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.)

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Barbara Knupp
    Jan 08, 2013 @ 02:33:47

    Very interesting. I’m so glad that you are able to identify and track the individual coyotes. Wonder if you will see Mom and Dad again in Spring or are they forever out of the area? Maybe another reason coyotes are successful as a species is the “efficiency” in which the young take over from the older – non-lethal but allowing the younger genes the optimal site. I must believe this pair are male and female. This is so interesting, I hope that you will continue to share their story.


  2. Charles Wood
    Jan 08, 2013 @ 06:11:48

    Thank you Barbara. In urban areas, the site Mom and Dad had is prime for a coyote. A powerline easement bordering a nature preserve with golf courses across the “river” and plenty of water. Dad is a tough cookie to have held that area with Mom for so long. Down but not out? I can hardly stand waiting to find out!


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