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.

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. MelindaH
    Apr 05, 2022 @ 01:04:24

    It’s a beautiful read…thank you!

    Reply

  2. Gina
    Apr 05, 2022 @ 03:21:31

    Hi Janet, This is very interesting, and a great update. I’ve been wondering if the pups were born yet. Do you think the in-breeding of the San Francisco coyotes may be resulting in some of the litter failures you have been seeing? It’s possible that there are birth defects in the pups that result either in miscarriage or early demise after birth. This happens when the gene pool is too small, such as perhaps in the SF population.

    Reply

    • yipps:janetkessler
      Apr 05, 2022 @ 04:30:00

      Hi Gina — I’ve been waiting to see if intense inbreeding has an affect. In the most intensely inbred family, it seems not to have. Two years ago that particular female produced five healthy offspring, and last year five more very healthy youngsters, all of whom have survived. Dr. Benjamin Sacks, the animal geneticist at UC Davis says that inbreeding should not be a problem with coyotes. Coyotes apparently self-regulate their own population, and I’m wondering if this is a factor when a pair doesn’t reproduce? Just thinking out loud. I’m continuing to keep my eye on the situation and will definitely post anything that comes up in my observations. Hope this helps! Janet

  3. Jo Thompson
    Apr 05, 2022 @ 12:05:17

    Fantastic post and incredible photo documentation. Thank you for your efforts.

    Reply

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