Please Don’t Feed the Coyotes 

They’re doing fine all by themselves.

4 mins read
A coyote that is standing in the grass
A well-fed coyote in East Pasadena. Photo: Tom Mills

It’s a lovely June or early July morning. You and your pooch are out for a morning stroll when you see something that surprises you. In the middle of the sidewalk – not one coyote as usual, but three, casually eyeing you.

They pause. Why have they stopped? Are they sizing you up? Will they go after your dog?

The trio trots across the street, looks back again, and waits. Then, one more darts past you, across the street, and joins the other, all four disappearing into a backyard.

What’s going on here? Why are there suddenly so many coyotes? If it’s June you’re likely witnessing one of their first family outings since the alpha female had pups in mid-March.   

Population Fluctuation v. Density

Coyote population in our neighborhoods fluctuates seasonally. The alphas, a monogamous unrelated pair, court in November, get serious in December, mate in January, and birth pups beginning mid-March.  At this point, adult siblings from past litters, if they haven’t had success finding their own mates and establishing territories elsewhere, will return to the den site as helpers. 

March through May, you’ll see these singletons out and about in the neighborhoods. Their job is to find and eat an easy meal, bring it back to the den, and regurgitate for hungry mouths.  Mom needs to eat while she’s nursing, and pre-digested food is just right for pups as they are weaned.

female coyote with pups near a log
Female coyote with pups. Photo: Adobe

After six weeks, pups venture out of the den but stay close by. At least one adult stays with the pups, giving the rest of the pack an opportunity to go out as a group.

Subsequently, June is when you’ll see coyotes in groups and more missing pet posters on local telephone poles.

In July and August, you might even see a youngster with the pack. They look like pint-size adults. Pack activities continue for another 4 to 6 weeks.

In October, the pack disperses as the helpers seek their own mates and territories. When pack activities diminish, you’ll see loners again.

Fluctuation in the number of coyotes you observe in your neighborhood is based upon the breeding season, but in general, the overall coyote population has skyrocketed. California Fish and Wildlife estimated that in 2016, up to 750,000 coyotes called California home.

Why so many?  Because of us.

Researchers maintain that population densities, reproduction, and survival rates for coyotes and other wildlife species that benefit from humans and their environmental modifications are usually correlated with urbanization.

The human population of Los Angeles County was about eight million in 1980; today, it’s closer to ten million. As density increases, we can expect more coyotes.

A Brief History

Coyotes and wolves diverged from a common ancestor around 1.5 million years ago. Domestic dogs are not closely related to coyotes. They split off from wolves 20 to 40 thousand years ago.

A New World species, coyotes are native to North America, initially populating the northwest parts of the continent, then spreading into the western United States. As wolves were eradicated from the lower 48 states in the 19th century, coyotes dramatically expanded their range across all of North America, eventually moving south to Central America, most recently sighted in Panama. As old-growth forests are cut down, replaced by farms and open fields, coyotes flourish.

There are 19 recognized subspecies, each one ideally suited to habitat, food source and climate.  Size ranges from less than 15 pounds in desert environments to more than 60 pounds in northern states.  Our local coyotes weigh between 17 and 28 pounds. Although they look a lot bigger because of their heavy coat, they are about the size of a small border collie.

Unlike wolves that primarily eat meat, coyotes are omnivores. They are not known to hunt in packs to take down large prey. Rather, they are opportunists and eat alone. A little bit here, a little bit there – relying mostly on fruit, seeds, small mammals, birds, reptiles, and trash.

What They Eat

Here in Los Angeles County, most of their diet is sourced from our food gardens. During the COVID lockdown, 18.3 million U. S. households started food gardens, especially in large cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles. A 2020 U.S. survey found that 2 in 5 households nationwide have food gardens.

To find out exactly what coyotes eat in urban southern California, a few years ago, researchers collected scat from 44 locations in Los Angeles, Ventura, and San Bernardino counties. Volunteers were recruited and instructed to pick up coyote scat once a month for two years along a trail or line that was about a mile long. Between 2016 and 2018, 3,147 scats were collected and analyzed.

Researchers found that 65 percent of urban coyote scats contained “anthropogenic items,” edibles associated with humans that are not native to southern California.  Consumed items included produce, food waste, trash, non-native mammals, and domestic animals. 

Produce and human food waste included inordinate amounts of figs, palm fruit and grapes. They ate lesser amounts of ornamental tree fruit like avocados, peaches, apples, and persimmons, along with pet food and commercial bird food scavenged from around feeders.

They don’t discriminate when it comes to trash. In addition to paper, aluminum foil and plastic, researchers found parts of work gloves, baseballs, rubber, shoes, jewelry, furniture, and parts of a computer keyboard.

Non-native mammals included tree and house rats, red squirrels, house mice, birds, domestic poultry and rabbits, and, of course, our pets.  In some of the research areas, cat remains were found in up to 20 percent of scats, likely sourced from established feral cat colonies.  Most regions had a much lower incidence of cat remains because once our outdoor cats are killed, we keep future kitties indoors.  Dogs were found in less than 3 percent of coyote scats.

Because they filled up on human detritus, only 35 percent of their diet was from native habitats, including mammals, insects, snakes, birds, reptiles, fruit, and seeds.  Of these, rats were most common, followed by rabbits, pocket gophers, ground squirrels, and mice.

Less common or absent from scats were raccoons, skunks, opossum, deer, shrew, and voles.

We know that active domestic dogs need about 30-40 calories per pound of body weight, so we can guess that coyotes eat about eight hundred to a thousand calories on a good day. 

Ten figs, two avocados, topped off with a couple of grasshoppers, crickets, and two pocket gophers, and a coyote goes to bed happy.


To read the study: Effects on urbanization on resource use and individual specialization in coyotes (Canis latrans) in southern California, Rachel N. Larson, Justin L. Brown, Tim Karels, Seth P. D. Riley. Published February 5, 2020.

The short URL of this article is: https://localnewspasadena.com/tndr

Jane Brackman, Ph.D.

Jane explains canine genetics and domestication to people who want to know about it. As a professionally trained poopologist, she’s been picking up coyote, wolf and dog scat since 1981.
Email: [email protected]

2 Comments

  1. I enjoyed your very informative article. I am a Docent Naturalist at Eaton Canyon Natural Area and had the opportunity to see an ambitious coyote chasing down a Mule deer. Alas, he was not successful.

    In your article you list Red squirrels as being part of the SoCal coyote diet. A look at the study mentioned in your piece confirmed my thinking. Our local coyotes would be dining on the non-native Eastern fox squirrels that cavort through our neighborhoods, rather than Red Squirrels that are found much farther north and in the eastern US.

    I am sure if the coyotes had the option, they would pick the red ones. Just like lollipops.

    Susan Hopkins
    California Naturalist

  2. Thank you so much for catching the error, Susan. To that point, they’re not very high up on the menu preferences. The researchers wrote that less than 1.5% of urban scats contained eastern fox squirrel remains.

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