Coyote at Fund for Animals Wildlife Refuge, Ramona. "Domestic dogs are more likely to bite you than coyotes. It's safe to walk in these canyons."
San Diego Last time Kevin Crooks crawled through a culvert under Genesee, he was thrilled to find tracks other than his own. "The culvert links Tecolote Canyon with a smaller canyon. I could see their tracks right along the drainage channel."
The tracks confirmed the presence in Clairemont of San Diego's most elusive neighbor, the coyote — the "trickster," as Native Americans sometimes call it. Crooks says the name is appropriate.
Kevin Crooks: "One of the most beautiful and secret canyons is near Mount Soledad.... at the base is this big gorge. And that was where you had animal tracks. Fox, coyote."
"Where else in the world will you find such wild carnivores in the middle of the city?" Crooks says. "This is one of the most amazing animals I've studied, and he's among us right here!"
The reason coyotes survive in San Diego, he says, is our canyons. "L.A. is just one big flat ancient ocean basin. It doesn't have coyotes as we do. San Diego is an archipelago of canyon wildlife islands."
For three years Crooks, a 30-year-old graduate student at U.C. Santa Cruz, has been tracking San Diego's coyotes from Hillcrest to Mount Soledad to see how they survive and how they influence everything from native plants to pet cats. He plans to put the results into a Ph.D. dissertation.
"Coyotes definitely play an important ecological role in urban wild areas," he says. "It's been suggested that the disappearance of coyotes from fragmented [urban canyon] systems may lead to population increases of the smaller carnivores [such as] domestic and feral cats, gray foxes, raccoons, possums, skunks."
Crooks says these smaller carnivores prey on native species that live in the chaparral -- birds, small mammals, and lizards. "Possums and gray foxes eat birds' eggs, cats kill birds like the California gnatcatcher," he says. Already larger birds like the once-common roadrunner are becoming rare. "Of 30 canyons I studied, only one still had roadrunners."
Of course coyotes aren't perfect. "Coyotes will eat birds. They have been known to eat ground-nesting wetland species like least terns, so it's not that coyotes are completely beneficial to these birds. But their main diet is small mammals: rabbits, mice, rats, and a variety of vegetable matter: berries and fruits, both native and from people's groves and gardens."
When he began his study, Crooks was startled at the coyotes' ability to thrive in urban areas. "They're distributed near downtown San Diego and out towards Lemon Grove and Clairemont Mesa and in La Jolla and Solana Beach — literally throughout the city. I've detected coyotes in Balboa Park, in canyons in Old Town and Hillcrest."
One thing that surprised Crooks was his discovery that coyotes are adept at moving from canyon to canyon. "Canyons such as the one right behind Heritage Park in Old Town have been isolated for at least a century. But that doesn't mean one population of coyotes has been [occupying] these canyons for 100 years. They're capable of moving — at night — from one canyon to another, making it through the streets or the storm drains and culverts."
Yet most of the people they live amongst aren't aware of them. "One of the most beautiful and secret canyons is near Mount Soledad," he says. "There are houses all around it, and then beautiful habitat, and yet it's not visited by people too much. I often walked into the bottom of this canyon, and the walls became narrower and deeper, so by the time you were down in the middle of the canyon, you'd be at the bottom of this little wash, and there'd be clay mud walls about 15 to 20 feet high, and then the shrub cover above you. But at the base is this big gorge. And that was where you had animal tracks. Fox, coyote. Great habitat. You get down in there and you forget you're in the middle of the city."
The irony is that in his three years, Crooks has rarely seen coyotes. His is discovery by evidence. "I've detected them by putting powder on the ground at 'track stations,' pouring a smelly liquid bait on a rock in the middle, then [later] looking for coyote tracks. I also look for coyote scat and set up remotely triggered cameras in some of the canyons, set off [when coyotes cross] an infrared beam, to get pictures.
"Occasionally, if I was out in the early morning, I'd see them poking their heads out. I've found them with dens, puppies, pairs, or running up the opposite end of the fragments. They definitely breed in Balboa Park. But I also saw they were breeding in canyons that were much, much smaller, the size of a couple of backyards."
Crooks isn't saying coyotes are angels. It's a dog-eat-dog situation when so-called canids — the family of carnivores that includes wolves, coyotes, and foxes — compete for the same resources.
In Central California's Carrizo Plain, one study showed coyotes killing more than a third of the foxes living within their territory. Wolves were known to control coyote numbers the same way. Mountain lions still do. Biologists are concluding that a larger predator defines a smaller one's range much more than food, habitat, or climate do. Crooks saw a graphic illustration of this recently. One day, walking around the rim of one of his canyons, he saw several coyotes surround a rottweiler that had wandered into the canyon. They were attacking the large dog with nips and harassment. He doesn't know if they killed it or not. He thinks probably not, given its size, although size doesn't always impress them.
"In large areas like Yellowstone Park coyotes will attack deer and elk in packs," he says. "Yet they very rarely attack humans, even kids. Domestic dogs are more likely to bite you than coyotes. It's safe to walk in these canyons."
Crooks says coyotes are teaching humans to become ecologically conscious. He sent out about 1500 questionnaires to people living around the city's various canyons to gauge their awareness of coyotes as wild neighbors and their attitude towards them.
"From my questionnaire data, nearly half of the cat owners, who believe there are coyotes in their canyon, restrict their cats outdoors because of the coyotes. Because coyotes occasionally kill cats, cats — and their owners — learn to behaviorally respond and avoid them. So there are fewer cats visiting the canyons and killing native birds. Thus coyotes are saving bird life."
A sample survey question:
I like to have large carnivores (such as coyotes, foxes or bobcats) in my canyon: Strongly Agree, Agree, Neither, Disagree, Strongly Disagree.
Crooks got 600 replies from his survey questionnaire, a high figure, according to pollsters. And he was astonished with the replies. "More than 90 percent wanted coyotes in their canyons, [even though] two thirds of the respondents said, yes, they realized that coyotes do attack and kill cats," he says. "The fact is many people love them. They like having wild life — including carnivores — in their backyards."
People love the coyotes too much. "Some people feed the coyotes, which is a very bad idea. I'm sure in almost every canyon, somebody's at least tried to feed them once. It's understandable, and I'm sure it's cute when the coyotes come up, but it gives them mixed messages. Because some people want to feed them and others want them out. We should let them run their own lives down in the canyon. [Feeding] doesn't make a difference in terms of the coyote's ability to live there. If nobody fed them, the coyotes would do just fine. But what it does do is acclimate and desensitize the coyotes to humans. Where we spill over, that's where we run into problems, and the coyotes are usually the losers."
Crooks says people who want the coyotes out — cat owners who have lost many pets — often call authorities to "trap the coyotes out." Except, he says, Animal Control traps the coyotes to kill them elsewhere. And it doesn't do any good. "I've found in my studies that coyotes are so adept at moving from fragment to fragment, it's very difficult to keep them out. More coyotes will move in."
Crooks sees three major threats facing the canyons. The first is cats. "I estimate that outdoor cats surrounding the typical moderately sized canyon kill nearly 1000 rodents, over 500 birds, and 600 lizards per year," he wrote recently in Wild Earth magazine. "The actual number may be twice that figure."
Then there's the coming red fox invasion. They're native only in the Sierra Nevada mountains, but since fur ranchers and hunters introduced them elsewhere in California, they're spreading south. As with the Africanized "killer" bees, it's only a matter of time before these exotics reach San Diego. They love the eggs of endangered birds such as the California least tern and the light-footed clapper rail.
On the other hand, the one species the red fox loves to avoid is the coyote. "Coyotes have [already] been used as a management tool," says Crooks, "where red foxes really predate hard upon wetland nesting species. That's why we should allow coyotes to remain in the canyons, because they help to control smaller predators like foxes."
And the third invader? "Ice plant," says Crooks. This may be the most ominous development for San Diego's urban wildlife. Ice plant invades down the slope, grows over the native habitat, and kills it. "Roadrunner and quail and gnatcatcher and rabbits and small mammals all make a home in [native cover like chaparral]," says Crooks. "And these animals are food for the carnivores. So, as ice plant increases, there's less prey-base for the coyotes and foxes."
Crooks told city planners about the ominous ice plant. Their response: "The plant is not negotiable. It's the way we do things around here."