Purposeful & Planned: Coyote behavior

I was thinking about how much or how little “in the moment” a coyote is. I’ve noticed that a coyote is much less so than a dog. In fact, I think there is plenty of planning and forethought that goes on in a coyote’s day.

Recently I saw a couple of coyotes ‘way across a park in the distance — they were running down a slope. Within five minutes one of them appeared in my vicinity. This coyote meandered a bit, hunting rather casually, and slowly made its way up to the top of a hill and over to the hill’s eastern edge. It remained there, sitting, checking out the area. Three walkers with calm, leashed dogs, walked by at sporadic intervals, and someone was sitting alone in the far distance, but otherwise there was not much activity in this area — the coyote watched all of this.

For a short part of the time the coyote’s ears were in a low position and out to the sides, pivoting a little but not much. I’ve seen the low-ears-out-to-the-side when a coyote was preparing to defend itself and I saw it once when a coyote was in lots of pain from a leg injury. In this case, even though all the dogs were calm and leashed, I know that one of the dogs had previously chased this coyote. This may explain the low ears, if indeed that is significant.  Up to this point, the coyote’s behavior was very casual. Then, suddenly, it was as if the coyote had something definite to do: its behavior seemed to became more purposeful and directed.

The coyote trotted directly, and quite purposefully, over to another edge of the same hill as a woman and her two children appeared on the path below — now the coyote was facing the area from which it had originally come — an area where earlier I had earlier seen two coyotes: this one and another one. Had this coyote heard something from this direction?

The coyote curled up, ignoring a woman and her two children who had appeared. At first I thought the coyote had moved to this side of the hill to keep an eye on this woman and her children. But I could see that this was not the case. When the coyote re-positioned herself, these people were totally out of the coyote’s visual field. I’ve never seen coyotes interested in people.

I waited, noting that the coyote kept looking in the direction where I had seen it earlier. It relaxed between looking. After about ten minutes, it bolted to an upright sitting position, and had its eyes glued piercingly on something in that location — a considerable distance away. It leaned into the direction of its gaze, eyes riveted, ears high and focused forwards. It remained like this, totally still, for well over a minute. The coyote definitely was looking at or listening for something, or maybe it had already spotted it. I myself could see nothing whatsoever. Whatever the coyote needed to know suddenly clicked, because it then hurried off, at a quick lope, not quite a run, towards the area where I had seen two of them earlier.

This same type of hurried and purposeful departure had occurred before, in almost the exact same manner. A lot was going on here!  There was forethought, planning ahead, assessing. There was casualness, and there was quickness when this was deemed important, there probably had been communication over the distance, there probably had been worry. There was knowledge of locations and of situations. Coyotes have keen senses. At long distances, they can hear incredibly and their eyes can see both ear positions and behavior of other coyotes  – this is how they communicate. I myself can only see this with a zoom lens.

So, the coyote hadn’t aimlessly chosen this spot to sit, and it hadn’t just whimsically decided to depart. The spot was carefully chosen, as part of a plan to keep track of family members: a place where they could be heard and seen. First the place was “scoped” and “assessed”, for what dogs might be around. Dogs are the coyote’s primary concern in our parks. And when the coyote finally departed, dashing off, it was not done whimsically, but as part of a plan. Something didn’t seem right to this coyote, so off it went to be there: maybe it felt that its dominant presence or its help was needed?

Coyotes Differ from Dogs

A coyote might resemble a small German Shepherd when you first spot it. Western coyotes are relatively small, averaging about 25-30 pounds, with a 26″ height and a 5 foot length including the tail. The tail, which is a key distinguishing characteristic, is very full and cylindrically shaped and is not normally held up high: rather it is always lower than horizontal. The tail ends in a black tip.

Coyotes are tri-colored, including white, black and brown — the brown runs from reddish to yellowish. Their over-all look from a distance ranges from brownish to grayish, and they often have distinctive patterns of color on their backs, but always with variations of a black and white fan-shaped stripe across the upper-mid back. A coyote has a thick undercoat plus outer weather guard hairs. In the fall and winter coyotes gain a much fuller coat which make them appear larger than they do in the springtime, when they can look very, very thin, after loosing these winter coats. The coyote’s underbelly, inner legs, and chest area in front of its front legs are white.

Compared to dogs, coyotes have a much longer snout, they are very thin and lithe. The long, thin snout may help them retrieve gophers and voles from burrows — I have actually seen a coyote “dive” head first into such a hole after the rodent has stuck its head out. Their thin and lithe bodies make them very quick. Cheek fur actually makes the coyote’s face look wider and emphasizes the thinness of the snout. The coyote’s bones, tendons and muscles are made so it can run after prey, leap and twist when pursuing quick moving small prey, and lope a long period of time without tiring.

Their high intelligence, aided by their very keen senses — hearing seeing and smelling are very acute —  has helped them survive in the wild and adapt to entirely new environments. They use their ears, which are triangular shaped and point up, to communicate with each other. Backs of their ears are a rusty red. They have yellow eyes, which can see in very dim light.

Coyotes are very secretive and and are very evasive, which is why most people don’t see them. They are naturally fearful and cautious of humans. However, you may see a bolder one right out in the open, quite unconcerned, maybe on a hillside. They keep their dens well hidden, keeping several of these as alternatives. This way, when fleas build up, or if the coyotes feel a threat is nearby, they move on to one of their other dens. They dig these themselves sometimes, but sometimes they just fix up hollows which they have found. Only 5-20 percent of coyote pups survive their first year.

The coyote’s front footprints can be distinguished from that of a dog, because its two middle toes actually point inwards, compared to those of a dog. Coyotes walk only on their toes!

Coyotes have the same teeth as dogs: four canines for holding on to prey. The teeth behind these, the premolars, are used for tearing prey. And they have molars for chewing, but these are not used frequently by coyotes unless they need to crunch bones or nuts. One thing I’ve noticed is that a coyote’s tongue is very long and maneuverable — possibly more so than a dog’s: a coyote can curl its tongue way out, encircling its nose!

Coyotes in desert areas are active during the cooler early morning and twilight hours. In mild climates they are active during daylight hours. When food is plentiful they might hunt at night, sleeping during the day. All of these alternatives have been noted in San Francisco.

Coyotes yip, bark, huff, yelp, whine, whimper and howl: these are quite high pitched compared to a dog’s bark or a dog’s baying. Coyotes may engage in these vocalizations for a considerable period of time — sometimes 20 minutes or longer. No dog bark will ever sound like the high pitched and continuous bark of a coyote!

I’ve mostly seen coyotes hunt alone. But I did see two females dig at the same spot. It could have been that they were working as a team: one digging at a burrow, the other waiting for the rodent to emerge. Coyotes are opportunistic eaters, which means they will adapt their eating habits to food in the area. They eat small rodents, insects, reptiles, fruit and berries. Several of them will prey on larger animals, such as deer, when the rodent supply is down or in hibernation.

Aggression should be addressed here. Coyotes are not particularly aggressive animals. Most coyotes pose little threat to humans. However, they will defend themselves against dogs if they are chased or interfered with — defending and aggression are not the same thing. One needs to look at statistics to really understand the minor extent of danger to humans: as of this posting, there have been only two human deaths from coyotes ever reported. These were bizarre anomalies. Dog bites, however, including from one’s own pets, are in the tens of thousands, and deaths from dogs are in the hundreds. The relatively few coyote aggression incidents have mostly occurred in Southern California where they have been linked to feedings, even if the feedings were unintentional. Please, never feed or try to tame a coyote: feeding them has been isolated as the source of their aggressiveness towards humans. Once they have been fed, they begin pursuing humans for the food they think is owed to them. Also, please keep your dogs leashed in coyote areas, both to protect the coyote and your dog!

Affection, Incipient Leadership, Group Activity

Today I had the rare privilege of seeing a coyote family together. Since most people have never even see one coyote, I feel very lucky.  Previously, I had spotted these coyotes individually, in the distance, only very briefly and only a couple of times at all this fall. I had been able to establish ages and relationships by observing when young ones first appeared. And I have seen a couple coyotes interact. But today I was able to see this entire unit together, not for long, but long enough to witness some interactions.

The day began with a pile-up of affection, literally! As darkness turned into barely distinguishable shadows, the mother coyote materialized on a hill out of the darkness. She was sitting to begin with, but then lay down. I’ve noticed that she places herself in locations where she can take in the entire scene with one glance: after all, she is the mother of the other three and still looks out for them. A few moments after she lay down, her yearling male full-grown pup trotted down from higher on the hill. He curled up in a ball about 30 feet below the mother.

Then, barely discernible, two more coyote pups became visible — at first only the movement of their white parts could be seen in the dark. These would be the two pups born this spring, now full-sized coyotes, but often very puppy-like in their movements and behavior. They shook their heads, and joyfully approached their mother, climbing all over her and nuzzling her in one big happy pile-up: in the twilight it looked like a bundle of wiggling worms!  At this point the yearling got up and approached within about 5 feet of them — the whole family was right there together, but it was too dark to take a photograph — even at 3200 ISO the camera would not function.

The yearling trotted back to his previous spot where he curled up again. He has always been the shyest of the bunch: when humans are around he situates himself far away and close to a brush area into which he could escape, but not today. Today he was curled up out in the open.

By 6:36 the twins born this year began making themselves busy: separately and cautiously they came closer to the dog that was with us — an uninterested dog. But they soon lost interest because of the dog’s lack of response, or maybe because his eyes said to stay away! Coyotes keenly pick up this sort of visual clue. After a few minutes, these twins came together, and together went towards their mother — they began digging, side by side — they seemed to like being in contact with each other. Their mother remained lying down, closing her eyes at times. By  6:50 the brown twin headed off, quite deliberately into the far distance, but then seemed to change its mind and turned back.

Then everything suddenly became totally still, as everyone’s attention became riveted on two dogs and their owner, very far off, but distinguishable.  All coyote eyes turned in this direction, and all activity stopped. Just as suddenly as these potential intruders appeared, they departed, and all of the coyotes relaxed.

Some of the coyotes have allowed me to observe them a couple of times lately . They keep a cautious eye on me. I stay as still as possible. When I move, I move slowly. I have noticed that if anyone else comes up as I watch, the coyotes run off. This time, since the possible intruder was so far off, the coyotes just became very still and watched.

By 7:00 the twins and then the yearling had moved a considerable distance away, so I went down to observe these three, but soon they had slithered into the brush area. Ten minutes later I was back up where the mother was. She got up, stretched and yawned, and moved down the hill where now two of her pups could be seen again: the yearling and the brown twin. And then, something new happened.

At 7:10 the yearling headed, very decidedly, towards his mother who was sitting. He passed right in front of her, apparently walking right under her chin — was this a sign of subservience before taking the lead? Only dominant females become mothers. He continued his quick gait as she watched, and then she, suddenly, took off after him, following, and so did the brown twin, right behind. Was he calling the shots at that moment? I don’t know, but it looked like it — incipient leadership maybe! Maybe he had asked the mother to come see something he had heard? The three arrived on a knoll and sat down together before the mother took over the leading. She proceeded down the hill and out of sight with the male following her this time. The brown twin remained sitting there.

I decided to walk around a grove of bushes to see if I could tell where the two had gone, but I didn’t find them.  When I came back to where I had last seen all of the three coyotes, the brown twin was still there, keeping its eye on an area where, I found out, her brother and mother had gone. Soon this brown twin slithered into the brush, so I went to the place where it had been looking. I was told that two coyotes had just given a casual chase to  a poodle who they encountered in their path. Dog walkers and dogs had cleared the area. I found the mother coyote happily eating grass in a corner of the area — she did this for 6 full minutes. There was no more sign of the male yearling.

After not too long, this mother wandered up into a thicket where she sat down and watched in my direction for about five minutes — I think she was looking past me to the path where there were people noises and dog walkers around. One dog eventually got whiff of her — he was suddenly up in her area looking for her. He found her and chased her. The coyote sped off, and then sped right back: at first appearance the coyote seemed to be chasing back, but looking more closely, I think it is more likely that the coyote wanted to claim the spot where she had been — once she returned to that spot, she ran no further after the dog. The owner then was able to grab his dog —  this coyote seems to understand when a dog is restrained from chasing her, probably because she can read the change in the dog’s behavior: his activity level changes entirely.

As 8:00 approached, the coyote wandered up through the thicket and up a hill where a group of five spectators witnessed a hunting scene for seven minutes: the coyote was cocking her ears, twisting her head, moving her body around at different angles, and finally plunging head first into a hole — with no result. She continued her activity at that spot, digging and stretching her body out over the area before giving up.

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I want to add here the affection I saw the day before this. This involved affection between the twin pups born this year. The silver twin trotted over to the brown one who was on a path and put her neck over the brown one’s neck in a kind of hug, and the brown one nuzzled back. This didn’t last long, not long enough to photograph. Then they stood there together observing us and a dog. The brown one then moved further off — this coyote tends to be shyer. Questions I have: was there a message of dominance between these siblings? Was there a message to move on? These are possibilities I’ll keep in the back of my mind — if and as they recur I’ll be able to decipher the behavior better.

On this same day I watched a coyote chomp down some crackers that had been left out. I’ve seen crackers deposited here before and always cleaned them up. But on this particular day, a coyote was right there chomping away. This coyote tightened up when it saw me, but because I didn’t approach, it continued its feast until the food, all but two crackers, was gone. I photographed what remained to show what kind of food was left out.

On most days, the coyotes can go about their day without ever being seen: they probably keep to the brush areas and to the lesser peopled areas. But on some days people have seen them right out in an open field, either hunting or lying down.

About myself, with animals, observing

I thought I should let people know where I am coming from, and why I am interested in coyotes.

This particular activity opened for me two years ago when I met my first coyote on a walk here in San Francisco. At the time, my habit was to get up before dawn and take an hour-and-a-half hike up to the center of our city — always with my dog. Dawn is a great time of day. The world is quiet, it is peaceful. The world belongs to you and to the wildlife which is beginning to stir again after a night’s rest. There is a magic about it, especially as you climb the hills, with all the bright lights below looking something like Christmas, Diwali or Hanukkah, or looking like the approach to a city from an airplane.

Two years ago, during my morning walk, as I was rounding the bend of a path, what should I see on the trail in front of me but a coyote, a young coyote. Right in the middle of a city. In a large, hilly park-like area. Coyotes were just returning to the city after many years of absence  -– we had heard of only a couple of them in the newspapers, so the surprise was overwhelming. This coyote was so excited to see us, me and my dog. It did not run off. It did keep its distance. It bounced up and down, up and down, like a ball. It ran down the path and back, and down again where it lay, sphinx-like, watching us until its excitement made it get up and repeat the bouncing. I sat on a rock, mesmerized, with my dog next to me. For 20 minutes we watched the coyote, and the coyote watched us. I didn’t have my camera that day, but that would never happen again. Exactly a month later, we ran into the same coyote. This is when I started taking photos. The photos were less of the coyote, at least in my eyes, than of the coyote’s behavior. I actually started photography as a record-keeping device: I was interested in character, personality, behavior, motives, etc. The first coyote I met had offered a little of itself to us — I needed to find out more.

So, this is what I do now for a few hours each day, most days: during my walks, I observe and photograph urban wildlife, mostly coyotes. But I have always been around animals, both my own pets and wild animals that were injured which I took care of and released as soon as possible so as not to rob them of their wildness. The exciting thing about animals for me has been not only their wildness: their ability to do everything necessary to survive on their own, but also their rich emotional lives: they feel with all the intensity we humans feel. All species, I have found, have a culture in common, and a culture apart from us humans. We share a lot with them, and we are different. If we observe them, and if we are interested enough, we can understand them — the same way cultural anthropologists do, the same way Jane Goodall did: understanding individual animals through empathy.

My special interest has always been coyotes, though I watch all animals. After lots of observing, nuances take shape and you begin to be able to read a few things that you could not read before.

I have probably spent hundreds of hours in the parks, watching them — using my camera to focus my attention, and then reviewing at home. My camera is like a notebook for me. What I have learned regarding the coyotes is that these are individuals, that generalizations might not necessarily hold. Watching coyotes is like watching the same dogs in a park for a while: you get to know certain things about them — they each have their personality quirks. Does one dog have more in common with the other dogs or less? For each individual animal it is different.

For the most part I know what a coyote is doing, if it is busy or not, that they are communicating. I was aware when one tested me. I know they can “read” most dogs and can assess each individual dog from a distance. They keep a safe distance from people who they also assess — either cautiously trusting them at a distance, or avoiding them.  I know how important the coyote family unit is — I’ve seen them greet one another, I’ve seen them work as a team,  I know that a mother will protect her young, I’ve seen a yearling act as a sentry and warn a mother if an intruder is coming her way. I know food is marked as foul by urinating on it. I know what dog activity upsets certain coyotes, which coyotes are shy, which ones are more curious or daring. I can tell them apart by their facial features — mostly — at least at certain times. I have seen a barking coyote look out of the corner of its eye, to see how it is affecting an onlooker — I could see that part of this is bluff.  I have been allowed to be on the same side as a coyote when a it was chased by a dog. And there is so much more to become aware of — I’m just beginning to scratch the surface. I am getting to know the behavior of individual coyotes, and I am making sense of it all.

Other things about myself: I grew up in South America. My husband and I live with our 15 year-old dog in the center of San Francisco where we have been for over 30 years. We have a front yard garden where we grow corn (200 ears a season) and have an apple tree which gives us over 300 apples a season. We have grown wheat which we made into sprouted wheatberry bread — nine full loaves, we succeeded with one cotton plant — it produced one boll — we were able to make one Q-tip!, we have tomatoes sometimes. We have two grown sons who live in the Bay Area. We both love the urban environment and our walks. I took up the harp when my kids went off to college.

Please see article in The New York Times which appeared on March 14, 2010: Taking Walks on the Wild Side.

A Few Hours of Morning Rest: Coyote behavior

I am going to describe two and a half hours of one coyote’s mostly-restful morning. The coyote moved four times after I saw it. Its “on the go” times were 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 20 minutes and 10 minutes. It stayed 15 minutes in the first location, an hour in the second location, 4 minutes overlooking the park and then disappeared into the brush. Here are the details:

At 6:30, before my camera would even operate, a coyote appeared suddenly below the path, fairly close. I think it had come in my direction because of a dog — a calm dog who does not chase coyotes. It sat on the slope of the hill, facing downhill, and looked at us over its back. Then, within only a few moments, it ran off into the brush. About five moments later it re-appeared again much further down the hill. We walked around to this area, a 10 minute walk, to find the coyote still sitting where I had last seen it. My walking friend and dog departed and I stuck around for the light to get better as the day progressed — maybe I would get some photos before the coyote slithered into the underbrush. The coyote had been resting here for about 15 minutes.

At 6:49 the coyote suddenly took off up the hill, to a wooded area next to some wooden stairs. I lost the coyote for about 20 minutes. During this time it probably wandered some more, and may have foraged, but I can’t be sure. It re-appeared sitting on the path a ways in front of me. The wooded area above this path is fairly secluded and shaded, not close to the path. Most people and dogs would miss seeing a coyote here, unless they were actually looking for it. After wandering up to this wooded area, the coyote remained here for the next hour:

  • 7:15 eats some grass
  • 7:25-7:30 lies down
  • 7:30-7:43 sits up and is “on the lookout” because a group of walkers and dogs have approached. These are dogs that have chased the coyote in the past. I am asked if the coyote is around and I nod. They see the coyote, then leash up. The coyote hurries up to be closer to an escape route, but remained in view. After the group has left, the coyote returns to its former resting spot.
  • 7:45-8:05 lying down again, eyes closing and head nodding, off-and-on
  • 8:15 again on the lookout as various individual dog walkers pass below — none sees the coyote. At 8:17 the coyote  yawns and at 8:23 it gets up and stretches, and then takes a bite of a twig

At 8:25 the coyote starts to wander, keeping itself interspersedly occupied:

  • 8:27-8:30 hops on a tree stump with all four legs — apparently the coyote likes the tree stump because it remains here a full three minutes, looking around.  Then it continues its walk
  • 8:38-8:42 it stalks a cat, initially staring at it and then moving ever so slowly and quietly towards it — “cat-fashion”, and then suddenly dashes in. Cats are too fast for coyotes to catch unless they are old or ill. The cat easily lost the coyote.
  • 8:45 the coyote urinates and continues on, wandering in an easy manner.
  • 8:46-8:50 the coyote has reached a rock outcropping, which it lithely runs up, and then over to the furthest ledge. Here the coyote remains, scoping out the wide swath of park below
  • 8:50 the coyote suddenly runs down the rocks, then trots briskly through the wooded area and down a hill towards a little rise on the hill below. The coyote sits here for just a few moments observing the lack of activity below, yawns at 8:56 and then disappears into the brush for the day at 9:00

I noted a lot of scratching during this time frame:  at 7:12, 7:33, 7:43 and 8:19.

ANOTHER Reaction to Dogs: Coyote behavior

I saw Jacob again this morning. He has a sheep-dog who is super sensitive to reading other animals. Jacob wanted to let me know of a coyote encounter he had had a few days earlier, an encounter which was closer and therefore somewhat disturbing compared to previous coyote encounters he has had. In the past, he and his dog always passed the same coyote at a distance, the canines would eye each other, and both would become alert to the other’s presence. The coyote might stand up if it had been resting — this is one of the dogs that is much too alert to be yawned at as it passed. The dog also is an enthusiastic ball retriever, which means it has spurts of high energy and activity. Alertness and high activity are clues that the coyote is in-tune with — this type of dog has pursued her in the past, even though this one specifically has not.

On this particular occasion it was foggy and quiet and there was no one else around. Jacob’s dog was ahead of him, when Jacob felt he was being followed. He turned to see one coyote following him pretty closely, maybe at 20 feet, and he noticed there was another coyote further back. As Jacob immediately called his dog to him, his dog noticed the coyote. The dog, now between Jacob and the coyote, walked towards its owner, ever so slowly and carefully, walking backwards, keeping its eyes glued on the coyote. This eye contact may have been seen as a challenge by the coyote.

At this point the coyote backed up a distance, ran up a tiny incline and began scratching the ground with its forepaws and rearing up — a display used to keep the dog away, to keep it from following through on its eye-contact challenge. The coyote’s purpose was to look intimidating — and for the most part it is effective. The other coyote disappeared into the brush. The coyote’s activity didn’t last long as Jacob walked off with his dog. The two coyotes ran off.

Coyotes have sometimes followed walkers the entire length of some park, sometimes at a further distance, sometimes at a closer distance. Curiosity, sizing the dogs up, desire for contact, maybe even a bit of challenge are all possible explanations.

It is always best to create distance when you don’t know what is going on. Jacob did this by calling his dog and then facing the coyote before moving on.

Please see posting of  December 7th: “Dog Reactions to Seeing a Coyote”, November 4th: “Some reactions to dogs”, and December 1st: “Significance of a Seemingly Unprovoked challenge”.  Also, please see the entry on “Coyote Safety” of 11/3. “Blatant Visual Message for Newcomer Dog” of 2/8/10. “A short back-and-forth chase: oneupmanship verging on play” of 2/4/10.

Sharks and Coyotes: on being fed

I met Hervé with his young Rottweiler today in the park. He wanted to know if I had seen any coyotes — he has seen me photographing them. He wanted me to know that his dog had had two encounters with the coyotes recently, very peaceful ones. He said he had seen a coyote right in the open during the day, that the coyote had come up to his dog and sniffed its rear end, then departed. I asked him how his dog had acted around the coyote, and he told me that his dog was uninterested. This is a pattern I am finding. Seldom if ever do coyotes approach a dog who is right next to its owner. However, a couple of times I have seen a calm dog, which has been allowed to wander off a bit, actually greeted by a coyote which is nearby — usually with a brief sniffing before taking off. These dogs are calm and uninterested in coyotes, dogs who mind their own business and are not out to pursue the coyote.

It is the dogs that pursue and chase the coyotes which are the problem. Coyotes are even aware of the leashed dogs who lunge in their direction. The other day Hervé had heard a coyote barking loudly, while a woman yelled ineffectively for her dog to come: this was obviously an incident of a dog chasing a coyote. A coyote will defend itself when chased. Most often the coyote will react by barking, but there have been several instances of the coyote pursuing and nipping at a dog’s haunches to get it to move away from itself. This defensiveness is as close to aggression as the coyotes have ever gotten in our parks. We have very peaceful coyotes in our area.

We then talked about the group in the park who have been throwing stones at the coyotes and yelling at people who get close to them, claiming that habituation leads to aggression. He was very puzzled: “Why would habituation lead to aggression?” I told him that I had contacted one of our premier coyote behaviorists who said “It doesn’t, habituation does not lead to aggression.” Very few coyotes ever become aggressive at all. In an urban setting, coyotes are going to get accustomed to having people around — that is the nature of the situation. What does cause aggression is feeding. Feeding is at the root of all aggression and has to be absolutely avoided.

Hervé gave me some insight into this. He told me about shark and grouper behavior when they are fed. This information seems quite relevant to our coyotes. He is a scuba diver. He told me that groups of people, usually on tours, actually feed the sharks — sometimes by hand — to attract them. The sharks have gotten used to this, and have come to expect it. But, then, when a different group of people come by that don’t feed the sharks — they don’t know that the sharks now expect to be fed — the sharks actually pursue these people for what they have come to expect, and they do so aggressively. Groupers are known to do the same thing. In this manner, feeding leads to aggression. This type of occurrence is common knowledge among scuba divers, he told me.

This might be exactly what occurs when coyotes are fed. This is the sequence that people have to know about. Never ever feed a coyote. Feeding coyotes is the root of all aggression towards humans.

Coyotes Return to SF: the story expands

Where did our coyotes come from when they returned to this area shortly before 2003, and how did they get here? There was a long period of time before this time when they were not seen at all in the city. Apparently there is more to it than the very interesting story which we have all heard up until now.

The story that we’ve heard states that our coyotes did not come up over the land from the south as might be expected. Rather, they came into San Francisco from north of the city, which means that their route involved crossing over the Golden Gate Bridge. This is a seemingly unlikely scenario, but there is information which supports it, if the information is correct.  A coyote was apparently seen crossing the bridge — the under-part of the bridge — at night by a ranger. And, there is a video clip of a deer crossing the bridge, so why could not a coyote do so? In addition, there has been DNA testing by Dr. Ben Sacks of UC Davis, linking our San Francisco coyotes to the northern coyotes, the DNA is different from that of the southern coyotes. So this is the story which we are hearing:  that our coyotes came from the north over Golden Gate Bridge. It really is a very exciting story.

However, it appears that this is not the entire story. A totally trustworthy, older friend of mine revealed to me that he knows how the coyotes really got here. He told me that he knows the fellow, a ranger, who absolutely “swears” that he brought them in himself — at least some of them. My friend wanted me to know this because I told him how they might have crossed the bridge — he let me know this was not the whole truth. His revelation can never be reported fully because of its being an illegal activity. No one is going to say anything about it officially, and no names will ever be given — there is only a small, tight group that even knows about it. My friend only told me this much and would reveal no more.

My own feeling is that if some of our coyotes were brought into the city in this manner, it should be known. Unless all possibilities are taken into account, you are “creating” a false history. I would rather consider all possibilities that might lead us to know how they really got here. Although there seems to be little evidence to support it, several people have suggested to me that coyotes have always been here — that because their population was sparser, people just didn’t take note of them. I have noticed in the last few years that voles and gophers are rampant in the parks as never before  – could this plentiful food supply be an incentive for the coyotes to reproduce? Should we keep this possibility in mind? “It does seem possible that coyotes have been traveling through San Francisco for a while,” Erin Boydston, USGS, said in a 2003 SF Chronicle interview.

Does Habituation Mean Eventual Aggression?

Most of us are thrilled to have coyotes return to our city parks, and we want to protect them in this environment that they have chosen.  Protecting them entails respecting their needs: especially, keeping them wild by absolutely never feeding them, and keeping our dogs from pursuing them — this being their primary irritant in the parks: both of these could lead to future problems. But also we need to allow them to live peacefully, so that they feel comfortable enough to stay. Our parks are one of the safest places for them to live — they will not find a safer place if they are harassed into moving on.

However, a few individuals in one park have taken it upon themselves to create fear in the coyotes by pursuing them with rocks or sticks — even when the coyotes are far away from these people. These same individuals have also been accosting those they’ve seen within a certain distance of the coyotes. Their reasoning is that they had heard that habituation leads to aggression.

We know that in urban parks, coyotes will get accustomed to people — it is the nature of the situation. I wrote to one of our renowned coyote behavior experts regarding coyote habituation and where it might lead. I asked this professor if habituation meant eventual aggression? How close is “too close”?  I have copied his responses here, in their entirety. I have not including his name since I did not ask his permission to do so, but maybe I will. His responses are in brown, which follow my questions:

*Is visibility the same as habituation? Not necessarily – there are individual differences that must be taken into account …

*Does habituation mean aggression? Not at all

*What is too close?  Depends on the individual coyote, time of year etc etc … I don’t see any measure being generalized to all coyotes … we need to remember that speaking about ‘the’ coyote is misleading because of individual differences …

*Will a coyote’s defensiveness against dogs lead to aggression? Depends on the coyote. . but defensiveness can be a factor among a number of different species….

*Is it okay to throw rocks at or around coyotes to create fear? Can’t answer this but hazing can work … I’m just not sure about throwing rocks … on the other hand it could make them mad and then there could be a problem

*How to encourage keeping dogs leashed around coyotes? Enforce penalties for not doing so .. enforcement is key …

*The idea of stress on the coyotes making them nervous? Depends on the individual .. there will be difference in tolerance for sure …

*I also have read that habituation is not what leads to aggression, that few coyotes ever become aggressive. Instead, the positive correlation, I’ve read, is between artificial feeding and aggression? Typically feeding can lead to aggression habituation … feeding is simply a no no and must never be done … it’s the root of all ‘problems’ …

Maybe an Invitation to Play: Coyote behavior

We have all read about coyotes playing with dogs. Several years ago, in another one of our parks, there was a coyote which was well known for playing with a select few individual dogs who frequented the park. They engaged in short and friendly “wrestling” matches, and playing “chase”. I never witnessed these, but I heard about them. This coyote lived alone, and more than likely welcomed the friendly company and interactions. The coyote always played with the same dogs, and not the others. The coyote probably sought out specific “types” to interact with. It kept its distance from humans.

Except for dogs chasing coyotes, I have seen only a few instances of coyotes interacting with dogs, or trying to. Two of these instances I am going to describe here. One of these occurred this morning, which reminded me of the other.

A couple of years ago, I ran into an individual coyote several times on my morning walks, and I always took pictures with my point-and-shoot camera. My dog and I were often greeted with a very special, enthusiastic show which I’m sure was directed at my dog, even though my dog didn’t show the slightest interest — his attention was riveted to tastier things on the ground. I had found my dog in one of the parks when he was 3 months old, abandoned — and he never lost the habit of picking up clumps of dirt or sticks which he chewed on or ate. Bizarre, I know, but he never changed. We always kept a safe distance from the coyote.

Then, on a very foggy day, I saw this same coyote and decided to try the video-mode on my camera, which I had to figure out. I turned it on for a moment and then became aware that my dog, bored with my having stopped, had wandered off a short distance. Since he was so calm and detached, self-sufficiently occupying himself with what was on the ground, I continued taping the scene.

What I caught on the video was this curious little coyote repeatedly and enthusiastically approaching my uninterested dog who ignored her. For the most part, she kept to her safe distance of more than 30 feet, but then she dashed in a number of times, and finally summoned up enough courage — you can see this on the video — daring herself to touch my dog’s tail, in a real daredevil fashion, before running off.  The end of the video shows these two animals saying good-by — you can actually see this. VIDEO

After this, I kept my dog at my side. With me next to him, she didn’t try approaching him in this playful fashion, though she continued to greet us. My dog no longer comes with me to the park — he is almost 15 years old and his back legs barely work at all anymore. But I often see another walker in one of the parks whose dog reacts to a coyote in the same uninterested way as my dog did, respecting its space and leaving it alone. This dog also gets bored waiting for his owner, so goes off the path where he grabs a stick to chew on until the owner is ready to go. Coyotes are keen observers and I’m sure the dog’s enjoyment of the stick was observed by this coyote.

So, today, there was a lone coyote in this park. After we had been there a few moments, just standing there, the coyote came right up to the dog, almost face-to-face: the dog owner sensed that the coyote seemed lonely.

The dog allowed a pretty close approach, though I heard him give a short “grrr” as a “hey, backoff” warning. The dog had been chewing a stick a little earlier. And then something very interesting happened: the coyote picked up a 10″ stick and carried it a little further off. The coyote held it, put it down, and picked it up, and looked at the dog. Yes, it was an invitation to play. Our eyes were riveted on the coyote, but the dog did not accept the invitation. This dog is very friendly towards humans, and always greets me enthusiastically, but I don’t think I’ve seen him play with other dogs. Rather he is a very self-sufficient type — very similar to my dog. We two observers were quite fascinated. The dog and owner then walked on, and this coyote departed the area at this same time.

I do not advocate coyote/dog interactions — I am against them. However, I can see from the coyote behavior which I have observed, that when another animal respects them, the coyote can see this, and the compliment is returned. Respect is earned. It is not something that can be taught to a dog: they either have an instinct for it or they don’t. The same is true in human interactions with animals. My own dog can sense immediately when someone is afraid of him, even though they deny being so. The person’s fear is communicated, and the dog reacts with a growl and distrust. Distrust and respect are mutually exclusive. Fear engenders distrust.

Four Hours in the day of an Urban Coyote

What does a coyote do all day? It occurred to me that it would be enlightening to see how a coyote spends its day — the part of the day when people are in the park. So I decided to watch one for as long of a stretch as I could. I actually tried this several times, but the coyotes always vanished too soon to call it a day. But, finally I was able to get four hours of continual notes and photos on a coyote. I made a diary of this.The total territory covered by the coyote during these four hours was a mile, encompassing a peripheral trail that rejoins itself, which the coyote crossed back over several times.

Coyotes probably sleep from late morning until late afternoon, because I almost never see them during that time: so I am assuming that after the activity I recorded here, the coyote trotted off for a nap. In addition, there are the dawn, dusk and night hours which are more active for a coyote, with more social activity, hunting and probably playing.

My camera time-stamps my photos, so I was able to record everything solely with my camera! There is no “typical” day, I know. During other days, I have seen this coyote for shorter lengths of time during which there were long hunting sessions, lots of barking sessions, long resting sessions — 3 hours once in one location, following a walker, and so on. But I wanted to put one sequence together, and here it is:

6:00 am: I arrived in one of the city parks to find a coyote calmly resting on an incline. I walked up to a rare pre-dawn dog walker. We noticed two other coyotes close by, young ones, her grown offspring. These stayed together and did some digging. The dog stayed on the path with us. Then the dog moved off the path a bit, causing one of the youths to move further off, but the other one approached the dog, never coming right up to it — this coyote was cautiously interested in the dog. We could see we humans were keeping the coyote at bay: coyotes always keep their distance from people. The walker decided to walk on. Because of the movement, both young coyotes ran into the distance.

6:35 I returned to watch the coyote still resting on the hill. She sat up and seemed to focus attention towards the other side of the park: maybe more walkers could be heard arriving at the park — or maybe she was keeping tabs on another offspring? I suggest this, because later on I saw another offspring in the area this coyote was watching.

At 6:41 one of the youths took off into the brush. The first coyote then got up and stretched, and walked up to the path I was on, but further ahead. The coyote followed the trail right up to where the second youth was still hanging out. These two coyotes had a fabulous face-to-face greeting — the warmth they displayed was extremely charming: they looked right at each other and nuzzled one another. The mother stretched her nose over that of the younger one. The mother then sat down for a few moments next to the young one, then stood up again as the youth trotted off down a trail. Had the mother signaled this one to do so?

6:48 The mother remained. She lifted her forelegs onto a rock to give herself elevation, and she watched the young one trot off. Now alone, she walked over to the other side of the rocks, sat, and looked over the entire area — scoping out the place. There was no activity to be seen.

At 6:54 she decided to move on, stopping to scratch herself on her back in two ways:  with her hind leg and by bending her head over her back to scratch with her teeth. Then she continues on. She has purpose in her gait. At 6:59 she climbs up an outcropping of rocks. Here the intensity of her attention is increased — you can see this by the look in her eye and by the way she turns her head and holds it still. She appeared to be scoping out the area — listening for and looking for something, which could have been more dogs and walkers arriving at the park.

7:00 She scurried down from the high rock after a couple of minutes, and, again, with a quickness and definite purpose in her gait, headed to a favorite knoll of hers where I have seen her often, arriving there in about 4 minutes. Here she first sat, looking around, but then settled into lying down with her head up. She observed the walkers below. There were only about 3 dogs and walkers, but she knows some of them by sight. I notice that her attention was pulled up the hill, so I look up there, and for a few brief moments, at 7:27, saw one of her pups. He returned to hide in the brush almost immediately. Did she come over here to keep an eye on him? Her attention then returned to the walkers for the next little while. She was totally relaxed. During this time I was able to talk to some walkers. We talked about the prevailing issues: that there are several coyotes, that they are peaceful, that dogs should be kept away from them, that all incidents have involved dogs, that a small group has been throwing rocks at them, that someone might be feeding them, and about my photographing them. The coyote adjusted her position several times, but stayed right here.

At 7:42, after about 40 minutes here, the coyote decided to move on. First, she stretched and yawned — she does this often after a rest. Then she wandered, rather casually and slowly, down, around and back to the area where she had shown affection to the other pup. She continued her meandering beyond this point, stopping occasionally to study movement in the ground — there are lots of gopher and vole holes in the area, but no real hunting took place. At 8:09 she heard and saw one of the dog walkers — a woman who throws rocks at the coyote. The coyote knows all walkers and dogs individually, and knows how to avoid being seen. So the coyote carefully slithered into the brush area where she remained fairly still until the woman passed, and then continued her slow easy walk up an incline. At this point, at 8:12, a man appeared on the trail which is off to one side, with a small unleashed dog. I let the man know that the coyote was out in case he might want to leash his dog. He thanked me, leashed up and continued his walk. He never even saw the coyote. The coyote had been absolutely still during my communication with the man, but then slowly continued her meanderings.

Between 8:16 to 8:21 the coyote stopesd to hunt: she saw movement on the ground which probably appeared more promising than before — either of a vole or gopher. She stoped and remained till and kept her attention on this place for a full 5 minutes. Occasionally she looked up and moved a little bit and cocked her head, but she remained poised to catch something. Nothing came of it this time. One morning I saw her catch three gophers, eat two of them and carry the 3rd one off — but not this day.

At 8:25 she reached the street, where a woman and her dog decided to avoid the coyote by going in another direction. A little boy and his dad noticed the coyote — no big deal for them — they told me they wanted to give the coyote plenty of space, so they make a wide circle and head into the park.

At this point I lost the coyote for a few minutes, but not for long. Within less than a minute, the coyote was dashing through the wooded area right by the street in pursuit of a dog. This coyote only chases dogs who have come after her. All became quiet at this point, in fact, it was always quiet except for the rustle of the shrubbery as the animals sped by. As far as I could tell, the dog returned to its owner, because shortly thereafter, at 8:36, I found the coyote headed in a different direction.

The coyote was on some steps, “scooting” — I speculate that she might have worms since I’ve seen her do this several times. A woman was walking her dogs on the path below. She noticed the coyote and walked on. The coyote took the woman’s same path but was not  pursuing, and their directions soon diverged. The coyote then suddenly acquired purpose and direction in her gait.

From 8:42 – 9:27 she arrived and remained at a place several hundred feet away from her favorite knoll. She sat and watched for a few moments, and then circled around to lie down. Everything was quiet at first. But then a man way in the distance below began throwing a ball up the hill for his dog, and the dog retrieved it. He finally was amazed to see the coyote and stopped his activity. The coyote remained totally at rest and relaxed, eyes half-closed. Another dog walker passed on a path way above, she told me her dog does not chase coyotes and it didn’t. Another woman walked her dog on the path below: when I let her know about the coyote right there, she thanks me and leashed up. Everything was very calm that morning.

By 9:28 the coyote was on the move again, this time again slowly meandering, up to a high area in the park through a thicket area. She ended up at the crest of some high cliffs where she found a puddle of water which she lapped up at 9:36. She stood up high here, taking in what was below, scoping out the area for about 4 minutes. She finally stretched and yawned, ever so slowly, before quickening her pace and heading through the thicket below again. She meandered casually in this area, probably looking for any movement that would suggest prey. This area is right next to a trail. At 9:43, as some hikers walked by, she sat still, absolutely quiet, and watched them. They did not see her at all. When they were gone, she got up, pooped, and continued her slow wandering. Then two more walkers and their dog went by as had the previous walkers. This time the coyote took their same path — they are headed in the same direction as the coyote had been going. Since their dog was not leashed, I let them know that the coyote was right in back of them. When they turned around, the coyote headed down a hill, but remained within our sight. It was a nice time to talk about how much we all like this peaceful coyote — peaceful unless chased. They departed.

By 9:46 the coyote was back at her favorite knoll, not totally resting, but sitting up this time. About 8 walkers with their dogs passed by below — about 100 feet from the coyote, few of whom saw the coyote.

At 9:58 a fairly large dog came up in the direction of the coyote, but not after her. She prepared for the dog — just in case — but the dog went on after its owner. For some reason she decided to check this dog out, so she followed them. However, she stopped the minute she saw several other people on the narrow path ahead. She turned back and then headed for an area which is not frequented by people, but then she stopped short. I noticed a large poodle in her path. So I let the owner know that the coyote was right here, could he please leash up to avoid trouble? He defiantly ignored me. So his dog wemt after the coyote, way up the hill, barking at her, as he yelled ineffectively at his dog. The coyote ran off, but then turned around with her defensive stance. She did not pursue the dog but stood her ground. The owner was finally able to grab his dog by the collar and drag it down to the main path. As he got down on this path he released his dog. One of the responsible walkers below yelled at him that he was an idiot for not leashing his dog after that incident.

At 10:00 The coyote disappeared into the direction she was headed and that was the last I saw of her this day.

In Summary, during these four hours, she spent about:

  • 50 minutes: watching her pups as she relaxed
  • 2 minutes: trotting towards her pup
  • 3 minutes:  warmly greeting her pup
  • 6 minutes: surveying the territory from a rise in the ground
  • 6 minutes: purposeful walking – seems like she had a destination in mind
  • one minute:  keenly surveying and scoping out the area from up high
  • 4 minutes:  purposeful walking – again, she seemed to have a location in mind
  • 40 minutes: relaxing on a knoll watching people and noticed another of her pups in the distance
  • 35 minutes: meandering, seemingly less purposeful than before  – included 2 instances of avoiding dogs by ducking into the brush at 8:09 & 8:12
  • 5 minutes:  hunting at one spot
  • 2 minutes: on the street sidewalk or right next to it
  • 1 minute: chasing a dog and I lost track of her, but I found her again
  • 6 minutes: purposeful walking
  • 46 minutes: basking in the sun on a knoll, although a few people saw her, most did not
  • 8 minutes: meanderings up to rocks;
  • 4 minutes: scoping and surveying from high above  – she lapped up water at 9:36 from a puddle
  • 3 minutes: meandering – at 9:43 hikers passed by and then she pooped
  • 12 minutes: at her favorite knoll, sitting up & watching more people who didn’t see her.
  • 1 minute: purposeful walking
  • 1 minute: chased by dog
  • By 10:00 she had left — that was the end of my notes for the day.

She was relaxing 40+40+46+12 minutes=2.3 hours; surveying 6+1+4=10 min; purposeful walking 4+6+4+6+1= 21 min; meandering 35+8+3=46 min; other activities — greeting her pup, drinking water, being chased by dogs, chasing a dog, scratching  3+5+2+1+1=12 min

Photography aids observation: some thoughts

I get requests from people and groups asking me to take them with me while I photograph. I am truly honored at these requests — highly honored that they like the photos I have taken well enough to want to come along. However, I have to tell them that this “led safari” type of situation is not what I do. I take walks by myself or with my husband, and I have a camera. What I have come across I find by being outside and exploring. You have to love to be out in nature and be part of it, and you have to spend many hours in the settings where animals live. Ultimately, it is the wildlife that is so thrilling — the camera is a tool which enhances my participation in nature. Photography enhances my ability to see wildlife. It focuses my concentration and awareness. I bring it home where I study the details. It serves as my notebook. When I’m done, I post some of my “stuff” so others might enjoy what I have been able to observe. Right now I’m engaged in a study of coyote behavior, less for its usefulness than for my own curiosity and understanding. Practically, though, I might find something that could ease the coexistence issue. There are aspects of this issue, including dog and human issues, that have not been looked at thoroughly enough to reveal much understanding.

I do my photographing alone, because I try to become part of the space I am working with, actually studying situations and behavior, and I can’t do so with others next to me. Also, with fewer people around you become less intrusive for the animal. It is very important not to intrude on an animal you decide to photograph — you have intruded if you have caused it to change its behavior, flinch or flee. Also, to protect the animals, I never give the locations of any of the animals I photograph.  My ultimate goal is to try to photograph beyond what could become a “pretty picture” and grab the behavior, personality or character of what I find — it takes plenty of time and lots of awareness. I try to capture what the animals reveal to me about themselves, and I’m not always successful. This is not something one can teach someone else. One learns by being interested.

My suggestion to everyone who wants to photograph wildlife is to simply take walks and find your own mode that works for you. This way you will be growing into something that is exclusively yours. Start with any wild animal you see — even common starlings. Work with one animal, never interfering with its behavior, and try to learn its ways and capture this on film. I never took any photography courses — I just plunged into doing what I wanted to do and saved what I liked. Except for a good zoom lens, you don’t need a lot of fancy equipment, you just need to love what you do.

I like to crop my photos considerably — because I like framing them as “portraits”. The photos have to be really sharply focused if you want to crop. However, sharp focus can only be achieved when you have plenty of light. The left-hand images are versions of the same photo taken in fairly low light — notice that there is not a lot of detail. The photo on the right was taken in very good light, and the cropped version shows lots of detail and is sharp. Photography is about light. A lot of animal activity occurs during twilight hours, when the light is not good. When there is a distance involved, a flash does not work, and anyway it would be intrusive to the animals. Anything that interferes with the light, such as fog and haze and twilight, makes it harder to achieve a sharp photo.

Some Reactions to Dogs: Coyote behavior

I have been able to observe many coyote/dog interactions. Most coyotes are pretty shy and will keep their distance and then flee from dogs. Some coyotes, cautiously and prepared to flee, will allow a calm dog to get a little closer. The coyote reactions to dogs I am delineating in this posting involve a certain alpha female. This coyote is more visible and bolder than others I have seen. She can be seen at times on elevated areas, where she lifts her head as some of the dogs and owners pass at a distance, and she sits up when she feels there might be a need to escape.

This coyote knows every single dog individually that comes regularly to the park and has assessed their potential threat to her. She does this by “reading” their body language and their type of energy as they walk, and she sees where their concentration is. She is also very aware of communicating through eye contact with dogs. Not all dogs are as keenly in tune to communication through eye contact in this manner — but a few are keenly aware of it.

Different dogs have different awarenesses of her. Some hardly notice her, some notice her and think she is an animal to be chased, some know she is “different” and to be respected. One very sensitive sheep dog can spot her from way across the park — this dog is the keenest observer I have noticed: he and the coyote will “lock” into an eye contact, which means they are interacting at a certain level, during which time the sheep-dog exhibits a lot of uneasiness. The owner calls his dog and they move on.

Most dogs that this female coyote observes fall into the category of being yawned at. She observes them through half-opened eyes. These are not a threat to her. Calm dogs on-leashes and calm dogs off-leashes are in this group. They are seldom cause for concern to her. Runners with their dogs whose full attention is with the runner are also in this category and ignored. Actually, almost all dogs are in this category.

There are very few dogs who are not in the above category. The few who are not, are given quite a display.

These dogs, on the opposite extreme of the spectrum from the calm dogs, are the dogs off-leash, who are more alert, aware of their surroundings, wild-acting, fearless and out to explore. Most of them are medium size to large. These are the ones she keeps her eye out for, the dogs of most concern, especially if they have the reputation of having chased the coyote in the past.

This coyote reacts to seeing these dogs by “becoming ready” to defend herself. She begins by standing up, and sometimes running off for a few seconds. This is not a submissive coyote, so she always comes back to stand up for herself, even though she may have to run off again. She has an elaborate defensive display: bouncing up and down, her hackles up, her ears out to the sides and back. Her back is hunched so that she can “spring” up and down for easier and quick movements — it is like a dance. She paws the ground, scratching with her front paws, and makes short darts back and forth and sideways. Her head is sometimes lowered and her lips are pulled back with her nose wrinkled. These behaviors constitute her basic stance and movements. She may grunt a little, which sometimes leads to an intense barking session — but just as likely, the barking session never even begins. This, then, is a visual reaction — a display.

If the owner can grab his dog, the episode will stop there. If the dog chases her, she may initially run off  – she is much, much faster and more lithe than any dog and can always get away, but she usually comes back. She seems to know which dogs she must run from — she can easily exhaust these dogs with her speed and distance, and she knows which ones she can hold at bay or move away from herself. I have seen her run off to an unreachable ledge and begin a barking episode. If she comes back she might begin a barking episode coupled with the above display. Or she could add a short charge-and-retreat sequence directed at the dog, and, if the dog’s owner is not close by, there have been a few instances where the coyote has tried to nip the haunches of the perpetrator, the same as a cattle-dog nips at a cow’s heels, to herd it away from herself. AND sometimes, twice that I have seen, she has gone even further, “escorting” the dog and owner right out of the park — following them fairly closely to the park entrance.

These are the two extreme reactions to dogs, with the calm reaction occurring most of the time, and the reactive one occurring less often. It appears to me that the coyote knows when walkers leash their dogs — it would be so easy to prevent incidents by doing so. I’ve seen her intensified alertness calm down when she sees this.

The same alert, wild-acting, fearless dogs on-leash may elicit a shorter and milder version of the response to the unleashed dogs: the coyote starts “getting ready just in case”, but then lets it pass after only a few seconds when she sees that the dog is restrained. As far as I know, she has never gone after a leashed dog, no matter how threatening to her, though she has “escorted” a couple of them out of the park following an incident of them having chased her while still off-leash.

I once saw a tiny little dog run wildly, off leash towards its owner — it had been lagging behind and decided to catch up. It raced over the path like a little bullet. But I could see that the coyote became very excited and agitated with the seeming hyperactive, fast running little dog. Even though we humans might think that a coyote would see this tiny dog as harmless, the instincts of the coyote might have been primed due to the dog’s hyperactivity.  In this case, the coyote stood up, hunched over and began running back and forth on the crest of the hill it was on. The dog reached its owner, and slowly the coyote calmed down. One must remember that several breeds of dogs, especially cocker-spaniels, often bite children because they cannot handle the unpredictable hyperactivity that is innate in small children. Dogs like predictability, and I suppose that coyotes do, too.

Another time, I saw a coyote resting on a bluff as a walker with three medium-sized dogs walked casually, but energetically by, at fairly close range. The dogs did not see the coyote, since it was hidden from them by the crest of the hill. The coyote rose to its feet, hunched its back, pulled back its gums and began pawing the ground and bouncing. I think the appearance of these dogs had surprised the coyote during an unguarded moment — they suddenly were in its visual field, having been hidden from it, too, by the crest of the hill. But after only a few bounces, seeing that the dogs did not even look up, it stopped and lay down again.

Another time, a coyote was close to the path while a couple of us were observing it. A man with a medium size dog came by. I suggested he leash his dog, which he did, but he would not walk around to give the coyote space. Even though this dog was leashed and close to its owner, it pulled on the leash, towards the coyote, barking — and this is what the coyote reacted to. The coyote stayed back, but immediately went into a “hunched back, gums pulled back, pawing the ground, rearing up on its hind feet, wrinkling its nose, dart-and-retreat sequence”. However, as the owner pulled his dog away along the path, the coyote calmed down. Then, after the dog and owner were 100 feet ahead, the coyote followed at a quick pace, but changed its mind when it noticed more humans up ahead. This may have been one of those times when the coyote felt like “escorting” the dog out of the park, but the appearance of more people prevented it.

In some parks, certain coyotes appear to have become accustomed to some of the dogs, even liking some of them — at a distance — if they adhere to the path. One of these is an unleashed large unfixed male labrador who acknowledges a coyote it sees occasionally, but leaves it alone. There seems to be a kind of mutual “animal respect” here.  This coyote has, several times trotted closer towards the dog, all the while retaining a readiness to flee. The coyote seems to be observing the dog — assessing him.  This coyote has followed this dog and owner a number of times, at about 50 feet, all the way out of the park — all in a very calm manner. Once, before dawn, two coyotes followed this dog, one of them circling around in front of the dog and and the other ultimately running up to him from behind and mouthing its tail before racing away — almost as a dare!  The owner was amused. This dog normally does not like it when there is more than one coyote to deal with. To show how each situation is different, I want to point out that this same coyote gave this same dog a different greeting once. Maybe the dog was behaving differently — he often runs in an ungainly, waddling manner off the path to grab a stick and chew on it: this kind of unpredictable behavior may have made the coyote wary and nervous. The coyote assumed its protective stance: crouching low, baring its teeth and scratching the ground. The owner called his dog back to the path. The coyote repeated this “challenging” stance three times, and finally ran off to engage in a barking session. I put this incident in here to show that although a lot of dog/coyote encounters are predictable, this isn’t always the case.

In another instance a coyote was sitting peacefully in a field, lower than the trail as a dog and owner walked by. The dog was leashed-up when I mentioned that a coyote was right there. The coyote crouched low, remained sitting, and kept an eye glued on the dog as it passed — this was not an instance of yawning as the dog went by.

Ears are a very important “tool” for inter-coyote communication. I have not looked at what difference the positioning and movement of the ears in dogs makes on the coyote’s behavior. It might be something to investigate.

Please see posting of December 12: “Dog Reactions to Seeing a Coyote”, November 17th: “ANOTHER reaction to dogs”, and December 1st: “Significance of a Seemingly Unprovoked challenge.” Also, please see the entry on “Coyote Safety” of 11/3, and “Blatant Visual Message for Newcomer Dog” of 2/8/10. “A short back-and-forth chase: coyote interaction with a large dog” of 2/4/10.

Safety Around Coyotes; PLUS Behaviors To Be Aware Of If You Have A Dog

This information was distributed at a health & safety fair here in the city:

PLEASE DO YOUR PART IN PROTECTING THE ENVIRONMENT WHICH INCLUDES OUR WILD COYOTES!

~ coyotes are a natural part of this environment ~

~ seldom are they aggressive, but they will protect themselves ~

~ an ounce of prevention works! Protect both your dog and coyotes ~

1) Prevent close coyote encounters in the first place:

  • never feed a coyote or try to tame it
  • never walk towards a coyote – give them space
  • never let your dog chase or play with a coyote
  • leash your dog whenever you see or hear a coyote or know one is in the area

2) Behaviors coyotes use to protect themselves when chased by a dog

  • charge-and-retreat sequence
  • a long barking episode, often rearing up on their hind legs
  • a nipping at the haunches, same as a cattle dog herding, to move the dog away
  • “escorting” or following you out of the park (rarely)

3) If this should happen, you need to scare the coyote off:

  • slap a folder newspaper against your thigh as you challengingly eye and walk towards the coyote
  • yell and clap your hands making a very loud racket, or try carrying a shake can
  • throw stones around the coyote, not at it to harm it, but near it to scare it
  • grab your dog when you can and leave the area, but don’t run which a coyote might read as an invitation to chase you

4) Two coyote behaviors to be aware of — usually between a coyote and a dog who know each other:

  • “Chase-Chase” Behavior: the coyote will be traveling in the same direction as a walker and his/her unleashed dog, and will come in close with a little “darting in”  and “retreat”. The dog will return the behavior. It is almost a “dare” or “oneupmanship” with no other intention than just this — it verges on play. Some dogs can handle this, some need to be leashed.
  • A mother coyote may come to the aid of one of her full-grown pups and the two will work as a team to vex a dog to get it to leave: one coyote will distract the dog, the other will come around to dart in from the other side.
  • In both cases, leashing the dog creates a barrier of sorts: it calms down the dog — and this can be seen by the coyote. But also it keeps the dog next to the owner which serves to deter the coyote from coming in. Coyotes do not care to tangle with humans.

Please read postings on December 12th: “Dog Reactions to Seeing a Coyote”, November 4th: “Some Reactions to Dogs”, November 17th: “ANOTHER Reaction to Dogs”, and December 1: “Significance of a Seemingly Unprovoked Challenge”. “Blatant Visual Message for Newcomer Dog” on 2/8/10. “A short back-and-forth chase: oneupmanship verging on play” 2/4/10.

Four!

Today I was met by a surprise — surprises are always thrilling. Early in the morning I noticed that at this park there were two coyotes on the horizon — this is not a very common place to see more than one coyote. One of the coyotes ran down to investigate from a distance, and the other remained up on the horizon. I adjusted my camera to an ISO of 3200 because there was so little light at this hour of the day before dawn. I do not like using this setting because of the graininess, but a grainy photo is better than none at all. With the camera I am able to record and magnify what I see, and therefore examine features that might distinguish one animal from another.  I was able to identify one of the coyotes! Shortly thereafter, it disappeared into the underbrush. Coyotes are not often seen by most people. Only a few of us have noticed that there even has been a second one in this area, not to mention a third one I’ve become aware of.

I decided to leave the park after this short glimpse of activity. As I left, I noticed that the one coyote up on the horizon was still there. As I came around a bend in the path, around some bushes, I was super surprised to see three more coyotes — this included the one which had disappeared in the underbrush a moment earlier! I looked back up on the horizon, and that one was still there. This is the first time I have seen four coyotes all at once in any of the parks. I was able to distinguish each coyote once I got home and looked at the photos. The “newcomer” was very similar in appearance to another coyote that I was able to identify recently. Of course, this is probably not a newcomer at all, these coyotes have been here all along. But this is the first time I have seen a fourth, and it is the first time I have seen four coyotes all at once.

The new coyote was more ill-at-ease than the others, and stayed out only a moment before hiding in the brush. Meanwhile, the other two continued to stare at me, very cautiously. After a few more moments, the one up on the horizon came running down to these two and the three trotted off together. This, too, was unusual for me to see: normally the coyotes disappear on their own into the brush area which is closest to them, but this time the one on the horizon seemed to need to move the rest of them on. I tried speculating as to why its behavior might have been different this time: of course, there may have been no reason at all; or it may have wanted the others out of the way because of all the aggression that has recently been aimed at the coyotes by a group of people in the park; or it may have seen a dog coming, or it may not have liked me looking at them for so long. My husband later warned me that I had inadvertently been between the coyotes. If you are aware of it, this kind of situation should be avoided, for safety sake. Also, a lone coyote or two might be different from a pack. Packs always consist of family members: pups, some yearlings, the parents. We might need to consider the possibilities of having a larger coyote population in our parks for a while. The likelihood is that a couple of them will disperse and move on because of territorial constraints — a territory will only support so many coyotes. I’ll try to find out when dispersal takes place.

Anyway, it is very exciting to discover everything that comes to light about coyotes, and seeing this foursome was, for me, a particularly spectacular discovery!

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