UUrban Coyotes Learn How To Navigate Roads

Only the most alert, careful, and car-savvy coyotes make it across road after road, year after year - and urban coyotes have learned how to adapt to navigate the traffic of cities.

by Jaymi Heimbuch

 

It’s no great revelation that coyotes are smart. These crafty, clever creatures have figured out how to spread from their original range in the American southwest to every corner of North America and into Central America, from California to Maine, from Alaska to Florida, from Canada to Costa Rica. They thrive in rural, semi-rural, suburban and even the densest of urban cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

An omnivorous diet, the ability to increase their litter sizes relative to territory and food availability, and the natural desire for young coyotes to disperse and claim new territories, certainly all play a role in the species’ spread across the continent. But to not just be able to survive, but flourish in places crowded with humans, where other predators have been extirpated, well, that takes smarts. And one of the most important skills is learning road savvy behaviors.

Car strikes are the number one cause of death for urban coyotes. Road collisions account for as much as 40-70 percent of all deaths for the coyotes studied by Urban Coyote Research in Cook County, Illinois. Finding food and patrolling a territory necessitates crossing dozens, sometimes hundreds of busy streets. Only the most alert, careful, and car-savvy coyotes make it across road after road, year after year.

A coyote pup lies dead on the side of the road after being hit by a car.
Road savvy has to come early for coyotes. This coyote pup, only a few months old, sadly lacked the skill and luck it takes to avoid cars. © Jaymi Heimbuch / Urban Coyote Initiative

Despite the risk, coyotes still take advantage of roads for travel. It makes sense, considering that pack territories in urban spaces can range from less than two to a little over four square miles, and the territories of solitary coyotes can average as much as 10 square miles. There isn’t a whole lot of choice involved.

For coyotes in semi-rural and suburban areas, getting from point A to point B can be quite a bit faster and easier if using a road rather than navigating through dense plant cover. At least, that was the choice of one coyote I witnessed using road-smart behavior on a foggy road one morning.

I was on my way to photograph birds in a bay just on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, traveling on a road cut into a hillside with dense scrub on either side. I was day dreaming a little about the morning’s weather conditions and where the tide might be when I got there, when out of the corner of my eye a flash of an image hit me: a coyote looking right at me from out of the scrub brush not 10 feet away. I hit the brakes, but was going around a curve without a shoulder so couldn’t stop without becoming a hazard. I hurried to the next possible spot to turn around and hoped with all my heart the coyote would still be there.

As I rounded the bend back to where I’d seen the momentary flash of a canid’s face, sure enough there she was, trotting up the road in the same direction I was now heading. Her ear twitched back, listening to my approach, and she hopped back up into the brush, seeming to wait for me to pass. I did, and pulled off to the side a little way up, rolled down my window, pulled out my camera, and waited.

I had hardly waited any time at all before she appeared, sticking her face out of the scrub brush, checking the all-clear. She hopped back down into the road and began trotting along on her merry way, passing right next to my vehicle. She went on a bit, slowed and hopped back into the scrub brush — and sure enough a moment later another car rounded the bend coming in her direction. After it passed, out popped her head, she checked for more cars, and hopped out to continue on a much easier, faster path than if she were to scramble over the scrub-covered hillside.

A coyote trots out of brush and onto a road
After checking the coast is clear, the coyote hops out of the brush and back onto the road to continue on her way. © Jaymi Heimbuch / Urban Coyote Initiative
A coyote trots along the side of the road, making eye contact with the camera
The coyote checks in both directions, her ears twitching forward and behind, listening for any oncoming vehicles. © Jaymi Heimbuch / Urban Coyote Initiative

As she trotted up the road, I decided to follow, just to see what would happen. As I pulled up behind her, she sped up, breaking from a trot into a lope, but interestingly she stayed on her route on the opposite side of the road. I passed again, pulled to the side, and waited for her to catch up.

The little dance went on several times, with her trotting along the road, listening for cars, passing me, and then me passing her again, the two of us traveling along the road together, or as together as I could hope to be with this clever and confident coyote.

In trying to get a different angle, I decided to hop out of my car after pulling over yet again. Even though I hid around the edge of the car, she knew perfectly well something was different, and she came to a full stop while checking me out. I’d pushed too far and broke the magic. Now I wasn’t just a benign vehicle that would continue on, something she deals with all the time. Now I was vehicle plus human, which is another story entirely. She watched me for a bit, came a little closer, but decided to head down into the scrub brush with such purpose that I knew she was not going to pop back out. At least, not any time soon.

While I was sad, and kicking myself, for ruining the moment by getting out of the car, it did encourage me that this brave girl was smart enough to stay well clear of humans. The key to this species’ survival has been invisibility, knowing when and how to stay out of sight.

Urban coyotes are proving every day the incredible skill set it takes to hide in plain sight, to thrive in places where the streets, parks, and wildlife preserves are crawling with humans. Some coyotes are living in territories where there is nearly no natural space at all, where it is nearly 100% concrete, buildings, parking lots, strip malls, and busy streets. And they’re doing it with hardly anyone realizing they’re even there most of the time.

Reports of coyote sightings are becoming more and more common. They are usually reported by people who are scared of seeing them in their parks or front lawns, who are frightened of the risk they seem to pose to pets or small children. However, coyotes have been living alongside humans long enough that we should be aware that they are of no real risk. That is, unless we give them reason to lose their natural fear of humans and make them overly brave. By providing habitat and food sources in our own backyards, we welcome them in. Some people openly feed coyotes, turning them into a true risk. A fed coyote is a dead coyote, as they say, since a fed coyote can become overly confident and even aggressive toward humans, and that leads to being trapped and killed.

There is much, much more to say on the topic of urban coyotes. In my ongoing project of documenting their natural history, I’ll be providing more examples of their trials and triumphs in living near and within cities. But for now, I’ll leave you with this: admire a wary coyote, and don’t do anything that might make them less so. There is great information on coexisting with coyotes at Project Coyote, including how to avoid attracting them to your yard and what to do should you encounter one. And perhaps also admire how much skill they exercise in utilizing what we humans have created, including roads.

A coyote trots along a road in the early morning, making eye contact with the camera
Listening for cars, moving on and off the shoulder of a road, and timing their dashes across busy highways are skills urban coyotes have to use to survive. © Jaymi Heimbuch / Urban Coyote Initiative