Coexisting with Canis latrans
Linley Green | February 2, 2021
Celebrated by wildlife enthusiasts and disparaged by fearful pet-owners, coyotes (Canis latrans) are some of the most controversial residents of Southern California. Whether you consider them friends or foes, there is no denying that their survival and proliferation throughout North America since the Pleistocene epoch is quite impressive. Coyotes have adapted to life in the urban biome without the aid of billion-dollar wildlife bridges and made themselves at home in our backyards, alleys, and a patchwork of open spaces. Their success can be attributed in part to their omnivorous diet, intelligence, and ability to thrive in heavily fragmented habitats. Despite their reputation as a nuisance species, coyotes play a beneficial role in urban and suburban environments. As urbanization eats up more of their territory, interactions between coyotes and humans will only increase, but there are measures that we can take personally and in our land management decisions to ensure that these interactions are largely positive and that coyotes continue to fulfill their vital role in the ecosystem.
Getting by on Very Little
Growing up on the western edge of Albuquerque, New Mexico, coyotes mostly lived in my periphery. There were stories of classmates’ cats disappearing from their backyards along the West Mesa, brief sightings on the road on the way to school… they were always around but never too close. I did not become intimately acquainted with them until I moved to Taos, NM, in my early twenties. Again I lived on the western edge of town, in a little adobe house on an unfenced acre of sagebrush and chamisa across from a field that used to host cattle but was now home to jackrabbits and packs of coyotes. The first time I heard one yip and scream in the middle of the night, I woke up shaking with my heart pounding. It was one of the most anguished sounds I had ever heard, like a woman crying for everything lost in the world. Eventually I got used to their nightly elegies and now when I hear them on my evening walks along the Arroyo Seco in Pasadena, I even find comfort in that familiar sound. But every once in a while, that old sense of alarm creeps in, like maybe they know something that I don’t.
And coyotes know a lot. In Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2016 novel Eileen, while musing on the different emotional needs of the sexes, the misanthropic protagonist asserts that, “A grown woman is like a coyote – she can get by on very little.” Coyotes have indeed managed to spread across North and Central America because of their ability to make do with what is available to them. They are incredibly smart opportunists whose spread across the continent was actually behooved by humans, who slaughtered an obscene number of wolves – the coyote’s main competitor – and inadvertently created prime coyote habitat by clearing forests to create open fields and grasslands for agriculture. Over the last century, as urbanization has eaten up those fields and grasslands, coyotes have once again made the best of the situation and learned to live in the liminal spaces of our cities.
The Urban Buffet du Jour
Here in Los Angeles, coyotes hang out along both channelized and un-channelized streams, move blithely through alleys and along roads, and forage from our trashcans and yards. People often fear coyotes because of their reputation for feeding on our beloved pets, and while coyotes do eat cats and the occasional small dog, domestic animals do not make up as much of an urban coyote’s diet as we may think. A 2018 study at Cal State Fullerton looked at the stomach contents of coyotes in Los Angeles and Orange Counties and found that cats made up about 8% of the average coyote’s diet. Another recent study conducted by researchers at Cal State Northridge and the National Park Service found evidence of cat consumption in 19.8% of coyote scats, but both studies showed that coyotes are much more likely to consume other wildlife, trash, and fruit like figs and grapes.
The Northridge study also made an important conclusion: coyotes’ consumption of anthropogenic items (meaning human-supplied sources of food like fruit and seeds from ornamental plants, trash, and domestic cats) decreased as urbanization decreased. Even the presence of altered open spaces like golf courses and cemeteries “had a negative effect on the consumption of anthropogenic items in both urban and suburban areas,” suggesting that when coyotes had access to the wildlife found in these larger open spaces, they chose to eat them over our trash and pets.
Researchers have also found that even in urban environments, coyotes prefer patches of natural land cover over altered and developed land. When we replace these patches with subdivisions and strip malls, coyotes have no choice but to make do with their new urban environment. Interactions between coyotes and humans (and their pets) become more frequent, coyotes become dependent on anthropogenic food sources, and the potential for conflict increases. Preserving open spaces, whether they are undeveloped or altered, gives coyotes the space they need and reduces their reliance on humans for food. These open spaces also provide humans with recreational opportunities and increase the overall biodiversity of the area.
A Mutually Beneficial Relationship
So how do we live in harmony with coyotes, especially in denser urban areas where preserving open space is no longer an option? First, we should discourage them from eating our trash and pets by securing our waste, keeping cats inside, and never feeding them. Second, as hard as it may be, we must keep them afraid of us. If we walk in areas frequented by coyotes, especially with pets, we should know how to haze when necessary. Hazing – which involves assertively yelling and making loud noises until the coyote leaves the area – came in handy for me just a couple weeks ago in Hahamongna Watershed Park when a coyote started following my dog and I down the trail. Lastly, we should take the time to learn more about them and appreciate the fact that we live alongside these fascinating, intelligent creatures who have managed to adapt and thrive in an ever-changing environment.
Conversations around urban ecology and biodiversity in the Los Angeles region often leave the coyote out, focusing instead on charismatic megafauna like mountain lions and garden-friendly birds and butterflies. Understandably, we tend to focus on threatened species that need our help most and those, like pollinators, who benefit us more directly. But coyotes have played an important role in California’s ecosystem for centuries and we should thank them for controlling populations of rodents and free-roaming cats, who negatively affect our bird populations. Stanley Gehrt of the Urban Coyote Research Project calls the latter benefit the “coyote effect” – because coyotes tend to stick to the natural habitat fragments within cities, they limit the presence of cats in these fragments through both predation and cats’ aversion to coyotes, thereby protecting the birds and other wildlife in these areas from the negative ecological impacts of cats. As Jaymi Heimbuch of the Urban Coyote Initiative points out, “As it is with the presence of apex predators in any ecosystem, having coyotes living and thriving in an urban area is a positive sign of the health and biodiversity of urban areas. Their presence can be considered a thumbs-up for the quality of a city’s urban ecology.”
Linley Green is a graduate student in the Master of Landscape Architecture program at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. She holds a BFA in Painting and Sculpture from the University of New Mexico. In both her art practice and landscape design work, she explores how humans experience and relate to their surroundings. She strives to work with natural systems to create spaces that foster stronger connections between people, the land, and wildlife.