Coyote Denning Behavior 101

The main point to understand about coyote denning behavior is that it is *protective territorial messaging behavior* and should not be equated with *unprovoked aggression*, which indeed is how it might look. Our Officials need to learn about these behaviors and help the public understand them: the outcome of not doing so, as seen here in San Francisco, has been the death of a coyote who was not *read* properly by authorities.

Coyotes have ONE precious thing they own: their pups.

Their whole social system and territoriality are geared for successful raising of their litters. There is just one family on any territory. They keep other coyotes out of their almost two square mile exclusive territory: this is what their territorial behavior is geared for. That territory provides the food they need to sustain themselves, and the area they need to raise their young safely. They are pretty successful at keeping other coyotes out, however wolves, mountain lions, and even dogs and their owners are constant problems for them. And it’s dog owners who often walk their dogs into coyote areas in the first place, knowingly or unknowingly. Please learn what to expect and what to do if you encounter a protective denning coyote.

Dens may be dug from scratch, or pre-existing burrows from other animals under tree trunks or rocks, and may even be found under our porches!

Dens and Den areas.

We have just about 20 coyote territories here in San Francisco, each with ONE alpha male/female pair of coyotes who may or may not have produced a litter of pups in any particular year. Please see the territorial map I researched and made to get a sense of these territories.

The actual den is used only temporarily for the pupping season. Then — just like bird nests or our own bassinets — these are soon outgrown and abandoned, to sleep out in the open, usually in hidden places.  Dens might consist of openings under trees or rocks (which could be expansions of pre-existing burrows of other animals), or they dig their own dens from scratch, or they’ve even denned under our porches

Coyote pairs usually dig several dens in their territories — not just one — which mostly may never be used. Pups may be moved between dens several times in the first few months of life, usually for safety reasons or possibly due to a flea infestation. I’ve seen pups rotated between dens at one month after birth, at 6 weeks and again at 3 months of age. One of the families I know gave birth within one of the water reservoirs, but within 6 weeks those pups were moved out of there. Why? Turns out the holes under the fence which they used for access were being closed-off/plugged-up by the Water Department and the parents must have feared eventual complete blockage of their escape routes. After about four months of age, coyotes seem to shuffle through wider and wider areas constantly, and of course, the pups are roaming and exploring more and more as time moves on. By four months of age I’ve spotted some as far away as a mile from their birthplaces.

It’s important to understand that coyote *den protecting behavior* extends FAR beyond the immediate den itself — the protected area is not just the immediate area around the den. It covers a large playing field within the territory where the pups will eventually be exploring and hunting — half a mile to a mile from an actual den is not an exaggeration.

WHO might the coyotes target with their protective den behavior?

ANY dog may become a target for being messaged, no matter what its size. These fellas are smart and self protective: I’ve seen them more frequently approach the more mellow dogs such as labradoodles, even without provocation, “just as a precaution”, whereas they might more often keep their distance from larger or more powerful dogs. Coyotes feel more comfortable approaching any being their size or smaller. Unfortunately, small children fall into this category — they also are seen by coyotes as smaller, unthreatening and mellow, and therefore they could be, and have been approached. Coyotes approach to message their warning to “get away” and “be aware of me”. Please supervise small children closely in coyote areas. Small children, of course, need to be protected constantly from many dangers including right in and around the home: from dogs, from traffic, from pools and even ponds which they could fall into, from cleaning poisons in the house, even from some foods which might be harmful to them: this is why they can’t be left alone and must be supervised constantly. And beware that very small pets — mostly cats — have been grabbed by coyotes. Coyote nutritional needs skyrocket during pupping season, so they may grab what opportunistically appears in their pathway: a coyote has no idea who is your pet and who isn’t.

A coyote may follow or try “escorting” your dog out and away from areas they want to protect.
Screaming his anger from a distance

What the behavior entails:

Below is a video of a mother coyote dealing with a dog who came into her immediate denning area. You’ll notice in the video that, not only is this mother jumping around angrily with hackles up and a snarly face, images of which you’ll see in the gallery above, but she is also screaming piercingly and angrily. The screaming doesn’t occur as often as the posturing behavior seen in the still images, but growling can occur, and ultimately, if the message is not heeded, short charges towards and a nip to the dog’s back legs or haunches may result, cattle-dog-fashion, to get the dog to leave. The behavior, of necessity, is intense, persistent and insistent because that is what gets a response — we humans are actually scared into action by this behavior, whereas we probably would not be to anything less. The behavior can occur at very close range to the dog, which of course intensifies the message and its scariness. Dogs tend not to take the message too seriously and usually go chasing after the coyote, often returning with a nip to their haunches. I want to emphasize that the intensity, persistence and insistence are SCARY to us humans. I’ve been watching this behavior in multiple den areas every single year for the last 14 years: it is absolutely normal denning behavior, even when it involves children, and has nothing to do with a particular coyote “having become aggressive due to feeding”. Coyotes don’t become aggressive when they are fed, they become mellow and docile — they lose their concern and wariness . . . until they are under pressure, such as during pupping season.

Along with this posturing seen in the video, beware that coyotes usually sneak up from behind (NextDoor posting) to deliver their scary message, often with short bursts of darting-in and retreating towards the pet they are worried about. However, if you turn and face them, they are bound to stop in their tracks — until you turn your back on them again. They do not want to risk injury to themselves, and so they avoid approaching the front of a dog — where the teeth are — and a human gaze.

Another important point to make is that you are not very likely to ever encounter this behavior — it’s simply not a constant occurrence, especially where there is good signage. But having said that, you really need to know about it just in case you do come across it: please educate yourself about it and be prepared.

What can you do?

Remember that the pupping season lasts a good part of the year: February through the Fall. First, know WHERE denning areas are and try to keep away from them. If you find yourself within a denning area, keep vigilant, especially if you have a child or dog with you. Be prepared for a coyote suddenly appearing and making a beeline towards your dog or child. The minute you see a coyote, please pick up a small child or small dog and walk away from it. Larger dogs or children should always be led away or be taught to walk away from the coyote and should keep going away from it, even if the coyote follows. Although coyotes may follow a dog out of simple curiosity at most times of the year, during pupping season, the following could be “escorting” behavior, i.e., making sure you leave the area. It’s easy to walk away, so just do it: most importantly, GET AWAY from the coyote. And please know it is protecting something it cherishes and considers very precious.

I’ve asked myself WHY it is that people, who KNOW of denning areas and of coyote behavior, persist in taking their pets through these areas.  I think the issue is that people don’t really want to change their habits, and I understand this. We’ve all worked out the easiest way of doing things for ourselves and we like sticking to our routines. The coyotes have thrown an extra step in our way and it’s simply inconvenient. I think you have to like the coyotes to willingly make changes, but, of course, many people do not.

What needs to be done by our city authorities?

It is really important for authorities to educate themselves and the public about what is going on and what to expect. The City of San Francisco recently killed a coyote for its very normal denning “messaging” behavior. If there had been better signage, if there had been flyers explaining what to expect, if there had been a docent on hand, it might have helped. The people who complained to me didn’t fault the coyote at all, they faulted the city for not getting out proper, useful and timely information. People need to know *what to expect*, *what to watch for*, and *what to do* during denning season. Plenty of good signage can go a long way in fulfilling these needs, and a handout would be awesome.

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. kmdelmara
    Aug 24, 2021 @ 13:57:21

    Thank you for this! I’ve passed it on to dog owners I know, from Denver to New York City, Kingston, Ontario and beyond.


  2. Gail
    Aug 25, 2021 @ 13:21:27

    Thanks very much, Janet. I will share to my FB coyote groups.


    • yipps:janetkessler
      Aug 25, 2021 @ 14:34:57

      Thank you, Gail! Hopefully, the more folks know, the more understanding they will be towards coyotes, which in turn will help coexistence. Appreciatively! Janet

  3. Ester G
    Aug 25, 2021 @ 15:37:13

    Thank you for the education. Hope one day the coyote haters will understand this creature.


  4. jahmariposa
    Oct 01, 2021 @ 09:38:20

    I am still so heartbroken and angry about this.


    • yipps:janetkessler
      Oct 01, 2021 @ 12:22:34

      Hi Jahmariposa — Me, too. I’ve tried educating the authorities about this behavior. Hopefully the same outcome will not occur again. Thank you for caring so much about them. Janet

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