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The stranger among us

September 30, 2003|Leslie Carlson | Times Staff Writer

The 4-mile-long, finger-shaped Hillcrest Open Space area in Thousand Oaks laps into a patchwork of suburban streets. Coyotes live here. Like us, they are growing in numbers. And like us, they have increased their home ranges, sometimes traveling miles to skirt denser suburbs and freeway barriers. Seth Riley, wildlife biologist for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, is concerned about the loss of coyotes to speeding cars and rat poison. To help us better share space, he is heading a study of about 40 coyotes, using radio collars and a National Park Service SUV with a rooftop antenna to monitor their activities. What are the coyotes doing out there? One day last summer, his colleague, Jeff Sikich, listened for the beeps of a typical family group comprising Coyote 122 and its known associates: Coyote 119, an alpha male, and his mate, Coyote 117, an alpha female; and Coyote 125, a yearling male.



On grassy slopes, down a gully


Radio collars signal the whereabouts of coyotes on day and night wanderings.

Noon: Coyote 122, a robust, furry 2-year-old beta male weighing 27 pounds, rests in the thick slope foliage, secure and invisible above the whoosh of traffic on Erbes Road. To avoid people, city coyotes rest and socialize more than their nonsuburban kin.

1:40 to 2:35 p.m.: Jeff Sikich, a National Park Service employee, pursues a tip about a dead coyote along Erbes Road. The radio collar emits a fast tick-beep if a coyote fails to move for six hours, and before long the receiver picks up bad news. A damaged radio collar and a tuft of tail fur are the only signs of Coyote 119.

3:10 p.m.: The sport utility vehicle climbs a steep dirt road to a ridge, where coyotes 125 and 117 creep through shoulder-high grasses in the crease of a gully below. Sikich thrashes through the grass after them.

4:38 p.m.: Back near Erbes Road, Coyote 122 has shifted closer to the busy street. Sikich wonders why. Did Coyote 119 chase him there? Will 122 take over the dead alpha's 2 1/2-mile home range and add it to his own mile-long area?

5:45 p.m.: Sikich hoofs it down the block. A coyote suddenly breaks cover and darts across the slope. The coyote stops, defecates and leaps a homeowner's 6-foot-high, ivy-covered fence. It has no collar. This is likely 122's mate, not yet part of the study. If so, 122 will probably remain in his home range. Coyote males stick with one female for at least a season, and parents dote on five to 10 pups. Coyotes tend to den underground in chambers as deep as 6 or 8 feet.

6:45 p.m.: Wildlife biologist Kate McCurdy relieves Sikich. "People have such polar views about coyotes," she said. "One neighbor will tell you they love coyotes, while another will ask when you're going to shoot the coyote."

7:35 p.m.: Coyote 122 emerges from brush on the slope and stops to defecate in the same spot as the uncollared coyote. He too leaps the fence.

10 p.m.: Coyote 122 lingers near a rodent-rich field. An omnivore, he needs about 940 calories of "biomass" a day. Usually he hunts alone for the rodents and rabbits that make up the bulk (45% to 58%) of his diet. An occasional deer, native plants and insects account for another chunk. He also eats backyard fruit, dog food and trash. Pets? About 1%. A biologist's true story: A coyote faking a limp lured a dog to a family of coyotes.

11:35 p.m.: Coyote 122, back on the slope, responds with a double howl and whimper to a tape-recording of eerie yipping, a sound that can carry more than a mile.

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