A “Perfume Bath”: coyote behavior

Today I witnessed what I THOUGHT was a very deliberate “back-scratch.” But, after carefully examining the photos I took, I can now see that what I mistook for a stick was actually a dead lizard!! And therefore, what I mistook for a back-scratch was actually a “perfume bath”!!

After a morning of basking in the sun and watching walkers, this particular coyote walked about 50 yards from its resting spot, where it picked up what looked like a stick, but turns out to have been a dead lizard — with a girth of about 3/4 inch. The coyote didn’t so much pick it up, as move it — lifting it in its jaws and moving it. I thought the coyote was going to play with it. Instead, the coyote lowered itself, shoulders first, onto its back, and onto the lizard, and then started wiggling on its back ecstatically: flopping from side to side and all-over, with legs flailing in the air. This apparently was not satisfactory, because the coyote got up, moved the lizard again and repeated the activity. This time the activity must have been successful, because the coyote then trotted off into the distance. Dogs often will wallow in grass that has been doused with fish-emulsion as a fertilizer. They seem to do this to absorb the scent. I’ve seen dogs do the same thing in horse manure — THAT was a real mess. I’m wondering if this is an instinct that helps mask their own scent? I actually found the lizard the next day, at which time I was able to identify it as a California Alligator Lizard.

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What Does The Yipping Mean?? I wanted to mention another behavior which surprised me. I was at one end of a park photographing, as best I could, a juvenile coyote which was hunting. The coyote caught a muddy gopher and carried to the middle of a hill where the coyote lay down to eat it, right there in an open area of grass, in plain view. When the coyote was finished, it began wandering on the hillside. As it did so, I heard the coyote’s mother begin an intense barking episode on the other side of the park. It flashed through my mind that I might be able to see how coyotes react to “communication”. But there was NO reaction whatsoever: no hiding, running towards or away from the barking, no tensing up. There was total unconcern, and absolutely no change in this coyote’s meanderings on the hillside. When I reached the other side of the park, sure enough the mom had been chased by a dog and was letting everyone know that she was upset. She ended up climbing to the top of some high rocks where she continued her barking for 20 minutes or so. So, obviously, the barking was not a communication to other coyotes. It was just a display to the dog who had chased her. Also, could it have been an emotional release?

However, the next day I was in the vicinity of the mom who was basking in the sun in her normal fashion, when coyote yipping began across the canyon. This would have to have been one of her offspring. In this case, the mom did sit up and listen, cocking her ears back and forth, but she remained put, and eventually lay down to bask some more. The yipping went on for about ten minutes. It appeared that the mom could assess the danger of the situation from the yipping she was hearing. I have seen a non-yipping situation where this mom raced down the hill to aid her pup who was being chased by a dog. Hmmm, coyotes seem to be able to size up the danger of a situation pretty accurately.

The Factor of Human Behavior: Really Seeing

While I was taking photos of a family of baby owls growing up, I heard a lot about wildlife. I want to share with others the kind of information that gets transferred sometimes. In one instance I mentioned to an observer that there were three baby owls. This observer, a woman, looked at me and said, “No, there is only one”. I tried pointing out that you could see at least two of them at any one time. This woman continued: “No, that is impossible since mother owls sacrifice all but one — only one is ever raised”. This was said with such a very commanding and definite voice, that I decided just to listen. I asked her how she might know this. Her response was that everyone knows this, it is written in books. I actually didn’t know how to handle this situation, except to just let it go. But I have discovered that this is actually not unusual on several fronts.

Humans often see very little of the wildlife around themselves. We often would prefer reading or hearing about something than actually making observations ourselves. I would say that 30% of walkers do not see the coyotes that are right out in the open on a hill, or on the path right in front of them. When you point it out, they are amazed that there are coyotes in a park in a big city. To a certain extent this actually reminds me of myself. I didn’t realize there were so many children around until I had some myself, at which point I started “seeing” them and playgrounds all over the place! The same with dogs: not until I had my own dogs did I truly “see” the quantity and types of pets that people owned — and also the off-leash parks and dog-runs. And, not until I wanted to “collect” some different species of bird photos did I actually see that there were more than robins, hummingbirds and pigeons. And that is how it seems to go.

Most people are not very aware of coyote behavior. The Internet dispenses some misconstrued information: speculations and theories that someone thinks maybe “could” hold. One observation seems to be grist for a generalized theory. This, added to the observed fact that coyotes are highly individualistic in their behavior — it is hard to generalize, just as with human behavior — their behavior is also very situation-oriented. People have told me that a coyote which loses its fear of humans will become aggressive — they have read this on the Internet. Since, by definition, urban coyotes are going to become habituated to humans, this would suggest that all urban coyotes will become aggressive. One needs to dig a little deeper, and look at sources. First of all very few coyotes or habituated coyotes ever become aggressive at all. Coyotes are not particularly aggressive animals, even though they will defend themselves from dogs — aggressive and defensive behavior have to be distinguished. More importantly, some have speculated that intentional feeding may be the most significant reason if and why some coyotes begin to exhibit aggression toward humans. How important is intentional feeding, as the root cause of coyote aggression toward humans? Chicago has not had aggressive coyotes, even though there are 2000 of them in the city, accustomed to humans and their activity. In southern California there have been aggressive coyotes — I have read that all the incidents there can be traced to feedings.

The question of human and coyote coexistence and habituation is an important one. Acceptable habituation should not mean that a coyote will feel comfortable wandering casually into areas where there is high human activity — such as a picnic — it should mean coyotes will feel okay seeing humans in the area. When coyotes engage in activity which we don’t fully comprehend, it is best to create a distance. I heard of an instance when a coyote approached the peripheral area of a day-camp and started barking. It is unlikely that it did so because it was habituated and felt comfortable doing so. Might its approach and distressed barking have been set off by the loud noise and high activity level of the campers? I know sirens have been known to cause coyote barking sessions. The coyote, which remained across the creek and never really entered the camp area, took off when the camp director approached with small stones which he tossed not at, but around the coyote. It is always best to keep your distance from wildlife, especially when you don’t understand what their activity is suggesting: Wildlife follows its own rules, and these rules are not the same as our own, nor are they always understandable to us.

I would challenge everyone who can to actually observe coyote behavior: there is a rich family life, hunting, curiosity, lots of intelligence, community. The ones I’ve observed are totally peaceful unless they are interfered with. Pupping season offers more territorial challenges, but we can respect that. Please also notice that they might display the same behavior that was dished out to them: if you aggressively throw stones at a coyote, then if he becomes cornered, might he feel he has to bite his way out of the corner, rather than be allowed to pass?

The harmful habituation that IS going on in our parks is that of coyotes to dogs. Since coyotes first arrived in our parks, people have allowed their dogs to chase and to otherwise interfere with coyotes. The problems might have been prevented by keeping our dogs leashed and close to us in these areas in the first place. But people refuse to leash their dogs. Coyotes have come to know the dogs which have gone after them. In addition, eye-contact, body language and activity level of the dogs communicate and convey what a coyote needs to know about which dogs are threatening to them on various levels. This is true even of leashed dogs. Some of the coyotes have developed behaviors towards dogs for self-protective reason. For instance, some coyotes in some of our parks “monitor” particular dogs — watching them from lookouts until they leave the park. I’ve seen a couple of dogs followed by the coyote — apparently the coyote was “escorting” them out of the park. Or, a coyote might engage in a strong warning display if a dog gets too close — a display that is meant as a message for a dog to “stay away” and to “note that I’m here and not to be messed with.” In some cases, the coyote has even approached certain dogs with this display. Coyotes often engage in long and distressed barking after being interfered with. This barking constitutes both complaining and, again, a statement of “I’m here and not to be messed with.”

Please note that these are a coyote’s defensive behaviors. If you understand them, you will better be able to deal with them. Please keep your dogs leashed in a coyote area and please read about coyote safety which I have posted at the top of this blog.

A Burial: coyote behavior

Today I saw something I had never seen before. A coyote captured a gopher by patiently and quietly waiting for it, then dove in after it, head first. The gopher was not immediately killed, which made it very difficult for me to watch. In fact, the little animal always landed on its feet when it was dropped: it looked like it was putting up a fight or was pleading for mercy. Eventually it was still, and the predator carried its dead prey a distance — maybe 200 yards — and dropped it. And this is the part I have never seen before: the coyote then scooped out a hole with its muzzle, moved the gopher into the hole, then used its muzzle to move dirt and leaves over the animal: it was being buried. The process took less than 60 seconds. I’m wondering if coyotes have “caches” of food here and there? I looked at the site when the coyote left — although there was a little mound of leaves, it really was hard telling it apart from the area around it. I went back a day later to find that the leaves and the deceased were still in place. But I looked again on October 30th, three days after the kill, and although the leaves and sticks were carefully piled back where they had been, the gopher was no longer there. So maybe it had been “saved” for later? Coyotes eat not only prey, but also carrion. I have seen a coyote bury an old, dead, dry snake. Also, there has been an observation of a coyote burying a rock!!

I love watching and documenting coyote behavior. I’ve seen a mother coyote dart down a hill to aid her pup who was being chased by a dog: then both coyotes, mother and pup, “worked” the dog, charging it from both sides and nipping the haunches, as a cattle dog would, to get it to move on. The dog obviously was overwhelmed and fled with his tail between his legs. Today I watched a bored coyote, at rest, gnaw on a branch which was within its resting reach — the coyote seemed to be entertaining itself. I’ve seen a sitting coyote grab a gopher out of a hole as effortlessly as we might grab a coke from the refrigerator. And I’ve seen a coyote really work for its meal: standing, head cocked to one side, and waiting patiently at a vole or gopher hole until there was movement, and then dive, muzzle first, with a high leap, into the hole, where, if the coyote wasn’t able to grab the critter, at least he had injured it, because with a little digging, the injured vole/gopher was retrieved. Prey is sometimes killed and consumed right off — with minimal chewing or bone crunching followed by one big gulp, and sometimes it is toyed with. Besides voles and gophers, I’ve seen coyotes eat peanuts and catch a squirrel. And I’ve seen a coyote eat grass, exactly the same as some dogs do, and then heave several times to throw it up. Coyotes have been seen devouring snails.

A couple of times I have seen coyotes catch voles, toy with them and eventually behead them (coyotes’ back teeth are like scissors), before tossing the carcass aside never to be eaten. I wonder why? And in back of a house I once saw a couple of dead voles which I thought might have been poisoned (rat poisoning from the house?), because when, a few days later, a coyote came upon them, she picked one up in her mouth, she spat it out disgustedly, and then squatted over them and urinated on them. Might this be some sort of sign to other coyotes?

I’ve seen coyotes, sometimes alone and sometimes in twos, go up to a known dog with its owner close by, circle around and, ultimately, as if it were a dare, go up and “touch” the tail of the dog before running off. I’ve seen coyotes sit for hours, watching the show of walkers and dogs in a park — calm, collected and relaxed — until a dog gave chase. I’ve noticed that each coyote has a very different “critical distance” that they like to maintain from walker and dog to walker and dog. Coyotes seem to ignore humans and never approach them, but coyotes are keenly interested in all dogs and can “size them up” as to their friendliness, aggressiveness, dominance, energy. And, coyotes seem to know when dogs are leashed.

And human behavior is just as interesting. When a coyote is close to the trail I always let people know that it might be best to leash up  – after all, the parks are “on-leash” parks, even though few people abide by this. Today, a fellow human balked when I suggested that giving the coyote a wide berth might keep things calm. Oh no — for this man, coexistence means the coyote would have to move. So I watched as this fellow and his dog went by, obviously within the coyote’s “critical distance”.  Although the coyote kept its distance, it began baring its teeth and wrinkling its nose, charging back and forth in short spurts, scratching the soil and bucking and rearing — the coyote was obviously upset. So the man pulled his dog along and hurried by.  Is it really so difficult to give in a little to the wildlife in our parks? This female coyote did end up moving off — but I don’t think she would have during pupping season: May to September.

The first four photos above show the capture, fighting back and burial of a gopher. Photo five is of a coyote playing with a stick. The last photo shows how upset a coyote is when the above-mentioned dog walker entered the coyote’s critical space — the walker could easily have given the coyote a wider berth.

Children’s Health & Safety Fair, October 24, 2009

I was asked to spread the word about wildlife safety at a fair!! What an honor! So my husband, Jack, and I set up a booth at the Diamond Heights Shopping Center Children’s Health and Safety Fair on October 24, 2009. Our booth featured safety around our urban wild animals. Specifically we addressed the coyote-dog issue: helping everyone become aware of what to expect in the way of coyote behavior, what they can do to prevent dog-coyote incidents, and, ultimately, how to extricate oneself and one’s pet from an incident in progress.

Our booth had photos and an example of a shake-can to scare coyotes (for those who are less likely to screech out). We distributed fliers on dog-coyote safety and on coexisting with coyotes. We had a coyote puppet raffle which required you to know three things when encountering a coyote. Lots of people turned out and were interested in, and thankful for, hints on how to make coexistence work. We found out that 98% of everybody loves having coyotes around. We were able to explain the difference between an aggressive coyote and a defensive one, and found out that almost everyone expects a coyote to defend itself when pursued by a dog.

Distinguishing Different Coyotes: Facial Features and Behaviors

In one of our parks I have now been able to distinguish three coyotes:  a mom and her male yearling have been seen since last year, though the yearling has been seen by only a couple of people  – and they were not totally sure about this.  And on September 17th I was able to distinguish an additional female, which appeared to be a pup from this year’s litter. The mom was lactating both last year and this year. It is odd that she would have only one puppy each year, but that is what the observation has been — so far.

Distinguishing between each coyote by their markings is not always a reliable way of telling them apart : the coats have been changing with the seasons, and daylight conditions seem to alter the appearance of their coat markings, so that you cannot be sure of yourself.  I have found that the only reliable way to tell the coyotes apart is by their unique facial features, aided by observing their very different behavior — and a camera is better than the naked eye .

Boldness, shyness, amount of curiosity, amount of daring, sitting to observe or ready to flee, running forwards to observe or only away from, and easiness of gate are all behavioral characteristics which help identify these individuals. Facial features in coyotes are as different from each other as are humans’: The yearling has a built-in frown with thin eyes and a wide, almost squat face. The new female has a storybook wolf-like look with rounder but closer set eyes, which give the snout a wider and a more prominent look. The mom, until recently, has had a classical, sleek look, with unbelievably gorgeous, child-like eyes.

The mom has changed physically over the last few months. She was exceptionally thin and sprightly, but ever since her leg injury from which it took her a full month to recover, she seems older and heavier with more prominent line markings. However, her behavior remains her tell-tale, unchanging, distinguishing feature. No coyote has ever behaved like this one: she’s totally on top of her world.

Field Notes on Photography

I was just thinking about how different it is to take photos of coyotes and, say, woodpeckers. One is not harder or easier than the other. They are just so very different.

Finding these animals in the first place could prove to be difficult in the Bay Area — these are rare animals to encounter in this area.  I’ve come across coyotes in some parks. Those that are less shy become the focus for my camera. I’ve seen a woodpecker only a few times in the last two years –  twice in the apple tree right in my front yard!

Both coyotes and woodpeckers involve a focus problem because of the long closeup lens which I use. Although the lens appears to bring the animal closer, the lens in itself cuts down on the amount of available light. Photography is about light — the more light, the better.

Coyotes are up at dawn when the light isn’t so good and they normally are on the move. Woodpeckers are hidden behind leaves and branches. These same leaves and branches obscure a lot of the light and create shade and shadows.

The secret to capturing these animals on film is to get in close enough without disrupting the animal’s activity: not so far away so as to loose all the detail, and never so close so as to interrupt their activity level. If the animal ignores you, you are at a safe distance. If you cause them to flinch, or flee, you have entered their “critical distance” — obviously at this point your presence has interrupted their life: you have interfered with wildlife which cannot be your aim if you are a wildlife photographer.

Once the photos are taken, how do you choose what to keep? For a coyote, I tolerate more blur, in favor of retaining photos with as many poses showing movement and expressiveness. A coyote is probably one of the most expressive critters you will ever find, with more choreography to its movements than any other animal. A coyote is so many things: nimble, delicate, rough, lithe, quick.  Facial expressions can be read: boredom, tension, alertness, inquisitiveness, anger, fear, compliance, curiosity, annoyance, etc. The features to capture are long: ears, snout, legs, neck.

Which photos do you keep of the woodpecker? A woodpecker can be found in all sorts of positions and orientations on a tree. Its extensions, unless you can get it landing or taking off, are of less interest than that of a coyote. However, first and foremost come  focus and clarity in the details — its eyes, feathers, and markings. The setting in which you find the bird counts for a lot when photographing them.

Coyote Story

In the morning on October 3rd, I met Margaret walking with her son and her dog in one of the parks. So that she and her son would be sure not to miss it, I pointed out one of the coyotes resting on a hilltop. We noted how peaceful this wild animal was — but we knew it could and would defend itself if chased by a dog. We marveled at wildlife in the city, and then Margaret had a wonderful coyote story to tell me.

For a while she lived in Big Sur — coyote country. Yes, her cats all disappeared over time — this was not the habitat for domestic cats. But her dog, April, developed a mutual respect and fondness for her wild coyote relatives which lasted until her dying day.

April did die at the ripe old age of 14. The family wanted to give their pet a decent burial — they did not want the body devoured by coyotes — they felt they owed this to April. They decided that the grave they would dig would have to be a deep one. As the digging began, they noticed that the coyotes slowly did line up along the horizon to watch. This was confirmation to the family that, yes, the grave would have to be deep — 6 feet deep — no getting around this.

So deeper it got. The family pet was lowered into its final resting place and finally covered with dirt, and the earth was packed down. That was all they could do. The family said farewell and left, but watched.

Sure enough, the coyotes did come down from the horizon. They came to the site of the grave. But they did not dig. They sat on the grave looking around and inspecting, and finally they began howling. They had seen and understood what was happening as the grave was being dug. They had watched the entire event with understanding, and then they had come down themselves to howl their farewell and respects to their friend.