Coyotes in California: Where They Live, Risk to Humans, and Diet

Written by Telea Dodge
Published: December 7, 2023
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Coyotes are a distinct species of canid (mammals of the dog family Canidae) that roam North and Central America. The coyote is native to North America as a New World species that evolved here over millions of years. This species, Canis latrans, gets its name from the Aztec root word “cóyotl”, which means “trickster”. Coyotes certainly live up to this name, as they are incredibly intelligent and highly adaptable. The wit of a coyote helps it evade all sorts of dangers and changes, including capture and relocation. Coyotes are capable of thriving in a variety of environments, which helps explain how they’ve spread so prodigiously across North America. Coyotes in California have posed a growing risk to the human population in the state. California has one of the largest coyote populations in the nation, and residents are struggling to coexist with these clever critters.

What can California residents do to address a growing coyote population? Where do coyotes in California live? What do they eat? What are the risks of a dense coyote population? How many coyotes live in California? These are all important questions, and we’re going to answer them now.

How Many Coyotes Live in California?

Western Coyote (Canis latrans) in northern California

It is difficult to know the true number of coyotes living in California.

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Experts are unsure of the exact number of coyotes living in California. The United States Department of Agriculture quotes the California Department of Fish and Game for their population estimate. According to this estimate, there are between 250,000 and 750,000 coyotes in California. Why is this such a vague estimate? Simply put, there are so many coyotes in North America that it is impossible to keep track of them all. Finding the population of a species is not as simple as taking a census. It is especially tricky to estimate the population of a species that is large, secretive, and far-roaming. Coyotes are all of these things, which makes it tricky to know the exact number of them in any given state.

Where do Coyotes Live in California?

Coyote at den, in the wild

The coyote population is California is spread across the entire state.

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Coyotes roam the entire state of California. They can be found in rural, urban, and agricultural areas. They tend to prefer open habitats with few competitors. Areas with wolf populations are unlikely to boast coyote populations. Despite preferences, it is imperative to note that coyotes are incredibly adaptable. They thrive in a wide variety of habitats, including deserts, swamps, and forests. They have a high tolerance for humans, which allows them to thrive quite easily, even in highly populated areas.

Is the Coyote Population Growing or Shrinking?

Coyote populations continue to grow and expand.

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The coyote population in California – and all of North America – continues to grow at an alarming rate. This is due to a number of factors. The Humane Society of the United States claims that most methods of coyote removal are ineffective and cruel. Studies suggest that killing coyotes actually makes the problem worse. City, state, and federal resources are often in agreement about this, quoting a study that suggests that you could not control the coyote population even if you were to kill 75 percent of the population every year.

In fact, it seems that coyote populations grow more quickly in areas where killing coyotes is encouraged. This is based on a variety of factors. The first is that undisturbed coyote populations self-regulate their numbers based on their environments. Killing coyotes can disturb pack orders, which leads to an increase in both breeding and migration. Reducing a coyote population increases the amount of prey available to remaining coyotes. This increases the survival rate of young coyotes. Simply put, killing coyotes only temporarily reduces their population and can lead to a larger population in the future.

What do Coyotes Eat?

Do Coyotes Hunt in Packs

Coyotes prefer meat, but they are actually omnivores!

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Coyotes are technically omnivores, but they prefer hunting or scavenging meat to foraging for plants. As opportunistic predators, they have a wide-ranging diet that is based on ease of availability. This becomes a distinct problem in urban and farming areas, where coyotes cause a great deal of damage. In cities, coyotes are happy to dig in the trash, eat roadkill, and sometimes even prey on small domestic animals. In farming areas, they pose a risk to small farm animals, such as unprotected flocks of poultry.

A typical coyote diet consists of small mammals, such as rodents, raccoons, rabbits, roadkill, small reptiles, birds and bird eggs, insects, fish, and fruits and vegetables. Most of the diet is meat-based, but coyotes incorporate a variety of fruits, veggies, and grains into their diets. These include pears, blueberries, blackberries, carrots, apples, and peaches.

Risk to Humans

Handsome Urban Coyote - San Francisco

A coyote in San Francisco examines food scraps. Most conflicts with humans occur because of actions taken by humans.

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The risk that coyotes pose to humans has been greatly exaggerated. A study by Rex O. Baker and Robert M. Timm highlights this fact. Their study, “Coyote Attacks on Humans, 1970-2015“, reveals some interesting data. From 1977 to 2015, there were only 367 recorded attacks on humans by coyotes in the United States and Canada. 165 of these attacks occurred in California. Only two attacks recorded in the study resulted in fatality. The one and only fatal incident in California occurred in 1981. Most resources and authorities agree that humans are largely to blame for these run-ins.

Most conflicts between coyotes and humans occur when a coyote has become accustomed to humans. Coyotes become more comfortable around humans when positive or non-threatening associations are formed. Most often, this occurs when humans provide food – intentionally or accidentally – to coyotes. Close encounters with coyotes do carry health risks, such as the potential transmission of parasites or diseases. You are unlikely to contract rabies from a coyote, though they can carry it. Parasites such as tapeworms are a higher risk factor for humans and their domestic animals.

How to Avoid Conflict with Coyotes

A pair of coyotes

Avoid feeding or interacting with coyotes.

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Coyotes are incredibly unlikely to harm you, your family members, or your pets if you take proper precautions. Sick, injured, or human-acclimated coyotes are the most likely to lash out at humans and pets. There are a lot of things you can do to prevent encountering a coyote. There are also steps you can take if you do end up face-to-face with this incredible canid. Let’s start with prevention.

  • Do not feed coyotes.
  • Never approach a coyote.
  • Avoid leaving food out, including pet food, compost, and uncontained garbage.
  • Remove protective cover – such as high grass, brush, and weeds – from around your dwelling to prevent rodent activity that could draw coyotes.
  • Keep your small animals indoors or closely monitored. Do not let your animals run loose.
  • Make sure poultry enclosures are fully fenced. The safest enclosures will have buried fencing to prevent digging and burrowing into the coop.
  • Use safe deterrents, such as bright outdoor lighting, sturdy fencing, and loud noises.

Coyote Encounters

If you end up face-to-face with a coyote, there are steps you can take to reduce the chance of an accident or attack. Coyotes are typically averse to humans and do not need excuses to avoid them. A coyote will rarely approach you and, if it does, it is acting out of character. Most recorded incidents occurred with a dog present or with a food offering. Here’s what you want to keep in mind if you find yourself in a tricky situation with an approaching coyote. Never use hazing techniques on a coyote that is cornered.

  • Stay calm and do not flee.
  • Maintain eye contact.
  • Make yourself large and threatening by waving your arms and yelling.
  • Do not move closer to the coyote.
  • Do not create unwarranted conflict. If you see a coyote in the wild and it is already moving away from you or your pet, leave it alone.
  • Carry a noise-maker, such as a whistle or an airhorn. Banging pots and pans is also effective.
  • Throw objects, such as sticks, stones, cans, or balls.
  • Spray the approaching animal with a hose or bear repellent.
  • Report encounters with these coyotes to local authorities. Fearless or aggressive coyotes pose a potential threat to your community. Your local authorities will obtain information about the encounter/sighting and then inform you of the best procedures moving forward.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Warren Metcalf/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Telea Dodge is an animal enthusiast and nature fiend with a particular interest in teaching a sense of community and compassion through interactions with the world at large. Carrying a passion for wild foraging, animal behaviorism, traveling, and music, Telea spends their free time practicing their hobbies while exploring with their companion dog, Spectre.

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