Alpha Mom’s Return Visit

The alpha-pair of one of the families I follow extended their old territory last year. Not just did they extend it, they moved predominantly to that extension’s edge where their next litter was born (April, 2022) and this is where they spend the bulk of their time now. Yet, they maintain a foothold in their old territorial hub, trekking the mile distance regularly at night, but less often than they did a year ago when they first moved. At that time the treks back and forth were nightly, whereas now they are weekly or less.

When they moved the hub of their location and activity, they took with them just one of the youngsters born in 2021 — at that time, he was not yet a yearling. I don’t know if he or his parents made the choice to have him move with them. Neither do I know why the rest of his siblings remained behind — whether it was the choice of the individual youngsters or of their parents. But several of those pups remained behind. Over the course of the year, dispersal and death has taken all of them except one — the little girl. In November, friends found part of an old coyote skeleton and skin — the animal must have perished several months before that because the bones were clean of flesh, falling apart, and full of dirt. Those bones hold the secret to a story we can’t tell. Most wildlife holds these secrets: I’ve been able to barely scratch the surface with my observations, but there’s a wealth more that none of us will ever know about [Photo: Liz Rumsey].

I should point out that most of the territories I’ve studied — in fact, all except one — have retained fairly stable boundaries, so this situation stands out in my experience (16 years worth) as rather unusual. I’m thinking that this seems to be less of a quintessential “fragmented territory” than two separate territories claimed, for the moment, by the same alpha pair — if that’s possible.

There’s a mile-length of residential neighborhoods — houses on 25 x 100-foot lots — and even a freeway, separating what constituted their previous territorial hub and this present one. The old hub was used exclusively for 6 years and is where these alphas had their first two litters. At that earlier time, there was another entirely separate family occupying what is now our family’s “extended” territory.

That separate family is still around, but further south. The two families don’t appear to cross the “line” that separates them, and there’s even a sort of buffer zone which both respect.The alpha male of THAT family is getting up in years, and his mate is very small and young-looking — I’m wondering if these might have been factors involved in the “takeover”? I was not able to capture the process by which the change occurred: Had there been a fight for it? Or did it involve a gradual and accepted “pushing of the envelope” — i.e., pushing the other family over. Or a withdrawal by one family and simple filling-the-void by our family? OR, might our alpha male be an offspring of that family (I’m waiting for the DNA to confirm this or not) and been allowed to take it over by having it “ceded” to him willingly and amicably? I’ve seen this situation happen before. There are lots of questions which aren’t answered and might never be.

Above: Before dawn, I spotted the alpha pair headed towards their old hub.

A few days ago I was able to observe the alpha female’s activities upon one of her regular returns to her old hub. Initially I spotted her with her mate, the alpha-pair together, as they traversed that old haunt of theirs, but the male, who is much more wary and shy than she is, soon disappeared from view and that was the last I saw of him during this observation. The female remained visible and her trajectory was easy for me to follow. She was there to scrutinize the area: to find out what had been going on.

Sniffing (above 5 images): every inch of this swath of her territory was examined thoroughly for what the smells would reveal.

Visuals of course are important. But most of her “sizing-up” was done through her nose. She must have been figuring out WHO had been there and WHAT they were there for? WHAT were their tell-tale characteristics: such as male, female, age, testosterone level, etc. The “who” refers to coyotes and dogs.

Marking (above 4 images). Note the first oblong photo in this series: she’s both marking AND sniffing at the same time!

These are some of the photos I took. Alpha-mom thoroughly examined an entire swath of the area, keeping her nose to the ground while she was processing all the data she sniffed in. She frequently marked, as if she were “responding” to the information she was absorbing. In the 75 minutes I was able to observe her, she spent most of that time criss-crossing a 100-square-foot swath of field, marking and sizing up whatever had transpired there before she arrived. I don’t know how long back she’s able to whiff information, but I assume several days worth if not longer.

She found the food she had apparently buried here on a previous occasion — I saw her dig it up and wolf it down — no hunting was involved (above 3 images).

At one point she began digging. It was obviously a place where she had buried some prey — cached it away for a rainy day — because she was able to unbury it and eat it up without a hunt. After spending several minutes filling up, she marked the area several times before continuing her zig-zagging investigation. Shortly after that she disappeared around a bend, but I quickly found her again: she had met up with her yearling daughter and I caught them eating a chicken-pot-pie someone must have just left for them, because it was not there earlier: I could see that mom ceded the treasure to the youngster.

I lost alpha mom for a few minutes, only to spot her through the bushes, next to her daughter with a chicken pot pie, which daughter was allowed to have.

Then she explored further afield than the 100 square foot swath which had preoccupied her initially.

Yearling daughter appeared a couple of times during this observation.

As an aside I want to mention that the presence of an alpha-pair and their continual markings keeps intruders out of a family owned territory. Without the continual marking — such as when either of the alpha’s is absent — the potential for intrusion by another coyote becomes likely. I wonder how long this family will be able to hold onto this area since they aren’t there all the time? Interestingly, this morning I saw the alpha male from the next territory over cruising the peripheral edges of this, his neighbor’s now less-used area. Was this just a reconnaissance trek with no other purpose than just that, or might he be harboring incipient plans to expand into the minimally marked area? So, although I’ve seen a lot of stability in most territories, fluidity is opened by absence of either of the territorial alphas. I’ll keep my eye open for this fella’s potential expansion into that area. This fella, below, by the way, is the full brother of the alpha mom I’ve been describing in this post: he never knew her, being born four years after her, but I wonder if they know, through scent, that they are siblings, or at least related on some level.

Full-brother, four years her junior, is the alpha male on the next territory over. I saw him encroach on what was the old hub of the coyote pair that moved. We’ll have to wait and see how this plays out.

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