I grew up in Kensington, next to Berkeley, in the 1970s and 80s, and I’ll never forget the first (and in those days, the only) coyote I spotted while hiking a nearby trail in Wildcat Canyon Regional Park.
It was an older pup, rangy, with hefty paws, a long muzzle and perky fluffy ears. And, as soon as it seemed to notice my presence, it sprang up a ridge and vanished — so incredibly wild, so incredibly shy.
These days, coyote sightings seem far less fleeting.
I commonly spot coyotes during my jaunts into Tilden Regional Park and other open spaces in the Berkeley Hills. Other hikers spy them, too.
What’s more: Berkeleyans are reporting coyotes sniffing around their back doors and trotting down their sidewalks, not just in the hills, but in Central Berkeley, West Berkeley, and other parts of town.
So people understandably ask: What are coyotes doing around town? And can city-dwellers peaceably coexist with these native wild “song dogs?”
To answer these questions and more, Berkeleyside reached out to Camilla H. Fox, Founder and Executive Director of Project Coyote, a national nonprofit organization based in Northern California whose mission is to promote compassionate conservation and coexistence between people and wildlife through education, science, and advocacy.
Fox’s many accomplishments include the authorship of 70+ publications; co-authorship of two books; producing two documentary films; and being named Conservationist of the Year by the John Muir Association in 2014, Humanitarian of the Year by the Marin Humane Society in 2006, Grassroots Activist of the Year by the Fund for Wild Nature in 2016, and one of the 100 Guardian Angels of the Planet in 2013.
Whereas many animal species are losing vital habitat and decreasing in population, coyotes seem to be doing the opposite: they seem to be expanding their range in North America. Why are they so successful?
What we always say is: “Nature abhors a vacuum.” Well, coyotes: even more so.
Science has shown that they will quickly fill in vacancies when humans disturb their populations through indiscriminate lethal control.
When coyote family groups are altered through lethal control, they can respond to that reduction in their population — that vacuum — with increased emigration from surrounding areas filling that territorial void and with greater pup survival.
The best thing we can do is to leave them alone, so that their family social groups stabilize. That stable family group will naturally keep out other coyotes from moving in and will not exceed the biological carrying capacity of the area.
Do you have any statistics on the apparent increase in coyote sightings, in general, and for the Bay Area in particular?
We’re frequently asked: “What’s the coyote population?” or “Has it increased?” or “Is it just a matter of more people reporting them?”
It’s pretty much impossible to say, definitively, unless we have a real monitoring program going on. And unfortunately, our state’s not doing that, because coyotes are not protected.
That said, some of our local jurisdictions and agencies will monitor sightings. For example, in San Francisco, San Francisco Animal Care and Control monitors those sightings and reports. Similarly, in Marin, Marin Humane Society does that.
And in Berkeley?
In Berkeley, we have worked with Berkeley Animal Care Services (BACS) through our Coyote-Friendly Community Program, our national program where we assist towns and communities in coexistence strategies and proactive public education and outreach.
Why are coyotes moving deeper into cities? Are Berkeley neighborhoods especially welcoming for them?
I wouldn’t say that Berkeley is uniquely attractive for coyotes.
I would say that cities provide an abundance of food, water and shelter, which, for any wild animal, is attractive. That’s why we see coyotes that are opportunistic omnivores, in particular, being able to thrive in urban landscapes.
So are coyotes seeking human foods, or are they seeking wild foods around town?
The diet studies vary across time and location.
That said, a preponderance of these studies suggest that coyotes, even in the most densely populated cities in North America, tend to seek natural prey, which includes rodents, insects and fruit. Vegetation is fairly common, too, as well as carrion.
So coyotes are not raiding our garbage cans?
In general, they go for the natural foods. That doesn’t mean that there may be areas and situations where they might take advantage of anthropogenic or human foods.
A bowl of tasty kibble on a back porch would seem like a big temptation…
Precisely. That’s why, especially with this species, which is such a generalist, we don’t make hard-and-fast rules, like “never goes for human foods.”
Certainly, these are wild predators, and there is the potential for conflicts in cities.
Coyotes don’t know the difference, for example, between a rabbit and a cat, and they may view small domestic animals as easy prey.
Conversely, larger dogs may be viewed as a threat, particularly during the winter mating season and spring/summer pup rearing.
In cities, negative interactions with coyotes often result from the presence of an off-leash dog or from intentional or unintentional feeding.
Are urban coyotes dangerous to people, especially children?
Coyote attacks on people are very rare.
More people are killed by lightning strikes and bee stings each year than are fatally injured by coyotes.
In contrast, it’s estimated that about 1,000 people a day are treated in emergency rooms for dog bites in the U.S.
It’s all about risk perception.
Understandably, we have a visceral fear of predators; after all, we were once prey on the plains of Africa. But we must understand that most coyotes want to have nothing to do with us.
Are there benefits to having coyotes in our city?
The best available science shows that coyotes are invaluable native carnivores that provide a myriad ecological benefits, including helping to reduce the spread of Lyme disease and controlling rodent-born zoonotic diseases, like plague and hantavirus.
One coyote can annually consume up to 1,500 rats and other rodents.
And in a time when the use of deadly rodenticides is debated and of great concern both to the public and to scientists, particularly with the non-target specificity of some of these rodenticides, even over-the-counter rodenticides, I think that has strengthened the arguments for the presence of natural rodent predators, including coyotes, bobcats, foxes and raptors.
Do urban coyotes perform any other “free ecosystem services?”
Indeed. Coyotes help to limit, primarily through competitive exclusion, the mesocarnivore populations. These are the skunks, opossums, raccoons, and foxes, even feral cats — predators that can have a negative impact on ground- and song-bird populations as well as on amphibians and small mammals.
And so in some urban areas, the ground- and song-bird populations are higher, where coyotes are present. And the amphibian and small mammal populations are often more diverse.
Some of those findings come from the seminal research conducted by one of Project Coyote’s Science Advisory Board members, Dr. Michael Soulé, along with Dr. Kevin Crooks, which was focused in the San Diego area. This work has been replicated in cities across the United States and is now believed to be one of the multiple benefits of coyotes.
Do coyotes hunt solitarily, or in pairs or packs?
They can do all of what you just listed, but we see more group hunting in places like Yellowstone, where it’s been shown that a family group can take down larger prey, like pronghorn or deer, for example. That tendency toward group hunting is generally in areas where there are snowy climates and more intact, unexploited coyote family groups that rely on larger prey during certain times of the year.
Often what we see in urban areas are single or in-pairs hunting and, again, going for rodents, insects, fruits, plus vegetation and carrion.
How can humans and coyotes coexist?
What we say is that Coexistence is an active community effort.
We have a plethora of free resources on our website that can be downloaded and distributed to help make your community wildlife aware.
It’s important to understand that we share this landscape with wild animals, that there are ways we can mitigate negative encounters, and that coyotes and other native carnivores are vital to healthy ecosystems.
These tips and tools include not feeding coyotes, even inadvertently, through a compost pile, fallen fruit or birdseed (which attracts rodents that then attract coyotes), or leaving pet food outdoors.
We also advise to not let dogs interact in any way with coyotes, to keep dogs under voice control at all times, and to keep companion animals indoors at night.
People sometimes wonder whether the animal they have spotted is a coyote or a fox. How can one distinguish between these two wild canids?
A coyote is generally going to be bigger than a fox, about twice the size (though weights can vary). The coyote is also going to have a longer snout, ears, and legs.
Both animals are generally crepuscular (most active at dawn and dusk), though a number of studies have found that coyotes have shifted a bit toward a nocturnal body rhythm in urban areas.
Scientists theorize that that’s because coyotes are trying to avoid human disturbance, roads and cars.
It’s also totally normal to see coyotes during the day. It doesn’t mean that they’re diseased or rabid, as some people think.
What should one do if one sees or encounters a coyote?
Well, if they’re at a distance, and one is not fearful or seeing threatening behavior, then appreciate them.
At a distance.
So what is a safe distance? When should one “haze,” or try to scare off, a coyote?
The answers are very subjective. So part of our overall message, and you will see it in all our material is: appreciate them at a distance; keep them wild and wary.
In other words, don’t feed them intentionally or not.
And if you feel that the distance between you and the coyote doesn’t feel safe that’s when to “haze.”
Or, another term for it is to implement “aversive conditioning,” which is basically to be big, bad, and loud — long enough and loud enough to get the coyote to move away and out of the area.
But again, most of the time, coyotes want to have nothing to do with us.
“Compassionate conservation” is a major component of Project Coyote’s mission. Can you tell me what this means to you?
For us, it means treating these animals with respect and appreciation, which is often counter to many of our state laws that do not protect our native carnivores.
That’s why Project Coyote doesn’t just work on coyote issues; we work to protect North America’s most maligned, misunderstood, and persecuted native carnivores: coyotes, bobcats, wolves, bears, mountain lions, and foxes.
And so “compassionate conservation,” for us, means changing the laws and the policies to better protect these animals from mismanagement, abuse, and cruelty.
For us, that’s translated, for example, to restricting wildlife killing contests in California, banning recreational bobcat trapping, garnering greater protections for gray wolves and assuring that they’re not trophy hunted and trapped and killed in predator-killing contests. Those are just some of the advocacy issues we work on across the U.S.
Your organization advocates for coexistence with wolves, foxes, bobcats, mountain lions, and bears, as well as coyotes. Why did you select the coyote as your flagship animal?
There are a multitude of reasons. But one of them is, I do believe, that if we can shift the way we view and treat coyotes, we can shift the way we view and treat all wildlife, partially because they have been so misunderstood and persecuted in North America.
We estimate that half a million coyotes are killed every year by state and federal government agencies and by ranchers, trappers, and hunters.
That’s about one per minute. And that’s in the U.S. alone.
I think we have much to learn from this incredibly adaptable, resilient, and intelligent animal — one who has persisted on this continent for tens of thousands of years in the face of intense persecution. Coyotes are evolutionary masterpieces. They are true survivors.
May they persist and coexist for thousands more.
For more about coyotes and coexistence, download for free Camilla Fox’s coauthored book, Coyotes in Our Midst. Project Coyote’s website provides tips and tools about our “song dogs” and other native North American carnivores.
Elaine Miller Bond is the author/photographer of ‘Running Wild’ and ‘Living Wild,’ lively children’s board books from Heyday in Berkeley. Read more of her stories about local wildlife written and photographed for Berkeleyside.