A Rat, A Coyote, And A Raven

I observed a coyote stop at three distinct spots before it returned to the first spot where it picked up a dead rat. As I’ve seen before, when there is no struggle or effort, I know that the rat was dead. I don’t know if the coyote killed the rat earlier on and left it there, or if the coyote found the rat already dead.  These photos show the coyote giving a hard bite to the head — enough to sever it but not completely.  The head is then pulled off, holding the body down with its forepaw. Hmmm. Now we have a decapitated rat. The coyote then rolled on this — I’ve seen this before, too: coyotes like wallowing on smelly dead animals. The coyote then shook himself out and urinated on the carcass. And then. . . .  wandered off and that was the end of that.

I went to the other two spots where the coyote had stopped and found. . . . two decapitated rats. I have no idea what this is about. It did make me think of the possibility of poisons. Two years ago a dead coyote was found in this same park — we assumed it had been poisoned because a small dog became ill and died of rat poisoning that same week — a dog which had been walked in this park. And not long ago I saw another rat in the throes of dying from rat poisoning in this park. It is a horrible death. Rat poisoning is becoming a sad issue these days, because it not only kills the rat for which it was intended — this is bad enough — but it continues killing up the food chain, including owls, hawks and coyotes. See  Potent new rat poisons killing California wildlife.   [http://www.sacbee.com/2011/04/17/3558267/potent-new-rat-poisons-killing.html]

So, there is a possibility — only a possibility — that this is an acutely perceptive coyote who did not eat a rat because he knew it was poisoned. He urinated on the rats when he checked on them the day before. And he left them all where they were, decapitated. Maybe the decapitation and urinating on them were messages of warning to other coyotes?

These rat remains stayed where they were for a full day.  I was in that same area the next morning. The fog was extremely dense which did not help the quality of my photos. But twice I saw a raven fly down to that very rock and pick something up. My photo shows — barely because of the fog — the raven holding the rat with its long tail. During his first flight the raven must have picked up the separated head. Ravens are scavengers and will eat carrion. Our wild critters have a way of cleaning up the environment for us if we allow them to do so — not our messes, but their messes. I hope the rat was not poisoned — that it might have been was only speculation — and an opportunity to write about that possibility.  I have not seen any dead ravens.

Leashed Dog Approaches, Gets A Mild Message, Walks On

I was watching this coyote when a man and his leashed dog appeared on the trail.  The only way home was on this path. The man told his dog “off”, and they proceeded down the path very calmly. But notice the coyote. He at first just watches. Then he gives a snarly warning — “just in case” the dog might have mean intentions in mind, though this is not a very intense warning. The coyote then watches again before giving an even milder warning — probably when the dog looked at him. These warnings did not involve any “barking” — they were all visual and totally silent.

I could not see the dog because I was focused on the coyote. But a dog’s “look” is easily read by coyotes and vice-versa. If these animals zero in on each other, you can be sure they are communicating. Leashing dogs keeps them calmer, usually. I say usually, because if an owner is tense or apprehensive upon seeing a coyotes, this mood will be communicated right through that leash to the dog. But generally, the leashing keeps the “look” these animals give each other calmer.  In the end, the coyote just watched as the two proceeded down the path — there was no incident except the eyeing each other, and that must have been “respectful”!

The coyote’s message is always the same: “leave me alone”, or “don’t invade my personal space”. When a dog and walker do get too close, the coyote will flee out of the way, usually to some underbrush. The message sent by the dog is also important. This dog, although curious about the coyote, has never gone after the coyote antagonistically. The warning would have been much more intense if there had been antagonistic communication or a past history of chasing.

Coyotes are threatened not only by unleashed dogs chasing them, but also by antagonistic dogs who pull on their leashes and communicate a threat or desire to chase. Since few people really know what the communication between these animals is, it is always best to move on and away from a coyote you have encountered. On April 21st Charles Wood posted a video which shows a coyote giving a message involving a warning bark — this is a stronger message. Charles and his dog respectfully kept their distance, but the coyote ended up fleeing to a safer place.

Chewing On A Rock . . . . Yes, A Rock

Coyotes are known to be opportunistic eaters — they eat whatever is available. This is one of the many reasons they are such good survivors.

Coyotes eat voles, gophers, rats, mice, squirrels, skunks, food left out by humans — including the plastic sandwich wrappers which have been found in their scat, pet food, carrion and road-kill, fruit off of trees or that has fallen to the ground, palm seeds, snails, peanuts, grass.

They normally hunt alone — after all, the prey is small and could not be divided very well between a number of coyotes. But they can and do sometimes work in groups to capture larger and more fierce prey, such as raccoons. A large raccoon can hold its own against a single coyote.

In some areas coyotes eat deer — and they have taken down such animals — but the more common behavior is to feed on these animals once they are already dead: dead from disease, road-kill, still-born, or shot by a hunter and left to die. And, they have taken small farm animals. Like pets, farm animals need to be protected from animals who see them as food — as we ourselves do.

Today I watched a coyote nibble and chew on . . . . .  a rock?  Yummmm. . . . . rocky road — literally! The coyote spent six full minutes here and worked hard on it — the same way he would have worked on a much more pliable bone. The coyote twisted this way and that way to work on the rock. He approached from up high and from low and from the sides. When he was done, he walked off. I went up to the rock afterwards to see if there was anything there. No, there wasn’t.  Zooming in on the photos at home afterwards showed that nothing was there besides the rock itself.

Might the coyote have found a patch of  lichens which had some flavor? Might a human have spilled something there which might have flavored the rock? I couldn’t figure it out, but I did take photos of the event. Then afterwards I thought, wow, this probably did some real damage to that coyote’s teeth — front and side teeth had gnawed on hard rock. Then again, could the coyote have actually been trying to take care of a tooth problem, such as dislodging something from between his teeth — using the rock as a tooth pick or dental floss? Or, maybe, the coyote was just playing and curious: there was a little “lip” on the rock which would have made it easy to “grab” this part of the rock between teeth, maybe the coyote was trying to break it off?  Coyotes do love to play, with each other or with things they find: in this way they experiment and test the world around themselves as they satisfy their strong sense of curiosity.

Dad And His Daughter Bold, by Charles Wood

Dad was with his year old daughter Bold today.  She is a chip off the old block.  I’ve included photographs of the video’s featured players.  Dad makes a brief appearance at the beginning of the video before leaving for the brush.  Once in the brush, I’m never sure where or how much closer he will be when he next appears.  Fortunately, at the point where the video was captured, he was content to let his daughter handle the man and leashed dog.  A few minutes earlier he had approached to within ten to fifteen feet of Holtz where Holtz was straining on his leash, barking at Dad.  Bold was hidden in the brush barking.  Dad was way too close so I lobbed a golf ball towards him and he backed off.  The ball bounced near him and I didn’t intend to either throw the ball hard or to hit him.  Once a good distance was established I turned and walked towards the exit.  Both followed.  From beneath the bridge under their road, I set up for video capture.  As in the past when encountering two approaching coyotes, one coyote stays back while the other advances.  Bold didn’t come as close as Dad had.  Note that much of the ambient noise in the video is from traffic on a four-lane street bordering the north of their field.  All the vocalizations today came from Bold.

Earlier this year I had thought by her demeanor Bold was perhaps mature enough to disperse.  She is confident and has confrontation skills.  Yet here she remains after having learned a great deal from her parents.  I’m hoping that Mom has had her puppies and to see them in a couple months.  I wonder if the two undispersed year old daughters will help their parents supervise the new puppies and hope I am fortunate enough to observe them do so.  Janet has mentioned that a coyote specialist at the humane society said that young ones normally leave home between two and three years of age.  Perhaps young coyotes learn child rearing skills by observing their parents raise a new litter.  Perhaps they aren’t ready to leave and start a family of their own until they have seen how raising pups is done.

Posting written by Charles Wood. Visit Charles Wood’s website for these and more coyote photos:Charles Wood. His work is copyrighted and may only be used with his explicit permission.

Parenthood Confers Alpha Status, Not The Other Way Around, By Charles Wood

I am writing this post to offer some ideas about the lost alpha status theory Janet proposed as a possible explanation for why her mom coyote didn’t have puppies this year or last.  I also thank Janet for discussing this topic with me via email and for providing me with more information about coyote alpha behaviors.

My thinking is that alpha status is conferred by parenthood, that is, a coyote acquires alpha status by having children.  Consequently, to say an adult coyote lost its alpha status is to say an adult coyote doesn’t currently have children.  Lost alpha status describes an adult coyote that doesn’t have kids around.  Yet it is not an explanation for why an adult coyote doesn’t have kids around.  My thinking is that a coyote doesn’t require special status to be eligible to breed.  Instead, a coyote who successfully breeds thereby obtains the special status of being a parent.  As a parent it has the status of being an alpha to its children.  These ideas are based on newer research done on the pack life of gray wolves, research that I am generalizing to the pack life of coyotes.

The term alpha male/female as applied to gray wolves is currently regarded as simply denoting a breeding gray wolf pair whose pack members, in most instances, are the children of the breeding pair.  My understanding is that DNA analysis revealed a gray wolf pack to typically be a wolf nuclear family.  Discredited is the notion of a dominant gray wolf pair suppressing breeding among its lower ranking pack members.  Instead, generally speaking, the children comprising the gray wolf pack are simply not of breeding age.  Even the usefulness of the term alpha is currently questioned.

“According to wolf biologist L. David Mech, “Calling a wolf an alpha is usually no more appropriate than referring to a human parent or a doe deer as an alpha. Any parent is dominant to its young offspring, so “alpha” adds no information”, however, there may still be a use for the term “alpha” in rare cases involving large packs, “The one use we may still want to reserve for “alpha” is in the relatively few large wolf packs comprised of multiple litters…[i]n such cases the older breeders are probably dominant to the younger breeders and perhaps can more appropriately be called the alphas.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pack_(canine)

Perhaps a change is in order for the language used to describe coyote parent/child interaction.  For example, descriptively I could say “certainly mom was perceived as alpha by her two boys for two years, hadn’t lost her alpha status.  She had lost her mate and had become a single alpha mom.”  Another way to say the same thing is “mom lost her mate and was the sole parent to her boys for two years and hadn’t lost her status as a parent”.  To say it thus is to show that in this particular context the word alpha doesn’t add any information, as Mech opines.

I am also suggesting that mom doesn’t need any special status to be eligible to breed.  The idea of having to have high status in a pack in order to be eligible to breed is part of a discredited view of how things work in a gray wolf pack.  To breed, mom simply needs working equipment, a mate and some territory.  To say it another way, she doesn’t need to be an alpha to breed.  Instead, the fact of breeding successfully makes her an alpha.  Rephrased, the fact of breeding successfully makes mom a parent.  Parenthood (alpha) doesn’t precede breeding.  It is the other way around.

The same would hold true for those ‘other’ coyotes rumored to be in the area.  The other male and female needed no special alpha status to be eligible to breed.  They only needed each other, working equipment and some territory.  ‘Alpha status’, in the sense of ‘eligibility to breed’, probably never existed as anything other than human misconception.

Janet has mentioned that current literature on coyotes does use the term alpha.  I find the term useful in explaining to dog owners why my dog Holtz pushed and shoved their dog around on a first meeting.  It makes more sense to say “oh, he is an alpha” than to say that he has leadership skills.  I do think the term has utility in describing a canine that by inclination tends to be dominant among its peers.  In other contexts the term alpha may indeed carry additional information.  The context where the term seems to have become inappropriate is in expressing “the idea of an aggressively dominant “alpha wolf” in gray wolf packs” (wiki/Pack canine link above), and if extension is allowed, to coyote packs as well.

A Coyote And A Bluejay

I knew the blue jay was going to bury the peanut held in its beak because of the way he was looking around at the ground, hopping from tree to tree without letting go of his prize. I’ve been seeing bluejays bury peanuts recently — there must be a home nearby which is “handing out peanuts.”

This time I was close enough to watch the details. The bird landed on a raked pile of leaves, pine needles and gardening debris and thrust the peanut into the pile, pushing it in with its beak. But the bird went further than this in its efforts: with his beak he lifted pine needles from off to the side and laid these on top and then poked these to cover up his treasure — and he did this several times. When all was done, the bird flew to a branch which was not far off, and then, without looking back, took off.

In and of itself, I thought this was very interesting bird behavior. But it became more interesting as I recalled a coyote’s activity at the raked pile right next to this one only a couple of days before. In the interim, the piles of raked debris had changed somewhat. The coyote walked to the pile as if he knew exactly what he was doing, stuck his nose into the middle of the pile and then pushed the material on top over to the side with his nose and then with his paw. He soon found what he wanted.

I could not see exactly what it was. It was something small which he had to manipulate at the front of his mouth with his teeth and lips — as if he were peeling something small. He repeated  the sequence about a foot away after finding another of the same thing. At the time I thought he might have found a snail, and he may have — but snails are not usually dug up out of the ground — they are found on bushes or in the grasses above ground. Both coyotes and bluejays are using raked piles of debris for their own purposes: for burying and unburying treasures. For all we know, the coyote might have unburied one of the bluejay’s peanuts. I’ve seen coyotes eating peanuts.

Lost Alpha Status?

I’ve followed a female coyote for several years now — I’ll call her “mom”.  She had puppies the first year and the second year — they all grew up and eventually dispersed. But the third year and this year there were no puppies. Why? We are told that only “alpha” coyotes reproduce. So, might no puppies be due to her having lost her “alpha” status and might this also have something to do with the possibility that a new family group of coyotes might now be using this same territory?

Coyotes form nuclear family groups which exclude other coyotes from their groups and from their territories. I’ve watched this mother coyote raise her various families. Never have we seen other coyote faces within her family group, or other coyotes in her territory.

The theory of lost status occurred to me due to a rumor — unsubstantiated at this point — that a new coyote group, including juveniles, might have been spotted recently, passing through what has been her territory. I have not seen a new group at all. Coyote rumors are rampant in this area: they often spin into a life of their own. So my theory is speculative, at the moment, and will have to remain that way until we verify what we have heard through the grapevine. But I wanted to explore this possibility of loss of alpha status, even if it exists only as a theoretical possibility. I have noticed changes in behavior that might be explained by a loss of alpha status.

Coyote groups are always family groups: genetically-related individuals with the same parents. They are not like dog packs, where unrelated individual dogs form groups for survival purposes. If a new group of coyotes was seen that included juveniles, the young ones would have had to have been born last year, when our mother had no pups. They would have been born to another alpha since only alphas breed.

The presence of another family might also explain why our mom coyote’s forays into the larger part of a park have dwindled, if not totally ceased — she has been limiting her outings to a smaller area now, and I’ve seen her eyeing the adjacent area where the new coyotes were purportedly spotted.

Why might she have lost her alpha status? Could this have happened when her mate was killed? We are assuming it was her mate who was found poisoned two years ago, right at about the time her second set of puppies was born. We assumed this because we never saw a male in her territory after that event. We only saw her and her growing pups. Was her status tied to his status, and then lost when he died?  Or could she have lost her status because there was no male, whatever his status? Or might she have lost it by another means — for instance, she was badly injured by a car two years ago, which might have compromised her ability to remain an alpha?

Then again, she might be too old now for pups, or she might have sustained internal injuries from that car accident that prevent her from having more puppies. One theory brought up in the literature is that coyotes self-regulate their population sizes. If an area has all the coyotes it can support, coyotes will have very tiny litters, or none at all.

So, no puppies, and the possible sighting of another family group including juveniles makes me think of the possibility of lost alpha status. In addition, the previous bolder behavior which suggested an alpha is no longer what I am seeing in our mom. We will never know the answer to the “whys”. But we do know that this very proud, aware and responsible mother coyote has stopped having pups altogether for the past couple of years and she has retreated to a smaller territorial area where she has been less visible than she used to be. Time will tell how long this situation will last — it might be very temporary, or it could be long-term.

Habitat destruction could be driving coyotes out of their previous homes and into new areas.

Habitat Destruction. Habitat destruction is the single most harmful human activity to wild animals. Many of us are upset at the very short-sighted policies causing this habitat destruction which lead to displacement of our wild animals. The “native plant programs” is a case in point: dense animal habitat is being removed in order to plant native plants which offer little if any habitat value — these are mostly dune-type plants. Animal habitat consists of dense areas of growth, brambles and underbrush which are impenetrable to humans and dogs — this is what makes it a safe habitat for animals. In San Francisco we have vast areas of our Presidio which are now being cleared of their forested areas for the benefit of native plants — this means lost habitat. In addition, the remodeling of Doyle Drive, and its attendant habitat destruction, may be driving coyotes out of their original homes close to the periphery of the city, and causing them to move deeper into the heart of the city to find new places to live. If new groups of coyotes are being seen in some areas, this is the strongest explanation.

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