Coyotes in Sonoma County: What to know about these wild canines
By Stephen Nett
Humans love dogs. It’s a mutual affection that goes far back in time. And among the various members of the dog family, the coyote, Canis Latrans, has long been recognized and honored by Native Americans as a particularly bright and clever animal. But this mid-sized wild predator has had a controversial relationship with homesteaders and ranchers who lost small livestock to the wily hunter.
As a result, coyotes have been openly hunted as pests, for pelts, government bounty and sport all across the West for the past 150 years. In spite of that, the coyote has proven remarkably resilient. Unlike other hunted predators like the grizzly bear and gray wolf, coyotes have managed to survive and widely extend their range. Coyotes can now be found in every state but Hawaii and are even permanent residents of urban centers like Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Here’s an introduction to these amazing ancient residents of Sonoma County, still a vital part of the wildlife that keep our parks in balance.
Why are they called song dogs?
The long, open yowl of a coyote nearby is remarkably vibrant, full-throated and loud – think fire siren. And when the whole troupe joins in, with voices on key together, it’s hard not to marvel.
Recordings reveal coyote songs are highly expressive. Coyotes communicate with howls, yips, barks, hisses and snarls. They even use their lips to shape and vary sounds, similar to humans. (Listen to coyote recordings!)
Though coyotes may wander and hunt alone or in pairs, they form very strong familial bonds and sing in family groups. Coyote parents appear to use their voices to play with, reassure, teach and discipline their youngsters as well as proclaim, “We are here” to the wider world.
How do we know it’s a coyote?
The difference between a coyote and a domestic dog can be subtle. Coyotes' thick fur is tan and rust brown with white and dark dappling. From a distance, adults can resemble a smaller, scrawnier version of a German shepherd but with a more pointed snout, smaller nose pad and sharp, pointed ears. They’re also faster than a shepherd, able to hit 40 mph in a sprint. A coyote’s most distinguishing feature may be its round bushy tail, which it carries low when running.
Coyotes patrol their territories and hunt during the day and at night, but they typically prefer night outings to avoid contact with humans. Mature coyotes are extremely agile and they can run, turn and pounce with a grace not seen in house pets.
You can often tell coyotes are in the area because they mark their territory with scat (feces), leaving it visible in open areas like trails. Coyote scat usually contains large amounts of fur.
How do coyotes survive?
Hunters describe coyotes as skilled and wily adversaries. They’re not only very observant and clever, they learn and adapt quickly. This has allowed them to thrive in the wild and outwit decades of human efforts to wipe them out.
Coyotes regularly spot our hidden wildlife cameras at Mark West Creek Regional Park & Preserve, Taylor Mountain Regional Park & Preserve and other county parks. They’re hunters with keen vision, excellent hearing and an outstanding sense of smell. They can move easily through the landscape, skillfully evading when necessary. To investigate something, they approach cautiously and watchfully.
Coyotes will work together to hunt. For example, while one digs at a rodent burrow entrance, a second will watch escape holes. They will drive rabbits and other prey toward relatives waiting in the brush.
What do coyotes eat?
Coyotes are opportunists, which means they’ll eat a wide variety of foods, including deer, reptiles, birds, skunks, fruit, vegetation and insects. But rodents make up most of their diet, and coyotes are essential to keep rodent numbers in check. It’s estimated an adult may eat up to 1,800 rodents in a year. They also help remove the remains of animals who’ve died.
Coyotes will also take small livestock and even pet animals, although studies of coyote droppings find this isn’t frequent. While it is important to keep pets indoors at night and livestock protected, coyotes primarily hunt wildlife.
As humans and coyotes have moved into each other’s communities, coyotes have become less fearful of humans, raiding dumpsters and trash cans and approaching homes and porches looking for pet food or garbage.
Are there lots of coyotes everywhere?
The number of coyotes in any area depends on the amount of food available and, in the wild, that usually keeps the number of coyotes in any particular region low. To find enough food for their offspring, a coyote pair will claim an area of about 3 to 6 square miles and, in that space, a family group may range from three to 10 individuals.
How strong are coyote family ties?
When a coyote pair mates, they often stay together for life. They share their food, territory and other resources with their partner but not outsiders. Both mates are devoted parents and share the work of raising young. When coyote pairs are separated, they will cry and leap and exhibit distress until they’re reunited.
Are coyotes dangerous to humans?
Coyotes are wild animals and can aggressively defend themselves and their dens, but they tend to be wary of humans. As a result, human/coyote conflicts are rare. Only 10 to 12 coyote attacks occur in California each year, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. By comparison, domestic dogs bite several hundreds of times more people every year, with far more severe consequences.
The biggest risk to humans occurs when coyotes lose their fear of us – usually when people feed them either accidentally or intentionally. For coyotes’ safety and our own, it’s important to help them keep their distance.
Should coyotes be removed?
When a coyote pair or family is removed, nearby coyotes move in to hunt or claim the now vacant territory. That’s why statistics show predation may actually increase on domestic animals like sheep when a local breeding pair is killed. That pair was keeping other coyotes away.
Coyotes are also a critically important part of the environmental balance, and the best current strategy is to find ways for both humans and coyotes to coexist. This usually involves a combination of better livestock protection, selectively removing individual coyotes who’ve lost fear of and attacked humans, and teaching the public how to confront coyotes with “hazing" behavior, to scare them off.
How can we be safe around coyotes?
Years of studies show the best approach to coyote and human safety is to keep them wild: Don’t feed them or leave food available. Their fear of humans protects both us and them.
If you encounter a coyote, don’t turn or run. Keep children close. Be aggressive, loud, big and bad – you want to scare them away. Yell, raise arms, throw rocks or sticks toward – not at – the coyote.
Keep dogs leashed and pick up small dogs if coyotes are present.
Coyotes roamed the West long before people set foot here and remain a vital, vocal part of the natural balance.
Stephen Nett is a Bodega Bay-based naturalist, writer and speaker. Published September 2023.