Environment & Science

First year of LA's urban coyote study is full of surprises

National Park Service ecologist Justin Brown uses a handheld antenna and scanner near the 101 freeway to listen for signals from radio-collared coyotes living near downtown Los Angeles early Thursday morning, June 4, 2016.

National Park Service Ecologist Justin Brown tracks coyotes living near downtown Los Angeles late Wednesday night June 3 and early Thursday morning June 4, 2015, in Los Angeles, CA. Some of the coyotes are fitted with radio collars.
National Park Service ecologist Justin Brown uses a handheld antenna and scanner near the 101 freeway to listen for signals from radio-collared coyotes living near downtown Los Angeles early Thursday morning, June 4, 2016. National Park Service Ecologist Justin Brown tracks coyotes living near downtown Los Angeles late Wednesday night June 3 and early Thursday morning June 4, 2015, in Los Angeles, CA. Some of the coyotes are fitted with radio collars.
Stuart Palley/KPCC

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For the National Park Service scientists in charge of the first-ever study of urban coyotes in Los Angeles, the initial year has brought unexpected revelations.

The scientists found the coyotes live in vacant lots. They cross freeways. They roam widely through dense, urbanized neighborhoods.

“Before I started working with urban coyotes, I thought they never could live in some of the urban environments they’re moving around in,” said Justin Brown, the ecologist heading up the study.

In the past year, Brown has spent many nights driving through Westlake, Silver Lake and other neighborhoods in L.A., tracking the six coyotes he has managed to trap and collar.

There have been some setbacks: batteries in tracking collars prematurely running out of charge  and one coyote dying in MacArthur Park. Despite this, he gathered months of data on their behavior and whereabouts. Here are some of his takeaways:

Coyotes can live just about anywhere

Brown is fascinated by a coyote named C-144, a female who spends more than half of her time in developed areas, largely in Westlake,  just south of the intersection of the 101 and the 110 freeways. He lost track of her last fall when the battery on her collar died.

“She was very urban,” he said. “She spent a lot of time in these little vacant lots. She was taking advantage of many of them, one night in one place, one night in another place.”

Brown often saw C-144 trotting down empty streets late at night, ducking behind parked cars and disappearing into the shadows. And it wasn’t just her – she has a pack and a mate.

“I just thought because of the high amounts of human activity, they wouldn’t be there,” he said. “But they keep proving me wrong every time I turn around.”

They can move into big, open spaces

Last year, more than eight coyotes were removed from Elysian Park after they bit people. Almost immediately, a young, female coyote named C-146 that had roamed exclusively along the L.A. River began showing up in the park. 

“If all the coyotes were there, that never would’ve happened. Coyotes are very territorial,” Brown said. 

Even C-144, an alpha female with an established territory, came across the 101 freeway to check it out.

C-146 was found dead in MacArthur Park in December. Researchers later determined that she drowned.

Coyotes and dogs don’t always mix

The third coyote that Brown tracked for several months, C-145, is a male living in Silver Lake. Its mate has had several run-ins with neighborhood dogs.

Brown said she will sneak up on dogs and nip at their hind legs – even while they’re being walked on a leash.

After a Silver Lake resident let biologists install a camera trap in their backyard, biologists discovered the reason for the coyote's aggressive behavior: she had a litter of pups she was trying to protect.  

The urban coyote study is still a pilot, and dependent on more funding to continue. But Brown hopes to keep it going for at least another two years.