“River Pack Update: Some things change, some stay the same” by Charles Wood

My last post was February 22, 2011 when I photographed the mom coyote that lives in a small field that borders one of Los Angeles County’s concrete ‘rivers’.  That post was about 9 weeks after having seen Mom, Dad and their two undispersed female children who by today would be about a year old.  In the past I called one of the children Bold and the other Shy.  I have included their earlier photographs in today’s post.

A couple weeks ago I began to enter their small field a few times to walk along its roads with my leashed dog Holtz.  Coyote tracks and droppings were on the roads, yet my coyotes, if even present during my visits, would not come out.  I remember winter 2009-10 was a time I rarely saw my coyotes.  Winter 2010-11 has been the same.  I wondered if Dad was still paired with Mom and if not, who would be with whom and would there be more pups this year.  I wondered if the two female youngsters had dispersed or worse.  Perhaps they had all moved to other areas.

Today as I walked south on their road, at their nest area, I spotted the first youngster peering from the brush.  She came out to watch us and then left to hide.  In her photograph, note she has distinct blemishes below her left eye.  Regardless, I’m not sure if this first youngster is Bold or Shy.  I seriously doubt it was neither.

I continued my walk and later left the field via the same road.  Dad peered out from the nest area.  I photographed him and he went back into the brush.  I walked on towards the exit and Dad and a youngster came out to the road and watched our progress and assessed whatever odors we had left on the road.  I say ‘a’ youngster because I am not sure which it was.  Eventually Dad and the first youngster pictured began to follow Holtz and I as we continued to leave.  They did so after returning to the brush and coming out to the road several times.  For the fact that they were not in my continuous view, I’m not sure Dad’s companion in approach is the same youngster shown marking on the road.  I am sure Dad’s companion in approach is the first youngster because the final picture of her in this series shows the same blemish pattern below the left eye.  If she is Bold, she is still so.  If she is Shy, she is less so and learned more from Dad today about how to deal with intruder dogs.  What has changed, and what is the same?

Certainly Dad is the same in his distaste for Holtz.  When following us, Dad decided to quickly close the distance between us.  Before so doing, he scraped dirt.  He and the youngster split up, where Dad came east of the rocks and the youngster came towards us to the west of the rocks.  They met up at the rocks, the youngster holding back as Dad charged Holtz.  The Dad And Youngster photograph was taken after Dad’s charge.  He had come to about 20 feet and stopped, backed off some and stood as shown.  He seemed calmer so I took his picture.  I didn’t take pictures during Dad’s charge because I was charging towards Dad to get in front of Holtz.  Here we see one function of long hair on a coyote’s nape and shoulders:  he sure looks bigger!

My exit strategy after such a confrontation is to walk on, stop, turn around and stare, walk on, turn to stare.  Dad’s exit strategy is to pace, yawn, poke his tongue out, find a nearby site to lie down, attend to his grooming needs and stay put as we leave.  The youngster wanders around, visits Dad, wanders some more, going back and forth yet not forward.

I’m happy to know Dad is still holding his field and that at least one of last year’s pups is alive and undispersed.  I suspect that Mom is present and that there may indeed be more pups this year.  I’m interested to know if last year’s pup(s) will remain and have a role in caring for newborns.  The weeds are growing back quickly in the areas cleared in fall and winter.  The coyotes make use of the additional cover as a puppy kindergarten.  Last year I began seeing the pups in late June, observing them from outside of the field.  The information gained today leaves me content to now keep out of the field.

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.

Tell-Tale Trail After Rainstorms

Here is a set of nice footprints I came across recently in one of the parks after a hefty rainstorm. The footprints are next to each other, indicating the coyote had stopped to observe something. Did it stop because there was a vole ahead to be caught? Or was there maybe a dog or human ahead to be avoided? Maybe the coyote had been traveling with its mate and stopped to observe what the other was doing. Or maybe it was traveling alone and stopped simply to assess the lay of the land before moving on. These are all common coyote behaviors.

Further on I came across another sign left by a coyote. Dogs for the most part tend to poop off to the side of a path. This makes sense — it is close to where they were walking. However, different from dogs, coyotes often appear to leave theirs as specific traces of their presence for others to see — often right in the middle of a trail or a trail intersection. If it is left as a “message” it is a form of communication.

I’ve actually observed a coyote in the “act” of defecating in the middle of a path, as a message for a person or dog who was following not too far behind. I am sure the message was to convey some kind of delimitation or boundary — either territorial or personal space — but its exact meaning I cannot be sure of.

Marking with urine is a sign that we humans can’t read at all, but we all have observed a dog or coyote go up to a spot where another canine has left its mark, and then mark on top of that — “trumping” it, so to speak. Humans can only be aware of this “sign” if they see a coyote mark, or if they have a dog who “trumps” another dog or a coyote’s marking — and you can’t be sure which.

Finally, on this trail, I came to a spot that suggested a turnoff point for a coyote — which would also be used by other wild animals — a “tunnel” in the underbrush that went deeper into the woods and away from all human and dog activity — an escape to safety.

Further along the trail I saw the imprint of raccoon paws on the path — the “hand” print is pretty clear, but there is also a “foot” print to the immediate right of it.  Our parks have lots of wildlife. There were no signs indicating a scuffle, so this raccoon probably did not meet the coyote whose trail I followed. Although a group of coyotes can overpower a raccoon, one-on-one a raccoon can normally defend itself well — and does so ferociously — against a coyote.

Shafts of Fur

The rain isn’t necessarily good for taking photos, but in some instances it actually serves to make things clearer. Because the coyote was very wet, the fur clumped together, so the camera was better able to focus on these clumped shafts of fur. From the photo you can actually see what these shafts look like from end to end.

This fur here is part of the crescent shaped pattern located just below the shoulders crossing the coyote’s back. Each hair has three stripes: dark at the skin line — this is the longest section, then white, and then dark at the tip. The fur in this location across the upper back is the longest found on a coyote except for the tail. It gets to be over two inches in length.

Sopping, Shake-off, and Dry

This coyote was sitting in the pouring rain — just taking it all in, so to speak. The rain did not let up the entire time I watched. When he finally stood up to go, he must have had several cups of water sponged into both his under and outer coats. But not for long. The shake-off began — shwoosh — causing a shower of water to fly in all directions in a three-foot circumference. And then he was ready to trot off — at least one pound lighter and very much drier than before.

Here is another instance of a coyote not being bothered very much by a torrential downpour.


This little coyote was relaxing on a rock, sitting upright and looking around, when I first saw him. Soon, he started gagging uncontrollably: whatever was not right had to be fixed.

First the coyote tried manipulating its jaw and tongue in an attempt to dislodge whatever was there. This didn’t seem to get very far — fixing the problem was going to require more effort than this. He then stood up in order to reach a grassy area where he began chewing the grass and ingesting it. Grass is eaten by dogs and coyotes to help with feelings of discomfort in the gut. But this, too, did not seem to solve the problem, because suddenly the coyote took off down the path, trotting very quickly and purposefully.

He trotted directly over to a rock about 100 feet away, where he must have known there was a puddle of water. And here, the coyote slowly sipped from the puddle of rain water held in the rock:  he looked relieved as he looked up between sips. That, apparently, was the remedy which was needed. When the coyote was comfortable again, curling up on a rock became the order of the day, and that is what the coyote did.

The Interpretation

The “spooked” posting continues with an “interpretation”. These photos here show the same thing going on as in that posting: a spooked or surprised coyote hurries away from a dog and its owner, up to a ledge where it begins a distressed barking session until the dog and owner are far gone, and then follows them for a short distance or waits to make sure they are gone.

Dog owners who understand the situation are always amused at this behavior. They seem to comprehend coyote behavior especially when their own dogs are involved. However, I remember various instances of when a dog owner, after this exact same behavior, announced far and wide that there was an “aggressive” coyote out stalking him and his dog. It’s so sad when someone spreads fear and maliciousness about a coyote who basically just wants to be left alone.

Yes, there was the distressed barking, and the coyote did spend some moments watching the dogs that had spooked it. Those of us who have come to know various of our local coyotes can attest to what was going on. But anyone who doesn’t know coyotes or understand their behavior, anyone with the tiniest bit of fear, will spin a tale, and, as the story spreads, it grows, until you have a sensational story all ready for the press.

Coyotes will defend themselves and their territories against dogs. This is why it is best to leash dogs in coyote areas: dogs and coyotes need to be kept apart. But a spooked coyote is just that, not an aggressor.


All coyote barking that I have ever heard stems from incidents with dogs — an intrusion of some kind. This distressed barking should not be confused with the joyful howls that coyotes are prone to. Here I’m referring to distressed barking caused by the intrusion. But the intrusion doesn’t necessarily always involve an intentional intrusion. Today, for instance, this coyote, who obviously was caught off his guard, became surprised or spooked when two dogs and their owner appeared within the coyote’s safety range suddenly and without warning. The dogs had not chased the coyote at all, though there may have been canine communication of some sort — by eye contact and body language. Dog owners are seldom aware of this communication.  The spooked coyote ran off to a high perch where he began a long, distressed, and drawn out barking session. He was “bitching” and “screaming” to let everyone know he was upset, and this continued for a good long time — until the “perpetrators” had walked on, far out of sight.

In this instance, when the coast had become clear, the coyote trotted off to another part of the path where he knew the dogs and walker would be returning, and waited vigilantly. I observed him watch them coming. He continued in this same spot until the dogs and owner were within about 150 feet, and then he stealthily slithered from view. There had been no barking the second time around — that part of the incident was over — this time the coyote just observed, to assure himself that the dogs and owner would be leaving in the same direction from which they had come, and maybe to let them know that he was still there!

Junk Food Smarts

This coyote was walking, very cautiously and slowly, when it spotted a junk food wrapper in the middle of the road. He approached the bag and sniffed it, but then walked on a little further to a bit of food a few feet away, sniffing it carefully. I was a little disappointed when he picked up the bit of food — junk food is not good for coyotes. It must have been a potato chip or something similar.

I thought he had eaten it by the time he got to the curb. But no. He deliberately dropped it and then urinated on it! He must have deemed it unfit to eat! And the urinating on it was a message to other coyotes who might find the same piece of food! I don’t know if the food had gone bad, or if the coyote could recognize the worthlessness of junk food as a nutrition source!

Photographers Who Love Wildlife

Peter Sulzle’s Wild Kamloops

Amy Chandler Photography

“SF Residents Learn to Coexist with Urban Coyotes” by Robin Hindery

110313-coyotes-vlg-3p.grid-4x2-1Robin Hindery has written a wonderful article — informative, interesting and fair — about how San Franciscans are learning to coexist with urban coyotes.  Robin is an Associated Press reporter and Jeff Chiu is an Associated Press photographer. We all hiked together in one of the many coyote habitats in San Francisco. Thank you, Robin! Thank you Jeff! The article appeared in newspapers all over the US, including the New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle and the Herald Tribune. I’ve included a link here to one of the papers:


SF Residents Coexist With Urban Coyotes (PDF)

NYTimes (PDF)

More Stinky Activity

I don’t get the impression that coyotes go specifically looking for something stinky to wallow on. Instead, something they “happen upon” elicits this response in them.  And almost all of these “somethings” are dead animals. Lizards, snakes, voles, a skunk, or cooked fish bones tossed by a human.

This coyote was sitting, standing and walking about on a large rocky knoll, in the rain, and ducking off whenever a person approached up a nearby path. He was successful at not being detected by anyone. But one of these “duckings off” took him over to a rock with a dead snake on it. Ahh. This immediately caught his attention. More than likely, this coyote had left the snake there himself. Snakes are prey to a number of animals in the area:  hawks, owls, raccoons, skunks and even cats. Dogs, too, in their inquisitiveness and playfulness might grab a snake and kill it. Snakes are consumed by all of these creatures except the dogs, I think.

And, I have never seen a coyote eat a snake — nor lizards nor moles. That these animals are particularly smelly is an important factor. Coyotes use them to wallow on in order to absorb their odor. And this is what happened here, in the rain. I have not seen rain be much of a barrier to coyote activity of any kind, but this is the first time I’ve seen wallowing in the rain. I would have thought that the rain might have diluted the strong smell, and maybe it did, but the coyote couldn’t resist what he would have done had it not been raining.

The coyote lowered its neck and shoulder first and then rubbed itself on the snake by scooting over it. He got up and placed the snake in a better position, and then repeated what he had done before, starting with his neck and shoulder again. Before leaving, he marked the spot with urine, and then trotted off.

One Last Perusal Before Turning In For The Day

As I watched, this coyote came purposefully trotting down a trail. She knew exactly where she was headed — to one of her favorite lookout posts, one that gave a birds-eye view of a large portion of her territory. She got to her post and just stood there, looked around, calmly, but carefully, looking in all directions. It was quiet and still. There might have been a dog walker — from my vantage point I could not see this, but from her gaze, I would guess it. One has to admire the purposefulness and the patience of this intelligent animal.

The survey continued for about twenty minutes, and then ended with a scratching session, after which the coyote descended rocks and a cliff to a dense thicket and disappeared therein. I have seen this same behavior before, with slight variations, though it is not routine.

A Skunk, Oh, No!

This doesn’t look like a skunk, but it sure smelled like one — strongly!  The smell overtook everything in all directions as I followed far behind this hiker. History be told! Interestingly, I had just met someone an hour before who told me his dog had found a dead skunk a few days earlier, and that the odor remained incredibly strong on the dog’s muzzle, even though the dog had not been sprayed. I wonder if it was the same skunk.

Actually, it is just as likely that this coyote rolled on the odor pouch or gland of a dead skunk as it is that it was sprayed. Coyotes tend to love perfume — the smellier, the better. Dogs, too, engage in this activity — wallowing on smelly carcasses, or even grasses that have been fertilized with smelly substances such as fish emulsion.

Interestingly, I read that skunks do not spray each other — they reserve this defense technique to ward off possible predators.

Rushed By A Dog

dog rushes a coyote who begins bouncing up & down in a display warning; it worked because the dog turns back here

Coyotes want to be left alone. They do not want to be approached and they do not want to be rushed or chased. Everyone knows how their particular dog will react to a coyote right after their very first encounter with one.

In this instance, a coyote was up on a hill relaxing and minding its own business — watching everything from the distance. It was off the beaten path and therefore out of the way. But as this unleashed dog came over the crest of a hill, he immediately spotted the coyote and rushed it. This is not a new activity for this dog, he has done it before. What is a game for a dog, is not so for a wild coyote. Without coming after the dog, the coyote made a few short feint rushes, bounced up and down, scratched the ground and had its hackles up. The coyote was doing all it could to communicate its needs: “don’t come after me, leave me alone.”

The dog understood, because it didn’t get any closer than what you see in the photo — the dog is actually turning to run to the safety of its master as I clicked this shot. The owner grabbed the dog and leashed it, and they walked on. This incident could have been easily prevented. If your dog has ever gone after a coyote, you need to keep your dog leashed — this is the only way to be responsible and fair to all involved: your dog, the coyote, yourself, other dogs and other walkers.

PCH Male, by Charles Wood

In north Orange County near Pacific Coast Highway I’ve found a male that’s active when I visit with my leashed dog.  In contrast, my river coyotes elude me.

Today near PCH a Northern Harrier was hunting a ridge and I was working on photographing it.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw a coyote descend the ridge into a cleared basin area below.  It is the third time I have seen him there.  The basin sits below a fenced walkway that provides an excellent view of a large field that ends at PCH and the beach.  The area close to the walkway contains the ridge, the basin clearing and brushy cover, cover the coyote quickly entered, knowing he had been seen.

I moved closer to the area he entered, being sure to stay away from brush.  I stood hoping to see him while my dog, close to me, lied down to groom.  In a while the coyote chose to leave the area in full view fewer than fifty feet distant.  There were many invisible points of exit he could have chosen and many visible exit points farther from me.

At first glance the photograph of him leaving may give the impression of a coyote simply walking by with a dog-like smile, unconcerned, headed to places unknown.  A closer look shows that although he isn’t bothering to look at us, his ear is telling him all he needs to know about my dog and me.  The picture with his tongue protruding also is a clue about his state of mind, as is the fact that he opted to pass close by.  My read of him is of a coyote engaged in a low intensity territorial confrontation.  Over a year ago, my river coyotes began their objections to my presence with the same behaviors, including the concluding tongue protrusion.  As I continued to encroach on my river coyotes’ space their confrontational behaviors incrementally increased in intensity.  Yet their objections began with behaviors much as displayed by the beach guy today.

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.

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