Sirens Lead to Howls and Yips in a United Front


Come to think of it, I don’t hear loner coyotes howl very often, even on their own claimed territories. Is this because they don’t want to “proclaim” to the world their ownership of a territory they might not be able to defend alone? And neither do I hear coyotes howling for any reason when they are passing through territories other than their own.

The female in this video, when she was a loner on her claimed territory, never used to respond to sirens during daylight hours, though she would howl in distress after being chased by dogs or in response to seeing one particular dog whom she did not like.

However, in this video, with a new male companion, she obviously felt secure about belting out her response to the sirens for the whole world to hear, and seemed to be super-happy about it! Coyote families respond to sirens all the time, possibly to express their family unity and their territorial separateness from their neighboring coyotes.

That male companion situation, however, was short lived: it lasted only four months. The male/female relationship was disrupted by another female before the bond was solidified (yes, this happens even to coyotes) and the male companion moved on, so the female now again is a loner who again does not respond to sirens as she did when she had her male companion. She does, however, continue to bark in distress when chased by dogs, or when her one dog nemesis appears on the scene.

This video shows clearly how lips are used for modulations by coyotes.

Although I mounted this video on Youtube eight months ago, it’s only now that I’m getting around to posting it on my blog, after it has garnered almost 1M views.

“Demand” Behavior

I have written about how feeding coyotes robs them of their “essence”, causing them to become meek, docile and listless beggars. Coyotes are superb opportunists and extremely intuitive about getting what they need in the easiest and most efficient way possible. Given the opportunity for an easy and free meal, they’ll seize that opportunity and go for it.

I spoke with Lesley Sampson, founder and director of Coyote Watch Canada, about another facet of feeding coyotes: she told me about a coyote who had been labeled “aggressive” because it had, under no provocation, approached a man and punched his hip. This was a man on a substitute job for the day. He of course found the behavior very alarming, as anyone would have.

But coyotes aren’t naturally outright aggressive to people, so what was going on? Lesley was called in to help with the case. With a little bit of investigation, she discovered that the regular job-holder routinely put his hands in his pockets to withdraw the food he would toss to this coyote.  Ahhhh. The coyote was displaying “demand behavior”, having been taught, by the regular job-holder, through repetition, that food was coming, and it was coming from a pocket.

This can happen. A coyote is fed out of the bigness of someone’s heart — “Oh, the coyote looks so thin and hungry” (which, BTW, happens to be their natural state) — setting the stage for a problem. After a very short time, the coyote comes to EXPECT the food, and when the food doesn’t come quickly enough, or when it doesn’t come at all, the coyote becomes impatient and may actually DEMAND the food, as in the case above. Lesley spoke of her dogs doing the same thing: it’s a common trait in canines. This is not an “aggressive” coyote, though humans will see it as such. It’s a “trained” coyote: humans set the expectation by repetitive feeding and then the coyote acts on this: “where’s my food!” It’s really important not to feed coyotes in the first place. Authorities, not knowing the background, will eliminate such an animal for his/her apparent “aggressiveness”.

Coyote pups are born with the instinct to seek/demand food from their parents by inserting their muzzles into the mouth of a parent which triggers a regurgitation response in the parent. The result: food. They learn that this is where food comes from, at least to begin with. Habit and reinforcement keep them doing this until parents start teaching them to hunt — parents teach the pups that, in fact, food comes in many forms and from many places and they can find it, but they have to go looking for it. The easiest sources of food will be the most attractive, and they’ll return to these.

Below is a photo sequence of a five-month-old youngster seeking food from where he’s been taught it comes from — a parent. His mother has just arrived home after an evening of hunting. Pup approaches her, but she doesn’t have anything for him. He persists, and even punches her angrily on the back. She runs away with her defensive hackles up. This is demand behavior: when the food isn’t forthcoming as expected, the pup who is expecting food “as usual” demands it. This is no different from Lesley’s example of the friendly man offering food from his pocket.

Youngster punches mom, DEMANDING the food

And here’s a further possible complication. Parents eventually, normally, teach their youngsters to hunt. BUT what if the parents are being fed by humans so much so that they don’t need to hunt, and therefore don’t, and consequently they don’t teach their youngsters how to do so? Remember that coyotes learn by imitation and example. The youngster may even be taken to where the food is left or even worse, to the feeder him/herself. Hmmm. What works best and easiest for the coyote parents will be passed on to the pups.

And another speculative complication: Could the population grow beyond the natural carrying capacity of the area with this extra food being handed out regularly? It’s food for thought.

Please don’t feed coyotes, for their sake.

Reflecting on an Exile and Return

Coyote families, and even loners, may leave their claimed territories for any number of reasons, or they may stay in that one location for generations. I’ve known both situations. Of those that leave, the primary reasons seem to be inability to defend the territory from another hostile coyote, or dwindling resources. In some cases, but not always, the same coyotes may come back. Here are some of my reflections and a background recap, along with a video of snippets I put together, on one such coyote’s return to her old home.

Exiled: In this case, the coyote — who I will refer to as “our coyote” — was forced to leave her long-term claimed territory by another intruder coyote whose attacks left her no alternative. During her absence, she became a transient, an interloper with no home of her own, existing in-between other territories in a sort of no-man’s land, and moving about constantly while being repulsed by any hostile territorial coyotes whose properties she slithered through. Maybe her odyssey was necessary: six months of wanderings which had the potential for forcing her to revert to some more essential coyote behaviors and away from all of the humanizing influences which she had lived with for so long — equivalent to an Australian Bushman’s “walkabout”.

Where did she go when she was driven away? It was an odyssey for her. I was able to follow most of her trajectory through extensive swaths of the city: to Glen Park, Diamond Heights, Noe Valley, Dolores Heights, Twin Peaks, and McLaren Park, among other places. And wherever she went, soon the strange hostile/exiler coyote appeared. I was able to catch up with her through friends’ photos, several trap cameras I put out, and Nextdoor postings with photos of her: the postings inevitably warned, “Please watch your cats and dogs”. Few people knew this coyote actually fled from cats! So our coyote kept fleeing. She would travel at night, dusk or dawn. Her amazing intuition told her how to distinguish friends from non-friends, and who would tolerate her presence and maybe even protect her when she took refuge in their yards. Some people named her. Some people fed her out of sympathy and concern: few people are aware of how negatively feeding impacts coyotes, as it already had in her “previous” life when she had been the reigning queen of her slope. Intermittently she tried returning “home”, but invariably she was repulsed again by the hostile intruder coyote gal who kept at her heels.

Tentative return: After months of wandering, remaining in places for a couple of weeks at a time before moving on, our coyote finally returned again to her old turf and, voilá, there was no hostile exiler around to drive her away for the first time in six months! At first people didn’t think this was our same coyote because her behaviors were so different from before: mainly she spent huge amounts of her time marking and “kicking dirt”, as though she were saying to the coyote who stole the site from her, “take that!” Even humans, in a language older than words, if they know what is going on, can read this type of animal body language.

So for weeks after her return, she spent her time reclaiming her territory, walking around while making visual and olfactory checks of the area, marking and kicking dirt extensively, self-grooming for long periods of time, absorbing odors and leaving hers, trotting her old routes, hunting, and generally trying to fit in again. This video depicts some of those activities when she first returned.

In some ways, she seemed wiser when she first returned, and on the whole, more elusive than before her odyssey: she spent less time out in the open and even stayed away for days at a time. I was happy to see this. Many people who knew her were hoping that she might have regained some primary coyote wildness while “abroad and dealing at times with an unfamiliar world”: it was a huge test, with the possibility of bringing into play survival skills which she never had used before. BUT, after only a few weeks back, she relapsed into responding to repeated misguided “human kindness”.  Food was again being left by roadways, so she was back in the streets searching for free handouts instead of hunting. She’s relapsed into again chasing cars and biting at their tires as they drive by: two days ago a car slammed on its brakes to avoid a direct hit. And she made several attempts at begging with a straight-in-the-eye look at people who passed by her. All of these behaviors of hers are a direct response to HUMAN behaviors. We need to change OUR behaviors in order to help her: please don’t feed her or leave food out for her. Coyotes are superb hunters: we can help her be that instead of the dependent beggar we are turning her into.



Recap of early life for those who haven’t followed her story: Until the point in her life when she was forced away, her life had been beyond charmed: unfolding as a fairy tale to many who observed her, and maybe even to the coyote herself. But many observers hadn’t taken the time to reflect on the larger picture: she had spent the first four years of her life being indelibly humanized and she needed to get back to normal — to her essential coyote self. This exile forced her to do so, but the results may be short-lived.

Her early-life urban-situation inherently fueled problems. At one point, she was hit by a car, leaving her with a temporary hip injury. Luckily the injury didn’t hamper her for long: she never lost her mobility — though she toppled over time and again as she attempted walking after the incident — and she stopped limping in less than two weeks. She had been prompted to chase cars by misguided people throwing her food from their cars — it took two years of everyday outreach before I could stop that behavior by halting the feeding. She was lucky that a car hadn’t killed her during that time: her predecessor in that location had been killed by a car which is why she was able to move in there — she had filled his vacated niche. Dogs chased her continually during her early years there, often right into street traffic, endangering both them and her. But actually, over time, people had been getting better and better at leashing up when they saw her, so this was happening much less than ever before. There had been other issues all perpetrated by humans, such as repeatedly feeding her, approaching too close, and befriending her, which little by little had eroded away her “coyote essence”, but these were all being corrected by more and more people abiding by, “just walk away from her; leave her alone and give her space”. On the whole life was pretty good to this happy-go-lucky coyote. It appears that the niche she had found and made her own worked for her: finding the right habitat apparently is primary for survival. I’ve heard that evolution is less about the “survival of the fittest” as previously thought, and more about “finding the right habitat”. Our coyote had chosen hers well.

And then things fortuitously got even better. How could things get better than this? But they did: a male companion appeared on the scene and became her best friend. Although he was a wanderer and seemed to have another lady-friend in another location, he always returned after only a few days’ absence during the four months they knew each other, and he and our coyote spent gobs of quality time in each other’s company simply enjoying each other. No one had ever seen our coyote — who had been a loner up to this point — happier. An added perk of this friendship: he was a supreme hunter, and this began rubbing off on her.

However, unbeknownst to our little female coyote, trouble was already brewing. Her best-buddy fella-friend had some family that followed him to her location, and that, ironically is what led to her life unraveling for the next six months. Few people are aware of how intense coyote internal lives, relationships, and their emotions are, or of their individuality and personalities, all of which have nothing to do with humans: not all good and bad which confront a coyote are created by humans, though, of course, a lot is, as this story points out.

So our coyote was driven away from her haven AND even pursued by a relative of the fella who had made her so happy. The relative was another female transient, an interloper, over two years of age who had recently been radio-collared in the Presidio. San Francisco does not radio-collar coyotes, but the Presidio which is federally owned, does. At the time of radio-collaring, it was found that this coyote had larger teeth than normal. Hmmm. . . Why? More interesting was her angry look. Did she harbor anger from being manhandled when she was collared?? Or from having to wear the large contraption around her neck? My friend Lou has noted that first-generation coydogs often have angry looks about them. Might she, then, be a coydog: a half dog?