‘Till Death Do Us Part?

Introduction: That “coyotes are known to mate for life” is something most of us have heard. In fact, I think it’s the only reality I’d ever seen in 13 years. However, as events in one of my families unfolded in early February of this year, I had to question this. My own perception of the turn of events came in bits and pieces and in fits and starts as revealed through a field camera which was out only at night, and not always then. My own desire for this pair-bond to be everlasting caused me to latch onto any details to support my belief, and herein lies a sort of soap opera aspect to the story which I weave into the ending. My ‘hopeful speculations’, along with background history have grown this posting into an unusually long one — a mini-tome! Yikes! 

Please know that every single one of these photos, as all the photos on this blog, were taken as photo-documentation at the time these events occurred. I don’t substitute a photo from another time or place that might simply “do”. What you see, and what you read, are authentic and concurring.

Background.  The years immediately leading up to this story serve as an important point of reference for what comes later, so I’ll sum those up here.

One of the odd observations I made of the female of this story was in 2017 during several weeks of her trekking between her established territory and the park where I had originally met her in 2013 as an intruder.  Her commuting between the two parks I guessed had something to do with reproduction but I don’t know how. It occurred in late January and photos show proestrous bleeding. Might that have been when she first began extra-territorial searches for new den sites?  Through the years, she has regularly “moved” due to safety concerns. Be that as it may, she was back in her own territory when her two pups of that year were born in April.

I watched this Mom and Dad as they raised this litter on two fragmented pieces of open space about 1/4th of a mile apart. By 2017, Dad was wandering off during daylight hours, but he always returned to play joyfully with his mate towards dusk before their nightly trekking adventures. Their youngsters were always impeccably hidden, so I had only minimal sightings of that earlier litter.

I seldom saw this fella and his sister, born in 2017. They seemed more “buff” than later offspring.

As that litter matured, these two open-spaces of territory became more and more overrun by unleashed dogs who repeatedly chased Dad who liked wandering away from the family during daylight hours. Dad had learned that it was profitable to panhandle from humans during daylight hours — that’s why he was wandering off from the family during the day, when people were around. (Note that coyotes begin this purposeful begging behavior only after they’ve been tossed or handed food regularly by humans in the first place, and in this case the behavior was indelibly solidified by one individual who hand-fed and tamed the coyote routinely). But in spite of the freebies, the situation was not a good one for raising a new family: because of the dogs, the territory became unsafe, and the constraints of the upcoming pupping season trumped over free handouts.

The mated pair banter and play in 2017

So, in the spring of 2018 the pair left this bifurcated camping ground, resurfacing in a more isolated third open space about one mile away where they quietly settled in and had a litter of four that year. Mom was the one who had dictated the move. And the pair-bond along with fatherhood proved strong enough for Dad to follow, although I’m pretty sure he might have preferred sitting around and begging from those he knew would feed him at his previous location. This 3rd space was far enough removed not just from chasing dogs, but also from imprudent humans trying to feed, befriend, and crowd them for iPhotos.

Dad grooms expectant Mom in 2018. Press for Life at territorial fragment #3 before moving on.

Dad with pup and a butterfly in 2018

At location #3, I was able to spy on them periodically, and watched Dad return to normal coyote behavior: he was now acting like a  normal, wild, urban coyote and really being a Dad at all times of the day. He watched his pups, groomed them, brought food, stayed with them and played with them. He also hunted and played joyously and extensively each evening with his mate: their bond was very palpable, caring and charming. This exclusive behavior (exclusive of dogs and human intervention) lasted for the most part through the summer of that year.

2018 family life

Dad teasingly pokes at Mom whose smile shows just how much fun she’s having!

Starting in June, Dad began short, lone, one- or two-day forays back to his original bifurcated territory where I began to see him again sporadically — maybe the memory of easy food from humans was the attraction, maybe his fatherly duties were waning as the pups matured, or maybe he knew he would need more space as the family grew. The wild habitat on that third spit-of-land was being cleared for buildings, so, diminishing habitat there was yet another uprooting factor.

The pups played in the construction zone for many months — always at night — before it no longer was feasible in 2018.

And finally, a female intruder had passed through that territory a number of times which visibly upset Dad — there’s always the potential that such an intruder could takeover the territory or harm the youngsters — hence, maybe keeping ahold of that first bit of land was a good idea.

In the fall of that year, when the youngsters were about 8 months old, they too began hesitantly appearing at that original two-part territory — always traveling at night under the cover of darkness, and retaining a foothold in that third parcel of theirs.

Intruder!

This gerry-rigged tripartite fragmented territory worked for many months, until in the early winter when again, dogs at that original location plunged into chasing not only Dad, but now also the youngsters, which repeatedly caused them notable injuries including severe limps and deep abrasions. Many of these chases occurred right into the street where both pursuer-dog and pursued-coyote were endangered.

Caption for above photos: Two dogs pinned the coyote youngster on the left (6.5 mos) to the ground before a passerby interfered. He ended up with deep facial abrasions — he tried wiping the pain away with his paw for over an hour, whimpering as he did so. To the right: The coyotes were chased by dogs continually; messaging the dogs never helped.

Mom apparently decided the situation would no longer do. There were again just too many people with their unleashed dogs racing around and exploring everywhere. She began leaving her family for days on end, on long, solo exploration journeys as she had before. I would not see her at all for full weeks at her territory, but I recognized her in photos sent to me, so I knew what she was up to and her general whereabouts. In December of 2019 she uprooted her life-long mate and one youngster and the three of them moved all the way across the city, traveling under the cover of darkness. Two of the yearlings born in 2018 were left behind to fend for themselves and possibly retain ownership of the tripartite homestead. The two born in 2017 and those born before had moved on long before this.

Along their way, the traveling family stopped at a halfway point between their old and what would be their new territories for a short period of several weeks. This is about as long as any territorial coyote might put up with outsiders, which I’m sure dictated the family’s timeline there. People there were either fearful or enchanted — everybody had an opinion about coyotes. But the coyotes were soon gone from this stopover place.


A few words about Dad and Mom’s personalities and their different levels of responsibility might be in order here. First, it’s Mom who seems to wear the pants in the family. She is the “alpha” and even periodically had tried disciplining Dad who had become inconstant and wayward when it came to his family. Clearly this was because of his involvement with humans — people responded to his forlorn, needy look: he was secretly thrown food, approached, or engaged with by charmed onlookers.  He found this “taming” activity to his liking: it was much easier and more satisfying than coyote family life, apparently. In other words, he became much too absent and much too human-oriented for his mate.

He had become ever-present in the park when people were there, retaining an air of being free-spirited and wild (by definition of being a coyote), yet at the same time quite tamed, and people seemed to stoke this about him. I saw his mate repeatedly browbeat him to move him away from his hangout spots where he was fed or ogled, and where dogs chased him. Whereas SHE retained an “essence” that was wily and wild, HE took on the character of a stray-dog. Some of Mark Twain’s description of a coyote in his book, “Roughing It” might be apt for him: that underneath the deceptively “sorry” appearance lay a wily coyote who knew exactly how to milk the public.

Trying to engage humans for food

An example of dominant female communicating with her wayward mate (above)


So, getting back to the early history, finally, under Mom’s command, they moved on again, far, far away, all the way across town to a totally separate 4th location which was also fragmented, with one yearling in tow. There, a new pup was born — one singleton female youngster — in the Spring of 2019. It is Dad who I saw mostly hanging out with her during her early life. Within a few months of her birth, though, the pup was being left all alone for a lot of the time. It is normal for pups to be left alone, it’s just that this was a singleton pup, so most of the time she had no company at all during the long daylight hours. Be that as it may, every night Mom, Dad and older brother would spend quality time together with the new pup. They played and cuddled and groomed and explored in their empty field throughout the night when no human was around. And then, as dawn approached, first Mom and then Dad and then older Bro, walked away, and Pup sadly watched them go, sitting all alone in her very safe field. Then it was her turn to disappear into the bushes. The interesting thing about this particular territory is that there were no dogs ever and few humans to intervene: it was really a perfect place to raise a pup.

Pups left alone or played with videos, above (June 2019)

After and before these family play sessions, the adults and male yearling would take turns trekking to nearby open spaces to hunt and explore. What a perfect setup! They were all amazingly stealthy as they traveled at dusk — all except,eventually, Dad. He again began walking up sidewalks during daylight, hoping people would toss him food — and some did, or they left it there for him in hidden places. He even learned to hang out during entire mornings, and sometimes all day at one location and was fed profusely by especially one individual until we stopped it.

Dad was a great hunter, but he preferred panhandling a mile from his family for hours each day in 2019 (until we stopped it).

Then the environment in that #4 area began to be decimated by humans as had happened at location #3 the year before. Their den habitat was suddenly raided and mostly removed in order to control homeless people in the area. I tried intervening but was not listened to.

Den area destruction at territory #4 in 2019.

Soon thereafter, many trees in the general area, including in a fragment of their space, were felled, disrupting and removing more and more of the surrounding habitat. And this may have been “the last straw” that “did in” the perfect situation.

In sum: marital and family bliss, and strong pair-bondedness prevailed for years as this family gypsied to new locations every season. The only thorn was Dad’s food-conditioned behaviors which were not of his own making. His own innate and instinctive opportunism had kicked in, which here was for human feeding — coyotes, like humans, like taking the path of least resistance — and humans themselves were innocently unaware of the repercussions of their actions on the coyote and his family. Dad was spending less and less time with the family, and more time engaging with people for food.

Dad throws me a recognition glance during one of his “normal” moments in 2019, before he started spending most of his time panhandling away from his family.


And here THIS story begins, which, remember, is about “‘Till death do us part?”

I only kept loose tabs on the family over those last few months at territory #4, relying on “virtual” observations using an “automatic field camera” — something I’ve seldom done. I did this due to the number of families I had taken on observing. I didn’t want to “drop” any of them simply because I didn’t have time. Using a field camera for two of the families solved that issue. Trap cameras are not my specialty because they are intrusive (coyotes react to them) and I have much more trouble identifying the different coyotes. The trap cameras, used only at night, have infrared lighting, which produces negative-like images. I had to learn a whole new way of identifying these coyotes than simply their very individual faces, which is what I’ve always used during daylight. Because I already knew the families, their individual members, and their behaviors well, once I learned to identify them by IR light, I was able to know what was going on with just minor peeks into their lives through the field camera.

For the one family’s observations which I’m talking about here, I located an area where I regularly saw scats. Here, I placed the camera in a trash-strewn gully as a trial, to see if I might capture anything at all. It turned out to be a regular nighttime route and activity area for this coyote family. Garbage seemed always to be around which may also have been a draw to the coyotes.

As humans and their noisy tractors continued to removed more and more of the habitat from the area around territory #4, neighboring coyotes must also have felt the pinch and the need to expand their territorial envelopes. This can lead to coyote territorial battles and takeovers. New construction is continual in cities and always has repercussions on wildlife.

For months, my trap camera on that gully path of theirs had seen this family — and no other — uneventfully and regularly coming and going, calmly marking, sniffing, burying tidbits of garbage.  Then in the first week of February, there was a sudden change: there began a flurry of constant frenzied and nervous activity on the camera: fast movements, tails spinning, multiple coyotes at once: something was happening — you could feel the change in mood and energy just by looking at the images. It kept up for nights. And then there appeared a NEW, very dominant male who kicked dirt angrily and marked repeatedly. Everyone seemed to bow to his will. Who was this?

I’ve seen other males fight off intrusive suitors. Males are possessive and jealous of their mates, and they’ll shadow them tightly during the days they are in heat which happened to be at this very time. The problem is that Dad was not around to carry out these duties — he was out panhandling about a mile away.

Then, in the camera, I saw Dad all scarred up. He looked ill and beaten. His head hung low and he seemed to drag himself along. Afterwards, and abruptly, I stopped seeing him altogether after February 9. Instead, the very erect-standing new male appeared repeatedly each night, marking the ground, kicking dirt, sniffing the area where only the family had sniffed and been seen before. The rest of the family continued to appear there, but not Dad. Had Dad died? Or had he been driven out by a new alpha male? BUT, didn’t coyotes mate for life? Wouldn’t his family and mate have gone with him? This is certainly what I had seen in my 13 years of observations.

Right before Dad disappeared, during this time period of upset, while collecting my camera during the dark hours before dawn, I came to hear one of their family’s very conversational vocalization sessions, but Dad is not heard among the group. That same evening, again, after dark had set in, I returned to hear Dad’s solo signature mournful howl — it sounded so forlorn and hopeless — he was not part of the group.

Howls: family conversation before Monte leaves LHS:

Howls: Monte before leaving LHS:

For me, the shocking part of what was going on here in Territory #4 is that Mom seemed to be accepting of the new male. Again, how could that be, I wondered? As the story continued to unfold, I clung to every glimmer of evidence that I might interpret as an indicator that they remained bonded.

Without Dad there, Mom continued marking regularly right in front of the camera as she always had. And she continued to regularly bury tidbits of garbage from the area, which in the past she must have been leaving for him since he was always the one one unburying the items: it is here that my hopeful glimmers kicked in. My first hope was that she was stashing food for her disappeared mate and that his absence was just part of his wayward behavior. At about the same time that Dad disappeared, the new alpha male appeared suddenly with a severe limp. I wondered if the two male coyotes might have fought again — if Dad might be fighting back for what was rightfully his: this became my 2nd hope.

Dad was off my radar for two weeks as life continued without him at territory #4. When he resurfaced on March 1st, it was at the halfway stopping point the family had used the year before. This time, instead of remaining there two weeks as he had done with his mate and yearling son a year earlier, he remained only two days. People there were worried about his slow, tired movements and the obvious scars on his body. No one else knew he had been in a territorial fight and lost. They wondered whether to trap him to “fix” him. A friend asked me to please intercede, and I did so through him — informing everyone that the coyote had been through a territorial battle and he needed to be left alone. But it was actually a moot worry, because after only two days Dad was gone from there. He travelled the rest of the way across town, to his original tripartite spit of land which he had been away from for over a year. There, the youngsters he had left there seemed to welcome him back, and he took on the role of alpha again.

The night before he left this halfway stopping place, he was heard again mournfully howling. It was not distressed barking, but seemed to be a soft calling out.  I had a glimmer of hope (hope #3) that he might be calling to HER to follow him and that Mom and Dad might reunite. In spite of my hoping, somehow, deep down inside, I felt that it was more likely a long, last, forever goodby howl to his ex — to the place and mate he was unwillingly leaving behind. I had to remind myself that change is constant.

Right after that, Dad appeared back on his tripartite territory. Here I had yet another glimmer of hope for my desired outcome. Things had started to be quite calm and normal again as revealed in the trap cam at the 4th territory. Then Mom and the two youngsters started passing through together without the new alpha male, and he began always appearing alone, looking as though he were searching for them. Was Mom avoiding him? Though driven away, might Dad (with Mom) have a ploy of some sort with bigger end-goals that I couldn’t see?? Was this a scheme of theirs? Hmmm. This was my hope #4.

With that thought in mind, two days later I found myself smiling happily after checking my trap cam. It revealed that Mom and the youngsters were still there, but alpha male was now not appearing at all! Oh, I thought, it IS a plot: the two (Mom and Dad) were working together to get the male to leave. It occurred to me that Dad had left only temporarily. That the family, with new alpha fella gone, might indeed be planning to reunite. All of these actions would then have been a very sophisticated plot — something coyotes are very capable of — to get that dominant male out of his area, which Mom might be more adept at carrying out than Dad (Dad had become hopelessly inept at many things as he became more and more habituated by humans feeding him). This became my hope #5.

But alas, new alpha male reappeared on the field camera. There indeed seems to have been a real “divorce” in that family.

The situation as it now stands is that Dad has left his mate entirely: he’s back at his tripartite previous territory where a son and younger male companion took him in.

Here is a howl I heard two days after Dad arrived at his old home: this would be him and the two youngsters who had been living there. They are obviously still one family unit — a reconfigured family unit.

Howls: Dad and two youngsters upon his return:

These photos were taken in May in Territory #4: Lactating Mom is to the right. New male (left) caught in trap cam in daylight. He dispersed from a neighboring golfcourse.

And Mom has just given birth at the 4th territory to her new offspring (March 31 she’s fat; April 7 she’s thinner and has tits), where her now yearling daughter and two-year old son (both are Dad’s offspring) live with her. Interestingly, there’s a slight possibility the youngsters might be Dad’s: they were born 52-59 days after he left.

I believe that contributing factors to the breakup include Dad being lured away from his coyote family situation and pulled-in by humans who gave him piles of food and their friendliness. This would have given the new alpha male the space and opportunity to move in. I’m wondering also if Dad might have become weak and ill — again abetted by humans — because of feeding rich and unhealthy foods — lots of it. OR, maybe because of all the taming, Dad had simply become “soft” and lost a territorial takeover.


Creating bridges by getting into the story: My opinion is that we can see these animals either as different and as alien to us as possible by sticking them on a different plane and in a different reality from us, or we can describe them more familiarly in a way we might be able to relate to them. What is familiar and similar between species can help our understanding of them and can help create bridges of compassion and connectedness. In this posting I’ve written up an observation, interwoven with what I wished “might be” as the story unfolded, hopefully creating some sense of connectedness by doing so.

To this end I want to add a quick reminder about how intense coyote emotions are, and their ability to communicate these to each other. It’s hard to deny this once you see it happen. I’ve already written about two separate coyotes who were beside themselves with anxiety for an injured companion whose safety they were concerned about and wanted to keep safe.

Dad, returned to his first two-partite territory in early March where two youngsters welcomed him back.

Dogs continue to chase him there

©  All information and photos in my postings come from my own original and first-hand documentation work which I am happy to share with permission and with properly displayed credit.

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Alex Grossman
    May 15, 2020 @ 20:16:40

    Janet, thank you for this update. As usual, your stellar writing and observations keep me fascinated and connected to my fellow urban creatures.

    Reply

  2. yipps:janetkessler
    May 15, 2020 @ 21:35:46

    Thank you, Alex! Yes, they are indeed fascinating critters! :))

    Reply

  3. MelindaH.
    May 17, 2020 @ 01:28:34

    What a wonderful “tome.” So kind of you to take the time to write this about probably my most favorite wild animals. I couldn’t agree more with your attempting to bridge the gap between species, in the hope of fostering compassion. Thank you!

    Reply

  4. MelindaH.
    May 17, 2020 @ 01:40:55

    So many thanks for taking the time and energy to write this. And I couldn’t agree more with your statements about compassion bridging the gaps between species. Wonderful article!

    Reply

  5. clairebgilchrist
    May 18, 2020 @ 13:15:46

    Such a wonderful piece – thank you for writing. And especially about the off-leash dogs. It’s important for people to hear that more.

    Reply

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