Coyotes Celebrate Coming Out Ahead: Intact and Uninjured, and Still In Charge of Their Territory

Here is a typical morning in an urban park where there are coyotes and where dogs run free. If you have a dog and know coyotes are out, or if you see a coyote, you need to leash up and move on. In this park, there is a particular team of dogs which chases and harasses these coyotes on an almost daily basis.

On this day, coyotes were out finishing their nighttime trekking. They picked one of their favorite knolls to hang out on. They often stay out to watch and keep an eye on the dogs which visit the park daily, but also they are there “to be seen” by these same dogs: they want these dogs to know that the territory is already claimed — their presence sends this message. It is a purposeful activity. They knew the route and the time that most dogs would walk by, and that time was coming up. They plopped themselves down high up on the incline a substantial distance from any trails and began grooming themselves.

Most dogs and their owners passed uneventfully, as usual: most folks in San Francisco are in awe of and love their urban coyotes in the parks: It makes the parks seem a little more “natural”, a little closer to the nature that humankind once knew, a little further removed from the city right next door. Both coyotes and dogs learn something about each other as they watch one another, and peace is maintained by the owners keeping their dogs away from them.

Unfortunately, there are antagonistic dogs who pursue, and owners who allow their dogs to pursue and harass coyotes. It is always the same dogs, and it is always the same owners who allow it, and it happens on a regular basis. It happened again today, as predictably as the dawn itself. Two dogs from the same family — therefore a “pack” working as a team together — came up the trail ahead of their owners and went searching for the coyotes, saw them and chased after them. The coyotes ran further up the steep incline which was difficult for the dogs. The coyotes stayed up high on the hill and watched. At one point, when the second dog appeared they came down a little, still keeping their safe distance away.

One of the dog owners, one who had no intention of ever leashing his dogs to control them, ran up the hill towards the coyotes and starting heaving rocks at them, snarling, “Darn coyotes, stop bothering my dogs!!”  The coyotes backed up a little preparing to flee, but the dog owner backed down the hill. Of course, it was the dogs and owner who were doing the harassing, not the other way around.

Eventually the recalcitrant dogs and disrespectful owners walked on. The coyotes watched them leave and then hung around to watch and just “be” for a short time, grooming themselves and probably communicating in ways we humans cannot understand: their distress, relief, joy, excitement, and fears, among other things, are communicated simply by the way they act — by their body language and facial expressions.

Then it was time to go. The coyotes ran towards each other, tails wagging, bodies bouncing and wiggling, and headed off. They were all intact, there were no injuries, the territory was still theirs. They seemed to celebrate all this as they left the area hugging next to each other as they went.


Request for Grooming & Tick Removal Denied

He stands in front of her waiting for the routine grooming and tick removal which has become an everyday occurrence between these two. But she is busy grooming herself this time. He stands patiently, but she does not respond — she continues grooming herself. Finally, he lets her know more forcefully by engaging her muzzle — “can’t you see what I want?” Whether she sees it or not, she does not respond. He then plops himself right in front of her — maybe this might get a response? But no, she concentrates on her own grooming. Finally she heads off. He watches, a bit defeated, and then follows her.

I’ve seen this “request” a number of times now in several coyote pairs. More often than not, one ends up grooming the next one. Maybe it involves a request to relieve a particularly bad skin itch or pain. I always wonder why the service is not a mutual one.

Tick’ed Off

This video is a long one, four and a half minutes. One coyote is removing ticks from the other, and the other is enjoying the exquisite attention and massage, closing its eyes to relish this personal grooming session. The behavior not only serves the purpose of removing unhealthy ticks, it serves to strengthen the social bond between these two. The affection between these two is tremendous.

A Rendezvous Ritual

Coyotes spend a good deal of their day sleeping. Members of a pack or family may sleep within close proximity of each other, or they may sleep much further apart, but probably within the same couple of acres of each other. They have amazing built-in time clocks, but they also are influenced by circumstances of the moment. My own dog could tell the time and knew what was to be done at that time. For example, I always set off, with my dog, at exactly 2:40 to pick up one of my kids at school. But one day I fell asleep — I would not have made it on time except that my dog began poking me with her muzzle at exactly 2:40. Needless to say, I was amazed. The same is true for coyotes — they seem to know when it is time to meet up, but if people or dogs are around, they will delay.

Most coyotes I know like to go trekking alone. After all, their staple diet consists of voles and gophers — animals that really can’t be divvied up very well. Might as well hunt alone. But some coyotes do enjoy trekking together, usually in pairs. When they hunt in pairs, there is usually a rendezvous beforehand.

Rendezvous locations can remain the same for a while, or they can change drastically from day to day, but coyotes seem to have various favorite meeting spots which they alternate between for a while, before changing these altogether .  This is where they congregate to then move together for their foraging.

In this case here, the older female had spent her day sleeping in the sun quite some distance from where the young male had been also sleeping in the sun. The female was the first to move around — she disappeared into some bushes. In the meantime, I watched the male who moved from where he had been sleeping to a new location where he curled up and then dozed a while longer. Finally, he got up, stretched, scratched, and began to forage. I watched him catch a vole and toy with it. He continued searching for voles and then looked up ahead. He must have seen the female approaching, because he sat down and watched intently. She trotted over, and arrived on the scene.

The ritual began with hugs and kisses. They are hidden in the grass in these photos, but you can see what is going on. It was intense, but lasted only about a minute. That was the first phase of the meeting. Then there was a pause where all activity ceased. I think the male was waiting for something, but since nothing happened he turned around and backed into her — it looked like a request. He did it again and then looked over his shoulder: “well?”. The older female was obliging. She began grooming the young fellow, pulling off burrs and bugs. He accepted this, repeatedly laying his ears back against his head — he seemed to melt with the attention. There was care, affection, and intensity here which few animals that I have seen show each other. The next phase of the meeting involved trotting off together. From what I have seen in the past — though I did not follow them this time — they will spend their time together trekking, marking their territory, hunting, playing, exploring and maybe even meeting up briefly with a couple of lone coyotes who live adjacent to this territory, before again returning to separate localities to rest.

Squeals and Grooming

We heard the sirens — not so loud and long as usual — but we  thought there might be the possibility for a concert, so we waited. We were right! The sirens part was very short — I don’t think I caught any of it on the tape, but the coyotes continued their serenade well after the sirens had passed. And, the show didn’t end there. When they were finished with their yips, squeals and barks, one of them approached the other and began grooming — in this case, taking off ticks one be one — the same as I have shown before.

This particular video is different from my others. The entire first half of it was blurry — the camera mechanism for automatic focus just couldn’t seem to find itself — it kept zooming in and out without ever focusing, so all I had was one big blur for that section of the video. I was so disappointed that I might not be able to use the video clip. A friend of mine offered to help, and look what he came up with!! I think it’s fabulous, really superb!! And you get to hear the vocalizations throughout.

Grooming: Ticks-Be-Gone!

The little coyote I had been watching ignored the faint sound of a siren in the distance, but Maeve, who was far off, began howling from the distance after hearing it. Immediately, the one I had been watching, Silver, joined in, but not for long. He resumed his hunting for awhile and then sat down to watch something in the distance. When Maeve appeared, I realized that he had been watching her approach. The howling had been used to locate each other. He aimlessly moved in her direction, it seemed, and finally met her on a path where he proffered kisses — but she seemed annoyed and shrugged him off with a strong nod of her head. Might this have been because I was there?

He then wandered off to hunt, and these two appear to have lost each other. Maeve went to a path where she sat and seemed to look for him. He, too, looked for her. They were close to each other but not aware of where the other was. So Maeve got up and began to wander, and it is then that Silver spotted her and approached her, and it is then that this grooming took place.

Grooming serves to get rid of bugs and to clean — here it looks as though ticks are being removed. Grooming also is a platform for showing affection, care, and reinforcing family hierarchy. Interestingly, she is the one who did the grooming, he did not groom her back.

Preening & Cleaning & Rolling & Slithering

The grooming began with the paws which received a slow and careful licking, and moved on to the back which received an equal slow and careful licking. Then the belly area was dealt with, and after that the head was thoroughly and firmly shaken back and forth, as though something were in an ear that needed to be dislodged.

Soon the intensity of the grooming increased into what might be called a “scratch-bath”. It seems that the right itchy spot on the back could not be reached. When the initial back-scratching with a hind leg — doggie fashion — failed, the coyote got up and walked over to where the ground was rough with dried twigs poking up through the dried grasses.

Here the coyote lowered its head, poking it under and through a pile of dead grasses, then slowly slithered to the ground, like a snake — scooting itself over those rough twigs, propelling itself with its hind legs for several feet, allowing the forelegs to be dragged under its belly. The coyote then stood up and shook itself out, and went right back to slithering over the scratchy roughness below itself. At one point it stopped and rolled repeatedly  from side to side, feet swinging up in the air, relieving that hard to reach itch on it’s back. When all was well and done, the coyote moved to a comfortable spot and went to sleep!

This mundane exercise took a total of about ten minutes.  Lately I’ve watched squirrels, a raccoon and many birds preening and grooming themselves: cleaning fur or feathers and scratching themselves. None got into it as thoroughly as this coyote, nor did they seem to enjoy it as much.

“Pursued”, by Charles Wood

Saturday I waited on the river bank for half an hour looking east.  I stood with my dog about 130 yards from the main north-south dirt road often used by my coyotes.  I neither saw nor heard anything until 7:40 pm when three coyotes exited the underpass trotting south into their main field.  Dad, in the rear, stopped several yards south of the underpass.  The other two continued their trot south.  Dad dropped scat and then hurriedly followed the other two coyotes.  Apparently all three were hurriedly returning from the area to the north, an approximately 100 acre sanctuary for animal and plant life.  Their main field is connected to the sanctuary by an underpass and I have previously observed both Mom and Dad in the sanctuary.  In contrast, my coyotes’ main field approximates 25 acres, where all except around six acres were mowed a month ago for weed abatement.  My coyotes numbered nine a week before the mowing:  Mom, Dad and seven pups.  Since then I’ve observed no more than four coyotes together at the same time in their field.

Dad caught up with the other two, having stopped to look behind him several times in the process.  Together, they all stopped to look north from where they had come.  I saw no pursuers.  Dad took a break to groom his mate.  A youngster was lying on the ground beneath them.  Dad finished grooming Mom and then bared his teeth at the youngster.  He stood over it, tongue out, as Mom went a bit to the north and stopped.  She looked both north and east down flat dirt roads.  Apparently pursuers could come from either north or east.  The youngster followed her, and then returned to Dad.  Dad put the returning youngster to the ground with seriously bared teeth.  The youngster then remained near Dad as Dad again checked north.  The youngster also stayed with Dad as he went to investigate some odors a few yards north of where Mom had stopped.  This investigation lasted about a minute.  It ended when the youngster headed south while Dad marked whatever they had discovered.  Mom and the youngster headed south and Dad followed.  While following, Dad frequently stopped and looked behind.

Mom and the youngster arrived at an entrance to what I assume is the area of dense brush that contains their den.  She marked the road and then she and the youngster disappeared into dense brush.  At that point I looked back down the dirt road for Dad and did not see him.  I waited a bit, saw no pursuers and decided the show was over for the evening.  I doubted that any vocalizations would follow because vocalizing didn’t seem wise in the circumstances.

What were the exact circumstances?  From whom did they flee?  Why was Mom groomed and the youngster instead chided?  The second time the youngster was disciplined seemed clearly to tell the youngster to remain near Dad.  What odor was important enough to give them pause to investigate and mark when obviously in flight?  Did the three return to join other family members?  How many of the other six children are still alive?

That the three were fleeing from one or more coyotes seems a safe bet.  Perhaps the grooming behavior performed on Mom by Dad was to calm and reassure her.  The youngster obviously had messed up earlier.  I say obviously because it had prostrated itself by the time Dad had caught up with them.  Had it handled an encounter with other coyotes poorly, or caused such an encounter?  After being disciplined it chose to head towards Mom and apparently for that, was disciplined again.

It seems safe to say the odor marked was that of a coyote trespasser.  The odor was important enough for both father and child to thoroughly absorb the information it contained.

The position Mom took, looking both north and east, suggests that no other of their family members were east.  The area to the east, consisting of about four lightly covered acres, has its own north-south entry point and another entry point at the east most boundary, not particularly safe from intruding coyotes.  The more southern area into which they ultimately disappeared is dense brush.  I have seen Mom alone similarly seeming pursued as she headed south.  She at that time also marked the point where she headed into that brush, nearly the same spot as this Saturday.  This southern area is about two acres and I can’t take a step there without cracking dry twigs or rattling brush.  Probably intruder coyotes would sound similar alarms.  The high ground, banks to surrounding road beds and structures, are planted with rows of reeds that are green and supple for being irrigated.  They are thick, high, and have tight yet navigable spaces for evasion and ambush.  I’m hoping the other youngsters can be left there unsupervised while Mom or Dad or both reconnoiter before taking more family members out for their early evening hunt.

I’ve read and heard many times that feces and urine mark territory and thought it rather benign, perhaps even thoughtful or polite.  I have rethought that.  I have seen Dad drop scat a few yards from me to begin a confrontation.  Dumping, scraping, mock charges and barking do drive me off, particularly with the way he looks so much larger with his fur buffed out.  It isn’t simply that he can drop scat.  He can do so and back it up with all his power.  To mark while fleeing, and to mark the area they have the most interest in defending suggests to me:  “Abandon hope all ye who enter here”.

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.

Grooming Shows Affection and Care

These two coyotes were out looking around: a mother and her yearling pup. They were together, but one would go off to explore separately and then see the other, or even look for it, and then trot over to be with it. They kept tabs on each other and looked for each other after being apart only a few moments. One reached this rock first, and then the other joined. Immediately the mother began grooming the younger one’s back. Could it be that she was taking off a tick? I say this because it looked like there might have been a tick on the younger one’s eyelid earlier on. After the grooming was completed, and it lasted only a minute, both coyotes continued to look about.

Grooming serves both to get rid of potential health hazards and to strengthen social bonds. There is a lot of affection between this pair of coyotes. Coyote family life is as intimate and as involved as our own.