Unexpected Aftermath of Killing a Coyote

I just posted about the 7-year-old alpha male coyote father who was heartbreakingly killed by our City’s dog catcher (ACC). That occurrence left a gaping vacancy in his territory. What has been the aftermath in the family so far?

I have the perfect opportunity to observe this situation right here and now in San Francisco — so I am doing just that. A previous case I documented, where the alpha father died of natural causes, resulted in a period of chaos before things settled down to a new normal and a new dynamic — and THAT story actually dovetails into this one, which I’ll get to towards the end of this posting. But there has been no chaos here, fascinatingly.

For a couple of days after the alpha male was killed, things went on as normal: the male didn’t seem to be terribly missed by his mate, afterall, coyotes may wander off for a short day or two when they aren’t missed by their families. After several days, however, I noticed his “widowed” mate, the alpha female, wandering around more and marking more and leaving her own scent — more so than had been her normal routine. Was she putting out beacons to signal him to return? Was she looking for him? She would not know that he had been killed by humans, but she would know that he was missing, and so was his scent.

At first marking (left) and then intense sniffing (right) [these are cropped and enhanced trail camera images]. I put out field cameras along what I had seen as their well-travelled routes, hoping to get a glimpse of the activity.

Over only a couple of days, I was surprised to see that she didn’t become more frantic as might be expected, but rather she calmed down, it seems, into a kind of acceptance mode. Her sniffing seemed to segue from searching for something lost into intense inquisitiveness about something new and unfamiliar: her perfunctory quick glancing sniffs changed to intense and lingering poking.

Her family consisted of herself (alpha mom), her mate (now gone), and a four-year-old “nanny” who seems to be helping out with the unusually large litter of seven pups. The “nanny” continued her habitual behavior of simply passing by now and then — I didn’t notice a change in her behavior. Maybe there has been a change in pup behavior in the aftermath of dad’s disappearance: they don’t appear to be exploring as widely as before the killing: is this a safety precaution due to their dad’s disappearance?

Then, within just four days after that shooting, a newcomer male appeared in the area. And he has remained for the last 6 days. Yikes, that was fast! “Vacant niches” in coyote families are notoriously soon filled, we’ve heard. A male outsider would not have been allowed here if alpha dad were still around. But he’s not around, so he’s not marking and leaving his scent, nor is he physically present to drive an outsider away. It’s incredible how quickly “word spread” about his absence: these animals are obviously quick to read scents and other markers that we humans aren’t even aware of, and to appraise situations.

And alpha mom seems to be more than welcoming him! Maybe she had no choice; maybe survival of her family depends on having an amenable “guy” there. My trail camera caught her hopping all over him and putting her paws on his back — she’s asking him to stay. She didn’t spend much time mourning the loss of her just-lost mate. Coyotes are survivors. They don’t feel sorry for themselves or dwell on the past — coyote life seems to be about business as usual and keeping the show on the road. A territory needs a male to better keep things in order and defendable. Will he take on helping to raise the youngsters, or will he shun them? There’s a lot to find out.

SHE is welcoming him by hopping all over him, and then you can see them trekking together in tandem — all within less than a week of her mate’s having been killed.

Interestingly, I know the new male, an older guy, who came from a not so distant territory within the city where he himself already has a family. Hmmm.

And this is the most interesting and juicy part: that new male is one and the same individual who just at the beginning of this pupping season joined an existing family, filling a vacancy in THAT family caused by the loss of its alpha male to natural causes: old age. Let’s call this new fella Rookie. Apparently Rookie went to town when he joined that family because both the alpha female there AND her two-year-old daughter produced pups this year. I called this “den-sharing”, and think of it as kind of “Rookie’s harem”. So it appears that he already has two mates. And now a third? Does this make him into a sort of super alpha male, or will he be giving up that previous family where he has pups from two females? Or maybe he’s just checking out the new vacancy here and won’t stay?

Background information: We all know that coyotes are famously monogamous and mate for life — this is all I had ever seen in 14 years here in San Francisco with two rare and recent exceptions: the den sharing which involved this particular new male, and a divorce which, strangely, involved a previous life of the killed alpha male. It’s a small world.

AND — to further confuse the issue and expand the exception to “mate for life” and “monogamous”, within a distant fragment of that “den sharing” territory, I had seen yet another lactating female WITH this same male, Rookie. Hmmmm. What’s that about? Is Rookie just a rare exception? We’ll have to wait and see how all of this pans out over time. It’s nothing less than a soap-opera, with cliffhangers and all!

© 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©janetkessler/coyoteyipps.com.

Seven Year Old Father Coyote Killed by Officials in San Francisco

Apparently there had been reports of a coyote charging towards children. It had happened several times, beginning last fall. Last fall. Why wasn’t anything done right away to control the situation — there had been plenty of time to do something? Better information, cordoning off the area, firmer explanatory signs could all have helped. Even a docent in the area could have helped.

Here’s a portrait of the old fella. I last saw him on July 5th: he had stopped to lick up food left on the road. People gathered to watch him which should have, but didn’t, faze him at all: his wild wariness had been robbed by people feeding, approaching, and befriending him — I wish they had known that they were contributing to his end.

The coyote was a seven-year-old father. He was killed two days ago on July 16th in Golden Gate Park by California Department of Fish and Wildlife — called in by our Park Department (RPD) and Animal Control (ACC). History repeats itself. Almost exactly 14 years ago, in July of 2007 two coyotes were shot dead in Golden Gate Park by CADFW, called in by ACC. In both cases, the coyotes were protecting their den area. In the 2007 incident, dogs had intruded into the den area and gone after the coyotes, and one of those dogs was bitten by a coyote. The bite was obviously meant as a firm “message” by the coyotes to get those dogs out of that area and leave their den alone. Due to this protective behavior, the coyotes were killed by sharpshooters. ACC later regretted calling in CADFW. This year, it appears that “coyote denning” signs were insufficient, and that children and their parents were not taking the warning signs very seriously. They came too close to the denning area, and the father coyote charged towards them to warn them away. There were no bites and there was no contact, but the behavior was scary, so the coyote was killed because the behavior had occurred several times.

There had been similar incidents in the fall of last year in the same area, but that was a different father coyote who disappeared: precautions were taken at that time by cordoning off the area.

Pups belonging to this father coyote were born this year in the shrubbery in back of Pioneer Meadow, whereupon the father became protective of that area even before the pups’ birth. Large signs indicating that the Pioneer Meadow was closed to dogs helped a lot, though dogs still went through that area and chased the coyotes on a regular basis. At the end of April, probably for safety reasons, the den was moved by the parents to the Botanical Garden which proved to be an attractive area for them since dogs aren’t allowed, and a huge peripheral fence helped enforce this policy. Moving den areas is not uncommon for coyotes.

There is an additional circumstance involved in this story besides denning behavior. This coyote over the years had been not only profusely fed, but hand-fed and befriended by humans. This caused him, contrary to expectation, to become docilenot aggressive: if you spent any time watching him, you would have seen this. This coyote was NOT what would be called an “aggressive” coyote. Away from his denning areas he did not approach children as he did close to the den. That behavior was due to his need to protect his den — it is denning behavior — all coyotes protect their dens this way: the behavior is insistent and persistent and therefore scary: it has to be to get the message across. That’s why it’s important to stay away from them. However, constant feeding, and especially hand-feeding by humans had caused this coyote to lose his wariness and to feel comfortable enough around people, especially small children, to actually approach them with a warning to stay away. So feeding was involved in the behavior in a roundabout way, but den-protection was at the heart of what happened. The outcome, of course, is the same, but teasing apart and realizing what was actually occurring are also important for being able to fix the problem.

It’s too late to do anything now, the coyote is dead and gone, but I believe more could have been done to prevent this outcome — both to protect this father coyote whose large litter of seven pups will need that extra adult bringing in food, and to educate and protect the public. I’m really saddened by the decision that was made.

Vacant niches are quickly filled in the coyote world, so another male will soon take the killed coyote’s place. History will at some point again repeat itself. Wouldn’t it be better to better prevent the possibility of such an outcome by doing what is really needed instead of a quick-fix shooting? Better signage, cordoning off the area, maybe a docent in the area, and stronger education to help people know that we all need to keep away from dens and that feeding is hurting the situation, not helping.

One has to wonder now how his mate will rear all those pups alone — they are just 3 months old. I knew another mother who lost her mate to rat poison when the pups were only a few weeks old. She succeeded in raising her pups alone, but she only had two of them, not seven. :((

https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/Coyote-killed-after-charging-toddlers-in-S-F-s-16320746.php

Territories and Population in San Francisco

Abstract: Key summary concepts and conclusions:

  1. Coyote population in San Francisco is self-regulated.
  2. There are just about 20 coyote territories in the city [map updated 9/10/21]
  3. working on territory map update adding SG jpg
  4. Territories are owned and occupied by just one family.
  5. Outsider coyotes are kept out of these territories with few exceptions.
  6. Each territory within San Francisco is 1.5 to 2.5 square miles.
  7. Each territory has been stable since I first observed them, some since 2007, some since 2014, with minor exceptions. 
  8. Families consist of the alpha pair (Mom and Dad), pups born this year, and possibly a couple of yearlings from last year’s litter. There are variations, and a few exceptions as discussed below.
  9. This map and the work behind it has been assembled by me, visually, working alone up until this year, using my facial recognition of coyotes, and through documenting their behaviors and family life — I know each of these families and the relationships (and often ages) of the coyotes within the families, and can identify them — without tags or radio collars. Mine is a private passion. I have not been associated with any agencies, and I’m not paid for my work.
  10. I’ve been collecting scat since 2008 for DNA analysis at Dr. Benjamin Sacks’ Genetics Lab at UC Davis to confirm the relationships I’ve seen, dispersals, and origins. Last year my project was turned into a collaborative effort, joined by Monica Serrano who is analyzing the DNA, and Tali Caspi who is also collecting scat for a diet study: both students are PhD candidates working with or through Dr. Benjamin Sacks’ lab at UC Davis.
  11. **I want to emphasize that this posting is about what the situation is now and what it has been, I’m not predicting what it will be moving forward, but this is what we have as of Summer, 2021.                                

Coyote Territories and Population in SF

I keep hearing rumors and reading on NextDoor, that coyotes are “running around haphazardly and multiplying wildly” throughout San Francisco, that we are being “overrun” by them, that the city needs to “manage” them.

So I want to delineate what the coyote population situation is here in the city. I’ve defined most of the coyote territories here — and I’m likely the only person who has done so: all based on my own first-hand field research. I know and can identify the individual coyotes — their families, their relationships, and many of their ages and behaviors — that live on these territories.

Please note that “More sightings” do not necessarily translate into “more coyotes”.  I have studied the territories where people have claimed there are more and more coyotes, and there are not more. In all of them, I can identify the single family that lives there. Several factors enter into why people are having more sightings: First, increased awareness of coyotes in the city by everyone makes it easier to tune in to their presence. My best example of this is when I adopted my own first dog: suddenly there seemed to be hundreds of dogs which I had never seen before. Of course, there weren’t suddenly more dogs, I had just become tuned-into their presence. The same with babies: when I had my first kid, suddenly it seemed there were babies all over the place. Again, there hadn’t been a sudden change, but my perception had changed. A second factor is that Covid-19 has encouraged many more people to be out-of-doors, either around their homes or in the parks: the parks have been one of the few areas where people have been allowed to be during the pandemic and these areas are where the coyotes are, so there were more sightings with more people there to see them. Another factor, NextDoor spreads the word so more people now feel as though more are around. I recently read on NextDoor that coyotes are multiplying wildly in West Portal: not so. I know these coyotes well and there is still just the one family there, albeit they moved their denning area this year. During the early part of the pandemic, I read in the news that coyotes were suddenly congregating and howling on Greenwich Street: the one family that lives there, in fact, has been traveling this street nightly for years, and has been in the area at least since 2007. I can say this about a handful of places where there was a reported an “uptick in coyotes”. So, as I said, “more sightings” do not necessarily translate into “more coyotes.” I’ve been documenting SF coyotes now for 14 years, and I know the population on these particular territories. Lastly, as far as I have seen, as coyotes have become more and more used to the urban environment, although they retain their wariness, there are individuals who haven’t been keeping so carefully hidden as in the past, so there have been more opportunities for sighting them.

My awareness history: It’s by word of mouth and through the newspapers that I first learned about coyotes in San Francisco: 1) the first coyote was sighted in the Presidio in 2003 and 2) another was observed at Bernal Hill in 2004. It was not until 2007 that I actually met my first coyote — it was on Twin Peaks — that’s when I began my focused investigation into coyotes here in San Francisco. By the end of 2007 I had seen coyotes in many of the same territories where you see them today: at Lands End, the Presidio, Glen Canyon, North Beach and Fort Mason, Golden Gate Park, McLaren Park, Lake Merced. As I said, that was in 2007. As of today, those territories, as territories, have not changed. Their size and borders appear to have remained very constant, as has the the number of families on them: there is still just one family on each of those territories, though the specific families on some of those territories has changed over the years. In several of the territories, different generations of the same family still occupy that territory. So, these territories have been amazingly fixed since I first encountered them in 2007.

After 2007, I recognized even more territories: I don’t know when these became territories, but most of these, too, have remained stable and consistent since I first became aware of them in 2014. When instability did happen to the resident coyote family, it was because a coyote mated pair got old or there was weakness: they either were fought off by a younger, more energetic mated pair, or they simply left the territory which was soon filled by others, but the territory, as a territory remained stable as did the size of its population: one family. A rare boundary shift has occurred in one of the territories I’m following when a couple of adjacent territories had departures or deaths, and then there was some merging into what today is a standard family: an alpha pair, two yearlings and this year’s litter. 

So, within any area, where a human would notice them, there are not more coyotes, except for the accordion-like seasonal variations after pups are born, wherein afterwards the population on that one territory has shrunk back down to the alpha parents and possibly a yearling or two before the next pupping season which then produces, again in the next year, an expansion and then contraction in coyote numbers. The youngsters eventually and inevitably leave (disperse). Dispersed yearlings (and even elders) normally disappear forever from my visual radar — they appear to leave the city moving south, or be killed or die during the process, which is pretty much supported by a Presidio radio-collar study.  However, I’ve been able to follow a number of these dispersed individuals to final destinations within the city. These that remained within the city have moved into previously existing territories, either through a takeover battle usually from an older or weaker pair (say, if a mate died), by joining an existing territorial singleton (or divorcee in one case), or finding a vacated territory — one that had either been vacated by a death or abandoned. A wonderful example of all of these situations can be found in the situations of the litter born in 2017 in North Beach (see above link).

My work and methods: You might ask how I know this since I don’t use interfering and harmful gadgets such as radio-collars or colored tags, so I will briefly give a rundown of what I do and my methods.

I’m a self-taught naturalist and coyote specialist who’s been documenting coyote behavior here in San Francisco every day for the past 14 years. I’ve been called a pioneer in the photo-documentation of the lives of urban coyotes and capturing their intimate lives”. Specifically, I look at individual behaviors (what coyotes are doing and why), family life and interactions and structures, and their behavior towards pets and people. Then, in addition to their behaviors, I also look at their relationships and population dynamics which include mapping the extent of each family’s territory. To confirm my findings with hard data beyond my visual ones, I’ve been collecting scat since 2008 for DNA analysis at UC Davis, where Ph.D. candidates Monica Serrano and Tali Caspi are now collaborating with me in a city-wide population study.  I know most of the families and their members and relationships by sight and I’ve even been able to keep up with numerous dispersals to other locations within the city, though most dispersing youngsters, as I’ve stated, I never see again. These visual observations, as I’ve said, should pretty much be confirmed by DNA analysis from scat for which I’ve collected 500 samples so far.

I always begin my observations by figuring out and identifying who each coyote is as an individual: to do this I need to tell them apart. Each is unique as you can see in these photos below.  I spend a lot of time watching them and then examining the photos I take of them. So I am able to tell them apart by their faces. Coat markings are notoriously unreliable because they change too much with the summer shedding, however, distinctive silhouettes and even individual behaviors help distinguish them at a distance.

faces presentationSo each coyote face is unique, and the differences run deeper than their faces, into their various personalities. These become apparent by comparing and contrasting them. So, for example, some are much more curious and inquisitive, whereas others are more cautious and careful. Some are more playful, gregarious and love to tease, whereas others are more serious, watchful and withdrawn.

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Some are curious and inquisitive, others are more cautious and careful

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Some are more gregarious and playful and love to tease, others are more serious, watchful, and withdrawn.

Then, on top of personality differences, their different social situations or stations in life also distinguish them, and these evolve over their lifespans: 1) They all start out as pups, with siblings, in families, on territories, in highly social situations. Then most move on to become 2) interloping loners without territories and without social networks — it’s a complete change for them. Eventually 3) they find mates and become parents defending their own turfs, and 4) at some point, they get old and lose their mates and leave or lose their territories. Each social situation or station engenders different behaviors, all of which help to define who the coyotes are and to differentiate them.

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They all begin in highly social families with siblings, and then most move on to becoming interloping loners, without territories or social networks — it’s a big change for them.

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Eventually they find mates and become parents and defenders of their own territories.

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And then at some point they get old and lose their mates, and leave or lose their territories.

Above three rows of photos: coyotes have different social situations which help distinguish them.

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Family resemblances are strong: I have difficulty distinguishing this father and son

Of interest, nuclear family resemblances which we all are aware of in human families, also exist in coyote families! Similar and distinguishing characteristics and traits which often run in families have proven to be both an asset and a hindrance for me in identifying them. Family resemblances have helped me go back to families where I saw some amazingly similar facial configurations, allowing me to match up a coyote with his/her younger images. At the same time, these extremely close resemblances in siblings, especially from the same litter, have forced me to spend a lot of time pouring over photographs trying to tease out the defining differences! In some cases, it has taken a lot of time.

So, being able to identify each coyote visually is a huge tool I have for figuring out other things, including their population as a whole: structure and dynamics and mapping. Once I’ve come to know individuals and their families, I notice that only the coyotes of that one family, and no others, ever appear in any given area — this would constitute that family’s territory. I began seeing the extent and where they would go. I was able to tell who belonged where and their boundaries. Friends also occasionally sent me photos of coyotes seen in different places: it was always the same coyotes in the same places which confirmed what I was seeing.  I also have relied at times on automatic trail cameras at night, which involve another learning-curve for being able to identify individuals under infrared light. This is not easy to do. I place these cameras in strategic locations, such as by holes in or under fences, by watering areas such as dripping spigots, along coyote pathways which are easy to recognize as narrow grooves in the grass or terrain, and also, when/if the situation opportunistically presents itself, facing trash left by humans. By the way, food attracts many more rats, skunks, raccoons and crows than it does coyotes.

Again, the results of my findings show only the members of the one family in any of these territories: dispersing outsiders passing through are not common and can be identified as such. Territories and their populations, including seasonal pupping expansion and contraction, have been extremely stable, in spite of several coyote family disruptions that I’ve been able to follow.

During turmoil/disrupting times — such as times of dispersal of the alphas or injury or death of an alpha — there have been palpable upheavals at a site, but always, and soon, the population would settle back down and stabilize to what it had been before, or it would incorporate a change and then settle down. At the time of upheaval, there would be frantic energy and activity that was very different from everyday life, and frantic and increased vocalizations. It was easy to tell that something was going on if you were tuned into their everyday life.

Background coyote population history from other sources: For those who don’t know it, coyotes are native only to America. They inhabit every state except Hawaii. Below are three maps depicting their presence here over time [click each image to enlarge it for better viewing], or see Hody, J.W. & Kays R., “Mapping the expansion of coyotes across North and Central America”, Zookeys, 759:81-97, 2018.

There are 19 sub-species of coyotes running from the 35-55 pound Eastern Coyote, to a tiny 19 pound coyote in Florida which is sometimes though rarely melanistic or black, to our very own little western coyote weighing 25 to 35 pounds and averaging about 30 pounds in this area. [SOURCE: WIKIPEDIA]

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Eastern Coyote to the left; small coyote found in Florida to the right

It’s just during the last 20 years that coyotes have been moving more and more into cities and urban areas, where they claim territories in parks and open spaces, including neighborhoods, reservoirs, and the no-man-lands on the shoulders of freeways, including in San Francisco. I’ve written about how coyotes RETURNED to San Francisco — they are a native species which had been exterminated here in San Francisco in the 1900s. One old fellow I spoke to remembers when the city offered $4.00 for two coyote ears in the 1950s.

Back to their territories: Of prime importance, coyotes here in SF are not wandering around haphazardly nor multiplying wildly as some people claim. Here is my summary map, created for and first published in my presentations last year, showing HOW the population is divided and situated into discrete family units on distinct territories, with fairly exact borders. I will tweak it as needed. I have been able to delineate just about 20 territories (I’ve counted 17 and am allowing for several more) which cover the whole of the city. Nine of these territories I know extremely well, the ones I know less are proving to be very similar in their composition, dynamics, and extent. 

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This is my map: I’ve poured heart and soul, work, time, energy and thought into it, mainly to show folks that coyotes aren’t running around haphazardly, and that the population is self-regulating/managing. Please give me credit if you share this information. ©

Of high interest is that all these territories, as territories, have been stable and unchanging since I first encountered them in 2007 and others in 2014, notwithstanding sequential families.  A couple have had minor alterations in their borders. But the coyotes themselves have also been amazingly stable, in spite of coyote family disruptions, or in one case, the movements of one gypsy family which included an unusual “divorce”.

Only one coyote family, and no other coyotes, then, appear on any one territory, with rare exceptions, which I’ll explain below. The family members from that territory trek routinely through their areas which include the surrounding neighborhoods, as they, among other things, mark their territories in order to keep other coyotes out.

Rarely, I’ve seen a dispersing outsider passing through as quickly and inconspicuously as possible, and here below-left is a photo of a dispersing youngster (on the right) being repulsed by a territorial owner (on the left).

In addition to these territories, there are what I call temporary stopping-off spots where, over the years, I have seen any number of coyotes remain temporarily for a day, 2 weeks, 6 weeks, or several months before moving on. For some reason, these areas don’t seem to have sticking power, and the coyotes have always moved on after very short stints of stay there. Golden Gate Heights area has notably been such an area — almost a cross-roads — used by a number of dispersing coyotes over the years. I’m not saying this will remain so, but this is how it has been up to now.

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left: intruder being repulsed by a territorial owner; right: trekking the neighborhood to keep other coyotes out

In several rare instances, I’ve seen an individual remain longer. For instance, a dispersing youngster with a leg injury allowed to stay for several weeks before moving on. This individual was obviously not a threat to the resident coyotes and that may be why he was allowed to stay. I’ve also noticed a couple of what I call, “adoptions” by families of outside dispersing youngsters who don’t appear ready to make it on their own: eventually they move on. And I’ve seen a four-year old who seems to have been welcomed as a nanny to a large litter. All of these are rare exceptions to what I’ve seen.

The alpha/parents of each family, then, exclusively OWN their own vast territory and all the resources contained thereon, and they keep other coyotes out. This explains some of their antagonism towards dogs: it’s a matter of excluding them for the resources.This is what their territoriality is about. It’s this territoriality which limits their population in any given area. Territories I’ve worked out here in San Francisco run between 1.5 and 2.4 square miles. Please refer to the map above. The darker outlined territories on the map are those I know extremely well. 

The Alpha parent-pairs — the owners of the territories — provide long-term stability to the area’s population. I’ve seen some territories occupied for 12 years by the same pair or by their descendents who took over from them once they were no longer viable, whereas all their offspring inevitably and eventually move on. Eventually, even the old alphas may abandon their long-term homes, after losing a territorial battle, or even without such provocation — possibly because their reproductive years were over, or they died. Within a year, the territory has always been taken over by a new alpha pair, or in one case, a loner initially.

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The alpha pair own the territory and create stability in the population

SO, territoriality limits the population, but so does biology: the fact that only the two alphas in a family on any territory reproduce [though I have found one exception — a rare exception that seems to prove the rule]. I’ve seen  mothers wallop their yearling daughters to either disperse them or to instill fear so they won’t reproduce. Inter-coyote interactions can be intense — there is no question about any meaning and never room for interpretation — it’s a clear message. Younger females are therefore referred to as “behaviorally sterile”. Culling/killing/removing them disrupts this process, and they’ll produce more litters and will make up the difference (see FF Knowlton, 1972]. My own observation, aside from this documented biology, is that female offspring usually disperse before they become reproductively viable at two-years of age. So, coyote population is self-regulating.

Pups are born just once a year, in the springtime, which distinguishes them from dogs who can breed twice a year. Litter size averages 3 or 4, though I’ve seen as few as one and as many as seven here in SF, with a fair pup mortality lowering those numbers. They dig multiple dens which may lead folks to believe there are pups in each — but this is not the case. Most of these extra dens are reserved for emergency use. In different years, the same coyotes may use different parts or fragments of their territory for denning, as far away from each other as a mile, leading people to believe it’s another family when it is the same resident family or a single replacement family: this has happened at West Portal, in Glen Canyon/Twin Peaks/Mt. Davidson/Laguna Honda (this is all one territory), at Buena Vista, in McLaren.

Territory population then, like the bellows of an accordian, grows during the pupping season, but it shrinks back down to just the alpha pair, with possibly one or two yearlings lingering a little longer before moving on. Yearlings are defined as the pups born the previous year. Pups normally disperse sometime during their second year. They are either driven out by a sibling or parent, or they just pickup on their own and leave based on their own internal clock. Dispersal is a dangerous time for coyotes, due to cars (cars are their chief killers in cities), due to hostile coyotes, and due to unfamiliarity with the terrain. So, discreetly and mostly at night is when they search for new homes.

Here are some dispersal directions and final destinations within the city that I’ve tracked visually through facial recognition. Again, my direct visual observations should pretty much be confirmed by DNA by Dr. Benjamin Sacks’ lab at UC Davis. By the way, for a high number of the scats I’ve collected, I’ve seen which coyote produced them, so we’ll be able to match up exactly who is who. :))  The dispersal routes I’ve depicted are summary movements: in fact, dispersing coyotes may cover every inch of the city before moving on out or claiming their turf. Once they claim their turf, they stick to that area, without venturing out, and without allowing other coyotes in.

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Some dispersals and final destination within the city of San Francisco

In their quest for new homes, a few coyotes have remained in the city after fighting for a territory where they detect weak alphas: this happened last year at the Presidio. Or taking over a territory from a weaker loner as at Bernal Hill (though this was a temporary situation). And a lucky coyote just might find a vacated niche in the city, as happened at Bernal Hill six years ago. Those territories within the city which were moved into were only 4 or 5 miles from the coyotes’ birthplaces. However, many, or most of the dispersing coyotes, as I’ve said, appeared to move south and out of the city as noted by Presidio ecologists.

In conclusion, we appear to have the same territories today that we had in 2007 and those I discovered in 2014 have remained the same since that time. We have no more coyotes in the Presidio, Lands End, North Beach, Glen Canyon, Bernal Hill than we had back in 2007; we have no more coyotes at West Portal, Portola, Sunset, McLaren, etc. than we had in 2014 when I first became aware of them. Dispersing and interloping coyotes tend to be very temporary situations, with these territory-less coyotes much less secure and much more wary and evasive than the territorial ones which are the ones you are most likely to see. For instance, in 2019 the coyote pair seen regularly at Alta Vista and Lafayette Parks have not been seen in those parks since they claimed Lands End which they took over: that has been a territory since 2007. We have had other coyotes around Japantown and Grace Cathedral who will follow suit. Coyotes at the Sunset Reservoir are only seen there sporadically — I haven’t figured out their territorial boundaries yet.

*The images in this posting all come from my presentations where I first published this material.

© 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©janetkessler/coyoteyipps.com.

Vital Changes Caused by a Death

This post details the behaviors beginning the previous year leading to the den sharing I wrote about in my last post.

This family left their main haunt of their fragmented territory in March of 2020, shortly after the Coronavirus shelter-in-place rules took effect: these rules encouraged more and more people and their dogs into the parks. The influx was apparently overwhelming to this coyote family. The parents moved themselves and the three new vulnerable pups out of the park in May. Two of the five yearlings born in 2019 dispersed from the area, while three remained at the old main haunt and could be seen periodically, but even they kept themselves well hidden most of the time due to the influx of people and dogs. Mom and Dad returned about once a week in the evenings — sometimes I was able to watch their behavior and interactions at the cusp of darkness. What was noticeable was Dad’s continued firm display of dominance over his yearlings, all of whom accepted the order of things: Dad was still the alpha male and the king of his family. Mom, too, seemed rather dominatingly strict, and after her grooming/greeting sessions with the youngsters she remained apart from them as they all horsed around exuberantly.

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Alpha Dad confirming his dominance towards the yearlings left in the old main haunt of their territory

This changed in October of 2020 — last year. Dad stopped returning at all, even though Mom continued to return at that dusk hour. Several people told me that they had observed a very old coyote in the other fragment of this family’s territory through December — the new place to which they had fled during the virus overcrowding — but I had to rely on others’ reports because I didn’t have time to fit in yet another park: there are just so many hours in a day and I’ve been working alone on this. Dad would have been almost 12 years old when he was last seen in December. Family howling sessions at the old homestead were notable for the absence of Dad’s signature vocalizations, his voice I had come to recognize. His absent voice was sad for me because I knew what it meant.

The three yearlings remained on this segment of the territory, with nightly visits from their parents. To the left: yearling and her favorite brother who apparently was forced out when the newcomer came. Until that time, the three yearlings were inseparable buddies.

So, I would see the three yearlings, but only sporadically, as time passed. Then, in January, I started seeing a little more of Mom. She, along with her three yearlings would come together for their greetings at dusk, then hang around for a little while, spending time grooming, sometimes hunting, sometimes just sitting around, sometimes playing, and then the four would take off for their evening trekking routine.

Mom and three yearlings at their nightly rendezvous, now without Dad

Towards the end of February there was another change. Suddenly the entire park — the older main part of their homestead — was filled with distressing vocalization sessions multiple times a day — at least five times a day. These vocalizations were different — something new was going on. These vocalizations were distressed and disturbed, coming from within the thick bushes where we could not see what was happening. This went on for a couple of weeks.

After one of these sessions, at dusk when I could still see but with difficulty, I spotted a coyote on a distant hill. It was getting dark and the coyote was far off: not good for seeing or for a clear photo. But I took a series of photos of the fella. In fact, I thought it might be Dad returned. My heart skipped a beat . . . or maybe a number of beats . . .  at the prospect!  From first glimpse, I could tell he was not young. He had run up to some rocks where he perched himself, as I remember Dad used to.  When I got home, I was able to zoom-in on the photos. Yikes! This was not Dad at all, but a totally new older, but not “old” coyote. Ahhh, so HE had been the cause of all the vocal commotion over the past few weeks! After zooming into the photos at home, I could tell that his running up to the rocks and perching himself there was probably him defiantly sticking around under vocalized assaults from the rest of the family.

The intensely distressed vocalizations continued the next day and for days to come, in fact they continued over several long weeks. One day, towards the end of one of these intense vocalization sessions, the alpha female Mom jumped out of the bushes and ran towards the family’s routine rendezvous spot, and right after her, almost at her heels, ran that new coyote — the newcomer. They were behaving in unison, and not antagonistically against each other.

The next day I only saw Mom and the one remaining male yearling. I now no longer ever saw the other male yearling. What became of him? He had been his sister’s favorite, but he was gone. Now I continued to see Mom, Daughter, and one remaining Son. Mom spent a huge amount of time grooming the remaining yearling son. She seemed intent on strengthening the bond. And the youngster stood with new self-confidence and stature because of it. The next day there was an intruder dog, and this twosome — mother and son — belted out their proclamation barks, warning all dog-comers that they were not welcome here.

Mom does a super-grooming job on her remaining son, while Newcomer watches from the distance with lowered ears.

Two days later, I saw the male youngster after a normal howling response to sirens. The howling this time was cut-off rather suddenly, something I’ve seen before. The coyotes seemed to be directed to stop by one among themselves, and they all immediately complied. Right afterwards I found the Yearling Son hunting contentedly on a hillside. Before long two other coyotes appeared together: Mom and Newcomer. And this is where it gets interesting. Newcomer held back, remaining close to the bushes. This makes sense since he was new in the area. But Yearling Son approached  Mom and there was a long and deliberate grooming session by Mom. Newcomer just watched, with his ears lowered . . . just lowered, not air-planed. Then Mom and Son began hunting and walking on, but Newcomer remained back. Mom and Son would stop now and then and look back at Newcomer, but he didn’t join them. I saw him get up to make circles of 8 before settling down in the tall grasses where it was hard to see him and where he remained.

Mom and Son sat down and waited, but newcomer remained where he was. When he didn’t budge, they ended up moving on and out of sight. A few minutes later, newcomer got up, and then went in the opposite direction.

Was Mom showing Newcomer, with all the attention she lavished on her one remaining son, that she wanted this son to stay? Might this be because the newcomer had just sent the other son packing — that other son has not been around since Newcomer came. Or might Mom have been grooming her remaining son to become the next alpha male?  This family already is very inbred. We’ll have to wait and see how the story unfolds! Last week I observed Daughter, Newcomer, and Brother together in a threesome grooming session (see photo below); and a few days later, both moms hanging out with their pups. So it’s an unusual family that breaks the generalized standards I have been seeing over the last 14 years.

© 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©janetkessler/coyoteyipps.com.

Den Sharing Case in San Francisco

I’ve put together a simple map of our coyote territories here in San Francisco — we have just about 20 such territories covering most of the 49 square mile city. In addition, there are a fair number of temporary holding spots, including a few backyards, which over the years have been used off-and-on very sporadically by numerous coyotes, and even families, for very short periods of time as they disperse. The important point is that I’ve achieved this without the use of radio-collars or tags. I’ve been able to do so, working alone, through my own recognition and knowledge of individual coyotes and their families. And we’re on track for all of it to be confirmed using DNA from scat for which I have collected almost 500 samples here in San Francisco over the past 12 years. A couple of graduate students at UC Davis are now collaborating with scat finds and the DNA analysis for their own dissertations. I will post the map shortly and then continue to refine it if needed.

Each of these territories, I’ve determined from my visual observations, runs from 1.5 to 2.5 square miles, and is occupied by just one family. Each of these families, families which I’ve gotten to know, consists of an alpha mated pair (Mom and Dad), their pups born this year, if there are any, and sometimes a lingering yearling or two born the previous year who will soon disperse. There are occasionally variations of this arrangement, consisting of just a portion of the standard family — i.e., any one of these elements might be missing for awhile. The alphas keep other coyotes out, except for the rarely-seen “dispersing” few who might pass through inconspicuously and quickly, or may even more rarely remain several weeks before moving on. Coyote population is controlled naturally through their territoriality, as just explained above, and also through their biology, as will be explained below. Limited resources are also a factor in their population numbers, but this appears not to be a limiting factor here in San Francisco with all the feeding by humans occurring here.

Biologically, as documented by F.F. Knowlton in 1972, only the alphas on any particular territory reproduce — the terms “alpha” and “parent” are synonymous when talking about coyotes — and this is what I’ve seen in almost every instance here in San Francisco over the last 14 years. However, according to Knowlton, when coyote alphas get removed (i.e., killed by humans), it creates social chaos, and then the younger females — who are usually “behaviorally sterile” in normally very stable and well organized family situations — produce litters. This means more litters, which means more coyotes. I can only imagine that this is the extenuating circumstance that happened in the family I will describe here  — although in the case here, the removal of the alpha male was an act of nature and not caused by a human. This posting points to the important point that there always are variations and exceptions to the defining generalities.


So, last winter, the long-time resident elderly alpha male in one of the territories passed away at almost 12 years of age: he had been the alpha there his whole life. Vacancies in coyote families are usually filled pretty quickly. It seemed logical to me that one of the remaining yearling males — two males and a female youngster remained from the litter born in 2019 — would take Dad’s place. That has occurred in the past on this territory. But two years old is a a bit young for becoming an alpha male: I myself have only seen it happen at the age of 3 or older.

Instead, an older newcomer male — I say “older” based on the wear and tear in his appearance and the way he carries himself — who no doubt sensed the situation, came into the territory. At the same time, there was no alpha male to fight him off — the yearlings were probably not up to the task. Initially the newcomer was not welcomed: lengthy and repeated distressed vocalizations by the territorial family could be heard for several weeks after his arrival. But he was the only viable male around and he stayed and now he is part of the family, the alpha male.

To the left is the lactating 8-year-old mother; to the right is her daughter, the 2-year-old mother who also is lactating on the same property at the same denning site.

First video is of 8-year-old mother with her new litter; then her 2-year old daughter with two pups (one pup is far in the back and is hard to see).

So, the result is that we now have TWO moms in this territory: 1) the eight-year-old “widowed” mother AND 2) her two-year-old daughter (daughters, as opposed to sons, appear ready to reproduce at 2 years of age). Both of these females have been lactating over the past couple of months. I’ve seen both of them with pups in the exact same denning area and on the exact same paths around that denning area. I’m calling it den-sharing. However, I don’t venture close to any active dens, so I don’t know if the actual den itself has been shared, nor do I know if each set of pups sticks with only its own mother. Whatever that exact situation is, there are two mothers in one small area on one territory which I have not seen before here in San Francisco. Of the nearly twenty territories I’ve delineated covering the whole of San Francisco, this is the only such case up to now, and I’m pretty sure — this is my opinion and a likely explanation — that it is related to the extenuating circumstance of the older alpha male’s death. Another possible simpler explanation might be that most youngsters disperse before the age of two which is when they become reproductively viable, but this younger mother remained on the territory past that point. The trigger, here again, would have been the instability caused by her father’s death.

I’ll post more about the behaviors I saw leading up to and during this development next time.

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© 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:©janetkessler/coyoteyipps.com.

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