Environment & Science

What do LA's urban coyotes eat? Ask a scat hunter.

Coyote C145 walks near a construction site in the Silver Lake neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles late Wednesday evening June 3rd. 

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.
Coyote C145 walks near a construction site in the Silver Lake neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles late Wednesday evening June 3rd. 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 for KPCC

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When ecologist Justin Brown examines the stomach contents of a dead coyote, he never knows what he’s going to find.

“I’ve seen barbecue chicken in their stomachs. I’ve seen cat food, guavas, mice, rats, gophers,” he said. “I mean coyotes are omnivores, so they can take advantage of almost anything that’s edible.”

Brown has been studying coyotes for a decade, and for the past year he’s focused exclusively on urban coyotes in Los Angeles as the head of the National Park Service’s Urban Coyote Project. By capturing coyotes, fitting them with radio collars and releasing them again, he’s been able to track their movements. And he has made some surprising observations, like that coyotes can live in densely populated neighborhoods and aren't afraid to dart across freeways.

But one simple question has evaded him so far: what do they do for food?

Video: What do coyotes eat in Los Angeles?

It’s important to know what animals eat because their diet tells us why they live where they do.

Los Angeles is obviously good habitat for coyotes – they wouldn’t be here otherwise – and now Brown wants to know why.

Knowing what urban coyotes eat may also help avoid conflicts with humans. If they eat a lot of trash, food scraps or even cats and dogs, we can modify our behavior to limit their access to these food source by keeping dogs on leashes, cats indoors and trash secured.

But first, we actually have to know what they eat. Dissecting a few dead coyotes every so often wasn’t enough for Brown to properly answer that question. So he needed help. This summer, Brown enlisted dozens of volunteers to scour the city and collect and dissect coyote scat – commonly known as poop.

“I’ve actually been completely amazed how many people are interested in doing it,” Brown said of the 24 scat collectors. “I mean you start talking about picking up poop, it’s not something I thought the general public would be interested in, but there’s definitely a subset of the population that is, and we’re very grateful for their help.”

Camille Boag is one of those people. She recently finished her masters and now teaches biology at local community colleges.

“When I finished my thesis I was like, ‘I am done with research.’ And then it literally only took like two months and I was like, ‘I kind of miss it…’” she said, laughing.

Now she collects scat twice a month for Brown’s Urban Coyote Project. She was assigned Elysian Park and Echo Park Lake, both areas that Brown either knows or suspects coyotes might be visiting.

When she goes scat collecting, she brings a bag with rubber gloves, small brown paper bags (to put specimens in), popsicle sticks (for poking them), and a Sharpie (for writing labels). She wears a National Park Service volunteer tee-shirt so people don’t think she’s crazy when she stops abruptly to poke at a clump of poop.

On a recent afternoon at Echo Park Lake she takes one of her popsicle sticks and jabs at some dried poop that seems to have come from a dog.

“So with this, if you break it apart it’s pretty uniform,” she said. “So that’s probably dog food being processed through the gut.”

Distinguishing between dog and coyote poop is the hardest part of Boag’s job, but there are a few obvious differences.

First, dogs eat the same thing every single day, so their poop is very uniform. Coyotes eat a wide variety of foods, so their scat could contain seeds, bones, fur, feathers, trash or hair. Second, dog poop is more log-like, while coyote poop is tapered at the ends. And third, because lots of people in LA own small dogs, most coyote poop is larger.

Boag stands up and peels her gloves off. This scat is definitely dog poop. She leaves it behind and keeps walking until she stops abruptly again, squats, and begins poking another scat. A man selling paletas walks by ringing a bell. Joggers weave across the path. A little boy wanders over, curious, and his mother yanks his arm away.

“I think I might actually take this one,” she said, because it has tapered ends. She pulls out a brown paper bag, scoops the scat in and writes the date, location, her initials and “dog poop?” because she’s still not 100 percent sure.

Later, Boag will slice the tapered ends off the scat and put them into a test tube for genetic testing. Then she’ll drop the tubes and the scat off in a locked box at the Audubon Center at Debs Park. Finally, Brown or a colleague will retrieve the scat and prepare it for the next part of the study: dissection.

On a Saturday morning at the Audubon Center, about 25 volunteers sat at long tables, armed with tweezers, picks and desk lamps. Binta Wold, an intern on the Urban Coyote Project, shook a clump of dried out coyote scat onto a paper towel. She spent hours disinfecting dozens of scat samples collected by the volunteers (who are different than the people gathered here today). She baked the scat, packed it into panty hose and then ran it through a washing machine.

“So it’s actually pretty clean as far as poop goes,” she assured everyone, laughing.

She encouraged the volunteers to meticulously pick apart the scat.

“Often a tiny little tooth or something that could be really important for identifying what animal is in the scat will get stuck in a clump of fur. So it’s important to pick apart all the clumps,” she said.

A few minutes later, the room was filled with the sounds of people stabbing and pecking at their scat. People the separated out little piles of dirt, insect parts, seeds and bones. Volunteer Hana Yi had a mat of white fur spread in front of her.

“These two look like cat claws to me,” she said, pointing at small white crescents.

It will take a while for National Park Service to be able to say with confidence what LA’s coyotes are eating. The scat collectors only started making their rounds in June, and August’s dissection was the first ever. But a similar study of Chicago’s urban coyotes found they mostly ate rodents, road-kill deer and fruit. Pets and garbage were only a sliver of their diet.