Coyotes in Long Beach: Learning to Live with Urban Wildlife

August 13, 2018

Coyotes wander all over Long Beach and have for years. We even have a street named for them—Los Coyotes Diagonal. You’ve heard the stories or read accounts on Nextdoor about coyotes rifling through city garbage cans, running down residential streets, or snatching pets. Some stories are as shocking as accounts of a coyote trying to attack a dog on a leash while out walking with its owner or a coyote lurching at a human trying to pluck a pet out of their arms.

 

Dr. Ted Stankowich has heard all the stories, from minor complaints to those rare, extreme cases of coyote aggressiveness. It has been the lifelong pursuit of Stankowich, a mammalogist and professor at CSULB, to closely study coyotes and other mammals to better understand their behavior and establish ways to mitigate conflict between humans and urban wildlife. Stankowich has fielded his share of questions from the local neighbors and residents concerned about coyotes.       

“My response would be, if it’s not bothering you or doing anything wrong, they are living in the area just like you are,” Stankowich said. “If they’re running away from you, they’re doing the right thing—that’s the [type of] coyote you want to encounter. It’s the bold ones that are not afraid of humans that we need to take care of and remove.”

 

“Canis Latrans”—Latin for “barking dog,” the scientific name for coyotes—were here long before human settlement, and there’s no shortage of them today either. Coyotes live all over the United States as one of the most widespread mammals in the world. But recently, behavioral scientists like Stankowich have observed that coyotes have been more willing to move into urban areas.

 

Local citizens have noticed it too. 908’ resident Mark Wiley was leaving for a trip to Hawaii with his family one morning when he discovered a gruesome sight on his front lawn before departing.      

 

“There was a cat that was dismembered on our front lawn,” Wiley said. “My neighbor told me that he had heard coyotes early that morning...and I just saw recently on the Los Altos neighborhood watch that someone reported that they’d seen a coyote walking along the fences between our houses.”

 

The coyote Wiley heard also attacked and killed a nest of possums in a tree in the backyard of a house on his street. Ask just about any 908’ resident, and they will have a coyote story.

 

“I’ve seen them all around,” Wiley added. “I saw one running up Marita Street recently. They’ve been around for years, but they’re just getting more daring. I think there’s more wildlife here in the neighborhood now than there is in the local mountains. We’re going to have to learn to live with the wildlife now, I guess.”   

Many people believe coyotes are increasingly migrating to urban areas due to the recent fire activity in our local mountains and the extreme heat, to which Stankowich offered his thoughts.

 

“I’ve heard those ideas and there may be some connection with water availability,” he said. “Coyotes need habitat with cover, prey, and water, and the heat and drought we’ve been experiencing may be pushing them more into settled areas, where they can meet those needs with human food and water sources. But any effect of fire would likely be temporary. Once the fire is out, plants regrow fairly quickly, prey return, and coyotes would return also.”

 

Whether or not climate plays a role, the phenomena of coyotes seeping into cities across the country are ongoing and increasing. According to Stankowich, coyotes are even being seen more and more in New York City, previously unaccustomed to seeing coyotes inhabit the area.

 

“Coyotes have a natural fear of humans for the most part, but the fact that there is increasingly not enough habitat available for them is what causes them to move [into cities] and live among us,” Stankowich said.

Coyote Research at CSULB

 

Like shark expert Dr. Chris Lowe, who works in CSULB’s Shark Lab, Stankowich and his students from the Stankowich Lab are active in researching animal behavior and urban wildlife to combat conflict between urban coyotes and local residents. Stankowich and his team also study anti-predator defenses of other mammals, namely wild skunks, to hopefully discover a method to combat coyote attacks on pets.

Stankowich has conducted work on captive coyotes in a facility in Utah, looking into how coyotes learn about warning coloration and the defenses that skunks have. He is also working with the Urban Wildlife Information network, part of the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, to monitor wild coyote activity throughout Southern California using camera traps. About 30 cameras are set up on a transect going from East Stanton in Orange County, past Disneyland, and out to Irvine Ranch. There are camera transects like this throughout the country in other urban areas as well.

“We are all collaborating to share data to understand how mammals and other animals move through urban habitats and what aspects of the habitat influence their activity,” Stankowich said.

 

Another ongoing research project at the Stankowich Lab is trying to determine whether living among humans has strengthened or weakened coyotes’ bites.

 

“The coyotes in urban areas live in a very different type of world than those coyotes that live in the rural areas,” Stankowich said. “The ones in the city have access to softer food like pet food and garbage, and they also have access to larger prey like cats and dogs...so you might predict it could go either direction.”

 

Studying these behaviors in coyote diets is key to understanding the overall picture of coyotes living in urban areas, especially when it comes to those that are known to attack pets. Stankowich and most of his colleagues predict that only a small portion of coyotes are actually identified as “problem animals,” as we might call them—those that are aggressive and attack pets. Most coyotes, Stankowich says, prefer their normal diet of rats, mice, rabbits, and plants. There seems to be a subset of coyotes, however, that prefer feeding on human pets—at least that’s the theory.

 

“An urban habitat allows for a much wider range of coyote personalities and behaviors, which allows for these other unique feeding preferences to survive and persist,” Stankowich said.

 

The coyote behavior analyzed through camera traps is also applied to skunk behavior in the wild, using predator vocalizations and models. Perhaps the most sophisticated creation to date of the Stankowich Lab is known as “Obi-Wan Coyote,” a remote-controlled robotic coyote model that has an infrared and thermal camera on it.

“We can drive it all around and ‘harass’ and ‘attack’ wild skunks in their native habitat—we’re also currently constructing an owl glider that will glide down and ‘attack’ skunks as well in the wild at night. We’re trying to understand how skunks perceive risk in their habitat.”

 

Conversely, the Stankowich Lab is studying the possibility of using “spraying” pet models to train wild coyotes to not attack pets. The idea is that if Stankowich’s team can send fake pet models, equipped to spray a defense mechanism much like a skunk, to certain coyote dens, the coyotes will learn not to attack actual pets.

 

“As a behaviorist, I like to try to take advantage of the natural learning behaviors that these coyotes have to try and solve this problem of human-wildlife conflict,” Stankowich said. “We’re doing some preliminary tests right now with just static pet models—no sprayers yet—on captive animals, just to see how a coyote would approach it, and react to it.”

According to Stankowich, this is, and will be, a long process with many steps to be configured.

 

“Coyotes are very complicated animals, each with an individual personality. They can be very fearful of new things in their environment, so it’s going to be a challenge to get them to treat any artificial model as real prey. We are taking this slowly, step-by-step, to do it right, using a science-based approach to understand why coyotes are behaving the way they are, why they attack pets, and what might be the best deterrent for them.”

 

In the completed study using the captive coyotes in Utah, Stankowich and his team were able to successfully train some coyotes, sometimes with just one spray of an artificial skunk, to not attack that skunk model. There were, however, some coyotes that were sprayed nine times and never learned better behavior.

“It’s going to be a challenge, because coyotes have varying personalities and some are just very food-driven and won’t really care what their prey is doing to them, as long as they get food,” Stankowich said. “So it’s a complicated issue, but if this type of research can even just delay a coyote’s urge to attack a pet, and give that animal a few extra seconds to escape, it would be worth it.”

 

Coyote-Proof Your House

 

If you’re in an area with high coyote activity, Stankowich offers some advice on how to coyote-proof your house and prevent an attack.

 

For starters, keep your trash cans put away and locked or sealed. Keep food off of your lawn and keep pet food inside. Keep your pets inside if you can as much as possible. If you take your dog outside to go to the bathroom at night, watch them carefully and bring them right back in—don’t let your pets roam around freely at night with no supervision.

 

“If we take away as many of those opportunities for feeding on non-natural foods for the coyotes, then they are going to stay in their more wooded, green areas,” Stankowich said.

 

Large, green areas with overgrown vegetation is a prime place for a coyote den or pack. The Los Cerritos Wetlands is a popular coyote hangout, but Stankowich says that even just yards, parks, and nurseries—any areas where there are natural clumps of large trees where they don’t get trimmed regularly—are a haven for coyotes.

 

“People can have a coyote den in their backyard if it’s overgrown with vegetation,” Stankowich said.

 

Keep your yards trimmed back and don’t give them the type of complex trees or bushes they might look for to form a den.

Human Countering Tactics Against Coyotes

 

“If you do encounter a coyote, the best thing you can do is to harass it,” Stankowich said. “Ninety-nine percent of coyotes are not going to approach you or harm you. The vast majority of them are going to be fearful of you.”

 

For those who encounter a more aggressive coyote that doesn’t simply run away, and is even provoking an attack, there are ways to combat.  

 

“Throw rocks, spray your garden hose, yell at them, wave your arms in the air—anything to look bigger, more aggressive, louder, or more dangerous, is going to help harass and drive that animal away,” Stankowich said.

 

According to Stankowich, studies are being conducted to determine if animals are leaving urban areas for good when people employ the aforementioned harassment techniques.

 

“It’s still really unclear what causes the flare-ups in attacks in certain areas,” Stankowich said.  “It’s very cyclical—there are natural cycles in the habitat—so it’s hard to tell what’s driving [coyote attacks].”

 

What would help, Stankowich says, is more funding to study these animals.

“It’s really, really hard to get research funds to study urban coyotes because they aren’t a normal pest that we think of—they aren’t a protected, endangered animal, they aren’t a sport animal or fur-bearing animal that people want to hunt—so they don’t fall into any typical ‘funding umbrellas.’”

 

For those in the scientific field who want to understand why coyotes are living in urban areas and how to help prevent conflict, Stankowich says funding is key to helping support the science. And it’s also crucial in continuing to put some real research and data into helping us better understand what’s going on in our own backyard. For now, make sure to be aware of your surroundings, especially at night, to stay safe from our current coyote neighbors.

 

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