The Sharks of Suburbia: An urban coyote diet

A coyote rests in an urban park in Arizona. (Photo | Dru Bloomfield)

Coyotes continue to make consistent headlines across the country (and the continent). Honestly, I can’t keep up with the seemingly steady barrage of reports passed around the web on these wild (yet incredibly adaptable) canids.

Seriously, its even reached terminal levels here on the Furbearer Conservation blog with all our Canis Latrans columns - I’m running out of coyote stock images!

One of the glaring messages I’ve harped on since Furbearer Conservation’s inception six or so years ago has been the seemingly symbiotic relationship between coyotes, an (until recently) unaware human populous, and condensed swaths of urban sprawl in which both seem to reside. With recent news posts peppering the ‘net and printed papers, its hard not to see this correlation in 2019. I’ll even go as far as to flirt with the notion of the coyote being a commensal species with humans.

Collectively, we don’t seem to be shocked by the presence of other wild species such as raccoons, skunks, and opossums roaming the back alleys of concrete and brick - but the coyote’s presence seems to catch the attention of the public and professionals in far greater numbers; and far greater curiosity.

While the rest of the country grapples with an animal that is quickly adapting to urban life in rapid succession, California has long since been through the motions of the coyote’s presence. While a polarized tug-o-war ensues between full protections versus full eradication on the animal (neither of which seem like viable stances), wildlife researchers are hard at work trying to acquire up-to-date data on the coyote in real time; all while the animal closes in on its full reign of territorial capitalization.

From 1996 to 2004, National Park Service studies found that coyotes within northern L.A. County were sustained primarily on rabbits and small rodents. Fruit from both native and suburban ornamental trees, as well as the occasional house pet were also present in their diet - not really “earth shattering” news to the savvy outdoorsman.

A coyote gives off a daytime stretch in urban California. (Photo | NPS)

But in 2016, biologist Justin Brown from the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area wanted to dig deeper; trading in the transitioning “open space” and suburbs of north L.A. county for the more industrially-condensed concrete cityscapes of the region. The study would commence for the next two and a half years, and revolve around the dissection and study of some 30,000 coyote turds in urban California.

Of Fins & Fur

My father has always been notorious for expelling random little tidbits of trivia he gathered from years of reading. On occasion, I’ll randomly recall off-topic factoids at the most odd of times. One of which was when he proceeded to tell me, in great amazement, about all the crazy things found in a shark’s stomach.

With a little of my own research, I found the ol’ man was right on. License plates, tires, cameras, cannon balls, porcupines, wine bottles, dogs, human remains, heck - even a full suit of armor was discovered in a shark once. Don’t believe me? Google it yourself!

Anyway, I couldn’t help but think of sharks (and my father’s knack for useful, yet seemingly untimely info-bites) when I glazed over some of Brown’s findings from the NPS study.

According to reports, the discovery of work gloves, rubber bands, condoms, and even parts from a computer keyboard were found in the coyote scat samples.

And it doesn’t stop with Brown’s study.

Niamh Quinn, a wildlife interactions advisor with the University of California at Irvine has performed previous studies on the dietary habits of coyotes as well. Quinn sifted through the stomach contents of 300 road-killed coyotes to discover baseballs, shoes with rubber soles, furniture, candy wrappers, fast-food cartons and even bedazzled jewels.

As far as I can tell, not only are coyotes adapting to urban culture, they’re literally eating it.

Food Chain Hierarchy

Discarded human by-products aren’t the only thing keeping California’s coyotes sustained. Quinn’s latest research has used DNA extraction to confirm that domestic cats are not only a food source, but they make up at least one fifth, if not more, of a southern California coyote’s diet.

Even humans themselves aren’t completely omitted from the dinner menu. Coyotes were suspected of scattering the remains of a deceased man in Long Beach back in 2016. Reports state responding officers told investigators “they believe that the decedent passed in his residence and the resulting damage to the remains were from animal activity.” The area is known by police to have a “heavy coyote population.”

A coyote trots past citizens in urban California. (Photo | NPS)

The man’s sliding rear door was left open for two months following his passing, according to officials. Resident “coyote watchers” confirmed the wily canids adapted to climbing over the neighborhood’s boundary walls, and noted a coyote presence was recorded in the area around the time of the man’s passing.

Professional trappers were also hired to track down an aggressive coyote responsible for biting a five year old boy on a Los Angeles college campus last March.

In Los Angeles alone there were 16 coyote attacks on humans in 2016; up from two in 2011. Thirty-nine people have been bitten by coyotes in Los Angeles County over the last five years according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

A species that was clearly both territorial and highly adaptable to opportunistic food sources in the wild has now been confirmed to be thriving on these same principals in even the most harshest and heavily-saturated of human sprawl.

“We hear plenty of anecdotal evidence about what coyotes eat, but it’s actually never been studied in L.A. before,” Brown told reporters back in 2016, at the start of the coyote scat study.

“This study should yield basic ecology information about the urban coyote, which we hope will assist residents and policymakers in making informed decisions on coyote management.”

One thing’s for certain; while Canis Latrans may not have the edge on industrialized rockstars like the Norway Rat, the coyote certainly has the potential to surpass the raccoon and the skunk for the "urban achiever" title in the furbearer kingdom.