You’re hiking on a trail and, all of the sudden, a dog-like mammal joins you 50 feet ahead, casually strolling down the path. Later, packing your gear away in your car at the trailhead, the air is filled with a gaggle of howling yips in the distance. As you near home, two pairs of glowing eyes glare back at your headlights.
Ah, yes: coyotes. These common carnivores elicit a range of emotions. And they’re no exception to the Los Angeles region, where scientists from the National Park Service are studying how these crafty creatures live among us.
Why are they here?
Like many proud Angelenos, coyotes are not transplants. Their current range dominates much of North America, from coast to coast and from Northern Alaska to Central America. They were widely described in Native American folklore and, interestingly, they were the third most common species found in the La Brea Tar Pits (Canis latrans orcutti).
What do we know about them?
Nationally, coyotes are among the most-studied animals, but few studies have looked at the animals in a highly urbanized setting like Southern California.
That started to change in 1996, when the National Park Service began studying how habitat fragmentation and urbanization was affecting coyotes in the Santa Monica Mountains and highly fragmented Simi Hills. When the study ended in 2004, researchers had tracked 131 coyotes and documented a strong preference for avoiding human contact and spending the majority of their time in areas with natural vegetation. The top causes of death for coyotes in the study were from vehicle collisions and anticoagulant poisoning (rat poison).
Insights into L.A.’s most urban coyotes remained unknown until the spring of 2015, when two coyotes near downtown Los Angeles were outfitted with GPS collars (press release). The GPS collars provide detailed movement data so that researchers can better understand landscape connectivity, ow individual animals are moving between different habitat types within the urban matrix, and how large of an area they regularly travel. Though still early, the pilot study has demonstrated that coyotes are persisting and raising offspring within home ranges with high human densities and little natural habitat, and not simply passing through as transients (map).
Wow! They’re really living among us. How do I recognize one?
Coyotes (Canis latrans) are a member of the biological canidae family, the same classification given to dogs, wolves, and foxes, among other mammals. They tend to be tawny gray in color with long legs and a tail that is typically 40% of their body length. The average weight for adults in our study is 25.5 pounds.
Are they dangerous? What do I do if I encounter one?
By nature, coyotes are fearful of humans, but they are also curious and highly adaptable. Don’t be surprised if they don’t run away when they see you -- they may just be inquisitive.
In other cases, they may have become habituated to people due to unfortunate behaviors like backyard feeding. This can lead to serious human-wildlife conflict. Learn more about co-existing with coyotes here.
If you see a coyote in a natural area, there is no need to take action unless the animal approaches you. Keep dogs on a leash and bring small children close to you.
It’s important that coyotes maintain their fear of humans, especially in densely populated areas. If you encounter a coyote that approaches you or if you feel threatened in any way, act big and loud, wave your arms, yell, and clap your hands until the animal retreats. Maintain eye contact. Learn more about preventing habituation here.
What do they eat? Are my pets part of their diet?
Based on intensive study from 1996 to 2004, the coyote diet in this area consists mainly of native fruits and small mammals such as rabbits, woodrats, and mice. Domestic pets represented less than 1% of their diet.
Given the more urban setting near downtown Los Angeles, it is possible that domestic pets represent a larger percentage of the coyote diet, but researchers have visually documented the study animals ignoring the opportunity to prey on cats on numerous occasions. More information is needed to fully understand their diet in these neighborhoods.
Coyotes, as the largest predator in many urban areas, may help control prey populations that have reached nuisance levels. In Chicago, for example, they limit the growth of Canada geese by preying on goose nests, providing a valuable ecological service for many land managers in the city.
Where can I learn more?
National Park Service coyote research is regularly featured on Gridlocked, the urban wildlife blog for Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Photos, videos, and updates can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
All our coyote images can be downloaded from our Flickr page.
For more on the highly-regarded study of urban coyotes in Chicago, visit urbancoyoteresearch.com.