassing sort of way from a branch overhead. “Okay, I’ll go!”

The coyote headed off again over a hill and into a less populated area of his park where he surveyed the landscape for exactly what was going on and where anyone — dog or person — might be. Here he hunted for a while until the sudden appearance of a jogger spooked him — so he hurried on his way.

As he continued on, he was encountered by another person, this time a walker with a dog. Both dog and coyote froze upon seeing each other — they watched each other intently. I asked the owner to please leash his dog, which he did, but then, thoughtlessly, as he walked on, probably thinking the dog would just walk with him, the owner unleashed his dog after only about ten paces. The dog immediately took advantage of this opportunity and went dashing after the coyote who was able to evade the dog lickety-split by running through and around the brush and bushes in the vicinity. The owner seemed dumbfounded that his dog had sneaked back and chased the coyote, but at this point the owner had no chance of getting that dog to return to him when called, so he just watched.

The coyote is one smart animal, and the dog is not so smart when it comes to chasing coyotes. As the dog went running and leaping in circles in all directions looking for the coyote, the coyote turned back to his starting point where he sat absolutely stone-still and watched the dog search for him. The dog soon tired and eventually joined his owner, but he kept looking back for the coyote which he never did find again. The coyote remained perfectly still, watching them, until the dog and owner were out of sight.

Well, maybe that was enough excitement for one morning, after all, the coyote had already reached the outer periphery of his territory, checked it out, hunted, and been chased by a dog. So he trotted back slowly to his safer home base area where I had encountered him earlier on.

On his way he continued to survey the area, stopping to hunt — unproductively — a couple of times. He also walked for several hundred feet in back of someone, not because he was following that person, but because this was his normal route, and the person would probably not notice him since he was behind him. Soon the walker veered off the coyote’s path, but as he did so another walker turned up on that same path right ahead. This time, there was no remaining on the path:  the coyote leaped several scores of feet off of and away from the path into a field. The walker saw the coyote but didn’t appear too interested in him.

Once he had reached a substantial distance from the path, the coyote again engaged in some hunting. Various walkers, some with and some without dogs, passed in the distance and took note of him. And the coyote, too, took note of each of them before finally turning around in a little circle and lying down. None of these dogs showed an interest in pursuing the coyote so he must have felt safe because he then dozed off — probably with one eye open — right in the middle of the field. He was not visible in the tall brown grasses when his head was down. He got up and moved a couple of times during the next hour, but he spent most of his time curled up with his head either up or down, and I wondered how long he would stay there.

Finally, after a spell of no activity at all in the park, some very slow walking dogs passed by and the coyote got up and started slowly walking towards them as if he were going to follow. When he did so, the owner and dogs changed directions. It appears that the coyote hadn’t wanted to go in that new direction because he then moved in the opposite direction from where they were going. At an easy and casual lope, he traveled over a hill where he hunted a little and then he trotted along a path until he reached some bushes into which he disappeared. My observations for this particular coyote outing had come to an end. I had watched him for a little over four hours.

Coyotes and Dogs, Coyotes and Humans, and How To Shoo Off A Coyote

The updated presentation — updated on June 13th — is at the top of the page in the second posting on this blog: It’s called Coyotes As Neighbors: Focus on Facts.

The version I’m posting today, here, in this posting, is called Coyotes As Neighbors: How To Shoo Off A Coyote. It is a shorter version of that first one: I’ve cut out some of the coyote behavior slides and the section on killing coyotes, and I’m concentrating on human and dog relationships to coyotes, and how to shoo them off in each instance. This version here is 20 minutes long, versus 30 for the one at the top of the Yipps blog. Otherwise, they are exactly the same.

Addendum August, 2015: PLEASE NOTE A BIG PROTOCOL CHANGE AS OF mid-2015: The BEST POLICY IS AVOIDANCE: Whether you see a coyote in the distance, approaching you, or at close range, leash your dog and walk away from it, avoiding any kind of confrontation or engagement. If you feel inclined to shoo it away, you may try this, but my preferred approach is total avoidance.

I don’t think a lot of the information in these videos can be found anywhere else — I don’t think much of this detailed urban coyote/dog behavior has been observed or documented. Except for some statistics and the section from Robert Crabtree (I think that’s the original source) that killing coyotes increases their populations, most of the coyote information in these videos comes from my own 7 years of first-hand observations. I’ve been spending 3-5 hours daily in our parks, engaging in my “pioneering photo documentation” (that’s what one journalist called it!) and research of coyote behavior and their interactions with people and pets. I believe these are the first such presentations which concentrate on the urban coyote himself! I’ve been told by coyote specialist professors that the dog/coyote observations are new. The video has been reviewed by an experienced wildlife conflict manager with 15 years of experience in the field.

Anyway, I would like to to get the information out there now because we’re in the middle of pupping season — there might be more coyote encounters coming up.  This information will be useful especially to dog owners. If you have time for the longer version, I recommend that one. If you don’t, try this shorter version. They are both pretty long, but they contain most information that you’ll need, especially if you are a dog walker.

“Mighty Aggressive” is simply not what is going on.

I advised some dog walkers that a coyote was around a bend. They ignored me until the coyote was at the top of the hill and could actually be seen. One of the women turned to me and said “mighty aggressive I would say”. I asked why she thought this — the coyote was just standing on the same path as she was.

I had been watching the coyote hunt, and it just happened to be headed in the direction of the walkers. It couldn’t possibly have seen the walkers to avoid them, just as the walkers could not possibly have seen the coyote. The woman turned to me and said that the coyote was obviously after them — if he hadn’t seen them, he surely could have HEARD them, and, weren’t coyotes SUPPOSED to be afraid of us? Didn’t that constitute aggression?

No, that does not constitute aggression.

And no, coyotes are not necessarily fearful of people — rather, it would be more accurate to say that coyotes are WARY of people. They will do their utmost to avoid people. But closer encounters in a park will happen now and then. The coyote may look at you, and may even study you for a moment — that is not aggression — that is curiosity, or even surprise. And then he will move away. Coyotes are not at all interested in people. In this case, the coyote came within about 50 feet of the woman and her dog which was leashed.  Both parties gazed at each other for a moment and then the coyote ran off the path.

Recap of dog/coyote behavior:  Though not frequent, instances of dog/coyote encounters have occurred. A short leash and walking on can prevent an incident. Coyotes have shown an interest in some dogs — dogs and coyotes, after all, are very similar in appearance. Young coyotes have expressed degrees of curiosity about dogs, and even attempted friendly play — but they remain skittish and ready to flee at the slightest startle.

However, parents tend to be defensive of their territories and their young, and they prefer greater distances between themselves and dogs. If your dog comes too close, the coyote — especially if it is an alpha — may feel threatened and act accordingly, with definite and clear MESSAGES to your dog. These messages progress from a very cat-like defensive posture: arched back and snarly face, to a short charge-and-retreat sequence, and, ultimately, it may attempt to nip the dog at his haunches — trying to herd it away, in the same fashion that cattle dogs do. When they do so, they are not attempting to do anything more than TELL the dog something in the only way they can: ” go away”, “give me space”. Keeping your dog on a short leash and moving on helps guard against this type of coyote reaction in an unexpected encounter. You may have to go so far as to flail your arms and yell at the coyote to back off.

Your dog may want to chase or play with a coyote it sees, or may even feel a need to protect you against a wild animal it is not sure about. It is important to keep your dog next to you and calm, and to walk away quickly before there is time for a possible antagonistic communication to escalate if it has already begun. By doing this, you are messaging your own disinterest in the coyote. But do not run because running might be interpreted as an invitation for the coyote to chase you.

Coyotes have run after some dogs, seemingly unprovoked by the dog himself, and exhibited the messaging behaviors I mentioned above. As far as I have seen, this always occurs when there has been previous chasing by the dog or antagonistic communication between the two — a communication few humans are aware of. Dogs and coyotes communicate exceeding effectively through eye contact and body language. In addition, highly spirited dogs — as many small dogs are — seem to raise the ire of some coyotes: Coyotes seem to want the dogs passing through their territories to be fairly calm, wanting the same respect they get from transient or interloper coyotes. The oddest behavior of a coyote towards a dog that I’ve seen was a coyote who slowly followed a dog which was trailing behind its owner — stretching to reach the dog’s tail as if it were “daring” itself to do so. The owner turned around just as the coyote reached the dog and simply said “go away”, and the coyote did so!

So, please keep your dog next to you and walk on when you see a coyote! And if you need to tell a coyote not to come closer, you can do so by flailing your arms to make yourself appear larger, making sharp loud noises, or tossing pebbles in the coyote’s direction — not at him — to warn him off. Both people and coyotes want the same thing: space!  We need to understand their methods, and we need to know what methods will work for ourselves.

Wrong Tree?

 

I, too, heard the loud rustling sounds of a squirrel which caused me to look over and see it. The coyote’s attention became more and more intent the more he watched the loud activity. Finally, the coyote stood up, then dashed over to the tree. But no squirrel was in sight. “Could I have mistaken the tree?” Just in case he got it wrong, the coyote inspected the next tree over, but the squirrel was not there either, apparently. So Coyote settled for a green grassy salad close by before trotting off.


Chicken Drama, But No Drumsticks!

This was an exciting day!  Many people keep chickens in their yards these days: chickens are allowed, but not roosters because they crow. But guess what — it is not just the roosters who crow! So crowing is what I heard, and so did this coyote as he passed through a neighborhood. The coyote approached the very well fenced-in yard — there was no chance of him getting in. However, the chickens saw the coyote through the wire fencing and began shreaking and flapping. One flew to the top of the fence where she strutted for a few minutes, and then she flew out of the protected yard into a tree in the overgrown yard next door. I thought: Oh, no!

The dog did his duty by barking at the intruder, but he was fenced in and that is all he could do, so he left. The coyote walked over to under the tree where the chicken had flown. And he waited. And he waited, hoping the chicken would descend to a more reachable level. The chicken crowed continually the entire time, but never budged from her high perch in the tree. And the coyote waited and waited. I wondered if the chicken would make it back. She did. She suddenly flapped her way back after about 35 minutes. As she did so, the coyote jerked to a standing position, but remained where he was, watching.

Maybe chickens are smarter than we think. My thought is that this chicken had flown out of the coop to distract the coyote from the other chickens. She stayed out there scolding that coyote. When she realized the coyote could not reach any of them — which the coyote would have done by then — she flew back to the safety of her yard. Eventually, the coyote walked off. He knew the chickens were not reachable in their yard. There was lots of drama, but no drumsticks this time!

Mmmm: Chile Con Queso!

Urban life has a lot to offer, including a greater variety of menu offerings that can be found right down the street or around the corner. This meal must have been delicious — the coyote licked the bowl and spoon clean after first eating a tortilla chip. Then he looked up and down the street for more signs of food. There not being any, he trotted off into the woods. Although these were tossed-out-the-window leftovers, there was enough there for the coyote to appreciate the taste, and maybe to decide he would like more.

This kind of treat is only ever found in areas of human activity. I’ve seen coyotes wander into picnic areas after hours where they pick up bits of food which cannot be found in wild habitats. Aren’t we trying to keep coyotes from frequenting human activity areas? By dumping our dirty paper plates and leftovers wherever we please, we are actually inviting these critters to come out into the open more.

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