By Murray Schneider
[Editor's note: Apologies for yesterday's posting, which was truncated. Here is the full story.]
The coyote heard a fire engine while resting in Glen Canyon.
The coyote was large, maybe 55 or 65 inches from front paws to hindquarters. Its gender was indeterminate, but because it was so large, it could very well have been a male.
He roused himself and performed figure eights on the crest of a rock, which was hardly big enough to accommodate him. He circled the rock at what Recreation and Park’s Natural Area Program calls Fox Meadow. He was tawny and his bones pushed against his yellowish-brown shoulders. He’d been reclining, sleeping possibly, believing himself to be safe. He listened for a moment longer, his muzzle raised, becoming more and more agitated at the sound.
That’s when the coyote began barking. First it barked while standing, and then it sat on its haunches and barked even louder, the yelps keeping time with the fire engine’s alarms.
His barks didn’t go unnoticed. They were witnessed by Friends of Glen Canyon Park volunteers were removing canyon fescue and velvet grass from a soggy hillside and scraping willow sprouts from low-lying branches when the coyote began its vocalizing.
The Wednesday volunteers labored above Islais Creek, working along side Randy Zebell, a Recreation and Parks Natural Area Program manager. From their position above a boardwalk that parallels a seep, they could see O’Shaughnessy light standards and the roofs of houses along Marrietta Drive.
The volunteers lay down their tools and walked to a horizontal willow branch festooned with crusty twigs. They bunched together where they had a better view of the unnerved coyote. His staccato barks nearly evolved into rolling howls.
Coyote pup-rearing season occurs between April and August and it is when coyotes are increasingly protective of their newborns. Regularly sighted at dusk, sometimes even at dawn, coyotes do not exist in great numbers in San Francisco. But they are here among us.
Canyon NAP volunteers have had other sightings of these wild animals, native to North America. Once near Silver Tree Day Camp, another time on a ridge cresting a slope quilted with native shrubs and grasses where a mother and her pup stretched in drowsy lassitude, a third time camouflaged above Banana Slug Way, so named because Glenridge Co-Op pre-schoolers once found and counted the shell-less mollusks inching along the rutted path and believed it a fitting name.
The operative word for coyote, of course, is “wild,” but not aggressive. Coyotes, experts on their behavior note, tend to shy from humans, doing whatever is necessary to avoid contact with us. The best rule of thumb, experts say, is to give these creatures a wide berth, don’t approach them, never feed them or attempt to befriend them, and if one comes upon a coyote by surprise, frighten it off by coughing or wind -milling a hoodie, as mothers used to flap laundry before placing it on backyard clotheslines.
Chances are the coyote simply wishes to stroll back to its den, hidden in Glen Canyon Park’s 70 acres of natural area.
Earlier this year, a NAP volunteer spotted a coyote on the west side of O’Shaughnessy, inspecting a California native plant garden planted on the hillside above Marietta Drive. The animal sat exercising its acute sense of smell until it stood and loped farther up the slope, possibly scouting for an afternoon smorgasbord of mice or ground squirrels.
The hillside native plant garden, tended by canyon neighbor Jeanne Halpern, herself once a NAP volunteer, lies close to rows of housing along Malta Drive and is as good a place as any to secure uneaten pet food or rubbish. Roaming urban coyotes, adaptable in their dietary affinities, find such tossed-out fare palatable.
Coyotes may find equally as appetizing small dogs, particularly if our domesticated canines are off leash, as was the case several summers ago when Silver Tree Day campers were off trekking and a coyote trotted down from an adjacent hillside and perused the vacated campsite. The animal stood adjacent to a sign, ironically, alerting canyon users of coyotes. An unleashed dog came yipping along Alms Road, followed by it owner. The woman shouted for her dog to heel, but the pup bolted, scampered across the creek and pursued the fleeing coyote up the hill and out of sight.
Coyotes can hunt in packs. No one really has done an accurate count of Glen Canyon coyote numbers, but San Francisco Animal Care and Control estimates 13 coyotes citywide. Maybe more. Could depend on pup-birthing time.
Coyotes are wily, though, strategic practitioners of a time-tested “bait and switch” tactic, successful in hoodwinking unsuspecting prey. Commonly hunting in tandem, coyotes are shrewd. In duet, they’ve mastered the technique of tag teaming. Whether this occurred when the excited dog was lured up the hill, past Silver Tree, is anyone’s guess.
The dog owner stood for what seemed like minutes, but was actually only a 20 or 30 seconds. Witnessed by a NAP volunteer who was pruning invasive Himalayan blackberry behind the bunker-like summer camp building, the winded pooch sprinted back down the slope, pursued by a coyote, fresh and alert, ready to pounce from behind.
The dog had a head start, though. It reached its ruffled guardian and hid behind her, granted a reprieve from becoming the fleet-footed carnivore’s main mid-day meal. The coyote had stampeded to a stop. It never crossed the creek, not wanting to engage the dog’s human owner. She leashed her pet and walked away.
Coyotes like their tranquility; they don’t like threatening body language, either from our four-legged companions, now numbering 180,000 dogs in San Francisco, or us. Coyotes, who number exponentially far less, co-exist with us in the City, and if they were any threat, it’s a pretty safe bet NAP officials wouldn’t allow them to reside so close to Glenridge Nursery School and Silver Tree Day Camp.
Two weeks ago, the coyote startled from its morning nap, finished harmonizing as the fire truck reached Malta Drive and negotiated the O’Shaughnessy curve. This coyote was certainly a threat to no one, unless they had sensitive ears. Two or three football fields across the canyon his NAP audience, as if on cue, began wandering back to the appointed chores waiting their attention.
The coyote looked over his shoulder at them. Stoic, he stood as if a statue. He eventually stepped from his rock, padded off and was soon swallowed by a canopy of willow trees.
Powdery lichen on the willow branches, the texture of wintery-white cotton puffs, rubbed against his spine as he disappeared among the shadows into a thicket where possibly his mate and their pups waited, ready to welcome him home
For further information on San Francisco coyotes go to www.urbanwildness.com. Here you will find excellent wildlife photographs, even several audio minutes of coyotes barking and howling.