Airplaned Ears

Like dogs, coyotes may lower their ears, plastering them tightly against their heads when they are nervous or fearful, even as they approach another coyote seemingly happily to interact. It’s a very submissive approach used around parents, or even towards a more dominant or bullying sibling. This photo is of a youngster listening to his mother’s distressed howling after seeing a dog chase her: the youngster is anxious and frightened.

On a different plane are lowered ears which are not actually pinned back against the head. I call these, “airplaned ears”. These lowered ears seem to mean that they aren’t going to rock the boat or challenge the established hierarchy in any way. One of the ways coyotes communicate is with their ears. Lowered ears are an indicator and a communication of their mental state: harmless/unthreatening/accepting/no-contest. You might see a relaxed and contented coyote off in a field holding his/her ears this way.

Around humans, coyotes have customarily been wary, alert, but also at times curious and investigative. Around humans, their ears are normally alert and up in order to acutely capture sounds and attitudes that would warn them of danger. In areas where humans actually exploit coyotes, these traits are strong — it’s a clear-cut life and death matter for them to stay aware and alert, even at the furthest distances from humans. However, over more recent years here in San Francisco, and in many urban environments, this is different. Here, although coyotes remain wary of humans, humans are not seen so much as enemy killers, but simply as creatures to stay away from, out of caution, for the sake of coexistence.

Recently here in San Francisco, I’ve been seeing a number of coyotes assume an airplaned ear stance around humans. People and coyotes cross paths regularly in urban areas, and almost all of these encounters are without incident: the biggest negative reactions tend to be frightened humans. And over the last several years, a lot more humans are out in the parks here in San Francisco than there were 15 years ago during which time the park department has cleared out a huge quantity of underbrush so that coyotes are more visible, and there are some more coyotes, all of which translate into more sightings and encounters with humans than ever, with more non-negative encounters and more positive interactions between people and coyotes — including, unfortunately, approaching, feeding and befriending them by humans. As a result, some of these animals are responding in a more docile manner to humans: instead of fleeing to out-of-sight areas, they are simply moving off a little distance — maybe just a few feet — which is the opportunistic distance at which they know they will be safe.

Once they learn that our species can actually be of benefit to them, being the opportunists that they are, some have taken advantage of the situation by hanging around human-frequented areas and assumed the non-threatening posture of lowered ears. I’ve seen several of these guys even casually approach people and look directly at that person with a look of expectation for any signs that the person might offer food: these coyotes are the most blatant examples of airplaned ears: I’ve watched the whole development take place in several instances.  I think of these animals, sadly, as having had their wariness robbed from them. Not all coyotes, of course, respond this way to humans, but some do. The bottom row of photos in the gallery below are of adult coyotes who have been regularly hand-fed by humans and assume that “fallen ears” posture around people.

The rest of these photos in this posting, including the two larger ones, are of a youngster, taken before he was even a year old, and before he had time to develop the airplaned ears from human interactions. He seems to have learned from his parents to behave this way around humans when they are watching him close-by or when they approach. Coyotes in fact have “culture”: parental knowledge is passed on to the youngsters of that family. I wonder if their natural strong self-protective instincts (high strung readiness, defensive biting) are also waning/diminishing as people close in on them, enticing them into tameness — or at least the appearance of tameness — with their airplaned ears. I wonder: will airplaned ears over the course of the next few generations become floppy?

I’ve listed a couple of books about the taming of foxes below, where their genes were actually spontaneously self-altered as they became more and more tamed: the ears fell and eventually became floppy: they became “cuter” to humans. I have no idea if this same process might apply to coyotes, but the fox study is fascinating. It’s food for thought.

See: Urban Foxes may be self-domesticating in our midst, by Virginia Morell, Science June 2, 2020; and “How to Tame a Fox” by L.A. Dugatkin and L.Trut, UC Press, 2017.

Addendum 3/19: The coyote caretaker at St. Augustine Wild Reserve (animals that are unable to be released) noted that she has never seen these airplaned ears in her captive animals, who are fed at close range by humans. The behaviorist I’m in touch with says, “I like thinking about how and why some animals develop the behavior. Scientifically we know that any behavior that is reinforced will increase. Perhaps the wild ones developed the behavior purposefully because more people fed them when their ears were in that position. The other thought is that it is a superstitious behavior. Maybe they approached people with their ears in that position and think it is part of the criteria for being fed. I think as far as the sanctuary coyotes go, they get food daily regardless of their behavior and ear position so they may be less likely to develop the behavior.” Below is a short video clip by Kathy Lally showing a coyote being enriched through lunch in a box. Of interest is that the ears are not airplaned.

© All information and photos in my postings come from my own original and first-hand documentation work which I am happy to share, with permission and with properly displayed credit: ©janetkessler/coyoteyipps.com.

Fed Up

I’m reposting this from two neighborhood sites here in the city — two places where feeding coyotes is out of control. In both cases, we have coyotes who are being perpetually fed. It has altered their behaviors which have become increasingly troubling and alarming not only to neighbors and dog-walkers as evidenced by their reports, but also to authorities. If you love the coyotes, you’ll leave them alone and walk away from them as soon as you see them, if you don’t, you may be contributing to their possible death warrants.

Dear Neighbor:

There has been increased feeding of our coyotes, inclusively along roadways and from cars, and humans are approaching and being “friendly” towards them: This not only endangers their lives, but it’s altering their natural behaviors, causing these coyotes to hang around, including in the streets, waiting for food and approaching people and cars for food, instead of hunting which is what they should be doing.

People tell me that these coyotes look as though they are “starving”. They aren’t. Coyotes are thin, scrawny, and lithe so that they can move quickly and efficiently — more like a whippet than a bulldog. Please don’t be deceived by their naturally skinny builds, especially now, in the summer when they’ve lost their 3″ fluffy furry coats. These will grow back in the fall.

In addition, coyotes have been approaching dogs with insistent “messaging” displays, and/or following or “escorting” dogs: these are DEFENSIVE MESSAGES aimed to move your dog away from them, members of their families or an area. Please heed the message: walk (don’t run) away from them, and stay as far away as possible with your dog. THIS IS WHAT THE COYOTES WANT — it’s what they are asking you to do and it’s so easy to do.

Please be an ambassador for them: help others understand what is going on and what to do.

Thanks!

Janet Kessler
PS: If you have questions or need one-on-one help in dealing with a coyote issue, please contact me directly through coyotecoexistence@gmail.com

Abused

What comes to mind when you are told that an animal has been “abused”? “Roughed up” or “deprived” or even “killed” are what most of us might think. But the term also means corrupted and compromised. This might be an extreme way of looking at the situation, but I’m hoping to drive the point home — and to increase awareness. This coyote, pictured above, listlessly wanders around or hangs around on park pathways, waiting for handouts: he’s been dulled by the humans around him who allow or encourage this behavior. He has lost his desire to hunt for himself and he has lost his wariness of humans: You might say these have been stolen from him by misguided feeders, and compounded by everyone who approaches or tries to befriend him — he thinks of all of these people as potential feeders. Folks who treat coyotes familiarly as tame Walt Disney cutouts may not be aware of the harm they are doing.

As he lounges around, his pace is slow, almost lethargic and his look is mournful, his ears are air-planed down and out to the sides. He’s not sick, though he might look so to many of us. My wildlife behaviorist contact suggests that this behavior is a “conditioned response”: he’s learned that it gets him what he wants: food, and maybe sympathy which will lead to food. He’s exceptionally good at his ploy. However, he’s also exceptionally good at hunting for himself — I’ve seen it. But, being the opportunist that coyotes are, he’s taking advantage of a situation and of a gullible and needy public which is falling into line for him. To them, the coyote looks scrawny (all coyotes are scrawny) and needs food. Or they want to “connect” with nature — “that’s my coyote” “that’s my friend“, I’ve heard. 

I understand people feeding and even trying to befriend wild coyotes have good intentions. Good intentions however do not always lead to good practices. Hand feeding and approaching coyotes can lead to negative outcomes for the coyotes, and sometimes humans.

*Coyotes are wild animals with instincts that tell them to stay away from humans and dogs. These instincts, paired with the opportunity to get easy food from humans — a learned behavior — creates a conflict within the animals.

*This conflict may 1) cause animals at times to move quickly and fearfully which can lead to accidental defensive bites. Or, as the animals become desensitized to people and are fed, they 2) may slow down as their fear dissipates. They come to expect food and when it does not come they may become frustrated. The frustration then may lead to aggressive demand behavior.  This is another scenario that can lead to a bite.

These push-pull conflicts are stressful for the animals. Studies show that cortisol, a stress hormone, is high in wild animals taking chances by getting closer to humans. Stress, in turn, may cause an animal to become reactive (bite): we know that most bites to humans are the result of approaching and feeding. A couple of weeks ago a little girl in an East Bay regional park was bitten<https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/Coyote-attacks-6-year-old-girl-in-Dublin-park-15173092.php> by a coyote. 

Although I don’t know yet what provoked the attack, I’m sure there was a trigger.  The first possible explanation (not excuse) for the attack is people feeding the coyotes there — this is what’s behind most bites.  Also, pupping season is going on right now, and the sudden surge of people into the parks (due to the coronavirus) along with human encroachment close to a den area may have been involved. It is stress and fear that cause a coyote to become reactive — not aggression or that they’re hunting us — humans aren’t on their menu.

CA Fish & Game has killed one coyote as a solution to prevent further bites. It was the wrong coyote, so they will kill more: coyote’s don’t get their first bite free as dogs do. A ranger from CA Fish & Game told me that the department would be merciless towards any coyotes who bite, or scratch, or . . . brush up against a human. CAF&G could even start going after “potential biters” who are getting too close to people. EDUCATION and changing OUR behaviors is the long-term solution. Coyotes don’t learn a thing by being killed, but they can learn from our behaviors that we aren’t here for their convenience — we just have to learn how to act.

You can help this coyote, or any like him, to be the wary animal he is supposed to be instead of the dulled and enervated, and deceptively “tamed” animal he has now become. Please do not feed. Please do not befriend or act friendly towards him. Please do not approach or let him approach you. These human behaviors are not only compromising his wily wildness, they are setting him up for a possible sorry end. . . and setting up you or another walker for a possible nip. We need to scare him off if he’s sitting right on or close to the path waiting for handouts — he should be keeping at least 50 feet away from anyone. Please do this for the healthy stewardship of our coyotes as well as for your own safety.

The worst part of this story is that now two of his family members are echoing his behavior — coyotes learn by imitating their elders. They, too are now turning into replica deadbeat coyotes [DEADBEAT: one who makes a soft living by sponging it] who hang around lazily and almost languidly hoping for human handouts. We all need to scare them away or walk away from them always. Please let’s reverse his/their developing stray-dog behavior: even stray dogs bite. And please be an ambassador for them by helping others know what needs to be done. By doing so, you could be saving his life.

The two youngsters taking on the fed coyote’s behaviors.

*Including edits from a Wildlife Behaviorist who prefers remaining anonymous.

More: Food: the Behavior Shaper, and  Human Kindness Could Kill Our Coyote — wherein the detriment of feeding from cars is discussed.

Feeding Hurts Coyotes Physically, In Addition to Altering Their Behavior

Several people voiced their concern that a particular coyote was “fat”, making me aware that it wasn’t just my imagination. And neither were her looks due simply to a thickening of her winter coat, which indeed can change a coyote’s size appearance drastically. I’ve watched coats grow and thicken beautifully in the fall on lots of coyotes over the last 12 years, and then fall out and thin out in the late spring. This case here involved more than this seasonal change. 

Size and Build

Coyotes have thick, three-inch fluffy fur in the winter. This is shed in the late spring so that by July a coyote has only his/her undercoat, revealing the true smaller animal that the coyote is. In July, hip bones may protrude, back leg bones can be seen through their skin, jaw bones protrude: the visible bones aren’t caused by coyotes losing weight in the springtime, this is just how coyotes are built, and these skimpy builds show after they’ve shed their winter coats. Now, in October, winter coats have grown back in. See the difference this fur change can make in their appearance: normal fur changes.

Function

Coyotes are light and lithe underneath their fur because they need to be to function properly. Being lean and light allows them to run swiftly at 43 miles per hour during pursuit. Because they are so light and lithe, they can run up and down very steep inclines quickly and easily, wearing out a heftier pursuer such as a wolf, or even a dog whose weight includes a meatier/muscular build. I’ve seen dogs collapse in exhaustion, unable to keep up with a coyote as he ran up and down a 50% grade. Their lightness allows them to leap high and far for prey, and to jump over high fences. Coyotes are built a little like whippets, but with much more spring to their bodies, including to their trot: these animals, especially the Western coyotes, are composed mostly of thin and light bones, sinews, tendons and minimal muscle mass.

Activity Level

Coyotes weigh more or less 30 pounds in San Francisco. They can go days without eating anything: their bodies are made for that. At all times, whether food is or isn’t so readily available, they are using their bodies searching and hunting for food, and keeping both their minds and bodies in prime shape by doing so. It takes constant activity to stay fit: just look at yourself, or anyone who wants to stay fit, including any athlete or runner: they work to stay in shape and keep their skills honed because that’s what it takes. The same is true for animals.

Food Requirements

Coyotes are superb hunters. This is a gopher.

What coyotes are fed in captivity (those who are being rehabilitated or because of an injury cannot survive in the wild) amounts to a several rats and miscellaneous insects and vegetables a day. The amount of food recommended for a dog that size, again a much meatier animal usually, is two cups of kibble a day at most. Coyotes may need more than this, but they don’t need huge amounts of food. They are fabulous hunters: unless there are extreme weather conditions such as a long drought or where fires have devastated the land entirely of its resources, coyotes can hunt what they need. Here in San Francisco, prey consists of gophers, voles, squirrels, rats, mice, birds, skunks, raccoons, insects, reptiles which I see coyotes catch constantly in addition to fruit and roots. When they catch prey, they eat the whole thing: bones, skin, fur, organs, muscle and all — they don’t waste any of it because their nutritional needs require it all. They’ll even pick through garbage sometimes, which is always available in urban areas. What coyotes do NOT need is to be purposefully fed by more and more people who don’t think the coyote can make it on its own, or they want to make life easier for the animal. These people may be well intentioned but they are absolutely misguided.

Feeding

Food left DAILY for one coyote by one feeder — other people were also feeding this coyote. The sheer quantity of food is mind boggling.

What I’ve seen:  More than several people are feeding a number of our coyotes copious amounts of food every day, leaving it out along the street or hidden among the bushes behind a pedestrian guardrail in little buckets or just on the ground. I’ve seen pounds of meat being tossed right at these coyotes from across the street or in parking lots: places where people drive to regularly after they have found a coyote begging there. I’ve seen whole chickens, feathers still intact, and all types of meat, both cooked and raw, much of it highly processed or salty, including whole packages of bacon tossed off to the side of the road for them.  If this stuff is bad for us, and even our dogs, you know it is bad for them also. And this is in addition to leftover pizzas, burgers, McNuggets, partial sandwiches left on trails in the early mornings, or five pounds of dog kibble — I know because I took it home and weighed it. If you have a dog, you know how harmful cooked chicken bones are for them, yet whole roasted chickens from Safeway have been put out where coyotes have been seen.

One feeder confessed to me that she whistles for the coyotes who have learned to come at her beck and call. She told me, “They are so, so cute. I LOVE them. I go to several parks to feed them. There’s nothing for them to eat so I HAVE to feed them.” No matter how often I repeated to her that there IS food, and I named all the foods they might find, she always returned to original statement, “there is no food for them.” These people think they are “helping”, they think they are being “kind”. In the cases I have seen, it is not “kindness”: it is whittling away — robbing them — not only of their coyote “essence”, but also of what they need to survive which includes continual practiced hunting skills. Lithe abilities require practice, and a quick and lean body.

Detrimental Effects

There are no caloric expenditures for food being tossed to or left out for the wild animal. The result is added weight on the animal which hampers quickness and response times.  If you have trouble relating to this, think of your dog. A heavy dog — an overweight dog — is unable to turn on a dime, leap, or run swiftly: they “waddle”. A fat coyote will lose their quick edge and that could spell disaster for them on the road where only a few days ago we witnessed a car slam on its breaks in order to miss one who has gained a lot of weight from being fed.  This coyote is being fed from a number of cars — people tossing food out the window as they drive by — which is what is drawing her into the street in the first place.

I’ve never seen a coyote gain weight precipitously — or otherwise — until this coyote depicted below. The weight gain occurred in less than six weeks: it was actually shocking to compare before and after photos. Some people were asking me if she was pregnant. This could not be the case because estrus occurs only once a year for coyotes, in January/February, and anyway, there is no male around for her. By comparing photos, the change became obvious, even accounting for winter fur growth over those few weeks

Here are photos taken six weeks apart. A little bit of hunger is what spurs the activity to hunt. Sitting around close to human activity and begging, and chasing cars, is not going to end well for her. Please know that it is illegal to feed wildlife in California.

In addition to possible body damage caused by feeding, which is what this posting is intended to shed light on, there are behavior changes caused by feeding: See Food: The Behavior Shaper.