Coyotes, a member of the dog family—
Canidae—typically weigh 20-50 pounds and have gray, brown and tan fur on their upper bodies, and are white underneath. Native to the western two-thirds of North America, the coyote has expanded its range throughout the entire continent, largely due to the eradication of larger predators including wolves, cougars, and grizzly bears by humans.
Coyotes live in pairs or larger family units, or in small packs, and a strong social hierarchy generally limits reproduction to the group’s leaders: the “alpha” mated pair. While loners exist, they are most often found in heavily hunted populations or when young males leave their pack.
Coyotes are predators, occupying the biological niche between foxes and wolves and as such play an integral role in their environment by helping to maintain natural ecosystems. Omnivorous by nature, coyotes feed on a wide variety of mammals, insects and fruit, although rodents, vegetation, and insects are generally their main food source.
Their intelligence and opportunistic feeding habits allow coyotes to survive, but it also puts them in conflict with humans, especially in agricultural regions, as well as in urban and suburban areas.
Historically, society has attempted to solve human/coyote conflicts, whether in agricultural regions and more recently in suburban areas, by killing them. Despite years of poisoning, trapping, neck snaring, and shooting coyotes, there are more of them in North America today than ever before.
Biologists have long recognized the role of coyotes in controlling rodent populations. A significant and growing body of research asserts that the presence of large carnivore species, such as coyote also preserves species diversity. One study in suburban San Diego found that by controlling the numbers of smaller carnivores, including grey fox, raccoon, striped skunk, opossum, and domestic cats in highly fragmented ecosystems, coyotes actually help preserve populations of native birds that would have otherwise been eaten by the smaller carnivores.
For more information, download this PDF article, Living with Coyotes, from the Spring 2007 issue of Tracks.
Why the Challenge?
Urban sprawl and habitat encroachment are the main reasons behind increased wild animal sightings and challenges. The loss of open space and natural habitat has decreased territories and disrupted predator-prey cycles. A reduction in natural food sources along with plentiful human provided alternatives have given deer, raccoons, opossums, squirrels, birds and coyote ample opportunity to flourish on unfamiliar diets.
The proximity of much urban development borders on natural habitat and ancient corridors. Wild animals don’t differentiate between undeveloped land and developed land. Coyotes will migrate to areas that support them by offering food and shelter.
Coyotes are opportunistic feeders and have thrived on the ready source of human offered food in forms of unsecured food waste, bird feeders and the rodents they attract, healthy deer populations as well as unattended domestic pets.
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Problems with Lethal “Control”
The coyote’s success appears to be directly related in part to lethal attempts to manipulate its population (also due to eradication of wolves and bears). As with many wild species, coyote populations are naturally regulated by available food and habitat. Lethal control, however, can disrupt the pack hierarchy, causing members to disperse, allows more coyotes to reproduce, and encourages larger litter sizes because of decreased competition for food and habitat. Lethal control also ensures that only the most resilient coyotes survive.
Most wild coyotes fear humans. However, those that learn to associate humans with food may become habituated. Habituated coyotes now frequent suburban areas, taking advantage of abundant food, water, and shelter. Unsecured garbage, unfenced gardens, and unattended domestic animals become easy targets. However, documented cases of coyotes biting humans are extremely rare and most often caused by humans feeding coyotes.
Note: Trapping and relocation of coyotes is not recommended. Disruption of family groups can cause orphaned juveniles to seek easy prey such as small dogs and cats. In addition, coyotes will move into the vacated area.
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Coyotes, by nature, are wary of humans they will avoid people whenever possible. However, in urban areas, coyotes are less likely to fear people and are more likely to associate their presence with easy sources of food. If you encounter a coyote remember the following:
- Never feed or attempt to “tame” a coyote.
- Avoid direct eye contact.
- Do not turn your back or run from a coyote.
- Attempt to leave the area calmly.
- If followed by a coyote, make loud noises and make yourself look big. If this fails, throw rocks. Use super soakers (large-sized squirt guns).
- Always keep yourself between the coyote and small children. Coyotes are not considered a disease threat. Outbreaks of rabies in coyotes are rare and they are not commonly implicated in the transmission of the disease to humans or domestic animals.
A successful program must be enacted from several avenues including city services and the community at hand. The following outline requires the commitment of all involved.
Deterring Coyote—City Services Action
1) Uphold state and city ordinances pertaining to wildlife and, 2) Uphold state and city human health and safety codes in regards to feeding, harboring and supporting vector populations.
CALIFORNIA CODES – HEALTH AND SAFETY CODE – SECTION 2060-2067
Whenever a public nuisance exists on any property within a district or on any property that is located outside the district from which vectors may enter the district, the board of trustees may notify the owner of the property of the existence of the public nuisance.
Coyotes are drawn to urban and suburban neighborhoods for two reasons: human encroachment into native habitat and the availability of food.
- Secure garbage cans by fastening lids with rope, bungee cords, or chains and tying the handle to a stake driven into the ground. Put garbage out the morning of pickup, not the night before.
- Dispose of especially attractive food wastes such as meat, cheese, and eggs by adding a small amount of ammonia to the bag to deter coyotes.
- When composting, use enclosed bins rather than exposed piles. Avoid adding dog or cat waste, meat, milk or eggs, and any food containing these products, to compost.
- If you have fruit trees, pick the ripe fruit and keep fallen fruit off the ground. Coyotes are fond of ripe fruit.
- Outdoor lights triggered by motion sensors can keep coyotes from approaching too close to your house at night.
- Clear away bushes and dense weeds near your home where coyotes find cover and animals to feed on.
Keeping Companion Animals Safe
- Cats and small dogs could be seen as prey to the coyote, while larger dogs could be injured in a confrontation. Make sure your pets stay inside whenever coyotes are seen or heard. (Coyotes are active both during the day and at night, but under cover of darkness, might be more likely to attack a pet.)
- Fence your property or yard. The fence must be at least six feet tall with the bottom extending at least six inches below the ground. Fences can be made more effective by outwardly inverting the top of the fence or by using electric fencing along the top and bottom.
- Spay or neuter your dogs. Un-spayed feamles can attract male coyotes. In addition, un-neutered domestic male dogs may be lured by the female coyote’s scent.
- If you allow your cats to go outside unattended and there is little or no natural tree cover, you can help protect your cat by installing “cat posts.” Cat posts can be any type of long climbable wooden post (4×4 or corner posts) that stands out of the ground at least six to eight feet with a platform on top for the cat to rest on. The post will provide the cat with an opportunity to escape from a pursuing coyote.
- Don’t feed coyotes or leave pet food outside. Coyotes can easily become dependent on human food sources.
- Vaccinate your animals (transmission of disease from coyotes to domestic animals is extremely rare).
- Spay or neuter your dogs. Coyotes are attracted to, and can mate with, unspayed or unneutered domestic dogs. Male coyotes will be attracted to unspayed female dogs and unneutered male dogs could be lured away by an ovulating female coyote and be killed by male coyotes. Coyotes are primarily rodent eaters and scavengers (rodents comprise 90% of coyotes’ diets). However, they can harm or kill animals kept outside such as chickens, rabbits, goats and sheep. To reduce the risk to outside animals, take the following precautions:
- Fright devices, such as sirens and sensor lights, may help deter coyotes from closely approaching animal housing areas.
- Use guard animals. Llamas, donkeys, and special guard dogs have proved effective in reducing or eliminating coyote predation of pastured animals.
- Provide rabbits with a wire-covered enclosure with fencing buried below the ground. Provide an escape shelter with an opening just small enough for the rabbit to enter. (Cages are not recommended because rabbits may be attacked through the cage or die of stress as they frantically try to find cover.)
Coyotes and Domestic Livestock
Coyotes rarely kill domestic livestock: 80% of the coyote diet consists of rodents. Coyotes also readily feed on carrion, so their tracks may be found around a carcass that was left in an easily discovered location. Because of this, coyotes have been mistakenly held responsible for the deaths of livestock that were killed by other animals or that died of natural causes.
- Make sure livestock are securely inside at night; confine livestock during birthing season.
- Do not leave carcasses in open fields where coyotes can feed on them. This encourages them to raid the area often.
- Trapping is not very effective with coyotes. Coyotes can escape from traps at the expense of a foot. This makes them slower and unable to hunt their natural prey. They will then turn more frequently to human-produced food sources.