Sharing Bernal Hill With Our Coyote: A User’s Guide


Now that a coyote has settled in to life in Bernal Heights, there have been a lot of questions asked about how to co-exist with our new neighbor. Luckily for us, Janet Kessler, the urban coyote whisperer from the Coyote Yipps website, has been monitoring the coyote situation on Bernal Hill, and she graciously shared this helpful guide on how to understand, interpret, and manage the behavior of Bernal’s own Neighbor Coyote.

Over to you, Janet:

Understanding and Respecting the Bernal Hill Coyote
by Janet Kessler

We have our very own coyote again on Bernal Hill and most folks are thrilled about it. Here’s some basic information I’ve put together about coyotes, based primarily on concern and comments which have appeared on Bernalwood recently.

Most parks in San Francisco have one stable family of coyotes, or a loner. Coyotes are not “pack” animals of unrelated individuals. Families “claim” territories which they “own,” and from which they exclude other coyotes. They trek through neighborhoods every night — and sometimes during the early morning or early evening hours — 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. If you keep seeing coyotes in one particular area, its very likely the same individual coyotes.

Although we have only one coyote on Bernal Hill right now, other 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.

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 years of age, and it occurs throughout the year — there is no “dispersal season.”

Cars are urban coyotes’ chief cause of death! A previous Bernal Hill coyote was killed by a car a number of years ago. A few weeks ago in Diamond Heights, a car swerved into someone’s house to avoid hitting a coyote.

As individual coyotes in a family mature, some 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, assertiveness is strongest, with coyotes even approaching and nipping at dogs’ haunches.

These are coyote “messaging” behaviors; coyotes want the dogs to move on and to know the territory is taken. These behaviors don’t “define” a coyote, and they don’t last. I’ve seen no evidence to indicate that such behaviors build towards greater overall aggressiveness. Many of the more apparently “assertive” behaviors, both in juveniles and adults, are based solely on circumstances and happenstance encounters. The best strategy is to keep your distance.

Please don’t feed the Bernal coyote. Feeding breaks down the barrier that keeps coyotes wild. If they become food-conditioned — which is different from “habituation” (which we’ll talk about later) — big problems can develop, including approaching people, which increases the chances for negative incidents to occur. Feeding coyotes also encourages them to hang around yards, where people don’t want them.

Coyotes are opportunistic eaters, which means they can eat almost anything. Their preference is 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 sometimes snakes. And yes, they will eat the occasional cat or small dog if circumstances are right — coyotes don’t know what’s a pet and what isn’t. Protect your pets by not allowing them to roam free and by supervising them closely when out of doors.

Coyotes don’t “fear” humans — that is an incorrect term. Rather, they are “wary” of humans. This means although a coyote won’t flee lickety-split in fear when they see a human, they nonetheless prefer to keep their distance and not approach us. Humans, in turn, need to respect them and their wildness by keeping as far away from them as possible.

“Habituation” is a normal progression in urban areas. We can’t prevent it, because we can’t stop coyotes from seeing humans on a daily basis, so they get used to seeing us. A habituated coyote is not a dangerous coyote. That said, coyotes also habituate to “scare” tactics, which is why trying to shoo off a coyote should be used sparingly, and only when a coyote has come too close.

Coyotes don’t approach humans, but dogs are a different story. Coyotes and dogs are naturally antagonistic towards each other. Coyotes are both curious and suspicious of dogs because of territorial issues. (Remember that coyotes even keep other coyotes out of their territories.) Always supervise your pets to prevent incidents: Many dogs have a tendency to chase after coyotes. Please don’t allow your dog to do this.

Coyotes may approach dogs. If they get too close, they could either grab a small dog or “message” a larger dog if the coyote considers it a threat to its territory or 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.

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 keep moving away from the coyote, it 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 using angry body language and angry yelling. Noise alone, or waving flailing arms, is not always effective — something has to move towards the coyote. Walking towards the coyote while slapping a newspaper viciously on your thigh works, but tossing stones toward it is probably more effective.

The number one method of managing coyotes for coexistence is through human education and human behavior modification. 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 for specific information, and

The number of real coyote incidents in the City is limited. 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 our coyote on Bernal Hill have been reported as charming. But there was a report of an attempted “attack” on a dog at 5:30 in the morning. The incident was written up here on Bernalwood. However, a lone coyote, who weighs 35 pounds, is not going to “attack” a 130 pound Mastif. 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 more about coyotes, we can diminish the very real feeling of fear which comes from not knowing what is going on. If you want help with specific issues, please contact me or anyone at

Thank you Janet!

PHOTO: Coyote on Bernal Hill, courtesy of Cristiano Valli on Instagram

27 thoughts on “Sharing Bernal Hill With Our Coyote: A User’s Guide

  1. Janet—- Thanks a million for all the information about coyotes. So very interesting. I have read so many articles on Next Door relating to coyotes. I hope everyone reads your article. Thanks again Janet.

    • I understand the urge, but I think the more we anthropomorphize the coyote, the more people could be encouraged to interact with it in ways that could disrupt the wild animal / city folk harmony the situation requires.

  2. “You can prevent an incident by keeping your dog away from coyotes in the first place” — not really. The first time we were attacked by a coyote, it was lying in wait, in a hidden spot beside the trail, and leapt out to attack when we passed. My sweet little elderly dog needed 70+ stitches. I’ve always kept an eagle eye out for them, but they’re very sneaky. (This was back when I lived in the east bay, not in Bernal.)

  3. Janet- I’d like to know when coyotes were first discovered here. As I was growing up,never heard of coyotes being anywhere in S.F. & I’m 87 yrs. old & a native of S.F.

  4. I first saw one in Golden Gate Park in 2005, at 5 in the morning when I was going to work in Golden Gate Park and told my coworkers. No one believed me.

  5. I have only seen this coyote twice and the previous coyote about a half dozen times and every time it has been a thrill. It is a wild animal- that is the thrill. I respect its right to live here- I just hope it has access to water and gets enough to eat. This guy looks pretty small and skinny, though his coat looks good.
    Thanks for all the info- very helpful.

  6. Janet, do you know if the current Bernal coyote is male or female? I was the person who shot the video with the coyote following my two dogs and me and I’m curious how you understand the coyote’s behavior. It had followed us for 10-15 minutes from the top of the hill and we had continued walking until we got to the lower gate. It appeared to want to play but I’ve heard other explanations of the behavior. It never made physical contact with the dogs but came close. The closest it came was at the very end of the video clip and that was the only time that my dogs acted alarmed (although they were always aware it was behind us). We frequently walk early in the morning so we see it often (2-3 times per week lately). We just keep walking but I’m curious if you think I should be trying to shoo it away.

    • Hi Doug —

      My understanding of this coyote’s behavior comes from my observations of lone coyotes, from watching youngster coyotes play with each other as they grow up together, and from your video. Here’s what I wrote on my blog:

      There a sort of fencing match going on between the coyote and your dogs. At the same time, there’s a push-pull in the coyote’s behavior towards your dogs — wanting to approach and not wanting to. The coyote’s approach is not unfriendly — that would have involved the coyote being more directed with head lower. Instead, the coyote is jumping about in a sprightly non-direct, back-and-forth manner. Towards the end of your video, the coyote bows with rump up, showing that he wants to play.

      Coyotes are interested in dogs and sometimes do play ( and, but as with coyote siblings, the relationship, as far as I have seen, eventually deteriorates. As coyote youngsters grow up, the playing inevitably evolves/devolves into competition and one-upmanship. Another loner coyote in the city who has been playing with dogs ended up nipping one of them recently.

      It’s best to keep coyotes and dogs apart. The best response always to an approaching coyote is to keep walking quickly (not running) away from the coyote. It could be that, since you and your dogs see this coyote so frequently, the coyote may feel somewhat familiar with your dogs who, I assume, have never chased after it? This familiarity, and that your dogs aren’t trying to pursue the coyote (you are restraining them), may be driving the coyote’s behavior. Hope this helps your understanding!

      I don’t know yet if it is male or female — will let you know when I do. Janet

      • Thanks for the reply Janet! Yes, my dogs have never chased the coyote. My Tibetan Terrier would not do it (he prefers standing behind me and looking cautiously) and the Labradoodle is always on the leash when we are walking early b/c he loves to chase the early morning critters (mostly raccoons and an occasional possum and one skunk). We’ll keep walking away. Given how often we cross paths, the idea of trying to haze it seems like an escalating battle that we would never “win”.

    • Experts agree: the public should not stand there admiring coyotes, you should act aggressively in ways they describe as “hazing”, see the Humane Society’s description, for example.

      Never pass up an opportunity to let them know we don’t want them around.

      Everyone haze that coyote or someone might get hurt.

      • Hi Christopher —

        Actually it has been discovered that coyotes become habituated to “hazing” when it is used too frequently: they begin ignoring it. This happened at Huntington Beach. That’s why it should be reserved for use when a coyote has come too close or is approaching — say about 50 feet or so. The best recourse always is simply to move away from the coyote and keep moving away from it.

  7. the fate of two coyotes that people couldn’t leave alone.

    2007-07-16 11:49:00 PDT SAN FRANCISCO — Two coyotes believed to have attacked a pair of leashed dogs in Golden Gate Park on Saturday were shot and killed Sunday night by officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
    The state’s department of Fish and Game decided to destroy the animals after investigating the situation and determining there was a significant public safety risk, Deb Campbell of Animal Care and Control said today.
    Kyle Orr, a spokesman for Fish and Game, said the animals — a male and a female — were shot around 10:30 p.m. within 100 feet of where the dogs had been attacked. Officials cannot be completely sure they were the same animals, he said, but the pair’s proximity to the attack site led them to believe that they were the same coyotes.
    The attack occurred about 9 a.m. Saturday, when a woman was walking her two large dogs along a path just south of Speedway Meadow near a large pile of mulch. Two coyotes bit one of the dogs, inflicting minor injuries, and lunged at the other, according to city animal control officials. On Sunday, a female dog-walker said two coyotes followed her in the same area, authorities said.
    Experts had theorized Sunday that the pair may have been acting so aggressive because they had a litter of pups. But today, Orr said no pups had been found and the female coyote was not lactating.
    Orr said today that animal officials had been receiving calls reporting the aggressive pair for about a week.
    Campbell said wildlife officials believe the normally skittish coyotes turned aggressive because they became used to humans. They warned people not to feed the animals and to make sure garbage cans are securely fastened.
    City officials and wildlife researchers estimate that about five to eight coyotes live in San Francisco. These include at least two in Golden Gate Park and one on Bernal Hill. There have also been sightings in McLaren Park, Lake Merced and the Presidio.

    • Hi Eugenie —

      In 2007 Animal Care and Control, a fairly new organization at the time, had no experience with coyotes. They called CA Fish & Game for help, expecting to get advice. Instead, F&G sent out two sharpshooters who killed the coyotes. There was outrage throughout the country. Animal Care and Control was very upset at what happened — no one wanted those coyotes killed, they wanted to understand the behavior and put in safety measures for all concerned: dogs and coyotes. The ridgeback, unleashed, had been chasing the coyotes every morning for several weeks. Other walkers were upset about this, but the owner would not leash. After being harassed for so long, one of the coyotes bit the dog on its haunches to let it know to leave them alone. The coyotes had been protecting a den. Nature’s drive to protect young is what drove the incident — not “aggression”. Several months later at least one of the pups, 6 months old, was found dead, hit by a car.

  8. I saw the coyote today on Alabama (on the pavement) near Ripley. S/he was bigger than I expected, and was unfazed by my approaching car.

    • Hi Janet– my point in including the 2007 item is that people think their behavior towards this coyote is benign. However, it could easily prove to be harmful, even deadly.
      We don’t know why this coyote has remained here, since that seems unnatural. I fear for it, given what happened in 2007.
      Thanks for your information!

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  12. As I reported on another blog, we had the great luck to adopt the best animal companion ever; a dog/coyote mix who looked exactly like a coyote. He lived with our family for 8 years. He loved people and other animals- never once tried to bite. We still mourn him.
    How would anyone know if this Bernal coyote is not mostly a dog? It sure acts like it.

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