Song-Dog Of The Desert: A Quick Primer to Desert and Urban Coyotes

Creative Commons photo by Frank Tellez

The other night, eating dinner with friends in Pioneertown, our conversation was interrupted by an urgent commotion from outside. Our hostess leapt from the table and ran out the door. There came a familiar yelping from the vicinity of the road, and then barking, and shouting. Louie, my friends' dog, was after the local coyotes again.

Louie is both very large and possessed of an extensive coyote-battling résumé - he lived on his own in the desert for some time before adopting my friends - so the skirmish concluded without casualties. Many interactions between dogs and coyotes don't end so happily for the dog, as Southern California urbanites are all too aware. These crafty carnivores are supremely adaptable, and happily take advantage of any food source available - which in the cities includes garbage, rats and squirrels, outdoor pet food, and the pets themselves.

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Urban coyotes have adapted to our presence quite thoroughly, as witness the small pack that took possession of a burned-out home in Glendale last year. The same habituation process takes place in desert cities. Last year my fiancé and I sat in a taquería in Palm Springs and watched a particularly well-fed coyote saunter casually past the restaurant's plate glass window.

In Yosemite, they look both ways before crossing the road. Chris Clarke photo

In the non-urbanized parts of the desert, with fewer humans around to which one might become habituated, coyotes tend toward wilder, more reclusive habits. In places where we show up only occasionally coyotes are shy, even fearful of humans.

And well they might be. Out in California's outback humans are likelier to shoot coyotes than to leave food out for them, and when we do leave food out for them it's generally poisoned. Federally funded "wildlife control" workers kill about 90,000 coyotes a year, a figure that does not include occasional freelance efforts by erstwhile GOP presidential candidates. Classified as a non-game "varmint" animal under California law, a licensed hunter can shoot coyotes at any time during the year - including in the Mojave National Preserve, as a federal court affirmed this month.

Shot and hung on a barbed wire fence in Nevada | Chris Clarke photo

Few wild animals inspire in people the complex mix of affection and loathing that coyotes do. That's a shame. Though hard-core urban coyotes do pose an occasional threat to people, especially unsupervised small children, the coyote effectively functions as California's apex predator. A very hungry puma might take down an adult coyote now and then if no deer are available; great horned owls will occasionally pick off a small pup, as will golden eagles - though the latter tend to prefer theirs pre-killed. Otherwise, the coyote perches atop the California desert food pyramid, crafty lord of all she surveys.

Desert coyotes tend to be small, two-feet tall at the shoulder, a bit less than three-feet long not counting their brushy tails, and generally weighing in at around 25-35 pounds. When they're not eating our garbage or begging for handouts along the road in places like Joshua Tree National Park, coyotes will eat almost anything that's smaller and/or stupider than they are. They subsist mainly on the three Rs - rodents, rabbits, and roadkill - but will also eat frogs, lizards, snakes, birds, eggs, berries, and the occasional fawn. They hunt either alone or in small family groups, and when hunting together they cooperate to take larger prey, such as full-grown deer. Their characteristic yipping howl is their way of calling their family together at the beginning of the hunt, or at its end - and it also provides some measure of territory marking, as neighboring packs can gauge the size and strength of their competitors by listening.

Though they adapt to human activity just fine, coyotes nonetheless pose an indirect obstacle to some renewable energy development in the desert due to their varied dietary habits. Coyotes seem to have a special appreciation for the flavor of desert tortoise, and will gnaw at a shell for some time to get at the tasty meat within, or simply chew off a leg or head. Tortoises on their home territory are pretty good at evading coyotes, what with their decades' worth of familiarity with local hiding places. Relocate those tortoises, however, and they get lost - easy pickings for coyotes. Tortoise relocation projects in the Mojave Desert have resulted in mortality rates as high as 50% as a result of such predation.

Much has been made of the increase in coyote attacks on humans, though the jury is out on the question of how much of the apparent increase is merely an increase in reporting due to heightened public awareness. Coyotes are expanding their range well into eastern North America, with well-publicized sightings in The Loop in Chicago and New York's Central Park; as the animals move into new, heavily populated places and become accustomed to our presence, it makes sense that incidents will increase in frequency.

Good Advice at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum | Creative Commons photo by Kevin Cochran

Only two people are known to have been killed by coyotes in North America in recorded history. Kelly Keen, a three-year-old girl, was attacked in her Glendale driveway in 1981, and died shortly thereafter. Nineteen-year-old musician Taylor Mitchell was hiking alone on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia when she encountered two or three Eastern coyotes, which generally have some gray wolf ancestry and are significantly larger than their western counterparts. She ran away, which sealed her fate. There have been a few close calls, mainly involving children. By way of comparison, 32 people were killed in the U.S. in 2009 alone by domestic dogs. Statistically, you're more likely to be killed by a Labrador retriever than by a coyote.

Still, there are a few common-sense precautions worth taking not only during an encounter but in general to keep your coyote experiences happy. Never leave small children unsupervised in coyote country, whether you're in the middle of the desert or in Griffith Park. (Actually, I should say especially in Griffith Park.) Never feed coyotes or leave food out for them. Do not approach them or attempt to pet them. If you come across a coyote on a hike, remain calm. The coyote will almost certainly run away when it sees you. In the very unlikely event that it acts boldly toward you, approaching curiously or even aggressively, resist the temptation to make friends. Pick up any nearby toddlers, yell loudly, stare the animal down, and if necessary throw something. (Though not the toddler.) If worse comes to worst, fight back.

And in all likelihood, unless you live in the underbrush in the Hollywood Hills, this will never happen to you. The typical coyote encounter is fleeting, over before you even realize it has happened. Especially in the desert, coyotes almost always form part of the backdrop, unseen but ubiquitous, noticeable only when the sun arcs low toward the horizon and the family comes together to sing their way into another night's hunting.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes from Palm Springs regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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