Breeding Season: Wandering, Sniffing, Marking and Scraping

Not only has wandering increased recently, but so has sniffing, marking and scraping or kicking. The increase is probably due to it’s being the breeding season.

Urinating leaves all sorts of scents and messages which other coyotes, or even other animals, can pick up on. The urine, as we’ve seen from human dope testing, contains traces of all sorts of hormones and pheromones excreted by the individual animal. These hormones and pheromones can indicate  gender, age, stature, and maybe even mating availability. Urine is used by animals for marking their territorial boundaries, but also for leaving these other messages about their status.

Scraping or kicking the same spot they urinated on is a common behavior of dominant individuals. The act of scraping or kicking often signals leading status — it, too, is a messaging behavior. Paws apparently also secrete scents. Scraping, besides leaving traces of scent from the paws, also helps spread the scent of the urine. I’m wondering if this scraping or kicking of the urine actually allows them to carry the urine smell — now on their paws — further with them as they walk?

In the sequence of photos above, an individual male coyote was wandering around on a far hillside. I sat down to observe him. He wandered all over the place, sniffing intently, urinating and then scraping. No one was there to see him. He may have seen me — though I was hundreds of yards away. He urinated in many spots, and he scraped viciously. I’ve never seen other coyotes or dogs on that hillside, so I’m wondering who he was doing this for. Maybe another lone coyote had passed through and did the same thing, and this one was simply responding? Most of the scraping I’ve seen in the past has been in the presence of a disliked domestic dog.

Coyotes Didn’t Do It!

Coyotes always get a bad rap. Their crime often is simply having been seen. And when coyotes are in the area, the finger always points to them.

For two weeks in a row, these garbage cans were found tipped over with trash all over the street. Were the local coyotes the culprits? It turns out, no! In fact, coyotes, are not into garbage cans very often. They prefer doing their own hunting.

Anyway, it was fun recording this with an infrared night-vision camera, or trap camera, made specifically for this purpose. The camera will take still photos or videos when the heat of a warm body triggers them. This here is a short section of an all-night video clip. The coyotes returned to the garbage throughout the night from about 10pm to 4am. It’s a little too long to watch, but the key points are at 15 seconds, when the raccoons pull the trash can down, at 1:03 minutes when someone picks it up, and at 1:36 when the raccoons pull it down again.

Stratagem

Note how gingerly this coyote initially pursues his prey in this video. He begins by listening for little scurrying sounds of voles in their vast tunnel network underground — he does not want to alert them to his presence. So he tiptoes around the spot, carefully positions himself and waits — all the while listening intently. He’s very smart about what he is doing: clever and shrewd.

The hunt then shifts from a mental strategizing to a more physical one — there is a pounce/punch with nose and forepaws, followed by digging, and then another punch of the forepaws, followed by more digging. Punching serves to force some activity below the surface — if the coyote is able to collapse a tunnel or scare the vole, the vole might move so that the coyote will either see or hear it. His last recourse is to stick his nose in a tunnel entryway. After all that, he came up empty handed!  One can see why coyotes get their reputation for being clever, cunning, crafty, shrewd, tricky, and smart.

We’re Seeing Coyotes Where We Didn’t Before — Seasonal Behavior

coyote walks during daylight on sidewalk close to a neighborhood

coyote walks during daylight on sidewalk close to a neighborhood

People have been seeing coyotes a little more than usual these days. There is no need for freaking out or hysteria: 1) the city is not being taken over by coyotes, and 2) coyotes are not a danger to humans! The only potential issues have to do with dogs and small pets. Dogs and coyotes don’t like each other: Dogs chase coyotes and coyotes see dogs as competitors for the resources in their territories. Smaller dogs or pets look like any other raccoon or opossum to a coyotes. Please keep your pets leashed or indoors. When walking your dog in a coyote area, be ready to leash and walk on and away the minute you see a coyote: distance is your best friend.

This is coyote mating season — that is why they are wandering more. In the San Francisco area we have 15 to 20 coyotes. Please compare to Chicago which has 2000 (yes, two thousand). If you see one, it will be very briefly. If you happen to see more, it is a family unit — a pack — a pack is a family unit. Although there have been a number of sightings, it is always of the same coyotes — the same coyote repeatedly visits various areas. You cannot prevent them from their wanderings. Please be assured that coyotes are not dangerous to humans — they are not out to get you.  However, please do not feed them. Feeding them increases the possibility that they will eventually DEMAND food from you. And please protect your pets.

Please read this here about: How To Handle A Coyote Encounter: A Primer. This information has been updated to help you know what to do should you encounter a coyote.

How To Handle A Coyote Encounter: A Primer* (updated)


2013-01-01

RELEVANT BACKGROUND INFORMATION

Normal Coyote Behavior

Although mostly seen during the darker hours, it is not unusual to see coyotes out during the daytime, on park trails, or on the streets.  They like grassy fields where they can hunt, and they like woodsy areas where they can take refuge.  At times they may pass through our backyards. These are within the realm of normal coyote behavior.

We might ask, “Don’t they know they should stay in a park and out of sight?” But how could they possibly know OUR boundaries?  Remember that humans delineate their “boundaries” very differently from coyotes: we use physical and visual boundaries which have meaning for us, such as fences and streets, whereas coyotes use olfactory ones which they create by marking or urinating along their territory’s periphery. Most of the time when you see a coyote, it will be hunting in a field for rats or voles, or just passing through. Most of the time, when a coyote sees you, it will flee or keep far away.  If a coyote is minding its own business, we try to leave it alone.

Eliminate Opportunities

Coyotes are known as “opportunistic” eaters — they eat what they happen to find. You may be inviting them into your yard if there is a food source there, such as pet food or even a small pet if they are easily accessible. There is no way for coyotes to distinguish a small pet from any other form of prey. Do not make your beloved pets a part of the food chain. Always supervise small dogs and keep your cats indoors if coyotes are around.

Shooing Off a Coyote In A Chance Encounter or From Your Yard

Coyotes want to avoid you as much as you want to avoid them. If a coyote comes within 30-50 feet of you, it will most likely be just an unexpected chance encounter. Coyotes are curious and may stop to observe. This is not an act of aggression. You can avoid the coyote by turning and going in the other direction. However, if you want to trudge on in the coyote’s direction, which we don’t recommend, you may try yelling or stamping your foot as you approach the coyote — this may work with some coyotes. Tossing a small stone in the coyote’s direction — not AT it so as to injure it — may also cause the coyote to distance itself. If the coyote ignores you and holds its ground, it could indicate pups are around — in this case, just leave without forcing a confrontation. If a coyote comes to your yard, if you want to scare it off, simply open the door, bang pots, while walking in the coyote’s direction.

WHEN WALKING YOUR DOG

AVOID, AVOID, AVOID

A dog walker’s first line of safety in dealing with a coyote should always be vigilance and awareness. Leashing in a coyote area is your primary tool for controlling your dog and keeping it away from coyotes.

Then, whether a coyote has been spotted in the distance, is approaching, or suddenly appears right next to you, the *first line of action* should always be, unmitigated avoidance not hazing, which is engagement.

Tighten your leash and walk away from the coyote, keeping your eye on it may keep the coyote from approaching further. This is an easy protocol to follow, especially for dog-walkers with little or no coyote knowledge or experience, and those who are fearful of coyotes. Simply get your dog away from that coyote — disengage and move away: Strict Avoidance.

It’s really not practical or fair to ask elderly people or those who are afraid of coyotes to “haze”/harass them. Walking away — without running — accomplishes what is needed: the coyote’s entire intention in approaching is to move you away. So, do it!

Vulnerable smaller dogs which might be viewed as prey should be picked up immediately. 

The coyote may end up following you for a little ways as you walk away, but as you distance yourself from its area, he will soon lose interest.

It is especially important not to confront a coyote when pups are around because, like all parents, the coyote will defend its young against your dog.

If You Have Not Followed These Recommendations

Prevention is the best policy. Once your dog and a coyote have engaged, try your best to pull your dog away and keep moving away from the coyote. Scare tactics — such as making eye-contact, lunging at (without getting close), clapping and shouting aggressively at a coyote — do not always work. It’s best to practice prevention proactively than to reactively have to scare off a coyote who comes too close.

Quick Summary For Dog-Walkers

  • Always be VIGILANT and AWARE when you are out walking your pet.
  • AVOID, AVOID, AVOID, whether you see a coyote far away, at a mid-range distance, or coming in close to you, by calmly tightening your leash and walking in the other direction. Keeping your eye on the coyote may discourage the coyote from approaching further.
  • Do not run. Stay calm and collected.
  • Always pick up a small dog and walk away calmly.
  • Learning about coyote behaviors and the “why” behind their behaviors will help you lose your fears. Watch “Coyotes As Neighbors” on YouTube.

[Downloadable and Printable version: How To Handle A Coyote Encounter: A Primer

Footnote: Understanding Some Coyote Behaviors:Habituation is a process which occurs in all animals whereby, after exposure to anything new in their environment over time, they become *used* to it, be it a smell, sounds, or a visual object, including people — they stop behaving as though these might be dangerous, because they aren’t. They learn that we are not their predators or competitors. By the same token, coyotes also get used to hazing — they get used to it — which is why it often does not work. 

Conditioning is a learning procedure involving association. Food is a primary conditioning agent. If  you leave food out regularly, you will be conditioning or teaching, through rewarding with food, a coyote to come visiting. Hand-fed coyotes have been trained to approach people. This is why we ask folks please never to feed a coyote! 

Contrary to common thought, a habituated coyote is not dangerous to humans.  And all urban coyotes are habituated. Being used to human presence causes us to blend into the woodwork for the coyote. AND, the reverse is also true: coyotes become less of a threat to humans BECAUSE they are used to us: there is no reason for them to become defensive towards us.  Please remember that aggression is generally a fear-based response. However, they WILL respond fearfully and aggressively if they feel intruded upon, say by a dog, or when they are guarding pups or their space. You can avoid an altercation by turning and going the other way.

Rufous and Mary’s Place, by Charles Wood

Two coyotes recently moved into a den area formerly used by Mom and Dad, a coyote couple I have been watching since 2009. I named these new coyotes Rufous and Mary even though I haven’t confirmed Mary as female.

Reproductive success in coyotes depends on a coyote couple acquiring and holding territory. Territory has been defined as the area an animal “will defend against individuals of the same species (Burt 1943; Mech 1970).” * The video shows Rufous acting like he owns Mom and Dad’s den area, shows that he defends it against Holtz and Lucas, my two dogs. It then follows that Mom and Dad’s den area now belongs to Rufous and Mary. Rufous and Mary are counting on this territory for their reproductive success.

The video consists of nine clips and opens with workers and their vehicles on the edge of the den area to camera left. The next day, the workers finished their task and departed just as I arrived. The second segment is about half an hour later. Rufous emerges from the den area right where the workers had just been. Clearly, he lives in and around the den area.

The third segment shows Rufous calmly sitting. I’m standing and my dogs are sitting quietly. I wanted Rufous to remain calm and where he was. So I experimented. As Rufous raised himself, I crouched. Perhaps following my lead, Rufous then stretched and got down.

Next, Mary appears behind Rufous to his left. Although I haven’t confirmed her sex, I feel she must be his mate.

The next day, Rufous came south along the dirt road and approached the den area entrance. The video picks up at about the same place he was the day before. Rufous enters the brush. Once in the brush, and after I stopped the camera, he called out to Mary with short howls. I didn’t hear her answer.

A few minutes later Rufus came out to defend his territory. He approached us calmly. The sixth clip shows Rufous pick up a piece of wood. He moves off camera and drops the wood. Back on camera, Rufous carries an orange plastic warning cone he picked up off camera. The seventh clip shows Rufous rubbing against the prized cone. In my view, Rufous knows my dogs envy any object that he gnaws, carries, or rubs. Rufous showed my dogs that he has the power over desirable objects in his domain.

In the eighth clip, Rufous calmly makes his bed and gets down. As long as he is compelled by territoriality to watch us, he might as well appear cool and comfortable. However Rufous’ yawn betrays his inner tension.

The last clip shows Holtz with his back to Rufous while Lucas instead intently watches. We are separated from Rufous by a chain link fence. Holtz is telling Rufous he wants to disengage. However a coyote is still a novelty to Lucas. He doesn’t really understand territory and reproduction, can’t completely understand a coyote. Like a child, Lucas just wants the stick and cone. Lucas sees wild, but Lucas does not fully comprehend it. Holtz has seen enough of wild to know he doesn’t really want to look.

The Gese article quoted above contains the best clues about what happened to Mom and Dad. Instead of evicting Rufous and Mary, Mom and Dad were evicted by them in all likelihood. By himself, Dad probably wouldn’t have been a match for Rufous. Mom, from observations I made over the last six months, is old and achy, probably wouldn’t have been as much help as when she was younger. Mom and Dad’s pack size was low in 2012, a couple yearlings and a puppy where the yearlings may have dispersed though perhaps one yearling became Rufous’ Mary.

Rufous, who I first saw in early September, probably made persistent incursions. I imagine he just wouldn’t go away despite Mom and Dad’s howling, despite their scent marking, and despite their displays. Perhaps there was a physical confrontations. Gese describes physical contacts on page 983 “The resident coyote often rolled the intruder when first making contact, then bit or grappled with the intruder, at times inflicting visible wounds and causing bleeding. These fights usually lasted only 5–15 s, at which time the resident would release its hold on the intruder, then the intruder would typically withdraw from the resident animal while performing ritualized submissive postures with tail tucked, head held low, mouth gaping, and ears held flat. In 7 instances the resident coyote attacked the intruder multiple times (2–5 attacks) until the intruder crossed the territory boundary, whereupon the attacks were terminated.” Mom and Dad could have tried physical contact to evict Rufous and Rufous could have turned the tables on Mom and Dad. It is also possible that Rufous tried physical contact to evict Mom and Dad and won, perceiving himself to be resident on the territory and perceiving Mom and Dad as intruders.

Fatalities from physical contact between resident and intruding coyotes is considered rare. From Gese, page 985 “Physical contact involving ritualized behaviors or fighting (Schenkel 1947; Moran et al. 1981; Mech 1993) was observed when residents caught up to an intruder. In contrast to wolves (Van Ballenberghe and Erickson 1973; Mech 1994), no intruding coyotes were killed when the resident pack encountered them. Bekoff and Wells (1986) also observed no fatal encounters during territory defense. Okoniewski (1982) reported the rare occurrence of a fatal encounter between coyotes.”

My reading of Gese’s observations and of his references to the literature is that it isn’t the coyote way to kill intruding coyotes. Making a coyote intruder give up and run is enough of a win for a resident coyote.

I reason that it is also the coyote way for an intruder to not kill a resident coyote. In fact, it is we humans who identify residents and intruders. Yet in the final analysis, it is the coyote’s concept of itself and of its status in a territory that determines much of coyote behavior. My first impression of Rufous back in September 2012 was that he acted like he thought he owned the place. Mom and Dad may have seemed as intruders to Rufous, where he perceived himself as resident. Rufous may well have come to see Mom and Dad as just two of many intruder coyotes that he, as resident, would need to perpetually chase out of his territory. If there was a physical confrontation, as a self-perceived resident coyote, Rufous would have followed the way of resident coyotes where intruders are not killed. On the other hand, Rufous may not have perceived himself as resident at the time of a conjectured physical confrontation. In my view, his winning that confrontation would have instantly given him the mindset of a resident coyote. Either way, resident before or resident as the outcome of physical confrontation, as a resident, Rufous would have followed the coyote way and would not have killed Mom and Dad. It may simply be the case that coyotes in territorial disputes, irrespective of resident/intruder status, don’t kill each other where submission and flight is an effective inhibitor on the winner.

*(Citation from Gese, E.M. 2001. “Territorial defense by coyotes (Canis latrans) in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming: who, how, where, when, and why” . USDA National Wildlife Research Center – Staff Publications. Paper 530. Page 981.) http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1526&context=icwdm_usdanwrc

Searching for Howling in the Dark

As I searched for the howling, I left my camera on. It’s a large camera, so as I walked I had it in my hand sort of balanced on my shoulder to support it. I thought that even if I didn’t end up getting a photo or video of whoever was howling, at least I would have a recording of the sound. After I got home and reviewed the video, I thought, hey, the “searching” was actually the fun part in this video — I could not see much of anything until the coyote was outlined against the lighter dawning sky, but my jerking paces as I headed towards the sounds are recorded. So I preserved the video as is, except one minute of it right before the end while the coyote was just standing there.

In addition, what you are hearing is a male coyote barking — he’s the one I eventually locate. But a female is answering his barks, with her own higher pitched howling, which includes tremolos. The male began barking alone — that is what I heard initially. Then the female began responding. And finally, only the female can be heard in the distance. About a minute after all howling ceased everything was still and the male just looked around. I cut this part out because it made the video too long. Then the male sniffed the ground and headed off on a trek alone.

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