Some Thoughts: studying coyotes, individuality

A thought about studying animal life. I know it is the norm to interfere in an animal’s life to study it: to take the animal out of its environment, to handle it and mark it, to attach devices to it, to stick it in a cage or enclosure, to make it endure what we have in mind for it — basically to disrupt an animal’s life or interfere just because it is convenient for the study. Most of the time this is not necessary. When a coyote advocate suggested that we shoot colored paintballs at them so that we humans “could more easily identify each one” I became aware of how humans place their own desires and needs for convenience first, before that of the animal. Every single animal, when it is caught and handled by a human, is absolutely terrified for its life — no matter how short or humane the treatment might be called.

My point is that if we care for the animal, this should come first. It should come before our own needs, and it should come before our reputations in our fields of study. We do not need to disrupt or interfere in an animal’s life to learn about it. The animals can be studied, and probably to better effect, if they are just left alone, with their families, and in their territories. It is with their families and those they have bonded with that we can discover the richness of their emotional life and where the richness of interactive behavior can be found. Interfering disrupts every aspect of their lives and alters it, often absolutely.

I also think, unconventionally, that if you are particularly “into” an animal — seeing it with empathy and understanding — that it really knows this and develops a certain trust for you, so that it could very well be somewhat “into” you — allowing you a view what it might guard from others: this is a mutual respect relationship. Animals who reveal themselves to you, because they want to, will show you more about themselves than you could ever learn by simply watching them. Examples of this approach which I can think of include Jane Goodall and Farley Mowat, and there are others. I know this is considered totally inadequate and definitely contrary to scientific methods by many animal behaviorists, yet I’m seeing that more and more animal scientists are turning more and more in this direction. They now name the animals they work with instead of relying on numbers, and they recognize different individual personalities of each animal, and treat them with empathy.

Individual Personalities count as such a big factor when looking at behavior of any species. More and more people have been able to see this: just go to YouTube to see accounts of “individual” animals — individual personalities rather than what we have all learned as generalities. The problem with categorical descriptions is that people begin to actually SEE the categories instead of the truth. In human terms, this included blonds in the 60s, hippies in the 70s, blacks way back in history. The truth is that there is much more to an animal or human than a category or generalization; and generalizations that hold for a group are almost never entirely true for each individual.

Children and Coyotes

Somebody recently inquired about children and coyotes, specifically about how coyotes react to children. I don’t think it needs to be suggested to any parent to keep their kids far away from wildlife: be it raccoons or skunks or owls or coyotes — these can be vicious and can cause damage if they feel in danger. Proximity is sometimes the only trigger that is needed for the animal to feel threatened.

Children are more vulnerable to the vagaries of individual coyote behavior for several reasons. First, their small size makes them seem more approachable to coyotes. Second children are trustful, yet inexperienced and naive, with no skills for shooing a coyote off. Thirdly, children themselves are unpredictable in their active, flailing movements and noisiness: and this is a red flag to a coyote.

Coyotes, the same as dogs, like predictability and calm. Many dogs do not have the tempers for dealing with hyperactivity or unpredictability: cocker spaniels are especially known to bite children — mostly those in their own homes. My own large lab was lying down after a walk while a group of us adults were jabbering away as one kid bounced his basketball. No one was aware that the bouncing ball — the activity level and noise and unpredictability of where the ball went  – were driving the dog berserk, until the dog, in a flash, leaped up with a bark and punched the little boy in the stomach. This dog had never before given any indication that it would react this way. I’ve used these dog examples to help explain unpredictability and intolerance for hyperactivity — qualities I have seen coyotes react to in smaller dogs. Coyotes at rest will react by becoming tense and alert.

I once saw a coyote approach a children’s day camp. Although the coyote stayed outside the boundaries of the camp, it was definitely drawn to the noise and extreme activity level of the kids — it may have wanted to stop all the commotion. The coyote stood behind a creek and barked distressingly until the camp director went to it and shooed it away by flailing his arms, yelling at it and throwing small stones in its direction. The coyote had approached the camp because the noise and activity level were disturbing to it. Most coyotes will avoid such a site, but a dominant female, especially a mother of pups, who is monitoring her territory for safety, might do otherwise.

Most parents are very careful about protecting their children from possible mishaps, but I now have seen a parent with two children aged about 8 and 10, and on another occasion a grandparent of one 7 year old, walk their children fairly close to a resting coyote. It is not something I would recommend, even if the coyote is known to be a mild one, because wildlife has its own rules, and we don’t always know what these rules are.

Very seldom have coyotes bitten humans, but most of the bites that have occurred have been to children. Please teach your children to respect wildlife by giving it lots of space. And never feed wildlife. Feeding coyotes has been determined as the one ingredient which has caused coyotes to become aggressive towards humans.

A Coyote Watches Me: Coyote behavior

I watched this coyote stay back and watch as a bunch of walkers with their dogs came over a ridge. It remained totally still and it stayed back. The coyote was actually quite distant and camouflaged next to some bushes. Most coyotes maintain a safe distance for their own feelings of security. This one would not have been noticed by dogs or walkers if I hadn’t already spotted it and fixed my camera on it. I was told that I was what gave it away. Everyone leashed up their dogs. Then two of the walkers and their dogs continued walking on the path, at which point the coyote decided to head off, crossing the path in front of them — 100 feet ahead and disappearing over a hill.

I continued my walk and within a short time I found this same coyote grazing alone in the far distance. By grazing I mean that its concentration was on the ground in front of it. It didn’t even look up when I appeared — maybe I was too far away. It finally did look in my direction. I remained where I was and took photos. The coyote was curious, apparently, because it sat down, and then settled into a sphinx-like position to watch me. I pressed the shutter release, but made no other movements.  After not too long, the coyote got up again and trotted in my direction!!

I fleetingly thought to toss stones to dissuade it from coming my way, but it stopped. Coyotes can distinguish each dog and human they have encountered: I had seen this one a number of times before, and therefore it had seen me. Possibly it was curious about my standing so still and wanted a closer look. Also, might it have developed a trust because of my never having breached its critical space? It came to within about 50 feet this time — possibly within sniffing distance? I wonder. I stayed very still. When I did take ONE step to maintain my balance, the coyote tensed — it was obviously on alert. So the coyote examined me, intently gazing in my direction while keeping bushes between us, and then it slowly headed back to where it had been, and then into a thicket area, but first it looked back one more time!

Most coyotes I photograph just ignore me or move on. This is the first one that obviously came in my direction to check me out. It may have done this previously, much less obviously, but with other factors involved, such as dogs around, I cannot be sure. I have seen coyotes approach dogs to assess them, but this is the first one that actually appeared to want to assess me!!

Another thought occurred to me about this behavior. Coyotes learn quickly and thoroughly by watching, especially by watching their trusted mothers — watching from the distance and from hidden locations. This coyote’s mother has always allowed me to photograph her with total unconcern — she often has remained in a prone relaxed position, ignoring me and not moving off, as I clicked a-way. I use the word “ignore” because she really has acted as if I was not there: if something around drew her attention, she reacted and proceeded as if I was part of the woodwork. Might the younger coyote have observed its mother’s behavior, learned to identify me as benign, and now be testing its own safety around me — all based on its mother’s example? It is an idea that I thought was worth considering. Of course, maybe this coyote would have treated everyone this way, but I have not seen any coyote do this before. And I have not seen this coyote often enough to form a definite conclusion about it.

See posting of December 27th: “Sitting, Facing Away”

It’s a Boy!!

I have discovered, through zooming into a photograph, that the young coyote with the gaping mouth in some of the previous photos I posted is a male. I had named it “Brownie”, but it now will have to be “Bruno”!!

See photos from December 15th: “Communication”.

Two, a toy, hunting: Coyote behavior

I always feel lucky whenever I come across a coyote in any of our parks — no matter how much “luck” I’ve already had. But I feel ecstatically lucky whenever I see more than one coyote at a time — this is really unusual. Yet, I have had this experience a handful of times now, and in three different places. These two coyotes here in these photos stayed fairly hidden behind trees and twigs. They stayed close together — venturing away from each other for only short hunting forays or explorations. They followed one another a lot, and one played with a toy while the other watched. The toy only became apparent later on when I zoomed-in the photos.

I also caught two together out hunting as they hit upon the same gopher hole. They were not there long, but ONE got the prize. After this there was a very short “I want it” competition and a short chase in circles. The winner ran off, out of reach of the other, and lay down to enjoy a meal while the other remained back and watched. After the meal, the two were again together searching for more goodies at the same locations.

At the end of the year, litter mates born in the spring are still together. I have not seen last year’s pups around since November — have they dispersed? People in the parks have seldom been seeing coyotes lately — possibly just because it is winter.

Thank You Everyone For Your Support!

I wanted to thank the people who have complimented and endorsed my observations and photography in various ways. I think the very best was being called a “were coyote” and then a “coyote whisperer!” Also “nature lady” and “coyote lady”.  I hope that the individuals who made these remarks know how very special they are for me.

In addition, that I’ve been invited to exhibit my photos and that so many people have asked if they could come along with me to observe are also supreme compliments. I do need everyone to know that my activity with wild animals is a solitary one — I do not take anyone with me, ever, because this would be disruptive to behaviors I’m trying to record, and it would be a distraction for my own concentration: I try to catch the small details when I observe. Also, it is just a matter of luck whether or not I even encounter one of these animals on any particular day in any of the parks or open spaces.

Dogs and walkers who frequent the parks are a big part of my observations. They might be seen as interferences, but these are necessary “interferences” which actually help me by bringing out different coyote behaviors: they are a vital ingredient in urban coyote behavior studies.  And even the human behaviors which are associated with both their dogs and coyotes in a park are intricately related to some of the coyote behaviors I’m studying, and almost as interesting!! The equation for understanding urban coyote behavior is definitely a tripartite one: coyotes, dogs, humans.

Along with the positive, there have been some negative reactions too. But our Animal Care and Control Department told me that I should even see these as positive: “Hey, look at it this way:  the message we are trying to get across we know is being heard because of you.”  The message: never feed wildlife, keep pets leashed and keep a safe distance.

This blog and all my photos are a means to an end: celebrating and preserving these wild animals in our city. With plenty of photos that show what they are like, and with a better understanding of their behaviors, I’m hoping that coyotes will be more appreciated and respected, especially those which have chosen urban settings for their homes. With just a little bit of understanding and a little bit of give on our part, coexistence can work well!

Sitting, Facing Away: Coyote behavior

Various coyotes have sat with their backs towards me, occasionally looking at me over their shoulders, but basically sitting facing away. Three coyotes have done this on several occasions.

Previously I had seen that when they sat this way, their attention was diverted to something more important that they were keeping their eyes on, and that since my behavior was a given, I could be ignored. Usually they were looking out for other dogs or other coyotes and each other. But this last time I had no real indication that the coyote’s attention was being diverted elsewhere.

I initially thought that it might be searching the distance for one of its own, but soon I no longer felt that this was what was going on. And, why would it have walked right into my space to do this? Based on the circumstances and on the trust for me that this coyote probably had developed by seeing me never intrude into its space when I photographed, I concluded that this posture had been assumed very deliberately, possibly to communicate its trust or acceptance? Of course, maybe the coyote was testing me, or maybe there was no reason whatsoever, but my gut feeling went with my first interpretation. See the photos above.

Shortly after I had taken the last of these photos, a walker appeared from in back of me, a walker whose dog was tugging at the leash and gaping towards the coyote. The coyote’s stance and behavior changed — I wanted to include this as a contrast to the sitting and facing away behavior I just described. The coyote now got up and faced the intruders  – the coyote obviously knew the dog was restrained by the leash — it did not seem overly alarmed, but it felt wary enough to get up and keep its eyes on them.  As the owner walked on, the coyote walked and ran alongside them, about 25 to 50 feet off. If this dog had been off the leash, it would have chased the coyote — it was tugging and lunging towards the coyote.

So, the coyote followed, seemingly in order to observe and comprehend and maybe even to test what might happen, or maybe even to taunt — I don’t really know, I’m just thinking of likely possibilities. The dog was showing its desire to pursue the coyote, lunging and pulling at the leash, but it was not doing so because it was restrained. Coyotes can read a dog’s intention well, so this contradiction between intention and behavior may have been a bit of a mystery for this coyote. This coyote was about eight months old and still learning. After a short distance the coyote lost interest and ran up a hill and out of sight. I have seen another coyote comprehend that a restrained dog would not chase it — the coyote actually lay down in their presence as they walked by.

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