Hmmm. Not So Sure About the ‘Closeness’ Here


Coyote pairs are becoming cozy again. It’s that time of year. They are spending more time together than in the last few months. Most of the time, both partners appear to be mutually involved — mutually attracted. But I wonder if this is always true?

I watched as the male (right) of this mated pair came out of the bushes and approached the female who was lying in the grass. Rather than joyful greetings when she saw him coming, she put her head down in a manner of *resignation* and waited. The greeting ritual here involved dominance on his part, and some kind of trepidation on her part. It was not the “ever so happy to see you” excitement that I’ve come to expect from other coyote pair greetings, even though those, too, involved a degree of hierarchical activity.

I wondered how often coyotes are in relationships that aren’t mutually desired?

This female seems to like her independence. She spends time alone on a hill where she hunts or rests curled up in a little ball. He, on the other hand, keeps himself less visible by spending time in the bushes during daytime hours. Whereas she always takes off to walk and explore on her own, he has a need to shadow her or wait for her, and when he looses her, say because of dogs or people approaching, he’ll look for her for a short time and then head back to his bushes at a slow and listless pace with head slumped down — one can’t help but read this as disappointment and dejection. Of course, they’ll meet up later in the evening, but he obviously wants to go trekking with her. She doesn’t seem to really care, and makes no effort to locate him after they get separated.

Fleeing From Father

I’m trying to get a handle on a family where the youngster is never present. The parents’ daytime resting time is almost always in close proximity to each other, either in an open field or under cover of some forest edge habitat. Even when I can’t see them, I can tell they are fairly close together because when a siren whizzes by, they respond by yipping which reveals their proximate locations.

It’s hard to tell what’s going on with the youngster — and with the parental relationship with him — because I seldom see the youngster. Until today. Today I watched this youngster out in the unhidden open. What a rare treat! He did not immediately flee to the underbrush the minute he saw a person (me), but rather allowed me to spend time observing. He just sat there and looked around from his safe-zone in the far distance where I know he stays, but this time he wasn’t concealed behind bushes and thickets.

Soon he got up to go: he stretched and yawned, and obviously was at ease, even though a person was observing him. He looked at me, but basically went about his business. He casually walked off, and then started descending a hill when suddenly he stopped cold, did a quick about-face, and headed up the hill in a hurry, lickety-split. He stopped to look back once and then disappeared over the crest of the hill. I looked down the hill to find out what he might be running from and was surprised to see his father staring at him. Hmmm. Instead of running towards each other for a happy greeting, the youngster was running away with trepidation!

Father glaring over his shoulder, up the hill, at his youngster. Youngster hurries away.

Father glaring over his shoulder, up the hill, at his youngster. Youngster hurries away.

Had there been an altercation earlier? Might one of these coyotes have secretly taken and reburied a food cash that belonged to the other? Might there have been an issue with insubordination? Might lessons about territoriality and not crossing boundaries have been involved, or even safety issues about remaining away from dogs? Might the firm establishment of a hierarchical order be involved? Or, highly unlikely, might this have been the beginnings of an early dispersal process? I’ve never seen a coyote dispersed under one year of age here in San Francisco, but I’ve heard it alluded to. The bullying that precedes dispersal may go on for months before the youngster decides to take off for a better life elsewhere. I’m sad that I haven’t been able to see coyote family behaviors from this distant fella. We’ll see what happens.

These Parents Spend Bulk of Their Day Together and Far From Their Youngster

In one of my coyote families, the parents have been spending all dusk, dawn and daytime hours far removed and distant from their one single pup. He’s been an “only” pup since he was very small, so maybe it was a single birth.

In the other families I’ve observed, these daytime hours, when the coyotes are visible to me, have included a good deal of “family time”, where parents can be seen engaging with youngsters: playing, sharing, grooming, resting within view of each other.

Not so in this particular family. Although I’ve seen the parents take food to their youngster and groom him — indicating that the family is still intact and functional, I’m seeing these types of behaviors only very sporadically — almost never — and they occur in the most secluded parts of their park. I wonder why more of these quieter daytime hours aren’t being spent with the youngster?

I don’t know the answer to this question, but the possibility occurred to me that the parents might be trying to entice the youngster out of his hiding places — to join them where they are. The parents have been hanging around in a field, at about the distance of several football fields away, but within view of him for the most part. Then again, as opposed to enticing the youngster out of his seclusion, maybe it is the parents who have prompted him to stay there — forbidding him to leave that safe zone? Teaching him about territoriality?  Or, it could simply be that all the interactions always, without fail, take place only during the darkest hours of the night when I am not around to see them.

The youngster is extremely shy and wary — more so than most youngsters. Each coyote, like each human, is an individual and different from the next. I’ve seen this one duck under cover if a person even looks at him from the far distance across a meadow. He ducks into the forest and can only be glimpsed now and then from between the bushes and trees. Maybe he’s just shy, but now I’m also wondering if he might not fit in?

A couple of years ago, in a larger family, I observed that one of the youngsters was shyer and more wary than the rest of his litter. He also seldom ventured into the areas of his park where there are people and pets, even though his siblings did when park patrons were few and the light was still, or had become, murky and dim. He didn’t interact well with his siblings: they played catch and chase and had wrestling matches, whereas this one would sit off to the side and watch, almost afraid to enter the fray, and then try to calm the exuberance between the others as though they were fighting and not playing — he did this by being aggressive. When they tried to include him in their play, he did the same thing. So the siblings just moved off a ways and continued their play. He was a loner who didn’t fit well into family life. He was dispersed soon after his first birthday. Is this is what is going to happen in this family with an “only child”?

Dad Checks To See If It’s Clear — It Isn’t

This observation occurred way back on June 19th, but I never got around to posting it until now. Dad was doing his duty when he came out at late dusk to check things out for safety. The pups themselves were still too young to be brought out into the open — they were still only two months old. He must have been making sure the area would be safe for Mom.  Mom coyote was still lactating, and her survival was necessary for the survival of the youngsters. Coyote family members watch out for each other.

Dad came to the crest of a hill and looked in all directions. Mom stayed at the bottom of the hill assessing the situation for herself and looking towards Dad for any signal of danger he might give her. Dad indeed had heard some voices and saw SOMEthing, and Mom knew how to read his body language. She hurried back to the safety of the bushes and he followed soon afterwards.

I went looking for what the disturbance might have been. I only had to walk a few paces to where, because of the darkness, I could barely make out two fella humans sitting on the ground by some rocks next to the path the coyotes would have taken. They were talking in barely audible soft, hushed voices. I don’t know if Dad coyote had heard them, smelled them, or seen them. I myself had not heard them or seen them (or smelled them!) in the quiet of the evening, and would never have known they were there if it were not for the revealing coyote behavior — the same behavior that Mom coyote could read about Dad.

He Keeps Tabs On Her, While She Remains More Aloof

She was on her way out on a trek when I, and she, heard the distant signature call of her mate. She stopped and looked back into the distance from where the call came from for some time, but she did not answer him and she did not go in his direction. When the calling stopped, she proceeded on her merry way, out of the park, through the neighborhood, and on to her destination, wherever that was.

I opted not to follow her, but rather to return to the area where the male had called from. He had called from within some dense bushes, but I thought he might appear out in the open, and indeed he did. I found him heading towards a high lookout point. He was looking for her, even though he must have known that by this time she was long out of sight and out of hearing range. He settled down in the sun to watch and wait for her. He waited and waited.

After a time, he became focused on a dog playing and wandering erratically in the distance. Watching the dog was a good distraction — coyotes do get distracted by what is occurring around them which often causes them to change what they are doing. The dog was claiming way too much liberty in the coyote’s eyes: the dog dug furiously and explored off the beaten path — all within the coyote’s favorite hang-out area, and then, ultimate of insults, he marked the area by peeing on a bush.

The coyote sat up and moved closer during this activity, but he did not descend the hill to “say” or “message” his disapproving feelings. He just put up with it. After all, the owner was right there. The erratically-behaving dog, though bothersome to the coyote, seemed to be minding its own business — it wasn’t searching to flush out coyotes, and it kept within a short distance of its owner.

As he put up with it, another new dog, sticking to the side of its owner and therefore less intrusive, entered the scene. The coyote decided to follow them for a short distance — “where were they going and what were they doing?” This now became a distraction from the distraction. Following from behind offered the coyote a degree of protection since neither owner nor dog were likely to look in back of themselves. But the duo kept moving on and away and were not presenting any issues of interest to the coyote, so the coyote then veered off the path and then headed into the bushes for the day.

By the time the coyote went into the bushes, he had either forgotten about keeping tabs on his mate, or he had decided he no longer wanted to wait for her.  She would return within the next couple of hours and he knew this.

female spends lots of time grooming the father of her pups

female spends lots of time grooming her mate, the father of her pups

As for her, the female of the pair and mother of his pups, why hadn’t she answered his call or run to join him? She acted as though she didn’t want him to keep tabs on her.  I wondered if she had just gone off to hunt, or if she actually needed to get away from her mate and pups, or if she had gone off searching for her best friend. Her mate had had to fight off this other male who was the preferred suitor. Her mate had won the battle, but had he won the war — or her heart? It’s generally true in this pair that the female is rather independent in her actions, though she spends a lot of time grooming and snuggling up to her mate. The male, on the other hand, shadows her when he can and he often searches for her when she’s gone off on her own. Is he afraid her preferred suitor might reclaim her?

I’m simply speculating about the motivations of the male and female based on the behavior I’m seeing. Most coyotes mate for life, but this pair began as a triangle and I wonder if it wasn’t fully resolved?

A One Hour Peek Through An Opening In The Bushes At A Coyote Family’s Interactions At Dusk

I peeked through an opening in the bushes into coyote family life during the hour before their active life begins in the evening at dusk. This entire family was together: mother, father, uncle and one pup. There is only one pup in the family. The pup is super-well protected and superbly indulged by the three adults in the family: the third adult is a male from a previous litter who I will call Uncle, even though that’s not exactly what he really is.

The hour was spent in constant interpersonal interactions — there was not a moment when something was not going on or when some interaction was not taking place. Coyotes are some of the most social of animals, and their social life takes place via their intense family life.

The activities during this hour included Mom grooming Dad and vice-versa, Mom grooming Pup and vice-versa, affectionate play between Mother and Pup, all four coyotes aware of me and glancing at me in the far distance, Dad dominating Uncle — this happened continuously, Pup dominating Uncle who is low man on the totem pole, Uncle standing off to the side alone with ears airplaned out submissively, Pup hopping and jumping around trying to get others to play — as any only child might. And, most interesting, a sequence where Pup jumped on Dad (oops) with unexpected consequences and confusion.

Grooming, playing, cuddling and general interacting were constant activities (below).

This sequence (below) was pretty interesting because Dad ended up disciplining Mom instead of the Pup who caused the disturbance! Pup had jumped over — or onto — his parents who were lying next to each other. Dad either got confused and disciplined Mom — she’s the one lying on her back as he stands over her — OR, Mom’s growl at the Pup may be what Dad was reacting to. Dad coyote does not tolerate any aggression in his family, even from Mom. At the first sign of any antagonism or dissent, he squelches it. Dad is the oldest and wisest in this family, and the ultimate authority. In another family I know, Mom is the ultimate authority: every family is different.

Rigid status preserves order, but sometimes it’s hard to watch. Uncle is low man on the totem pole, and he’s made aware of this constantly: what is Dad’s “order” is Uncle’s strife and oppression.  There seemed not to be a minute that went by when Uncle was not reminded of it. It happened with physical put-downs three times in this hour, and in a more subtle manner, with glances, many more times.

Dad stretched, which meant it was time to go.

Dad stretched, which meant it was time to go.

As it got darker, the time came for the family to trek on. The move was signaled by Dad’s signature stretching. Dusk had settled in and their day was beginning. And my viewing time had come to an end because as they slithered away into the night, I could no longer see them.

Young Pups Left Alone Hide From All Perceived Dangers

Coyote youngsters are often left alone as their parents go off hunting or trekking. What do they do when they are left alone? They like to explore, sticking to the areas immediately around where their parents have left them — a healthy wariness and fear keeps them put.

From a substantial distance, I’ve seen them pounce on things, pull on sticks, wander around and mostly WATCH what is going on in the distance while sitting very still. If they catch you eyeing them, they’ll hurry away and hide, but first they’ll sit still for a few moments to confirm for themselves that you are actually looking at them. They may move to behind some minimal covering from where they’ll watch for another few minutes, and then, they’ll bound out of sight altogether where they know they will be safer.

pup plays with Mom by pulling on her ear

pup plays with Mom by pulling on her ear

It’s always an exciting event when parents return. After all, parents are not just providers and protectors, they are also playmates. When a parent returns, some of the pups’ shy wariness is tossed aside, but not all of it. For instance, seeing a dog in the distance is a red flag which causes youngsters to run for cover, even if a parent is right there.

With a parent at their side, they are willing to banter and play in little patches of exposed areas between the bushes, even if someone is watching — and they are always aware of all eyes on them — as long as the parent is comfortable with this. Pups take their cues from their parents: one whisper or “look” from a parent indicating that things might not be safe sends youngsters lickety-split into hiding.

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