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.
COYOTES ARE TERRITORIAL AND LIVE IN FAMILIES
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.
ASSERTIVE OR INSISTENT BEHAVIOR
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 AND PETS
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 coyotecoexistence.com for specific information, and coyoteyipps.com.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org