You’re out walking your dog first thing in the morning, as is customary. But as you walk up the sidewalk, you notice a furry brown shape ahead of you. You tighten the leash as you are concerned about an aggressive stray dog. Then you get a better look at it.
The animal is a coyote.
If you spend any time on social media, whether it’s your neighborhood’s Facebook page or NextDoor.com, you’ll notice that coyote sightings have risen dramatically in recent years. Not only that, but many claim that the canids are multiplying by the day, and that some areas are being overrun, endangering public safety.
Is this, however, the case?
“No,” says Seth Riley, chief wildlife ecologist for the National Park Service’s Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. “I’ve been hearing that exact same thing over 23 years.”
Riley’s NPS colleague, Jeffrey Brown, who is also a wildlife ecologist and has recently been studying coyotes, believes the increase in sightings is likely due to the fact that so many people now have doorbell cameras.
“It just seems like they’re noticing the wildlife more, because they’re able to see them,” Brown says, adding that the cameras also record at night, which means even more sightings.
Coyotes are a native species that lived here long before humans arrived. Brown mentioned that scientists have discovered fossilized remains of what they believe to be Pleistocene era coyote ancestors in the La Brea Tar Pits.
Riley and Brown both admit that hard data on the number of coyotes in the state is difficult to come by. The California Department of Fish and Game estimates that there are between 250,000 and 750,000.
“It’s incredibly difficult to census wildlife in general, especially animals like coyotes,” Riley says, adding that it’s taken about 20 years to get an accurate estimate of the number of mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains, and they’re scarce compared to coyotes. However, he added, it is certainly possible to be more precise in some areas.
Local wildlife experts estimate that there are about 100 coyotes in San Francisco. How do they know this? Coyotes were nearly eradicated from the city during the second half of the twentieth century. Some were captured and removed, but many died as a result of a poison known as Compound 1080. Compound 1080 was outlawed in 1972, and a coyote was spotted in the Presidio in 2002.
The manner in which coyotes returned to the city is still being debated, with some claiming it was a natural migration and others claiming they were assisted by humans.
Janet Kessler, also known as San Francisco’s “Coyote Lady,” has been studying the animals for nearly 20 years and publishing her findings on the website coyoteyipps.com. The city’s coyotes, according to Kessler, are divided into 17 to 18 family groups, each with an alpha male and alpha female (who mate for life) and their offspring. Some of the offspring are yearlings, the coyote equivalent of teenagers about to venture out on their own, while others were born recently.
“These territories range in size between 1.5 and 2.5 square miles,” Kessler explained in an online interview. “As a result, unless a new territory is created in an area, the population will not have increased.” The single family will grow during the pupping season, but will soon shrink back down to just the alpha-parents as the yearlings disperse.”
Even if we are not being overrun by coyotes, as some claim, there have been some concerning interactions with humans in recent years. A coyote lunged at children in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco two years ago. Another coyote was linked to five attacks in Moraga between 2020 and 2021, including two on children. Both animals were apprehended, DNA tested to ensure they were the perpetrators, and euthanized.
Authorities said that in both cases, it appeared that the coyotes, which are normally not aggressive, had lost their fear of humans because they had been fed. San Francisco Animal Care and Control officials even released photos of a woman feeding meat to coyotes from a plate in Bernal Heights Park in 2021. That same year, neighbors in Oakland Hills banded together to prevent a resident from leaving out dog food and water for coyotes.
It may seem obvious, but not feeding coyotes is extremely important, according to Kessler, Riley, and Brown. They claim that it is possible to feed them involuntarily. Leaving your pet’s food and water bowls in the backyard, for example, is a bad idea. So is leaving fruit that has fallen from your trees on the ground. Bird feeders with seed also attract rodents, which are a favorite snack of coyotes. In terms of favorite coyote food, keep your pets inside, especially overnight.
All experts agree that cats are safest inside, avoiding not only coyotes but also being hit by cars (a common cause of urban coyote fatalities, Riley noted). And, while cats are adored, they are notorious for decimating the bird and small reptile populations. Brown recommends building a catio for your cats if they absolutely must be outside.
Even with these precautions, keeping coyotes out of your yard can be difficult.
“If you don’t want them in your yard, chase them off,” Riley advised, adding that such behavior, known as hazing, may only be effective for a short time. “Coyotes are super smart.”
“A 6-foot fence with rollers is supposed to keep them out,” he said. “However, this necessitates that there be no gaps at gateways and that the fence be buried at least a foot underground to prevent coyotes from digging under the fence.” The most important practice of all is to always supervise your pet when you are outside.”
Which brings us back to the walk you took with your dog. When you spot a coyote, it saunters closer instead of fleeing. What are you going to do?
The first step is to put and keep your dog on a leash so it doesn’t chase after the coyote. If it’s a smaller dog, Kessler suggests picking it up if possible. Then, calmly walk away, keeping an eye on the coyote.
Also, don’t flee! Running away from a coyote will only enrage it.
What if the coyote comes after you? Keep your cool, Kessler advised. Coyotes defend their territories and may simply be “escorting” you away.
What if the coyote lunges or bites you? This is still a rare occurrence, but canid aggression varies by season, and coyotes are protective of their dens when they are breeding.
Brown advises being cautious on nature trails between March and September, and paying attention to any signage. In fact, the Presidio closed two large trails to dog walkers (and only dog walkers) in March and intends to keep them closed until the fall.
“This is a wise decision.” “It would be nice if the city did the same,” Kessler says, noting that the Presidio is managed by the National Park Service.
Whatever the cause of the aggression, remember that you can always report it to your local animal control agency. If the coyote is found to be a repeat offender, it will be put down.
Above all, don’t let one bad experience turn you off to animals, because we’re more alike than you think.
“Our coyotes live much richer lives than most people realize,” writes Kessler on her website. “Their lives are full of emotion — really the same emotions we experience — and full of family life, the amazingly similar family life we enjoy.”