Over the past couple of months, the eerie nighttime yips and howls of coyotes have echoed regularly across the hills and valleys of Marin. Coupled with increased sightings of the crafty animals, many residents are wondering if coyotes are taking over the county and if they should be concerned. But according to local experts, this winter show is nothing unusual; it’s just part of the coyote’s annual routine.
“Coyotes are more likely to be seen and heard in two seasons,” says Gina Farr, Communications Director for Larkspur’s Project Coyote, a nonprofit coalition of North American scientists and educators aimed at teaching people the ways of the clever Canis latrans. “One is winding up now. Winter is courtship season. You might be likely to see coyotes at this time, as the unpaired ones are out looking for mates. That’s also when you hear the beautiful arias—they’re advertising for mates or singing to their existing mates.”
Marin Humane Society Director of Communications Carrie Harrington confirms that “around January and February we get more reports of sightings.” According to Harrington, so far this year the Humane Society has received 36 reports. “They come in from everywhere,” she says, but “the ‘hot spots’ would be Terra Linda and Marinwood, with 15 sightings.” She says Novato had nine reports, primarily in the Atherton area, and Fairfax had five.
The rest were scattered around the county, including San Anselmo and Mill Valley. According to the San Anselmo Police Department, the Indian Rock area is a popular coyote hangout, while in Mill Valley, the Tamalpais Community Service District has received several reports of coyote sightings around Eastwood Park.
Farr says coyote activity should start tapering off now, as the mating season wraps up. But she says sightings will no doubt pick up again in autumn, “when the young pups are old enough to be out on their own. They’re inexperienced and curious—out roaming to get the lay of the land.”
The widespread nature of the coyote sightings is no surprise, since here in Marin County parts of almost every community border on open space, and it’s in these urban-wildland interface zones that human-coyote encounters are most likely to occur. So what do you do if you live in one of these areas, or if you enjoy hiking in the hills?
Farr and Harrington agree that awareness -- not fear -- is the key to co-existing with coyotes. First, Farr stresses the benefits coyotes bestow upon local residents. “They help keep other predators such as opossums, skunks, and raccoons in check,” she says. “Bird lovers should appreciate coyotes because they control animals that prey on songbirds. And coyotes are amazing consumers of rodents.”
Beyond that, she says, “the coyote is not known for being a dangerous animal. A wild coyote, if it sees you, should be naturally timid.” The problem, Farr explains, occurs when a coyote becomes habituated to humans and loses that timid nature. That occurs when the coyotes are attracted to residential areas for an easy meal.
“They’re very opportunistic in terms of food,” she says. “They don’t just prey on other animals—they’ll clean carrion and eat roots, vegetables, flowers, apples… That’s why they’re so adaptable. So when coyotes become comfortable around people, you have to ask, is there an attractant?”
Farr says some of the more common items that would attract coyotes into a residential neighborhood include pet food left outside, fruit dropped from trees and left on the ground, uncovered garbage cans and compost piles, and bird feeders that draw rodents (which in turn draw coyotes). Then there are the few people who intentionally feed them.
The idea, says Farr, is to eliminate these temptations and otherwise make the coyote feel unwelcome in your neighborhood. “We don’t want to have an urban coyote population finding food in residential neighborhoods,” she says. “We don’t want to roll out the red carpet for them.”
Another coyote temptation in a residential neighborhood is the free-roaming pet— particularly the outdoor cat. According to a report in the Marin Independent Journal, in January and February a coyote in Marinwood killed one cat and was seen running off with another.
Harrington says the Marin Humane Society typically records a few such incidents each year. “We get lots of reports of missing cats, and sometimes coyotes are suspected, but usually there was no evidence of coyote involvement and no witness.” Nevertheless, “it can happen,” she cautions, recommending that people living near open space keep their cats indoors and walk their small dogs on a leash, picking them up if a coyote is spotted.
“Coyotes do not go out of their way to kill pets,” says Farr. “Even in urban areas, their diet is primarily wild. A coyote would not make a cat its first choice for a meal, but if you serve it up on a platter—if it’s right there…”
Farr, a cat owner herself, says free-roaming pets are at risk not only from predators but from other threats as well, such as being inadvertently poisoned or hit by a car. “You’re putting your cat into an ecosystem which operates its own way,” she says. “You’re not doing your cat a favor by allowing it to roam.”
As tragic as the loss of a pet may be for its owner, Harrington says the Humane Society has to look at the bigger picture. “Occasionally someone will say, ‘Why can’t you come out and shoot the coyote?’ I understand the frustration, but we do share this county with wildlife, and the presence of coyotes is a good indicator of a healthy ecosystem.”
“It’s always good to call us if you spot a coyote, mountain lion, or other predatory wildlife,” she advises. “We do a tracking report. But our position is to promote coexistence with wildlife.”
Meanwhile, if you’re out hiking or walking and you encounter a coyote, what should you do? Farr says if you’re uncomfortable at all, you can yell and wave your arms, and you could consider carrying a whistle or a pop-up umbrella to help scare the animal away. But, she says it all depends on the context. In urban areas, chasing the coyote away definitely makes sense, but out in the open spaces—if you’re not uncomfortable—you might prefer just to watch and enjoy it at a distance.
The exact number of coyotes in Marin County is unknown. No studies to determine the numbers are underway, and Farr says they wouldn’t likely be successful anyway because coyotes would easily avoid researchers. But she believes the number of coyotes in the county probably is stable, as coyote populations are largely self-limiting.
“They only come into heat once a year, and there’s only one breeding pair in each family,” she says. “In addition, the mortality rate for pups is high.” So she doesn’t believe we’re seeing an exploding population of coyotes in the county but rather just a healthy population.
“Coyotes have clearly learned to live with us,” says Farr. “The question is, have we learned to live with them?”
To report a coyote sighting, call the Marin Humane Society at (415) 883-4621.