Three Disturbances in One Morning is Too Much

Most coyotes you might pass in the mornings in the parks are on their way “home”. For the most part, they are shy so they don’t linger where they can be seen for too long — they prefer not being seen at all. However, they might stop out of curiosity: “what are you doing and where are you going?” Soon they will have ducked into the underbrush, and they are gone.

The few bolder coyotes, usually mothers and leaders of their families, don’t mind being seen at a distance on occasion. Until they go “home”, they might sit in a protected spot high up where they can rest in peace, like the little bull Ferdinand in the story book, and where they can keep an eye on things. If these coyotes are disturbed, interfered with or chased, they will complain loudly and openly rather than just run away, and they may turn around to defend themselves. I watched as this type of coyote was interfered with three times today.

I arrived at the park in time to hear the distressed barking that a coyote engages in after it has been chased or disturbed. This intense barking can go on for as long as 20 minutes. I decided to follow the sound and found the coyote still engaged in its complaining. Although I had not arrived in time to see what actually caused the complaining, I assumed that the group of walkers I was hearing had had an encounter with the coyote, and this distressed barking was the result of that. After taking a photo, I left the coyote barking, and continued up a hill on my walk.

Soon afterwards, I found this same coyote, calmed down, in a different part of the park, on a ledge where it had stationed itself. I watched it and took photos for a while. It relaxed most of the time, but stood up now and then when a runner or dog on a nearby path caught its attention. It always went back to its perch after these had passed.

THEN things changed. The coyote bolted up and stared at something on the path below which I could not see. The coyote got flustered and began running away as a woman yelled for her dog which was now chasing the coyote . The dog pursuing the coyote was a very large German Shepherd. The coyote ran towards a more protected part of the park and started, for a second time, 20 minutes of distressed barking. The dog owner must have grabbed her dog because I did not see it again. Meanwhile, the coyote continued its complaining, keeping its eyes on all paths that might lead to where it was. I have seen that these incidents only happen with unleashed dogs. Although everyone knows that coyotes are in the area, not everyone wants to take the precaution or responsibility of leashing a dog they know might disturb the coyote.

The coyote then trotted a little ways in the direction where the dog had come from, where it continued barking for a short time. The barking session then ended with a few little breathy grunts. The coyote, now calmer, walked back over to the ledge where it had been resting before the German Shepherd chase. The dog and owner were gone.

And now, there is an important point I would like to make. These two incidents may have emboldened the coyote somewhat. If they had not occurred, the coyote may not have gone into a defensive mode or set herself up to be ready when a third dog appeared. What I’m seeing is that if several dogs chase a coyote or interfere with it, the coyote’s defenses may build up. If one person lets their dog confront the coyote, it makes it harder for other dog owners to deal with the coyote which now has its ire up and is emboldened and feeling defensive.

The reason I say this is that I then watched a THIRD disturbance for this coyote — the third in one morning. Right after this last incident had subsided, a female runner could be seen jogging with her two Weimeraners. These also were unleashed. The coyote saw them and stationed itself to watch from a place where dogs could actually reach it — wasn’t this a bit provocative? The coyote now seemed prepared for defending itself if it were chased. As the woman ran by, one of her dogs went towards the coyote — maybe out of curiosity — I did not see if it was a full blown chase. The coyote was in no mood to be interfered with again and it did not head away from the dogs. Instead, coyote gave the display you see here and even ran after the lagging dog to herd it on. The woman ran ahead calling her dogs which were some distance in back of her. As this group ran out of sight, the coyote stood and watched them, and then trotted off in the other direction.

My point in writing this is to let everyone know that coyotes don’t want these interactions. They do not want to be interfered with. They want to be left alone. They want to rest calmly. But, if this type of coyote is approached or interfered with, and if its ire has already been awakened so that it is in a defensive mode, it might very well stand up for itself. ALSO, if a dog has had previous interactions of this sort with the coyote, the coyote remembers, and is prepared for this particular dog. The coyote may even make the first approach in an effort to warn the dog off before the dog even thinks of disturbing the coyote: better warn them off before they chase you.

These encounters can be avoided if we keep our dogs away from the coyotes to begin with by leashing them. Please help establish a peaceful coexistence with our coyotes. A coyote only has its self-protective instincts to follow. Dogs also have to deal with their instinctual and “playful” needs, but in this case the owner can call the shots by preventing an encounter. It is the dog owners who have control. They need to prevent all interactions so as to protect both our dogs and the coyotes.

Shaking Out The Rain

As it rained on and off, this coyote shook out the wetness. The top sequence was after the rain had stopped. The bottom sequence was right in the middle of the rain! The shaking is strong enough to make the entire body look contorted in a photograph, with skin and fur whipping back and forth over the body. The image I was unable to catch was the shaking body with the ability to see the water flying out in all directions. I may still get it yet!!

A Shake-can (Clicker is too weak), If Needed

A soft-drink can filled with a few bolts, coins and pebbles, when shaken, will make a racket to vex a coyote away from you and your dog if this should become necessary. The standard soda-can shaker is rather bulky to carry on your walks. I have found that using a much smaller 5.5 oz. juice can makes just as much noise as the soda can and can easily fit into a pocket. I tried to find an even smaller alternative and came up with a loud clicker. Although this can have a sharp and penetrating sound, even a very loud one will not be as effective as the shake-can.

In all my years of watching coyotes, I have never ever had to ward one off. A coyote might approach in your direction out of curiosity, but it will keep a safe distance because coyotes do not want to tangle with humans. However, if you have a dog, you may feel more secure in a coyote area if you have the can on hand, especially during pupping season. Coyotes have come in close to some of the dogs in our urban parks for various reasons, as I have discussed earlier. The shake-cans have loud and sharp sounds, which, along with your vigorous activity of shaking the can, might serve as a “double” vexing agent. Of course, ultimately, flailing your arms and any sharp sound, even screaming or yelling, will serve the same purpose to increase the distance between you and a coyote who you feel has come in too close to you.

Pesky Gnats

These photos show gnats surrounding this coyote who is attempting to relax. The coyote observed them a few times, and batted some away with its snout, but otherwise put up with them.

“What Are You Doing & Where Are You Going?” -Following

In the morning I saw a small border collie and its owner before I noticed a coyote trotting along a short distance behind them. I called out that a coyote was right there — but this did not phase the owner, who slowly bagged the dog’s droppings before leashing up. This dog and coyote know each other visually, but keep their distance. The owner leashes her dog because she does not want the possibility of an altercation between her dog and the coyote. The result would be a bad reputation for the coyote — so we all guard against this.  In this case, the small dog, about the same size as a coyote, was totally oblivious to the coyote — he had not seen it. Most dogs become aware of any coyote in the immediate vicinity well before their owners do.

The owner continued walking up the hill where she looked back to finally see the coyote herself. The coyote knew it had been sighted, so it jumped into some bushes further back, “just in case” the dog might go after it. The woman and her dog walked on, saying they would be back on their way out of the park. The coyote came out, no longer to follow these two, but to bask on a rock in the sun, even dozing off a little now and then. The coyote might have been waiting for the return of this dog — if it had learned of their walking routine.

After exactly half an hour, the coyote stood up and gazed intently in one area. It kept its eyes glued on a trail which I could not see. It turned out that the coyote was watching this same woman and her dog returning. When I finally did see the owner, we waved at each other and she acknowledged the coyote’s presence, and then she proceeded onto a trail out of the park. The coyote at this point got up, stretched, and follow them to the entrance.

By the time I reached the entrance to the park, the walker was gone, and the coyote was examining something at the end of the trail. I wanted to put this into my blog because it seemed to me that the coyote actually had chosen to follow this particular dog as it entered the park, and then to follow it as it exited the park. There was nothing “threatening” about the following, just a certain “nosiness” on the part of the coyote: “what are you doing and where are you going?” I think the coyote was confirming for itself what she already knew as the pattern: that the dog was just “visiting” the park and then “moving on”.

I have seen lots of instances of coyote “nosiness”. A few mornings ago I was walking with a friend when we noticed a coyote dart by quickly, almost undetectably. Sometimes a coyote might dart by on its way somewhere, and that is the end of that. But sometimes, especially if you, or you and your dog, stop to observe the coyote, it will do the same, even coming back around a bend or a bush fairly close so as to be able to examine you. The coyote wants to know what you are doing and where you are going.  I suppose nosiness elicits nosiness in this case!! Or call it curiosity. The coyotes might engage in this for a few minutes, but inevitably more walkers and dogs appear and the coyotes run off.

Do Coyote Tails Wag? “Catch Me If You Can!”

Yes, coyote tails do wag, but from what I’ve seen, quite differently than a dogs. When the coyotes wag their tails in excited and anxious anticipation, the tails move very slowly in a back and forth motion. When they greet each other at a rendezvous, the tails seems to be swished around in circles — circles of ecstatic joy! Please note the pure joy displayed in their faces as these two coyotes play with each other. They are totally involved with the play and with each other. Their vision was intensely focused on each other as they played, though a couple of times they looked over at me. They seemed to concentrate on each others faces to anticipate what the other would do. Their play involved inciting the other to chase, chasing, keeping away from the other by running around a bush — sometimes the chaser “jumped” the barrier-bush, waging their tails in anticipation as they waited for the other to react, running together, feinting, testing.

Notice their mouths are open, they are almost smiling. Also, there was crouching with the front part of the body down and back part up in a puppy “invitation to play” fashion. When they reached each other after a chase, their mouths were agape and often their teeth are bared, but they never made tooth contact. They often lay in a sphinx-like posture while waiting. They panted. The play continued for 24 minutes before they ducked into the brush.

Experts at Eluding Detection: Coyote behavior

I keep my eyes open for wildlife — this is where my focus is, so I have become pretty good at catching what someone else might miss. Today I spotted a coyote on a path — pretty visible right in the open — but it was gone in the blink of an eye. The minute it knew it had been seen, it immediately was absolutely and totally GONE. It had bounced, like a rabbit, into some underbrush, and although I thought I might be able to see it again, I did not. The day before I was able to make out two ears way up ahead on the horizon with the sun coming from that direction — visibility was bad. When I got there, no critter was to be seen anywhere until with much effort I was able to detect a slight movement off to the side. It was the coyote, well camouflaged behind some thorny underbrush. I had only an instant to look, before it was off and gone.

Coyotes are often not seen by walkers: they easily elude detection, even if you are looking for one. I have seen many walkers not see one that crossed very close in front of them! Of course, at other times you might see one wandering boldly on an open path, totally unconcerned, and it might turn around and examine you out of curiosity. Or you might see one surveying the area from a lookout. There are no generalities with coyotes.

In the news!!

Janet Kessler, looking for wildlife on the slopes of Twin Peaks, keeps herself grounded in nature. Credit Laura Morton for The New York Times

Janet Kessler, looking for wildlife on the slopes of Twin Peaks, keeps herself grounded in nature. Credit Laura Morton for The New York Times

Taking Walks On The Wild Side, in The New York Times on Sunday, March 14, 2010. Click on the article title to be taken to it, or press here for the PDF version.

Is There A Message in “Pooping”?

I noticed a couple of coyotes showing curiosity, at a distance, towards a dog walking along a path with its owner. The owner later told me that the coyotes had actually tried sniffing her dog’s end. This dog is one that is not interested in coyotes — the dog is not oblivious to coyotes, but does ignore them. By the time I had met up with this walker and her dog, the two young coyotes had moved ahead and now appeared on the path some distance in front of us. They had their eyes in our direction — they were watching the dog and they were obviously curious about its not reacting to them. The coyotes stood there, so the dog owner asked her dog to sit, to keep it from getting any closer to the coyotes. The dog did so immediately. So we all watched each other.

The closer coyote was especially curious and even headed our way a few paces. But its bravery waned as we all began to hear voices on the path from where we had come. But before running off, this coyote squatted down and pooped, right there in front of us, on the path, facing us and keeping its eyes on us! I have seen this exact same behavior before, but in this case there had been no dog with me. Was this a message? Coyote scat is often found right in the middle of paths. Was there meaning to this, to either the scat itself or the pooping process, or was it just that “when you have to go, you have to go”? Others have asked this same question.

The Issue of Coyote-Dog Habituation

Some people have been concerned about the possibility of coyote habituation to humans in our parks. Of course coyotes will become used to humans by the circumstance of us all being together in the parks.  However, with many hours of watching time, I have to say that I have never seen a coyote approach a human — I have only seen coyotes flee as humans get nearer to them. My belief is that unhealthy habituation is caused by an interaction — an exchange. Coyotes are not interested in interacting with humans. The one circumstance which I have read “forces” an interaction between coyotes and humans is humans feeding them. It is against the law to feed wildlife. Feeding coyotes is the one factor which has been implicated in coyotes becoming aggressive towards humans. Please do not feed coyotes.

However, I’m sure everyone has noted that coyotes have become habituated to dogs in our parks — not in the same way they have to humans. With humans, coyotes guard their distance. This is not so with dogs. Coyotes have approached some of the dogs. It is only some dog owners who have had issues with the coyotes in our parks — and these have always been unleashed dogs.  If we keep our dogs leashed, that would help a lot. Nonetheless, we cannot prevent the visual contact and body language that inevitably go on between some dogs and coyotes as they watch each other from a distance over time — this is a communication, it is an “exchange”, it is an interaction. Dogs and coyotes, through regular visual contact with each other, do learn each other’s behaviors and they become “familiar” with one another. We’ve all heard that familiarity breeds contempt — well, maybe a little of this is going on with the coyotes and dogs? I’m trying to make sense of the behaviors I have seen so that we all may know how to deal with them. This is what I am seeing.

So coyotes have approached some of the unleashed dogs in our parks, not viciously, but in an almost “testing” manner — something between “testing”, “taunting”, and “play” — with a kind of “I’m playing, but I mean it” attitude — and this appears to happen with dogs which the coyote has come to know, mostly through visual observation on a regular basis or from a previous interaction of some sort, such as the dog’s having chased the coyote or approached it. There is an aspect of oneupmanship in the coyotes’ and the dogs’ behavior. The coyote actually ignores the human who is with the dog, unless the human sees the coyote soon enough to make an effort to shoo it off. Note, again, that these coyotes have never come towards a human who does not have a dog: the interest is in the dog. If you keep your dog right next to yourself and leashed, a coyote is unlikely to dart in.

The most common coyote behavior towards a dog which I’ve seen involves a short charge-and-retreat sequence which seems to say: “note that I’m here, keep away from me and my kin.” It is not vicious, but there is a display and bluff that can be intense. At its core is probably the issue of territoriality: that this is the coyote’s turf. After all, dogs come and go all day long, whereas a coyote is in the park all the time and depends on the park for its very survival: for food and shelter and raising its family. This behavior is not something that a coyote carries on and on with. Rather, I’ve seen a coyote engage one dog this way and then remove itself from the area. The dog is always one which happens to be in the coyote’s immediate vicinity at the time. This behavior does not happen often, but I have observed it a handful of times. The dog will often respond to the coyote so that the behavior ends up being a  short “chase-chase” sequence back and forth before it is over.

The blatant display described here, as I’ve seen it, is always carried out by a dominant breeding female coyote. A couple of times younger coyotes have tentatively approached a calm, uninterested dog — one which they have observed is unlikely to chase them — it is a friendly approach, purely out of curiosity. These younger coyotes don’t approach dogs in a “testing” sort of way and always back off immediately if shooed away.

Please note that we can prevent this kind of physical interaction by keeping our dogs leashed in the first place, and by loudly and blatantly shooing off a coyote which comes too close for our comfort. You will not be able to prevent the visual communication between the coyotes and dogs which actually sets the groundwork for this behavior — though the communication can be minimized by leashing. This is because dogs very often direct their attention to the extent that their leashes allow them to go, and coyotes have little need to communicate with a calmer dog. If we take our dogs to parks where there are coyotes, this sort of habituation is inevitable. What we can do is be aware of the behavior so that it is not unexpected when it occurs. If we are prepared, maybe even with a shake-can, a possible unhappy incident might be prevented.

If anyone has further insight and observations on this behavior, I would love to hear from you! As I said, these are my own observations of a behavior I’m trying to make sense of.

A Snake Is Found: Coyote behavior


This coyote jumped down from a rock and seemed to be headed off. I went to look over the ledge where the coyote had disappeared, but it was right there, in a depression. The coyote looked up at me so I quickly backed off. After a minute, thinking the coyote had gone by now, I again peeked over the ledge. The coyote had something long in its mouth: it was a snake! I thought that maybe the snake would be eaten, but it was not. Instead, it was carried a short distance and dropped. The coyote must not have liked the taste because after dropping the snake, it licked its mouth with displeasure. Then it rolled on the snake several times, picking it up during the last roll. The coyote then stood up, dropped the snake, and left!

I can’t be sure if the coyote killed this snake while it was out of my sight, or if the snake had been killed at an earlier time and left there to be “rolled on as needed”. I have seen a coyote pick up an already dead lizard and then lower itself onto the smelly carcass for a “perfume bath.”

Coyote Paws Work Hard

I was photographing a coyote when I noticed the paws: ragged, bruised, chafed, worn and maybe a bit bloody. I had just seen a foot-deep, eight-inch wide hole which I know to have been dug by a coyote — it had been a gopher hole on a hill right at the edge of a trail. I thought I would put these photos together here.

Toying With Prey: Coyote behavior

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Cats are known to toy with their prey: they don’t kill it immediately, but rather they allow it to stay alive just enough to move and try to get away, then they re-catch it over and over again. We think of this as cruel. Other animals besides cats do this, including coyotes.  As I watched, the process seemed to drag on and on forever. When I later examined the time-stamped photographs, I was able to see that the entire episode took less than two minutes. It was a long, long two minutes for me.

I was watching, and the coyote knew I was watching. I wondered if the performance was for me. As I was watching, I wondered if the coyote was testing or tempting me to see if I would come in and grab the prey — I say this because of the way the coyote kept looking at me. I’ve now seen this type of activity twice. The first time I saw it, the coyote ended up eating the little vole. But the second time, the coyote actually abandoned the prey by dropping the victim and leaving. I wondered if he had left the prey for me? Or was the vole just too small to be worth it? I have seen a couple of voles left — heads cut off — and wondered what the significance of this was, if any.

Encountering More Than One Coyote

The morning, which ended up in such a leisurely fashion, did not begin this way. I spotted this mother coyote early on as she headed up towards a rock. She stayed up there, moving between several high rocks, and eventually sprawled out on the highest one, but she definitely was keeping her eye on something on the trail below. Then, in a flash, she dashed off. I thought that was the end of my coyote viewing for the day. Within minutes the coyote began her distressed barking — she only does this when she has been chased or interfered with by a dog — it may be one of her ways of keeping dogs at bay, but it also shows that she is upset.

It turns out that she had seen a dog, a dog she has seen often, which got too close to one of her yearling pups — she had come to its aid. The pup was probably in absolutely no danger, but we have to see it from this mother’s point of view: after all, dogs have chased her plenty of times in the past. When she first appeared on the scene, the dog, which should have been leashed, chased her off — this is normal unleashed dog behavior. But she responded by returning and coming in pretty close. This is typical coyote behavior. It can only be prevented by leashing our dogs immediately when a coyote is spotted, and not allowing a “casual” encounter — you cannot predict what will happen with any animal, much less with a wild animal, and in this case there was more than one coyote — the mother and the yearling. Keeping your dog leashed and close to yourself will serve to deter a coyote from coming in closer as you move out of the immediate vicinity.

There is usually an alpha female somewhere around in any coyote group: she is the only one that breeds and she is the one that controls the group and is responsible for their safety. If we allow our dogs to approach or threaten — or even appear to threaten a coyote — the female may come in to help so that you might be dealing with more than one coyote. Coyotes work as a team when there is more than one of them, with one serving to distract while the other goes around to approach from the other side — this usually is more than most dogs can handle — dogs feel overwhelmed by this behavior. But the coyotes are trying to send a message as clearly as they can: “Leave!” and “Don’t mess with us.”  They will continue this behavior, coming back again and maybe again, until dog and owner move on out of the immediate vicinity where the dog had come too close to the yearling.

The dogs, too, may feel they need to defend “their pack”, which includes all dogs or individuals in their party. Each side — dogs and coyotes — want to feel they have “won” by making the other leave. In this incident today, once the coyotes left for the first time, the dogs thought they had “taken care of the matter”, but the coyotes returned to continue vexing the dogs and owner until they left. Only we humans can prevent these interactions from happening by leashing our dogs. It is a canine-canine thing which needs our intervention if we all want to coexist together: humans, dogs, and recently returned wildlife.

The best policy is to leash up and move on. Please read about coyote safety and how you can shoo a coyote off if you encounter one at a close enough range to make you uncomfortable: Coyote Safety published on November 3, 2009.

A Morning of Scratching the Itches

I watched a coyote for four hours, mostly right in an open field high up on a hill. Most of the time was spent scratching the itches: scratching the ears, scratching the belly, licking the paws, rolling in the grass with paws up in the air, shaking out the body, shaking out the head. Besides these activities, there was plenty of dozing, including during a heavy but short shower of rain. The morning had actually begun with a short but intense dog encounter. But the morning was meant to be spent as pictured here, because this is where I first spotted this coyote early on, and this is the place to which it returned after its brief dog encounter.

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