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.

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