Recently there has been a spat of absurd headlines about one or a couple coyotes in the Bay Area of California. The headlines read that coyotes tripping on mushrooms are attacking cars. If you said, "Um, what?" then you aren't the only one.
We can chalk this up to bad journalism and click-bait headlines. What actually happened is that folks have been noticing that at least one coyote is running up to cars along a certain stretch of road in Bolinas, CA. At the time of the first news article, it was a behavior that had been going on for about three weeks.
Then a writer (and I'm purposefully not linking to the article because I don't want to provide pageviews for irresponsible journalism) decided that he would posit a few ideas about why this was happening, including maybe the coyote was high after eating mushrooms and was just having a bad trip. It was intended to be funny, and almost maybe could have been funny if so many news outlets didn't pick up the headline and run with it.
The problem is two-fold. First, too many people take this kind of thing seriously and let their imaginations run wild. When it comes to coyotes, a species around which there is already an extraordinary amount of vilification and irrational fear, this kind of click-bait writing does more harm than I'm sure the writers intend. Too many people see the headline and take it as fact, rather than researching or, let's face it, even reading the article where writers put a little more information about the actual cause of the behavior.
So now some people think coyotes get high on mushrooms and charge at cars. Great. And some people think it's pure ridiculousness. Thankfully.
But here's where our second problem comes in: how many people are so distracted by the notion that a coyote is having a bad trip that they fail to focus on what is most likely the actual cause of the behavior? It is a cause that could absolutely be deadly to a coyote and other wildlife, yet unfortunately is being overlooked or at least not given due consideration.
The most likely cause of the coyote's behavior is actually bad behavior on the part of humans. Someone, or several people, have been feeding the coyote from their cars. And now the coyote associates cars with food.
Feeding wild animals is at the root of so many - perhaps even most - conflicts between wildlife and people. It causes animals to lose their natural fear of humans and become overly assertive or even aggressive while trying to get an easy meal. In most of the cases when coyotes have nipped or scratched someone, it is discovered that the coyote was being fed by either that person or someone in the neighborhood. And yes, it can cause coyotes to run up to approaching cars.
I witnessed the behavior first-hand the very same week that the news story came out. Not by this particular Bolinas coyote in the news, but by one in Yosemite National Park.
When my wife and I came upon a van driving slowly in the middle of the road in the park, we figured it was just someone focused more on the scenery than the road. Then my wife pointed and said, "coyote!"
I pulled over and grabbed my camera. The coyote was focused on the van and within a few moments, I realized why. Part of a sandwich flew out the passenger window and the coyote ran to grab it, chewing it as she ran back up the hill to watch the van for more.
That's bad enough, but it gets worse.
The van slowly pulled forward, so the coyote ran into the road -- in front of several other cars that were driving up -- and followed the van. The van stopped and the driver threw lunch meat out of the driver side window, which the coyote also ran up to grab.
So now we have a coyote that not only associates cars with food, but does not associate cars with danger. She doesn't hesitate to run into the road in front of other cars if she predicts food is on its way out a window.
Angry at the driver in the van, my wife and I followed to get the license plate number, find out where they stopped next, and I called in a report to the park service. The fine for feeding wildlife in the park can be up to $5,000. And it's obvious why. Both wildlife and people are put into danger. This coyote is basically one oblivious park visitor away from being hit by a car or marked as a problem animal.
We saw the coyote again later that afternoon, not too far from the first location. I pulled over and got out the camera. I watched the coyote for probably about half an hour, and in that time I watched her move away from the side of the road when no one was around and go roll, stretch explore. But when a car approached, she would come back up to the road and watch. Every time. Sometimes coming into the road to approach a stopped car.
Luckily I didn't see anyone feeding her. Folks watched her as they rolled by, and one guy got out of his car with a selfie stick to get a photo with her in the background. Unfortunately when he got back in his car, he rolled down the window and snapped at her, getting her attention to come closer. (And yes, I waved my arm scoldingly to get him to stop. I'm that person. I have no problem playing hall monitor to keep wildlife safe, and why you would interest an animal in coming closer to a moving vehicle is beyond me.)
So, is chomping on psychedelic mushrooms the cause of the coyote approaching cars? No, but sliced turkey is.
The only solution to keeping wildlife wild is to not feed animals. If you see someone feeding wildlife, please report them to the appropriate authorities. You're doing a favor to both wildlife and people visiting the area. And if you see a headline that says coyotes tripping on mushrooms are chasing cars, please don't click on the link. You're doing a favor for us all.
You can get more information about coyotes by following my urban coyote photojournalism project The Natural History of Urban Coyotes. I'm working alongside Morgan Heim and Karine Aigner to document the stories and science of the coyotes who live alongside us in our urban and suburban jungles.
- Feathers and farmland: California's farmers are critical to bird migration on the Pacific flyway
- A coyote, a deer, and an obscene amount of luck
- On baiting wildlife and truth in captioning
- Controversy over tule elk conservation on the rise as California's drought worsens
- How banding western snowy plovers may help them come back from the brink in California
- River otters and their incredible comeback in California's Bay Area
- An animal of extremes: How the northern elephant seal barely dodged extinction