Bay Nature magazineJanuary-March 2015

Urban Nature

Shapeshifter, Trickster, Survivor: Coyote in the Modern World

February 5, 2015

Coyote is the archetypal trickster of the American West. The Chocheño Ohlone, original inhabitants of much of the land now within the East Bay Regional Park District, had coyote stories, of which only a few tantalizing fragments were ever recorded. Surprisingly, there have been very few field studies of the local population, but people who work with wildlife in the regional parks have plenty of coyote stories of their own to tell. And research done elsewhere depicts the biological coyote, to borrow linguist William Bright’s (A Coyote Reader) useful distinction from the mythic one, as a shapeshifter in its own right. University of Colorado emeritus professor of ecology and evolutionary biology Marc Bekoff, who has studied coyotes for years, calls Canis latrans a “protean predator.” So it makes sense that from wilderness to suburbia, Seattle to San Francisco to Chicago, coyote behavior defies generalization.

What we do know is that coyotes have been remarkably resilient and tenacious, surviving—thriving, even—in our midst as a relict and a messenger from a much wilder California. As a result of determined attempts at extermination in the 19th and 20th centuries, coyote populations in the American West in general, and in California in particular, suffered substantial losses. But now, in the absence of their historic competitors and predators such as grizzly bears and wolves, and with a change in attitude on the part of their only serious remaining predator—humans—coyotes are back and doing quite well, thank you.

“The coyote was wetéš, the one who commanded,” said one of anthropologist John P. Harrington’s informants about Chocheño legends. The stories of the Rumsen Ohlone, Miwok, Yokuts, and other nearby native Californians feature Coyote in paradoxical detail: creator, liar, hero, thief, seducer, and buffoon. He made the world—that would explain a lot—either single-handedly or assisting Eagle or Falcon. Like Prometheus, Coyote stole fire for his people; unlike Prometheus, he wasn’t punished for it. He gave them the bow and arrow, the net carry-bag, his recipe for acorn mush, and, inadvertently, death.

Some basic information on the biological coyote: Coyotes are small wolves, about four feet long from nose to tail, 20 to 50 pounds; males are larger than females. Coat color includes many variations on brindled reddish-gray, but a black tail-tip is standard. Captives have lived up to 18 years; life expectancy is shorter in the wild. They’re social, curious, adaptable, at home in deserts, mountains, farmland, and cities. Their range, from Alaska to Panama, includes every American state except Hawaii.

The species evolved in North America and has inhabited California for millennia, as attested by fossils dating back almost two million years in the Irvington gravels near Fremont, along with 11,000- to 32,000-year-old bones in the La Brea Tar Pits, where their remains are outnumbered eight to one by those of the larger, more powerful, smaller-brained dire wolf. Coyotes may have spread all over the continent in prehistoric times. By European settlement they had vacated the eastern regions, but they’ve made a recent comeback, filling the empty niches of gray wolves in the North and red wolves in the South. Some eastern animals, bigger, more social, and more aggressive than western coyotes, appear to be coyote/wolf hybrids.

A coyote pounces. (Photo by Steve Zamek,
A coyote pounces. (Photo by Steve Zamek,

Joseph Grinnell, founding director of UC Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, co-authored the landmark Fur-Bearing Mammals of California: Their Natural History, Systematic Status, and Relations to Man with Joseph Dixon and Jean Linsdale in the 1930s. The authors recognized three coyote subspecies—valley, mountain, and desert—in California, but warned that the boundaries were blurry: “The coyotes display a greater range of variability without geographic coordination than does any other group of mammals we have studied.” With that caveat, Grinnell and his colleagues described mountain coyotes as larger and more wolflike, desert coyotes as scrawnier. Decades later, Benjamin Sacks at UC Davis defined coyote genetic clusters specific to the Central Valley, the Cascades, the Sierra, and the Central Coast Range and speculated that coyotes disperse into habitat that is similar to that of their birthplaces’.

Despite their apparent ubiquity, coyotes are not present in all of the regional parks. Except for Big Break on the edge of the Delta, you won’t find them in most of the shoreline parks, even at Coyote Hills, or in heavily wooded places. They mostly appear in open grasslands and chaparral east of the hills: around Inspiration Point in Tilden and Wildcat Canyon; in Briones, Black Diamond Mines, Diablo Foothills, Morgan Territory, and Sunol. How many are out there is anyone’s guess; no comprehensive study has ever been done, so our knowledge is based on evidence gleaned by park biologists and other experts. “Reports wax and wane,” says Regional Parks Wildlife Program Manager Doug Bell. “Parks like Diablo Foothills and Sunol have healthy populations, but they’re not exploding.” Ecological Services Coordinator Steve Bobzien talks about cycles: “Some years there are few public reports or staff observations. Other years reports of coyotes come from everywhere.”

They share the parks with other mammalian predators, and relationships within that guild are complicated. Coyotes and bobcats get along like dogs and cats. “I once saw a coyote tree a bobcat, then hang around waiting for it to come down,” Black Diamond Mines supervisor Rex Caufield recalls. Wildlife biologist Natasha Dvorak has been surveying a recently acquired parcel near Black Diamond where a coyote pack lives; her automatic-camera data suggest that a resident bobcat avoided the vicinity of the coyotes’ den while they had pups. Farther afield, in Ventura County, coyotes have been documented killing bobcats, especially females.

Coyotes defer to mountain lions, although they will scavenge the big cats’ deer kills. (How can you tell which predator made the kill? “Typically it’s a hindquarters takedown by coyotes,” says Bobzien. “Whereas mountain lions break the neck, or penetrate the skull, or asphyxiate the prey, and go through the thoracic cavity like a surgeon.”) But it’s risky business; mountain lions can easily kill coyotes.

Among canids—wolves, coyotes, and foxes—competition is fierce, sometimes dog-eat-dog deadly. Historically, wolves may have limited coyote populations in parts of California (the extent of their former overlap is unclear). The Yellowstone experience suggests what might happen if wolves returned: Coyote numbers there fell by 50 percent after wolf reintroduction, and survivors abandoned traditional territories and changed their social behavior, forming larger groups. Relations elsewhere have apparently been more cordial, resulting in those eastern hybrids.

As wolves are to coyotes, coyotes are to foxes. Coyotes seldom cross paths with the introduced red foxes along the Bay shore, but gray fox and coyote habitat overlaps in the East Bay hills. “Gray foxes will bug out of the site when coyotes come in,” Bobzien says. “The evidence from a remote camera study also shows that in riparian areas coyotes appear to temporarily displace mesopredators, both nocturnal and diurnal. Raccoons may be an exception.” Caufield has seen coyotes and grays in the same areas of Black Diamond, but never at the same time. Foxes, along with raccoons, skunks, and feral cats, are classified as mesopredators—a rung down from apex predators like mountain lions. Coyotes, befitting their protean nature, are sometimes classified as apex predators (particularly in the absence of mountain lions), while in other situations they function as mesopredators.

Coyotes chase a bobcat in the East Bay hills. The bobcat escaped. (Photo by Jen Joynt)
Coyotes chase a bobcat in the East Bay hills. The bobcat escaped. (Photo by Jen Joynt)

UC Santa Cruz Professor Emeritus Michael Soulé coined the term “mesopredator release” to describe what happens in habitat fragments where coyotes and other higher-level predators have been eliminated: foxes and feral cats take an increased toll on ground-nesting birds and other prey species. In San Diego County, Soulé and Kevin Crooks found that some bird species had become locally extinct in coyote-free chaparral patches. In the East Bay parks, the constraining effect of coyotes on smaller predators may benefit California quail. Bobzien reports “a substantial quail population” at Camp Ohlone, where coyotes are present and feral cats are absent. The apparent high density of mountain lions adds a layer to these relationships but does not seem to affect their dynamics.

The domestic cat is the mesopredator we house and feed. Coyotes do kill cats in neighborhoods bordering the regional parks and elsewhere. Many of the coyote incidents logged by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife since 2004 involve cats, along with the occasional small dog or backyard chicken. “One guy called as the representative of a Wildcat Canyon neighborhood complaining about cat predation,” recalls former Stewardship Manager Joe DiDonato. “They had lost a couple dozen cats.”

What else are coyotes eating? Gary Snyder included a catalog of the contents of coyote feces in Yellowstone in Mountains and Rivers Without End: everything from elk bones to shoestrings and tinfoil. Dvorak found deer, rabbits, other small mammals, grasshoppers, and one long-nosed snake in scat samples from her survey area; no remains of birds or feral pigs. DiDonato has witnessed two deer kills: an adult doe and a fawn. In general, though, direct predation on large mammals appears to be uncommon. DiDonato has seen coyotes gathering on ranches at calving time, not to prey on the calves but to eat the afterbirths and the newborns’ milk-rich feces. Coyotes consume a lot of fruit: dates in Tucson, apples in Seattle, avocados, stone fruit, pyracantha and manzanita berries. Some raid watermelon patches. Dumpster-diving is neither unusual nor universal; Arizona and Southern California coyotes appear to eat more anthropogenic refuse than their Chicago counterparts.

Field studies, including Bekoff’s work at Grand Teton National Park, suggest that food resources influence coyote social structure. Packs form to defend clumped resources like elk carcasses from other coyotes, rather than to patrol a hunting preserve for small prey; it doesn’t take a village to catch a mouse. A typical pack consists of a mated alpha pair, one or two adult betas, and the year’s pups. As with wolves, only the alphas breed and they’re generally monogamous. Betas assist in defense and babysit the pups.

Some pairs lack helpers and maintain larger territories. There are also roamers, tolerated at the edge of a pack’s territory, but not part of it socially, and solitary transients with extensive ranges. During its lifetime a coyote may assume more than one of these roles. Helpers may eventually inherit the territory, and packs may be neighbors for years, even decades. Young males and females appear equally likely to strike out on their own. Dispersal seems influenced more by sibling relationships than by parental pressure or food availability.

Coyotes in the regional parks fit this pattern: They’re observed mostly in pairs or small packs. “We see singles and small groups, on the order of three,” says Bell. “Three is the magic number.” Caufield notes occasional larger units at Black Diamond: “Sightings are usually of individuals, but they do gather occasionally in groups of three to five, though we don’t often see them travel or hunt together.”

Coyote pups await their mother's return to their hillside den. (Photo by Sherry Grivett, San Jose, CA)
Coyote pups await their mother’s return to their hillside den. (Photo by Sherry Grivett, San Jose, CA)

Some call it the song dog, and the coyote’s howls and yips are social glue and advertisement to rivals. Alphas howl more than betas; transients are mostly silent. One author described 11 types of vocalization: solo growls, barks, and yelps; group howls and yip-howls; and more. An alpha usually kicks off the group yip-howl, with others joining in. When Brian Mitchell, now at the University of Vermont, was a UC Berkeley graduate student, he and his adviser Reginald Barrett analyzed the calls of captive coyotes in Utah and a wild population at the Nature Conservancy’s Gray Davis Dye Creek Preserve in Tehama County. They concluded that the barks and howls of individuals were like signatures, with distinctive acoustic properties, and that howls were better for long-distance communication. The barks of a mated pair were atypically similar, as were the howls of two siblings. It’s hard not to be reminded of the private languages of families and the verbal shorthand of long-term couples.

Our local coyotes vocalize most often at night, but there are always exceptions. “They can howl any time of day,” Bell says. “I was walking down a trail through a dense oak slope in Morgan Territory one afternoon and started hearing coyotes howling from a rock den. I sat down and listened to them for 20 minutes. It’s quite magical.” In Bobzien’s experience, howling tends to peak after midnight. “If you’re in Tilden in the evening, you can hear them howling as soon as it gets dark,” says park supervisor Sergio Huerta. Caufield has heard dusk and dawn choruses at Black Diamond Mines. A lot of it is intramural: “Where are you?” “I’m over here!”

Those songs are not music to the ears of sheep ranchers. They’ve traditionally responded to coyote predation on their flocks with lethal force, often hiring professionals to do the job. Control of “problem” coyotes became institutionalized in 1895 in the federal agency currently known as Wildlife Services, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Eighty years ago, Grinnell and his co-authors estimated that 10,000 were killed in the state annually by government hunters, sheep and cattle ranchers, fur trappers, and others. Nationwide, federal agents took almost six million coyotes between 1916 and 1999, about a third of those after 1976. More recently, in fiscal year 2013, the agency killed 5,094 coyotes in California alone, by shooting from the ground and from aircraft, poisoning with cyanide cartridges, and other methods.

That approach appears to be changing as livestock ranchers buy into alternative approaches such as guard dogs (or llamas or donkeys) and motion-activated scare devices. Project Coyote, a Larkspur-based advocacy group, has helped develop a model Livestock and Wildlife Protection Program in Marin County. The county shares the cost of guard animals, better fencing, and improved animal husbandry methods and reimburses ranchers for depredation losses. Since the program replaced previous lethal controls, sheep kills by coyotes have declined by 62 percent. Meanwhile, the arena of human-coyote conflict has shifted from the open range to the urban/wildland interface.

A compilation by Robert Timm, formerly of UC’s Hopland Research and Extension Center, included 89 coyote incidents involving injuries to humans or close calls in the state between 1978 and 2003, almost all in Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties. The most notorious was a fatal attack on a three-year-old girl in Glendale in 1981, one of only two known human fatalities. Many encounters occurred as dog owners attempted to defend their pets. Locales varied: front yards, public parks, golf courses, corporate campuses.

For whatever reason, the East Bay has not had a problem with aggressive coyotes, either in the regional parks or elsewhere. No attacks on humans in Alameda and Contra Costa counties have been reported to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife since it initiated its current incident tracking system in 2010. Two-thirds of 38 logged incidents involved pets or livestock, including poultry.

None of the Regional Park staff I spoke with could recall a case of coyotes attacking park visitors or employees. “The vast majority of reports involve people seeing coyotes following them, or not backing down,” says Bobzien. “The people feel like they’re being stalked. The coyote is being a little too curious.” Huerta summarizes incidents in Tilden: “Coyotes followed people walking with their dogs, getting fairly close as if walking with them, but not making threatening gestures.” Similar reports of curiosity stopping short of aggression come from Morgan Territory and Diablo Foothills. I’ve experienced that myself, although not in a regional park: a coyote once paralleled my path through Mitchell Canyon on the north side of Mount Diablo, veering off to pounce on a vole or dissect the cone of a gray pine; not approaching, not fleeing; damned if it was going to let me interfere with its afternoon. Coyotes have attacked dogs in Black Diamond and Briones, though typically when the dogs were running loose.

Why the difference between Southern California and the East Bay? It could be geography. In Ecology of Fear, Mike Davis calls the Los Angeles region “unique in the Northern Hemisphere for the intensity of interaction between humans, their pets, and wild fauna,” noting that even cities like Denver and Seattle do not “enfold wild terrain in the complex fashion of Los Angeles.” DiDonato speculates about a legacy of fear: “The big East Bay parks used to be ranches where coyotes were strictly harassed and developed a healthy fear of humans. They’re just a few generations removed from intolerant rancher behavior.” Will they unlearn that fear? Coyotes do respond to changes in human behavior.

A coyote walks along a winding road. (Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch,
A coyote walks along a winding road. (Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch,

Like other wildlife, coyotes are affected by the ongoing drought. “With three dry years, the coyotes appear to be stressed out,” says Bobzien. “There may be a lag effect, with low numbers next year because of low survivorship.” DiDonato has seen field camera detections decrease within the last few months. Although coyote litter size is typically four to nine, the pack that Dvorak studies has only one surviving pup, and it appears to have a bad case of mange.

If the long dry spell is reducing coyotes’ normal prey base, they may venture into unfamiliar areas in search of food—and into more conflict with people. Bekoff suspects that’s a factor in the current rash of coyote attacks on cats and small dogs in Seal Beach, which has generated scare headlines (Washington Times: “Deadly coyotes spread across U.S. suburbs devouring family pets”) and local agitation for lethal control. “If they have enough food, they’re going to stay put,” he says. “They’re not working hard to expand their range. But if the drought affects their diet of small rodents, that can definitely change their use of space.”

Wildlife biologists and coyote advocates agree that coexistence is possible. “Human behavior is precipitating the problematic behavior of coyotes,” contends Bekoff. Feeding coyotes is not just a bad idea: it’s against state law and park regulations. When it happens in the parks (at Black Diamond, emaciated young coyotes were hanging around the parking lot, being fed sandwiches, Bobzien recalls), park staff have to intervene.

Common sense is essential to coexistence. Dog owners can protect their pets by keeping them on leash in coyote country. House cats should be kept indoors, for their own safety and the sake of any wild birds in the neighborhood. Residents along the wildlands interface can avoid leaving pet food outside, secure their garbage, pick up fallen fruit, and clean up around bird feeders (birdseed attracts rodents, which attract predators). For the rare close encounter, hazing is the recommended response to aggressive or overly familiar coyote behavior: yell, wave your arms, and throw something. “Most will be put off,” Bekoff says.

“People often put us on the defensive, asking, ‘What are you going to do about your coyotes?’” says Bell. “Our line is that they’re everybody’s animals, part of our natural landscape. Our job is to enjoy them.” The trick is to strike a balance between respect and fear. We do have a lot in common with our fellow opportunists. There’s a bit of coyote in all of us.

(Photo by Matt Knoth)
(Photo by Matt Knoth)
About the Author

Joe Eaton lives in Berkeley and writes for the San Francisco Chronicle and Estuary News.