What Coyotes Do: Deliberately & Consciously Weighing A Risk

We were out on a trek this morning. I say “we” because I am allowed to tag along in the distance sometimes. Not always, and not even often by any means, but sometimes. Today I wasn’t given the “look” which says, “please don’t follow me”. It wasn’t an invitation to come along, but neither was it a “no, you can’t come.” So I tagged as far behind as I could without losing sight of him, as this male coyote made his circuit — or at least for most of it.

This is the last 1/2 minute of a 5+ minute howling session. You can hear *her* faintly in the distance at the end.

The day “for us” began with me finding him in his park howling in response to a siren as dawn broke. His mate responded from far, far off — barely audible, but distinctly her response. I’m sure he knew where she was. I did not, this time. She was obviously tucked away and safe, which gave him one less thing to be concerned about at that moment. So off he went, with me bringing up the rear at about 100 feet. It was very uneventful. We met few people or dogs and then only two at the very end of the trek.

Over hill and dale, within the park, we remained on a long path, he stopping to sniff now and then, and mark sporadically. At one point he pooped — diarrhea — and I wondered at the cause.

We came to the edge of the park, and here he paced along the edge of the road, watching out for traffic. Coyotes trek through areas much larger than their park territories — this is part of their daily behavior. As he began to cross the wide road, one car whizzed past. When this happened, he edged his way slowly and carefully back to the sidewalk, away from the car, where he stood very still and on full alert, with all of his senses focused and with every muscle taught and ready to respond. He had obviously gone through this experience many times and had learned to avoid the risks of quick-moving traffic. When the way was clear, still focused and tense, he crossed the road quickly and directly, and headed towards the long open space in back of the houses lining the street.

There were no fences between those apartments or between their backyards, so it was a perfect coyote-corridor. Here, he continued stopping, sniffing and marking the length of the very long block of connected apartments. He was always on alert. Sometimes he would stop longer at certain spots. Occasionally, nonchalantly, he turned his head, or head and body, just enough so that he could keep an eye on me.  This one knows I’m interested in him. He also knows that I’m not at all interested in getting close — it’s probably confusing for him. Other animals who would be interested in him would either be interested in him as prey, or in messaging him antagonistically. I simply didn’t fit the bill.

After about half an hour of trekking, he came to a fence with a plank missing. The gap was big enough for him to fit through. Should he try it? He spent well over a minute intently assessing the opening. His head would go forward and then he would withdraw it and look up and around in all directions, including at me. He did this maybe about 8 times, and finally, bravery won the day and he went through. I went up and examined the opening: the opening abutted the low support beams under a porch, and these were less than a foot off the ground. The coyote would have had to squeeze tightly and then bend to make it through. There was no chance for me, so I returned to the park, thinking my observations were over for the day.

But, within twenty minutes, who should come trotting up the path to the spot where I had first seen him howl in the morning, but Mr. Coyote himself! He continued along the path, now going in the other direction, somehow avoiding detection, between a couple of runners. He climbed a steep knoll where he then spent a few moments surveyed his domain — this “surveying” is a common coyote activity — and then he continued on his way, over hill and dale, through a field of waist-to-chest-high dense brush. I hurried over his lookout hill to the field below and was able to, at times, see his back as he slithered along, hidden by the bushes. When a dog and walker appeared in the distance, the coyote loitered behind one of these bushes until they had gone, and then he himself hurried along his chosen route and disappeared into a dense thicket, and I knew he had “gone in” for the duration of the day. His trek lasted a little over an hour.

slithering away in waist-to-shoulder high shrubbery

slithering away in waist-to-shoulder high shrubbery

Coyotes, Indeed, Are A Happy Species!

This little coyote is one of the coyote loners in our city, without a family, but that hasn’t stopped him from being resourceful and finding a way to entertain himself and enjoy his time. Take a look at him playing with a found ball at his park. He exudes happy, happy, happy, fun, fun fun!  It’s an utter joy to watch him so self absorbed in this exuberant merriment! And it’s especially nice to hear that the neighbors have adopted him — at arms length, of course — as their very own special neighbor! Yay, Bernal Hill!!

The Bernal coyote playing with a ball on Bernal Hill @bernalwood #bernalheights

A video posted by @rallyp_157 on

Video taken by neighbor Rally and posted on Bernalwood.com on 8/8

Famously Nine-Lived

This cat has lived in the same park as coyotes for several years now. The cat is savvy and quick — and apparently very used to the various wild animals that can be encountered in an urban park, including owls, raccoons and skunks, in addition to off-leash dogs.

Almost all dogs I know love to chase cats. Once that adrenalin kicks in, which is almost instantaneously after a cat is seen, the dog cannot be stopped — there is a strong instinctual pull which prevents the dog from hearing you.  My own dog normally was excellent off leash: he always sat at street corners before crossing without me asking him to do so, he heeled when we passed others on the sidewalk, he came when I called, and he even “stayed” for long periods of time even if he could not see me. However, before I learned about the “critical instant” at which it would become useless to call a dog who had been “snared” by the sight of  a cat, my dog did chase a handful of them and I could not stop him. Then one day one of them stopped and faced him with it’s back arched and hissing. My dog had no idea what to do and just stood there, dumbfounded, before backing up. Most domestic dogs have not been primed to go further than this, though I’m sure some have as attested to by the injuries and cat deaths by dogs.

Coyotes also have this same instinct to go after fast small animals. The difference is that coyotes have a lot of experience with “catching” their prey. This is why it is so important for small pet owners to guard their pets and not let them wander about freely where there are coyotes around.

So, this morning there was a cat/coyote incident, as can be seen from the photos. Two coyotes were trotting close to a thicket area when they spotted the cat sitting on a rock, right on their path and not very well hidden by the tall grass. They saw it immediately and time stood still for that split second when everyone became aware of what was going on. And then, within the blink of an eye, they went for the cat who scrambled to evade them from right underfoot. I’m sure physical contact was made, but the cat got away. The cat made an amazing leap high up into a tree, followed by one of the coyotes, who also made an amazing leap but then remained at the base of the tree. The cat went right to the top, 75 feet high, and stayed there. The coyotes kept looking up and made a few hopeful attempts at jumping before giving up.

And then they went over to the spot where the cat had been sitting before it was seen. They spent a substantial amount of time sniffing out that area. I don’t know what kind of information they were seeking — but they definitely were trying to find out something. Soon, they wandered on. I continued photographing the coyotes, so I don’t know how long the cat remained in the tree. I have seen squirrels remain high in a tree for the good part of an hour after such a chase.

Healthy squirrels and cats can evade coyotes. It is usually the very young or older cats which become prey for them as well as for raccoons and owls. Coyotes have been seen ignoring cats in the vicinity while they ate mulberries, and they have even been known to run away from cats who showed dominance and stalked them! Nonetheless, it is wise to keep pet cats indoors if coyotes live in the area.

Read Melanie Piazza’s WildCare, Summer 2016 article on Reversing the CATastrophy.

[3/2011]

Togetherness During An Outing

On this outing, their tight bond manifests itself through waiting for, watching out for, communicating with, searching for and constant eye-contact with each other.

Dawn was breaking as I entered a park to hear faint distressed barking in the distance. It was the kind of coyote barking that occurs when they’ve been chased by a dog. It was the male of a pair who was belting out his displeasure. I hurried until I was right next to the sound and recorded it, though I could see no coyote. When it stopped I followed the path to find the male up ahead of me. He trotted along, turning to look at me once and then climbed an embankment where he looked around. I knew he was either looking for the dogs or for his mate. After a few minutes, he trotted on and then dashed into the grasses to this heartwarming scene, in photo below. She had probably been with him when the dog incident occurred. He had stayed put and howled to keep attention on himself while she made her getaway.

Together after being separated by a dog and after *he* howled, drawing attention to himself and away from *her* so she could slither away from danger

Together after being separated by a dog, after which *he* howled in order to draw attention to himself and away from *her* so she could slither away from danger. Here they are curled up together in the grass for a moment.

After their short greeting, they walked on, each hunting alone several hundred feet apart. They kept checking on each other and then headed up the hill where I was standing. The male came up and waited, but the female saw me and preferred taking the long way around me. He then followed her, and they both trotted off together on the path.


I took a circuitous route so as not to interfere. When I next saw them they were still trotting along together. That’s when a dog darted at them and the male gave chase. The owner remembered that it’s best to keep dogs leashed in a coyote area. Then I lost sight of the male, but I followed the female as she foraged in tall grasses. She did so for about 20 minutes on a quiet, untraversed area of the park, but she didn’t catch anything.

trotting along together

trotting along together

At the end of this stretch of her hunting, both she and I looked down to see the male waiting calmly for her on a rock — looking around for her. She began heading down the hill towards him when suddenly he bolted up, saw and assessed what was coming from the other direction and fled: it was a large golden retriever who had caught sight of the coyote and was coming after it. The coyote was fast, and I let the owner know what was going on. So many dog owners are totally oblivious to what their dogs are doing. The dog and owner then went the other way.

Now, the female was out of sight. The male doubled around and headed back to where I had last seen the two coyotes together. He sniffed around and marked the area. People were passing, so he slithered under a bush until all was clear and then headed out again on the trail. Just then a runner appeared with his two dogs. The dogs did not see the coyote, but the coyote saw the dogs, and the owner saw the coyote. The owner leashed one of his dogs, turned and went the other way. Yay! More and more dog-walkers are learning to move away from the coyotes! The coyote just stood and watched him go. Maybe he was surprised that the dogs hadn’t come after him.

So the coyote turned and headed down a grassy hill into the brush. I had seen a lot of psychological contact and togetherness in this mated coyote pair, but also I had seen plenty of dog intrusions. About half an hour later a siren sounded and I recorded the male responding to it from the brush he had entered. Again, I didn’t see him as he howled.  Later on, I had one more glimpse of the male on the other side of the park before he descended, again, into the brush, this time for the duration of the day.

[6/25]

Knowing Me

Coyote hurrying in my direction to keep away from dogs and walkers. It's actually dark outside, about 9pm -- it's astonishing that my camera was able to register these clear, albeit blurry, images.

Coyote hurrying in my direction to keep away from dogs and walkers. It’s actually dark outside, about 9pm — it’s astonishing that my camera was able to register these clear, albeit blurry, images.

I’ve known this coyote for seven and a half years — I’ve known him from before he was born. I can say this because I witnessed the entire courtship and pregnancy leading to his birth and knew he was on the way. He probably knows me as well as I know him. Coyotes are as curious about us and our dogs and probably spend more time watching us than vice-versa, and they are fast learners.

I once read that, “Your dog knows you better than you know yourself. Why wouldn’t he? After all, he/she spends all his/her time watching you.”  I thought, “well, of course!” Well, coyotes also spend time watching and getting to know us, our patterns of behavior, our attitudes and treatment of them. They are known for their curiosity and for observing. They are consummate hunters because they come to know the minute behaviors and reactions of their prey — they learn this by watching.

For the most part, this fella treats me the same as he treats anyone else: he keeps his distance and is suspicious. Yet at the same time, we have an understood pact, born of years of experience: my pattern is to stand off and observe. I stay well out of the way so as not to be an element in the behaviors I observe, and I never purposefully engage his or any coyote’s attention or interact in any way. I have defended him against dogs and he understood my role during those occasions. He’s formed an assessed opinion of me based on all of my behaviors which are relevant to him over the last seven-plus years.

But once I did break my rule to not interfere. A photographer with his dog was enticing/encouraging the coyote to approach them. The photographer and dog were on the path the coyote was trotting along. The coyote took a very wide detour around the man and dog to avoid them but then stopped to watch this duo staring at him. The man started taking photos and walking towards the coyote who now was within 50 feet. From years of observation, I could see that the coyote was turning to his defensive/messaging mode. If you, and especially if your dog, stares at a coyote, especially while approaching it, the coyote will become aware that he has become an *object of interest*, and the coyote may wonder why and what is going on. In a coyote’s world, *the interest* would be one of either predator/prey or possibly a territorial dispute.

This man and his dog have continually been a little too *in-the-face* of this coyote which is probably why the coyote stopped when he was being stared at so intensely. I did not want the photographer to set up an antagonistic situation and then get a photo of the coyote messaging his dog, and it looked as though this was going to happen. The coyote would have *messaged* either by taking on fierce-looking body language as a warning or possibly even by nipping the dog’s haunches as a stronger warning. The  photographer and his dog should have been moving on and away from the coyote — not towards it. So I interfered to prevent any engagement — and the possibility of such a negative photo — by clapping my hands and getting the coyote to move on.

What is interesting — and this is the point I want to make in this posting — is the coyote’s total surprise at my unexpected behavior. The coyote didn’t seem to believe his eyes at first — this wasn’t one of the behaviors he had ever seen in me before. I could see that he was actually confused. The coyote look at me, frozen, in seeming-disbelief. I repeated my actions and the coyote backed away slowly, while looking at me quizzically. My behavior here was totally out of character. And I, too, felt that I had betrayed our understood contract, and I had. But that was better for the coyote than having him photographed in an antagonistic pose next to a dog by a man who was intent on publishing his photos — that would have been more negative publicity for our coyotes. This is an isolated instance of my interference and it hasn’t happened again with this coyote. I need to remain totally neutral always to get the natural behaviors I’m seeking.

Another instance of a stunned reaction from this  very same coyote was the time I walked my son’s dog. This coyote did an obvious double-take because I never before, during his lifetime, had been *with* a dog. This particular coyote, by the way, always flees the instant he ever sees the one and only woman who pursues him relentlessly and aggressively. The coyote has learned to avoid this one person because he knows she will engage in hostile behaviors towards him: she charges at him no matter how far off in the distance he is as he’s minding his own business, flinging rocks at him and screaming. These little vignettes I’ve described here are to show how *in-tune* coyotes are to our behaviors — they do get to know us.

As I said, this coyote treats me like anyone else: keeping his distance and maintaining his suspicions. BUT, he knows I will never pursue or hurt him, and in a pinch, I suppose he knows I’ll be the one who will be accommodating and will move aside to let him go by — this sort of routine has played out often between us.

He pees/marks as a message to those in back of him

He pees/marks as a message to those in back of him

He turns to continue on his way, and then acknowledged my presence in passing with a "hello" type of look

He turns to continue on his way, and then acknowledged my presence in passing with a “hello” type of look

Back to the story behind the photos posted here. So today, when I saw the coyote trotting briskly in my direction and then look over his should at the two walkers and dogs coming towards him from behind, I realized that he was fleeing from the dogs and I was in his pathway. If he hadn’t known me and my patterns of behavior, he probably would have diverted off of the path to get away from both me and the dogs. Instead he hurried in my direction because he knew I was safe and that I would move for him. And indeed, I hurried down the path and away from him onto a cross path so that he could get by, and I then turned around to watch him and the developing situation. The coyote had come within 10 feet of me and, turned around to watch the dogs and their owners who were still approaching him. He peed/marked for them — actually a message of warning — as he watched them coming closer. He was aware that I was right there but he paid me no heed. Then he turned to continue on his trotting way,  acknowledged me as he went, and I acknowledged him with, “Good day” and a nod, and he trotted on into the cover of bushes, with one last glance at those of us in back of him before disappearing from view.

The coyote hurries on and into the brush

The coyote hurries on and into the brush

I reminded the dog walkers of our newest protocol for keeping things safe around coyotes: when you see a coyote, whether it is in the far distance, approaching, or at your side, the best policy is always to tighten the leash on your dog and walk away from the coyote without running.

Before disappearing completely, the coyote turns and looks at those of us in back of him. He had gotten to where he wanted to go without incident.

Before disappearing completely, the coyote turns and looks at those of us in back of him. He had gotten to where he wanted to go without incident.

Intent On Not Revealing Where She’s Going

coyote stops and turns to look at me

coyote turns and looks at me

This mother coyote tried remaining out of sight — I saw her keeping to the bushes — but she had to cross the path I was on, so, of course, eventually she knew that I saw her. She was very aware of me. After coming to the path, she trotted on over its crest, down an incline and remained out of my sight until I came to the crest of the hill. She continued trotting along this trail until she came to an intersection of paths. Here she stopped and looked back at me. Then she looked in other directions to assess the situation, and then she looked back at me again. I took her photo. She then squinted at me — she was communicating her needs to me. I stayed back, letting her know that I understood her message and would comply: I would not follow her.

She then proceeded around the bend of the trail and out of sight. I did not follow, as she had requested, but climbed a ridge from which I could see her on the trail below. She had trotted on and then come to another standstill, looking back to see if I had followed. I knew from her behavior that, if I had followed, she would have lead me down this path which was away from where she had intended to go. Instead, since I was not behind her, she turned back about 100 feet and slithered into one of her secret hidden tunnels through the brush and, most likely, on to her pups, which we’ve heard but never seen. By respecting the coyotes’ needs, by actually listening and understanding their communications, we are achieving a mutually acceptable coexistence with these urban neighbors or ours.

when she realizes no one is following, she turns back to her secret escape route

when she realizes no one is following, she turns back to her secret escape route

Coyote Behavior: Dusk

As the light of day wanes, I’m poking around in a park in San Francisco when a coyote darts out of the bushes and rushes past me. I drop what I’m doing, and lift my camera — I’m happiest when there are coyotes around to observe.

He hunts in tall grasses, patiently waiting with his snout close to the ground. Suddenly he darts to the side and pounces. That was his first vole of the evening. He’ll soon catch another in those tall grasses. Voles are small and two are only a snack.

The grasses are super tall right now and coyotes are hard to detect in them. From a distance all one might see — which gives their presence away — is the tippy-tops of the tall grasses erratically wiggling more than the rest of the wind-blown grasses.

He trots deliberately over to another area where he pokes around in several of the openings which he himself might have created in the dense tangle of thick, foot-deep weeds which carpet that part of a hill. He spends time with each opening, sticking his snout in, listening, and moving the stalks aside. After examining several openings in this manner without success,  he turns around and heads towards where I first encountered him. It’s a slow walk, with casual hunting stops along the way, though he doesn’t catch anything else. En route, a distant siren sounds — or maybe it’s not so distant. Maybe it just sounds faint and distant because of the strong winds. He’s at the top of a hill and the wind is blowing strongly and in furious gusts. He begins howling. In the video the wind ruins the recording but the coyote is shown belting forth. Turn the sound way down to see the video — wind on a microphone is deafening so you’ll want to hear it at a low volume.

Immediately, SHE, his mate, returns his calls.Soon there is back and forth communication: howling and yipping which to me is beautiful and and comforting, but which to others might be more readily described as eerie and disturbing. Today it is mostly drowned out and overpowered by the bursts of wind on top of the hill.

Turn the volume on LOW — the wind is blowing furiously which results in a painfully raspy sound in the video. What you may not be able to hear is the beautiful calls and responses between the two coyotes — the mated pair

After several minutes of howling, with snout whipping up and around like the wind itself, he stops and looks around to assess his surroundings for safety, and then heads down the hill and towards her. He seems to know exactly where to find her — he located her by her return calls. But on the way he suddenly stops, frozen in place for a few minutes, and looks around, straining all of his senses: it appears that he has caught her scent sooner than expected.  Instead of waiting from her calling spot in the under-cover for him to arrive, she has set out on her own — maybe to intercept him. But they are not on the same path, so if he had relied on vision alone, he would have missed her.  Using all of his senses, he detects her presence nearby and then sees her several hundred feet away. They stand very still and stare at each other for what seems an eternity but is only a few seconds. Then he relaxes, turns around and walks past some bushes in order to meet up with her.

Their rendezvous and greeting, with variations, is standard for coyotes. He slowly approaches her, and as he gets close, his posture is upright and tall. She immediately falls on her back deferentially. Thus begins their greeting ritual. He smells her carefully — maybe he can tell what she has been up to? When she knows he’s satisfied, she gets up carefully and then she begins grooming him — licking and pulling ticks off his face and affectionately pulling his ear. As she’s grooming she stands next to him, and then she extends her neck over his — he allows it: these two are well matched.

The major block of her days are spent with pups. He is the one who has chosen the safest areas to keep the pups sequestered. His main duties, as displayed by his behaviors, are to patrol for safety and bring home food which he carries in his belly and then regurgitates for the pups. Safety is one of his chief concerns. He often even escorts/shadows her when she decides to go a-hunting. He does so to guard and protect her, but also to keep an eye on her!   Young pups do not participate either in these rendezvous nor the treks which follow. The youngsters are tucked away carefully and left alone during these occasions.

After several minutes of grooming, he steps aside and then he leads in my direction. She has become the shier of the two in the last few months — which she wasn’t at one time — and moves away and around me. His route, keeping his distance, is more in my direction. And this is when I decide to leave — I don’t want to get in their way. It’s getting dark and anyway, the camera will stop being able to process the light soon.

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