LOS ANGELES — It was nearly the hour of the wolf, and there were no coyotes. Not a single beep on the GPS tracker.
Justin Brown parked his jeep on a pitch dark road and sighed. “I’m going to get out and see if I hear anything,” he said. He was on the edge of a mountainside, pointing his radio telemetry antenna at the sleeping city, hoping it would detect a radio-collared coyote. Still nothing.
Brown is a biologist at the National Park Service’s Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. He tracks coyotes to understand how they live in a fragmented landscape. What does it mean to be a wild animal in an increasingly urbanized environment?
Park Service researchers began monitoring coyotes in the city’s mountains in 1996, hoping to answer that question. Last year, Brown became the lead of the L.A. Urban Coyote Project , a new program aimed at helping locals and lawmakers make informed decisions about the wily canid that lives in the city’s heart, not decisions predicated on fear.
But his year-old study, which has tracked half a dozen coyotes from the city’s core to the surrounding valleys, is based on observations. And on this night, coyotes were nowhere to be found.
You can search for hours and not see one. You might spot a creeping shadow, or you might just hear an unmistakable high-pitched cry. The chorus seems to come from all 360 degrees, yet the singers are still unseen.
A few nights earlier, Brown had radio-collared a lactating female in a park intersecting the Los Angeles river. As we drive over train tracks through an industrial plot, he describes other coyotes he’s followed. There’s a one-eyed female who somehow crossed the 10-lane 101 freeway. There’s a pack that has made a college campus its home.
It’s hard to believe that a carnivore of this size — 30 to 70 pounds, with a long snout, upright ears and a bushy tail — could live among us without being noticed.
Coyotes have spread throughout North America, colonizing cities from Chicago to New York and its Central Park, though there’s no solid estimate of their population. They’ve been here in California since the Pleistocene, and they continue to find food, shelter and people-free space in this megacity of more than 18 million people. But biologists still aren’t even sure how many city coyotes there are, or whether they prefer scavenging garbage or hunting small game.
That’s why Brown spends early mornings giving chase. By testing coyote whiskers, he can figure what’s on their menu. High concentrations of corn isotopes means human food. The Park Service has also recruited volunteers to scoop coyote scat for analysis. But it might take another five years gather enough information to make conclusions about urban coyote diets, he says.
Last year, the NPS tracked two coyotes living entirely in developed areas. One was a mother with five pups denning in the packed Westlake neighborhood, a 2.72 square-mile patch of city where there’s virtually no green space. Dubbed C-144, she’s believed to have one of the most urban home ranges of any canid ever studied. Her collar battery died, but she’s since been spotted in a nearby neighborhood.
Other findings have been grimmer. C-146, a juvenile female who was captured last fall and used the river as a thoroughfare, was found dead in MacArthur Park. Forensic tests indicated drowning, but four types of anticoagulant rat poisons were found in her system.
Brown says people are afraid of coyotes, and gathering information about how they live benefits both species.
Tens of thousands of coyotes are killed by the government and hunters annually. But coyotes, as coy as their name implies, seem more scared than aggressive when confronted. Attacks are rare, Brown said, and often happen when humans feed them, which is illegal. According to one study, about a dozen coyote attacks occurred each year between 1985 and 2006. In contrast, about 4.5 million dog bites are reported every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Like all wildlife, coyotes can be dangerous if they get used to people. But even the most citified coyotes seem to go out of their way to avoid people, making their daily lives mysteries.
On The Hunt
While driving through the heart of L.A. in the dead of night in search of coyotes, you see pop-up vendors hawking street tacos, kids propped on car hoods passing bottles and blunts, hipsters on fixie bikes pedaling into shuttered parks.
Despite the tough rep of the areas we pass, Brown said he’s has never had a problem. Chicago, where he spent six years studying Midwest coyotes, was different. “We were sleeping in the cemetery one night,” while staking out the canids, he said. That’s when a real-life cops and robbers scene unfolded, complete with armed men running through the cemetery and ruining his fieldwork.
In L.A., Brown said, getting on a property to track wildlife can be tough. And the home ranges of city coyotes are much smaller than in wilder environments.
“Here, we’re not seeing normal species behavior,” he says. “A lot of the time people see coyotes more in their own areas rather than on hikes.”
Brown kept driving for hours. We saw a brush rabbit and a skunk, but heard not even a squeak from the GPS. Searching for a better signal, he climbed high on narrow roads. At around 3 a.m., he headed back down to the river, past barbed wire and abandoned buildings and the dizzying hum of cars on the freeway.
It may sound glamorous to chase carnivores, but the reality is that most of the time is spent waiting, and wildlife doesn’t show on cue.
But after pulling back into the parking lot and getting out of the van, Brown suddenly yelped: “Right there!”
A lone coyote skipped past, its head bobbing inquisitively, its short coat a mix of gray, brown and red. It picked through trash for a few minutes, then quickly turned and darted away.
“There was no collar,” Brown said. That means it wasn’t the one he was tracking. It might have been the mating male, he said, or another pack subordinate.
An eerie moment of silence passed before the coyote reappeared on a patch of grass a dozen yards away. Something — maybe a rat or an opossum — dangled from its mouth.
Sensing his audience, the animal slammed its prey to the ground in a death blow and then trotted off with the meal in its jaws. Like a ghost, the coyote was gone, as if was never even there.
Adam Popescu is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. Find him on Twitter at @adampopescu.
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