Mood Swings: Two Different Days

It’s mating time for the coyotes and, guess what? The female is going through mood swings. A surge in hormones can do this. It sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it?

This female’s normal behavior is to be totally aloof. She goes off on her own on what I call lengthy “pre-treks”, and then comes back to join her mate afterwards. HE has grown conservative and guarded as he has aged, so he’s not out in the open so early as she is. He routinely awaits for her return from her pre-trek to emerge in dimmer light, and then they engage in a greeting which normally entails him approaching her in a dominant stance and her folding over on her side compliantly before they go trotting off together to go hunting.

Now, during the mating season, there have been changes in their behaviors towards each other and from one day to the next.

For the last week or so, the male has been seen out earlier with the female, keeping a vigilant eye on her and shadowing her much more closely than is normal for him — he seems exceptionally protective and possessive (or jealous and suspicious)! His is an almost overbearing presence compared to her aloofness and independence.

On this day, I found her already hunting as I entered the park. When a siren sounded, she yipped in response, and then the male, who was hidden in the bushes, joined the chorus. This is the full length of the howl, and a normal one for these two individuals. It’s just the two of them.

It was the female who then ran towards him enthusiastically with amazing little grunts, rubbing the ground, inviting togetherness and rolling in the grass: this display of excitement on her part is not so ordinary for her.


They tumble in the grass in affectionate unity, yet also confirming his status as the dominant one.

Still photos showed more of the same:

As the evening continued, the male left her side to look around and mark. Just then a dog and owner appeared, and the male coyote hurried out of their way. But the dog then began barking at the coyote, causing the coyote to stand up straight and walk slowly towards the dog. I’m sure this was because of the female’s presence in the distance and its being breeding season. I asked the dog owner to please leash and walk on, which she did, and the incident was over. The male then moved back into the field next to the female, where they sat and watched, and waited for dusk to thicken before walking off together.

Walking off together in harmony


Four days later there was an about-face on her part: now she wanted to be left alone under no uncertain terms. The video below was taken by my friend Samantha right before I got to the park. In the video, the female grabs the male’s snout causing him to wince in pain: this type of snout-grab is used to impose one’s will on the other — it’s disciplinary. HIS normally dominant status had been trumped by her needs. Mating time is close at hand, and the male can hardly control his need to approach her, but she is not ready.

After I arrived, the male repeatedly attempted approaching the female, inching towards her very slowly, cautiously and gingerly, one tiny step at a time. But the minute he was within reach of her, she let him have it with a growl and lunging teeth. Later on, she began snarling at him if he even looked at her from further away, as seen below. After continual repetitions of this same behavior: his approaching and her repulsing him, she walked away with him still tailing her but at a respectable distance until they disappeared in the bushes.

Photos from “Beyond The Howl” at the Randall Museum

A few images from my Sausalito Exhibit, “Beyond The Howl”, are on display for the next six months at the Josephine Randall Jr. Museum in San Francisco. If you are visiting the museum, stop by to see them, and reflect on how amazing it is that we have these highly social critters right here in San Francisco as neighbors!

The ten images displayed depict different coyote behaviors that most people never see — seeing them will make you more aware of what being a coyote is really like. A photo is an instant slice in time of an entire sequence of events which come before and after a photo is taken. Knowing the entire sequence gives added meaning to any single slice in time. I’ll expand on the images a little here.

Referring to the images displayed at the Randall:

Coyotes display intense innate curiosity about everything and about each other: in image #4 a coyote is watching a sibling bury something which this fella then unburies and swipes for himself — so this image is also about the “trickster” for which coyotes are so famously known. Image #7 is of a distressed and angry coyote — yes, coyotes have intense feelings — jumping up on her hind legs and howling (no recording in the museum, to hear these, go to Coyote Voicings) after being chased by a dog. There’s an image of a wounded coyote after a territorial battle (#5): he’s tattered and limping painfully — territorial battles are common and can alter a coyote’s life absolutely from stable to vulnerable if you happen to be the loser. There is an image of two youngsters hopping all over Pop (#6) revealing the affection between pups and parents in coyote families — Dad is right in there helping to raise the youngsters.

Then there’s an image showing intense sibling rivalry (#1) — these previous best friends have devolved into arch enemies — which occurs in almost all coyote families as the youngsters get older. Other behaviors depicted are affection (#2) which is displayed openly and frequently in the coyote world; touching and prodding (#3 and #8) are forms of physical communication serving to emphasize something (yep!), and close, intimate visual communication as seen in the above photo (#9) can be a heart-pounding sight when you know this one coyote is desperately soliciting acceptance from the family he’s being dispersed from by a third coyote. These ten photos include just nine different coyotes from just four of the many families I follow. Two text-panels explaining urban coyotes and dog/coyote behaviors are included. None of what I have just said in these last two paragraphs will make any sense until you see the photos, so go see them!

Enjoy these images while you take in a snack at the Randall’s new cafe, the Cafe Josephine, and then take a look around at the exhibits and classes offered for all ages! The museum will always be special to me because of all the many classes we took there as my kids grew up, and because my youngest kid volunteered there for many years as a pre-teen and flew the resident Harris’ Hawk, named Betty, to exercise her.

My “Myca of Twin Peaks” images were on display at the Randall for over six years, until they closed the building for renovation several years ago. The museum reopened last year, and now they’ve again made room for some of my coyote images!

Happy Valentine’s Day

A rose is examined

Although taken a month ago, today is the day I wanted to post these photos. What a serendipitous find: newly bonded coyotes discover some roses. I took photos, of course, thinking of upcoming Valentine’s Day.

These coyotes might have been less “picky” in choosing their partners than we are — this was the very first guy who came along for her — but the camaraderie, affection, care, and playfulness between this pair are no less intense, as far as I can see, than for our own species.

Coyotes form life-long bonds (’till death do them part)  and both parents raise the young. Love? I don’t know. Whatever it is, whether newfound or long-lived it is always exciting for those involved, and for those watching it! Enjoy your Valentine’s Day and reflect on the fact that humans aren’t the only ones who partake in strong and long-lasting bonds!

Female coyote affectionately grooms her guy

A Coyote Defends Her Turf

Territoriality is a huge component of coyote behavior: it is a prominent thread that runs through many of my postings, including my last four, and now this one.

Lickety-split down the street

The day’s observations began when I saw this coyote run down the middle of the street, away from an open space. Something important was going on for her to run off at a full speed gallop, lickety-split, like that. Coyotes may run  like this from dogs, but there were no dogs after her, and I sensed she was the one leading this charge, doing the pursuing. She disappeared down a distant street and I didn’t think I would see her again anytime soon. I decided to explore some of the surrounding streets that included little habitat niches as I took a morning walk in the pouring rain.

Soaked through and through

Within half an hour I saw what I thought was a new coyote because it did not look at all familiar — I know all the coyotes well in the various territories where I document, including this one, and this, I thought, was not one of them. As I continued to watch, this coyote’s “behavior” revealed to me that this was none other than the lickety-split runner I had observed earlier. She looked so completely different because she was absolutely water-laden: she was SOPPING like an old rag, including all the fur on her face which lay matted down and made her look different, so she was unrecognizable by her appearance alone. She climbed up a nearby slope slowly and laboriously, which also threw me for a loop at first. As she crossed the street, she attempted shaking out all that water contained in her coat a number of times, but she faltered. She was unable to do so. This is why she was so water-laden. I knew something was amiss. Might she have a neck injury?

Just then a siren sounded in the distance and she began soulful and mournful howling — it wasn’t something I’ve heard from her before. I’ve heard this type of howling before as a very upset warning sound for intruders. After howling only a short time, she again tried shaking out the water from her drenched coat, but she could not accomplish the task, possibly due to pain. Within a minute she crossed the street, and then ran when she felt she was threatened by a dog (the dog was leashed), and disappeared into a thicket. In urban areas, coyotes need thickets to get away from people and dogs.

This type of howling in the video above I’ve heard repeatedly associated with intruders

When I got home, I reviewed the photos in detail. And there it was: there was a bloody gash on the left side of her forehead. As I examined the photos, I also noted bright pink/red skin poking through her fur on the right side of her head, including her ear. I wondered if she might have been hit by a car.

Wounds

Again, thoughts swam through my head about helping this coyote. But as has happened before, my instincts told me that if she could heal, she’d do it on her own. That the worst outcome would be human intervention which would tame her even more than she’s been tamed. And if it’s her time to go, she should be allowed to do so. She was totally mobile which is my benchmark for interfering with nature.

The next day I met someone who was anxious to reveal the very unusual sight THEY had witnessed the previous morning, down the street where I had seen the coyote go: two coyotes had been battling. I was told that one was initially under a parked car (this is used often as a protective hiding place for coyotes from, say, dogs and even people) and there was blood spattered on the sidewalk and side of the car. One coyote had on a radio-collar — we don’t see this too often in the City. Radio collars are not used in San Francisco except within the small national park section of the city known as the Presidio. I know the ecologist there and contacted him to find out if any of his radio-collared coyotes had been in this area — radio telemetry would reveal that. Yes, he said there was a 2+ year old female who was roaming the area. She was not from the Presidio, but had wandered in, and so he collared her on January 3. So that was the explanation: there had been an intruder and a territorial battle.

Swollen eyes, snout, neck

Territorial battles can be brutal and disfiguring. Several days after the incident, this gal’s face looked different to me who knows her well. The skin under her chin had been strangely pulled out, and there was swelling around her eyes and snout. Hopefully that would soon go down. I’ve seen an instance of where an entire chunk of skin was bitten off during such a territorial fight. A territory is a coyote’s livelihood. For them, the outcome of such a fight could mean the difference between life and death.

What was the outcome of this territorial dispute? Who won? There is only one alpha female in any given territory — one Queen Bee — so I’m supposing there had to be a “winner”. I’ve seen both female coyotes since the incident, each on separate days (not together). Both coyotes are at least several years old: both are mature and wizened coyotes.  I wouldn’t think that the resident coyote would give up her Queenship too readily. We’ll have to wait to see how this pans out.

The intruder, too, is looking for a place to live

FULL LIVES: This might be a good place to point out that coyotes have amazingly full and intricate lives: there’s lots of depth and breadth to what is constantly going on with them. They aren’t just hanging around eating and reproducing. Once you get to know them, you learn that there’s always something happening: it’s like watching a soap opera with constant cliffhangers! They are as social as we are and they have many of the same drives that come from being social: they mate for life, both parents raise the young, they play,  there’s kindness, altruism, jealousy, competition, rivalry, fear, etc., and there are the broader concerns, including territoriality and battles with unknown coyotes, dispersal, life-cycles, etc. Getting to know them through their interactions and their individual behaviors has allowed me to piece together who they are on a variety of levels.

MY FOCUS: Most scientists and academics appear to be concerned with data: numbers, measurements, trends, repetitions. So, for instance, Stan Ghert radio-collars coyotes, counts pups, takes blood samples, weighs and measures them, and graphs or maps where the animals go. A lot of this information can be gleaned and compiled mechanically (radio-collars). Or focused slices of their lives might be examined: Chris Nagy, for instance, is an ecologist, so he’s interested in how coyotes fit into the environment; Christian Hunold examines potential political ramifications.

I’m more concerned with everyday individual lives and individual histories: i.e., with what it’s like to be a coyote. I observe with my naked eye and photo-document observable coyote behavior (though I’ve done scat studies).  I’m mostly concerned with their individual interactions, their individuality (WHO they are) and how each coyote fits into its family situation, and also the human interface within the city and how that is evolving over time. These observations are direct and first-hand and take lots of focused time, similar to the way Jane Goodall observed her chimps, only Jane actually interacted with her charges, and I make it point never to do so — I’m always on the outside looking in. My guidelines I’ve refined, based on first-hand observations of what I’ve seen works best in our parks here in San Francisco.

A Chapter Ends

An entire family left their long-time claimed territory, leaving one daughter behind. I thought the vast territory had become hers. For several months, I would find her all alone. And then one day, there were two newcomers with her — both males!

I could tell that she was apprehensive about them for the first little while after they appeared. She kept a squinted, wary eye on them as they loitered around fairly close to each other until dusk darkened the sky and enveloped the landscape. She was assessing them, and they her. Dusk is when she’d usually head off trekking alone, and soon I watched as three of them went off together, not with complete confidence in each other as one would expect in an established family, but they were figuring each other out, and figuring out their relationships, through darting eye-glances: coyotes communicate visually and everything they did sent a message and was interpreted as a message.  I watched these three for the next few weeks as they became more obviously trusting and comfortable with each other. Right from the start, though, she showed a preference for the dark-eyed fella: he was the obvious dominant of the two, and maybe this had everything to do with her choice.

After the first few days during which she showed them “her domain”, they mostly hung-out on their knolls waiting for dusk to come around, and I watched the relationship progress from her being totally “in charge” and leading the howling sessions (in this first video, you can see him ignore the siren until she reacts):

. . . to ‘her chosen fella’ taking charge and leading the chorus when sirens sounded. Note that, although she appeared to have “chosen” her fella early on, the “possessive display” continues, and you’ll see this at the end of these two howling videos.

It wasn’t long before I observed an all-out, no-holds-barred play session: they were in a sand-pit a long distance off and it was dark, but I got this photo above, showing them playing as coyotes do when they like each other: chasing, wrestling, and play-beating up one another in a teasing sort of way. And then, within only a few days of that out-and-out play, the pair was gone. They are now gone and have been for weeks. So, I guess the lady of the house’s new beau came in and swept her off her feet and they loped away into the sunset together to hopefully live happily ever after — isn’t that how these stories are supposed to go? I wonder if I’ll see them again.

Since their departure, I’ve only seen the extra-male a few times: the beautiful pale blue-eyed fellow below. But now he, too is gone. The field has been totally vacant for weeks. The family that left had been there twelve full years I’m told by a fellow observer who knew the Dad from the time he was a mere pup. That fellow observer ceased appearing because the coyotes had. So there’s a big void there right now. I suppose my assumption that the vast territory had become “hers” is incorrect. It’s a coyote no-mans land right now.

Twelve years ago, before this family claimed it as their own, there had been a territorial battle between two families here. I was told that one of the families was so vengeful that it went after and slaughtered the pups of the rival family. Then all families disappeared and only one youngster remained there. He became the owner for the next twelve years until last fall. This story came from my fellow observer who, I can verify, has been an astute and accurate observer and could even identify individual coyotes in the dark (which I still have not mastered). There is no reason not to believe the story. I’m relating it to show just how intense and brutal territorial battles can get: that the battles are fierce shows just how important the land is to coyotes for their survival.

I’m hoping someone comes back soon: it might be the old family, it might be this recently formed pair, it might be the extra-male, or it might be someone never seen before: vacant niches tend to be filled, so let’s see. Of interest to me, as noted in my very last posting, is that observable coyote activity is way down in almost all the territories I study, and may be due to the upcoming pupping season.

 

Moving Around

Maybe you’ve been noticing coyotes where you haven’t seen them before? Or maybe you haven’t been seeing them where sometimes you did? These are the same coyotes. There aren’t suddenly more of them right now, even though it might APPEAR so when they appear in never-before-seen areas. Those I observe have recently been spending less time where they were, and more time roving. They aren’t just wandering aimlessly about: they have purpose to their gait, and intent to their direction. Here is a gallery of travels as I’ve recorded some of them. In this casual gallery, I’ve included photos of a red dawn, a red dusk, and a rainbow which I captured during my recent outings. [The rainbow photo has been enhanced with the “saturation” button — a rainbow is never as brilliant as this, but the dawn and dusk photos have not — the sky really looked like this!]

What are the coyotes actually doing? Those who have left home are searching for new areas for themselves at the same time that they are being driven away by established resident coyotes with territories: they are having a hard time. The resident coyotes, on the other hand, are getting things in order for the next big event of the year: pupping season is just down the road. They are surveying every nook and cranny of their vast homesteads for safety from other coyotes and from dogs and people, they are checking out the food supply, and they are scouting-out the safest den sites in out-of-the-way places where they can hide their precious new arrivals for many months. Pups are one of their best-kept secrets. I make it a point to stay far away from any area where I know there might be a den — this is what coyotes want or they wouldn’t take pains to hide their youngsters so well.

So lately I have been seeing them fleetingly and on the move in a variety of novel places. Folks have recently reported that they’ve spotted coyotes in their yards or even on their porches, or down the street where they hadn’t seen them before.

If you see coyotes where you haven’t before, know that this is normal behavior. Coyotes are regularly in the surrounding neighborhoods of our various city parks, and sometimes, as now, there appears to be somewhat of a spate of such activity. They are not coming after you. It’s not an invasion. They are simply minding their own agendas which have nothing to do with us. Please make sure to continue keeping your distance from them, and always walk away from them, especially if you are walking your dog [see “How to Handle A Coyote Encounter: A Primer” for more on this]. It’s best not to let pets wander freely or unsupervised, and if you don’t want coyotes repeatedly visiting your yard, please remove all food sources!

Newcomers

Magic indeed happens, even for coyotes, and it happened here just a few weeks ago. My observations on this particular evening was in a territory from which the entire family had departed several months ago except one 2-1/2 year old female. During the year previous to their departure, this yearling daughter had been excluded from family life mostly by her mother, and she was incessantly harassed by a younger brother, so she lived apart from them, on the fringes of the territory. She was determined to stay.

Over that past year, the family slowly dwindled in size, which is normal as youngsters disperse: the remaining youngsters from three consecutive litters left one by one, and then, to my surprise, Mom and Dad left. Dad returned periodically every week or two, but those visits ceased. I don’t know why Dad and his mate left: Dad had been on this territory for 12 years — he had been born there and won the territory in a dispute we think with his brother. Anyway, 2-1/2 year old yearling now was all alone there. I found her frequently lying down on top of a knoll, or I would hear her howl all alone in the distance when sirens sounded. And then one day a several weeks ago . . . something began to happen!

I reached the top of a hillock to find this yearling running towards me excitedly and maybe even a bit nervously. I was happy to see her energetic stride. And not far behind, surprise!, there came someone else . . . AND then someone else! These were two newcomers who looked strangely familiar, yet I didn’t know them. And then it struck me: I knew where they came from because of their uncanny resemblance to a coyote family in a nearby territory I visit occasionally. I have noted this before: there can be remarkable resemblances within some coyote family groups: in this case, blue eyes was one of the tell-tale signs. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that these two were males. Very exciting!

Showing the newcomers around

The female appeared to be showing-off as well as showing them around. First of all, she showed off her knowledge of what was not dangerous by whizzing right by me. I watched the others follow her lead — to me they looked impressed. They kept a larger distance from me. She proceeded to convey her intimate knowledge of the territory to them by leading them through secret fence passageways and to the backs of houses, and they explored various well-known-to-her brush areas. They criss-crossed an entire section of the territory, marking and exploring and watching each other, and then as night fell they headed out into the streets of San Francisco. I turned back at this point: I was overjoyed for the little female.

Three coyotes where there used to be one.

The next day, I saw the interaction in this video. She seems to be hooked on one of the new fellas and was not afraid to let him know. Note that SHE is the one making all the moves while he seems almost to be putting up with her if not downright annoyed with her. Actually, simply allowing her to do this is his way of accepting her. Anyway, it looks like a relationship is in the making here!

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