My Run-In with a Coyote (I had a dog with me)

Yes, this happened to me because I had let down my guard.

The background is that most evenings I set up a couple of field cameras where I know coyotes frequent. I usually go alone, but lately I’ve been dog-sitting my *granddog*: my oldest son drops Zak off at our home on days he will be out for a long period of time.

Zak knows my routine and has the choice of staying home with my husband or coming with me. I was actually hoping he might want to stay home, but as he heard me get ready to leave, there he was at my feet, wagging his tail and looking up inquiringly: “May I come?” I’m always impressed with animal communication and I couldn’t stand to let him down, knowing he wanted to accompany me. So I said, “Okay, you can come!” He excitedly went to get his ball and then waited for me ebulliently. When I tell him, “No, not this time,” with no emphasis on any of the words, just speaking like I would to anyone else, he knows exactly what I mean. He walks slowly over to his bed and curls up, offering me a knowing and forlorn look as I thank him for staying home to guard the house.

Zak is a little mostly-beagle-and-hound of some sort, weighing about 45 pounds. At the Peninsula SPCA, it’s this little dog who chose my son, my grown son, by jumping on him repeatedly and almost beseechingly: “I want YOU to take me; please choose ME; we could be BUDDIES”. He communicated his wishes well and endearingly and my son chose him because the dog had chosen him. That was five years ago. I watch the dog when my son is busy for extended periods of time.

I’m writing about this dog, because it’s actually your dog companion who creates all issues with coyotes — not you.

So, Zak came with me. We got in the car and drove to a park where we walked and greeted other dogs. Zak is always on a leash. Then Zak and I headed to a couple of other parks to set up a couple of field cameras. It was dark by the time we entered the last park: 8:30 at night. My field camera was already set up at this place and all I needed to do was change the media card and check the batteries. I hadn’t seen coyotes for quite some time in this place even though the camera showed they were there regularly towards midnight. So my guard was not up for an encounter — I definitely did not have my eyes open for them.

As we reached the camera I was suddenly startled into alertness with a scream point blank under foot — and I’m not exaggerating: it was right at my feet. The field camera in fact caught the scream, so I’m including it here. I pulled Zak closer to me and shone the flashlight into the darkness. And there she was, the alpha female of the territory who I could see (at that time, a month ago) was very pregnant. The coyote had approached us from behind and emitted that unsettling scream as a warning to get us to leave. It was startling and unnerving more than anything else. If there had been enough daylight to see her, I probably would also have seen her in her scary *halloween cat stance*. This is how coyotes *message* dogs when they feel intruded upon. I’m always at a distance, and I’m always without a dog when I observe coyotes: the dog is what upset her and drew her towards us. With the flashlight aimed at her, she moved about 75 feet away from us and sat under a tree, keeping an eye on us — I was able to capture a flashlight shot of her before Zak and I walked away quickly. I won’t be taking Zak with me anymore to that site.

Here is the short several seconds of video — it’s the sudden and startlingly loud scream I want you to hear — it’s a vocalization I haven’t posted before. It’s freaky and scary, especially because it was so close and so unexpected in the quiet of the night — a very effective message telling us to get out of there.

And here is one of the few non-blurry photos I captured of her with my flashlight.

Please remember that dogs and coyotes do not mix — they don’t like each other. A coyote will warn a dog around denning areas, and this can happen as far away, as far as I have seen, as 1/4 mile from the actual den site. It’s always best to abide by the warning: please walk away from it to keep the peace! And avoid the area with your dog for the next little while. In a known coyote area, an encounter can occur when you least expect it — you need to stay alert and should always be prepared to walk away the instant you see a coyote. Keeping your dog leashed allows you to control the dog: to pull the dog towards you and away from the coyote. The leash does not keep a coyote away, which, weirdly, is what some people think.

The Chess of Pupping Season, by Walkaboutlou

Hello Janet,

Spring is here with erratic weather and wild swings. And locally we are seeing coyote tactics like never before. And more coyote then ever.

The changes are a culmination of 2 years of massive wildfires changing the land, wolf pressure and prey abundance. We really can’t say what this means long term. But we do see coyote have reacted INSTANLTY to changes.

It’s challenging to describe but I will try. The Cascade mountains east of us had all forests lost, right up to the foothills of ranges and ranches. The land there is barren and burnt and open. It’s actually been reseeded, but the saplings wont be forest for decades. It’s hundreds of miles of scorched trunks. 

For the resident wolves…it meant leaving and finding any forests and woods they could. There are only a few packs regionally…so it was relatively easy to find new territory. However, it does mean wolves claim vast areas for denning, hunting and raising pups. This means 0 tolerance for any coyote found by wolf packs.

The coyote flawlessly responded by converging upon these newly barren vast areas. We couldn’t figure out why so many pairs were clearly staking these devasted areas as home until we realized….voles. There are hundreds of thousands of voles filling up every nook and cranny you can think of. The fires destroyed old growth woods but there is an explosion of grasses and plants and the voles are having generations of buffet living. The coyote literally are feasting on a cyclic vole boom. And they have come for miles. 

Wolves pretty much avoid such exposed open country crisscrossed with logging roads. The coyote literally just disappear in the maze of stumps that go to horizon.

In this scenario…Kinky Tail and her new Mate left the foothill ranch and went to a scorched castle of rock nearly 9 stories high and on private land. She pupped in this labyrinth of Rock towers and she and her Mate can see for miles. They forage for voles and stay at the rocks.

As we patrol…we routinely come across coyote. My pack are trained to stay together and literally push through, creating space. Unlike city areas….we have to engage here. But it’s very natural. The coyote give way to the hills and woods on ranchlands in foothills…and we do our fence patrols.

Final observations made on Kinky’s denning strategy. To our shock…Kinky has been joined by the elderly blind Slim Jim her father. Why he left his bison ranch sanctuary and how he made it to his daughter (over 8 miles away) we can never know. Did young Kinky go fetch her Father? Or did he somehow smell her, and want her company? 

Slim Jim, old and blind…is obviously with the den. Kinky is already leaving him to pup sit while she leaves for voles. Her Mate is standoffish but accepts Slim. Slim has also been seen both hunting voles and begging returning daughter. We suspect she feeds him. 

What a denning season. More coyote seen then ever in the Burns. And Slim Jim…with Daughter Kinky Tail…raising pups in a fortress of rock towers. 

For early season dens…its Coyote adaptations and Puppy Chess. And for an ancient Slim…the joy of pups.



PS-the pic of coyote is Kinkys Mate. He followed and glowered at my pack some miles but we have an understanding. We must make our patrols but….we are leaving and powerful and calm. He reads our messages and escorts a distance. This is how my pack travels the ranges and co exists with coyote in mutual..tentative understanding during pup season. 

Moods: Good Days and Bad Days

I don’t think most of us think about wild animals out in their habitats in nature as having ups and downs, good days and bad days similar to our own. We tend to see an animal and possibly what it is doing and move on, and are thrilled at the sighting.

For us humans, things often go smoothly and well, and we have feelings and reactions to these, and sometimes things go badly and we have other reactions and feelings to these. A particular experience or set of experiences might affect us for much longer than the immediate moment of that experience, and these color our behavior and reactions for a while moving forward. Wildlife, too, has good days and bad days and even mood swings — and that includes coyotes!

I’ve seen coyotes in their element: successfully pouncing for gophers, basking comfortably in the sunshine, enjoying the help of rain causing gophers to emerge from their tunnels, being groomed affectionately by a mate, playing ecstatically with siblings. They are obviously feeling good and having a good day. And I’ve seen them out of their element because of an infestation of fleas, a broken ankle caused by a chasing dog, dealing with a constantly bullying sibling, or evading hostile territorial coyotes during dispersal or even dogs during pupping season. I’ve seen a coyote down in the dumps and anxious after being driven viciously from her own territory by an intruder. Coyotes aren’t reacting to things unfeelingly — their emotional states are intense and very obvious when you are watching them.

Here is a video I captured in a field camera that shows the same pair of coyotes on a bad day and then on a good day. On their bad day — it seems to actually be HER bad day — she lunges at him with teeth bared, letting him know exactly how she feels and letting him know to bug off. Then the video flips and you see this same pair, three weeks later, on a good day: here she is overjoyed and jumping ecstatically all over him and even rubbing affectionately against him, while he smiles (yes, smiles — they smile when they’re having fun playing) and seems to enjoy her behavior towards him. Listen also to the two very different vocalizations with each behavior: one upset and angry, and the other contented purrs.

Indiefest: “don’t feed the coyotes” will show at the Roxie in SF on April 14th at 6 pm

This is a documentary film by Nick Stone Schearer. You may get your tickets online by clicking HERE. [PS: I’m in this film!]

The Chronicle wrote a review of the film.

This is the Q&A session afterwards

Pupping Is On!

A seven year old pregnant coyote shortly before giving birth

Out of the 16 territories I’ve mapped here in San Francisco (and I fully assume there are several more that I’ve missed), I’m able to follow six and sometimes seven of the families more closely. The expectant mothers I’m keeping tabs on this year range in age from 5 to 7, 8 and 9. I can only guess the age of two of them, but they appear younger than 4 years old. Of these, four have given birth over the past week, and I haven’t yet been able to confirm the other two, but they are imminent. Pupping season is in full-swing!

An alpha female’s change from pregnant to postpartum last week.

It seems that expectant coyote mothers avoid being out in the open where they can be seen. Since February, my sightings of them have been extremely sparse. I think it’s because they feel more vulnerable — the same as after they’ve sustained an injury, and the same as when they get old, as debilitating deteriorations set in. They keep themselves protected by keeping out of sight. So I have sparse images this year of obviously pregnant coyotes, but my field camera was able to capture the above images of the same alpha female over the last week, showing her change from quite pregnant to postpartum.

Here is a five-year-old nursing mother who recently gave birth. She’s on her 3rd litter this year. She’s still young and takes her mothering duties in stride!
Note the triangle of fur dipping below her abdomen which helps protect and hide the swollen mammary glands of this older mom.

Younger mothers seem able to hide their nursing status much better than older moms, especially as the weeks go by. The abdomens of all nursing moms becomes bald — the better to feed the youngsters — but a triangle of fur sometimes hangs down and conceals what’s going on unless you know what to look for.

. . . like an island in an ocean of grass
Here is an exhausted older mom who I found resting in the sun, far away from any pups.

Nine years old apparently is not too old to have pups as confirmed by one of the mothers I’m keeping my eyes on. However, it appears that giving birth is particularly taxing on older moms, and raising the youngsters I’m sure won’t be as easy as it was when they were younger. The above eight-year-old mother looked absolutely exhausted and even depressed to me following her birthing ordeal when I spotted her in the distance as a bump on the vast golf green: when she finally noticed me, she moved only her eyelids to look at me and then closed them again. She was soaking in the heat of the sun a good 1/4 mile from the general area where I know her den is. I won’t know how many pups were born to any of the families until June at the earliest, if then — most coyote parents are very protective of their pups and often don’t even like them to be seen, and they’ll move them if they think you might be interested in them. I usually get a glimpse of some of them in June as they begin exploring further afield.

Not all coyote territorial mated pairs produce litters, or possibly, they produce them but the pups don’t always survive. Last year, we saw a 4-year-old female who had been bulging at the sides and was initially lactating but no pups were ever seen by anyone, so we assume they all perished. Pup survival rate is notoriously low for coyotes. This would have been that female’s first litter, even though the previous year the conditions were right for her — she had a territory and a mate and she was over two years old — but a litter never materialized. Other territorial mated pairs I observed never showed any signs at all that they were expecting or birthing, and there were no pups ever seen, even though the pairs had been together for over a year at least.

In one family this year — the same as occurred last year to a different family — there is a mother and daughter, BOTH of whom had been very pregnant on one territory. Last year, the daughter and her pups disappeared soon after the birth, and I’m wondering if they even survived. That mother had developed a 12 inch square gaping and angry red wound on her side which may have led to her end. Possibly her surviving pups, if there were any, were adopted and incorporated into the other family — hopefully the DNA we’ve collected will reveal all that. We’ll have to wait and see what the outcome is for the double motherhood on a territory this year: it’s an unusual situation and seems to come from less than stable or solid alpha pair relationships.

Dad guards the birthing area — and waits and waits. Birthing is occurring right now in San Francisco.

Another sign of what’s going on right now is that dads have been hanging out and guarding near their den sites. For years I used to look for the *birthing rock* where one of SF’s father coyotes hung out while Mom gave birth. After I realized why he was hanging out there, I would always look for him at this time of year, and always found him there during this short birthing period, year after year, until last year. That father passed away last year, but other dads have been doing the same thing: finding a lookout post close to their mates’ birthing dens where they stand sentry, guarding the precious new litter while Mom is unable to do so, still recovering from birthing.

How Coyote the Trickster Sneaks in and Twists a Story, by K.M. del Mara

Always lurking behind the scenes in my new book, Twist a Rope of Sand, is Coyote the Trickster. You may not notice him nosing amongst boulders, but he’s there, observing all comings and goings, never missing a thing, not even the Chopin nocturnes someone practices daily. Music does soothe the savage beast, they say, and Coyote knows those nocturnes to the last note.

Although Coyote Trickster turned out to be essential to this book, it was not my intention to feature him in any way. Granted, the previous book in this mini-series, Vagabond Wind, also had a trickster figure who put mischievous ideas into peoples’ heads, or brought unlikely loners together. But I thought I was finished with merry pranksters when I closed that book.

That tricksy character, though, had other ideas. Somehow he transformed, grew fur and ears, and popped out from behind a rock. Scared me half to death, too, if I own the truth, having only seen a coyote once in my life. But as this new story settled itself into the high desert of the southwest, I realized, even as I tried to ignore him, he would not go away. Then, wandering around online, I tripped over Janet Kessler’s wonderful site. I am learning a lot reading her posts, but the thing that first drew me in was a remarkable image she captured, of Coyote and Raven in the very midst of an altercation. How Janet ever caught such an interchange on camera is beyond me, but that image wrote the first chapter of the book. And, spoiler alert, more besides.

They say authors succumb to writer’s block when their imaginary friends stop talking to them. This coyote, though, will not keep quiet. He still whispers in my ear even though I’ve closed the cover on that book. I’m thinking that, if I can pass him along to a few readers, maybe he’ll leave me alone. But I warn you, beware! If he puts his nose over your doorsill, you never know what will happen. And so, allow me to offer you a chance to meet Señor Coyote. But watch yourself carefully if he’s around. That guy is not to be trusted.

Twist a Rope of Sand, by K.M. del Mara

It’s available from Amazon here.

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PS: [Raven/Coyote story can be found here]

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