Eating Himalayan Blackberries in San Francisco

Notice how gingerly the coyotes move around. That’s because thorns hurt them as much as they hurt us humans. Both coyotes carefully rummage through the patch of berries, picking just those that are perfectly ripe and delicious. They spent over half an hour doing so.

I’ve been noticing a lot of fruit seeds in coyote droppings everywhere lately, so coyotes all over are enjoying summer fruit. What I don’t know is if they are being drawn to the fruit simply because it is delicious and they like it, or if it is because their usual rodent pickings are scarcer at this time.

Please note that Himalayan Blackberries are an important food source, not just for coyotes, but for all sorts of wildlife, including birds, AND even we humans love to pick and eat them. They are a Horn-of-Plenty for so many species, not only as a food source, but also as an impenetrable, thorny thicket, which serves as a protective habitat barrier for wildlife from dogs and humans. It tends to be invasive, so it may need to be controlled in places, but let’s think twice about altogether exterminating such a useful plant.

Sibling Best Friends Become Arch Enemies

I missed capturing the first skirmish in this battle, and when I finally turned on the video camera, the three coyotes were in a standoff — standing absolutely still, facing each other, tense, waiting, daring an interaction, prepared for the other’s next move. There was no physical activity during this time; the activity was all psychological and internal. They held this stance for many minutes. I cut out that long section from the video, but know that for several minutes before this video begins, that was going on. The video actually begins right before a snarl that leads to more fighting.

On reflection and with hindsight, all the activity of that early morning was headed in the direction of this showdown. Instead of their normally exuberant playing, exploring and hunting, the two coyotes I was observing in the video remained fairly immobile, with their eyes fixated on a far-off object which I could not see. That they remained this way for more than 15 minutes, with just slight movements, should have been a dead giveaway as to what was going on. These two were waiting for any false move or “moving in” from the coyote they were watching. And that coyote, no doubt, was watching them just as intently, assessing what his own next moves would be, and what theirs would be, possibly daring the situation into a showdown.

Finally the two rushed up apparently to head off the third coyote who decided to enter this area, and that’s when the first skirmish occurred.

The fighting here includes snarling, teeth displays, raised hackles, intense biting and punching, jumping on, charging and slamming against, and brutal tail-pulling by two siblings, a brother and a sister who joins him, against a third brother who cries out in pain (about :44) and fights back, but who ends up running off after the showdown. The sister’s behavior is interesting and I’ve seen this before: a subordinate coyote joins in the fray led by an aggressor in ferociously attacking a third. In a couple of cases it made sense because there had been a bit of antagonism between the two subordinates, but I’m not sure this is always the case. Maybe the sister was primed instinctually to team up with the would-be-winner as a population control mechanism? I’m speculating because I don’t totally understand this why a third would join in.

This fighting is not a simple family spat to resolve who gets what or who sits where: those issues are worked out by hierarchical behavior which is less intense. This fighting here, in its consequences, will decide fates and destinies that will be monumental for the lives involved. It will decide who gets to live a privileged continuance of patterns and routines he has known all his life and within a territory which he knows every inch of, and who will be put at risk for hardship, survival and even death by traveling away from the familiar and into the unknown through hostile territory (with unfamiliar routes, cars, other territorial coyotes, people), where food and water also will be scarce and hard to find.

That’s the physical side of what’s going on, but there’s also an emotional side: that of finding oneself all alone and self-dependent after a life of intense family interactions, companionship, and mutual care. Dispersal can be a trying time, and it is often initiated like in this video. This rivalry here hasn’t been going on for too long — these fellas were still buddies less than a month ago. The rivalry has reached a crescendo now. Hopefully the underdog is resilient and lucky and will survive and become a stronger individual through his uncharted trials.

Already the siblings in this family are down to three from seven. One was killed by a car when under a year old. Two were found dehydrated and beyond help (I’m told by ACC), probably poisoned by some human element — possibly car coolant left out in the open. A fourth female recently picked up and left amicably of her own accord. She was the one who had always held back and was not totally a part of the fun of the others.

And now it appears that this brother has to go: there’s no room in one territory for the two males, and the remaining sister has taken sides. Eventually these last two siblings will also leave, and I wonder if they will go off as a pair: I’ve seen that inbreeding is not so uncommon in coyotes. Because of dispersion, we are not overpopulated with coyotes. At this point, these particular yearlings are 16 months old.

Gypsy Coyotes: One Family’s Territorial Peregrinations

Gypsy: “nomadic and itinerant; inclination to move from place to place.” This is how I can best describe one of my coyote families that has lived in a series of small parks or open spaces in the city.

The other families in the city which I know — and I’ve been following 9 of these more than a dozen families in the city — stick to their territories and the closer neighborhoods, including one loner who at the age of 3 and a half still lives happily alone on her little plot of land. They seem to all have claimed their land permanently. On these territories (except where the loner lives), pups are born yearly and disperse usually between 9 months and 2 and a half years of age, sometimes leaving of their own accord, and sometimes being driven off. When they disperse, of course, they move out and away from their territories for good, as far south of the city as Los Gatos, as discovered by Jonathan Young. Many of those dispersing coyotes get hit by cars. Each family is different in how the youngsters flow through, but what is the same in all except my gypsy family is that the breeding pair have remained on their same land for years and years, and outsider coyotes are driven off.

This is not true of the gypsy family.

This schematic diagram to the right represents a distribution of claimed coyote territories where the same families — as I’ve observed them — have lived for years (the green areas) within the mass of the city surrounding them: streets with incessant traffic, noise and activity, homes, business centers. And my one nomadic gypsy family whose movements have carried them to five different locations (the red starred areas) within the last several years. The movements appear to be associated with pupping.

 

I’ve known this gypsy family for only several years — through the births of two litters. When I first encountered them, they were new to the park, so they had been moving around before this time OR they could have been two of the lucky dispersing coyotes from other parks in the city to find an empty niche within the city: the male soon became omnipresent and readily visible in his small park (Park A) while the female remained much less conspicuous. Then, I noticed this same female on a street, heading towards another park (Park B), which surprised me greatly. I observed her enter the park and saunter through. I wondered if she would have been driven out, as others had, had she been seen by the resident coyotes who have not let any non-family coyotes into their park. I wondered what her connection to this Park B was, because surely there was one.  Again, two months later, for a period of several weeks, I found her traversing the same street route regularly at about 7 to 10 am between her original park (Park A) and this second park (Park B), AND she obviously was lactating during that time. Her mate never made these treks with or without her.

So the plot thickened and so did my questions. Why was she moving between two parks, the second of which was already occupied by another stable and entrenched coyote family? Had she had her youngsters in that park? Was it safer for pups there? Was there more food? Was she keeping the pups away from her mate? OR, were the pups actually at Park A, in which case she would have been just visiting? But why? Soon, all this park-hopping stopped: it turned out to be a temporary situation, because after lactation ceased in June, she again kept to her original park (Park A) and the youngsters, two of them, were seen there sporadically. So I didn’t pursue my questions any further.

Life became routine at that park (Park A), with Dad making his reconnaissance rounds daily, hanging out in his favorite spots between daytime napping sessions, and finally meeting Mom in the evenings as dusk fell for their rendezvous during which they romped together joyfully. The youngsters would join them afterwards for jollity and play. It was always dark by that time and one could only become aware of them with a sweep of a flashlight if they were in the right place at the right time: their reflecting eyes could be seen racing this way and that. Very few people ever saw these pups. This family, during this time, appeared no different from any of the other families I watched.

Then, at the beginning of the next breeding season, in early 2018, both parent coyotes disappeared from their park (Park A), even though their yearlings remained there. The yearlings now took over the daily rounds there during the night. Had that park (Park A) now been ceded to them, I wondered?

Soon I discovered the new whereabouts of the parents: they were in another very small open space (Park C) about two miles away. The male’s appearance here was shockingly decrepit and sad, with new and prominent scars covering his face, an extremely forlorn demeanor, and a perpetual slinking stance. Had he had to fight for his mate? I don’t know. We have one photo of another male in the area. It was still February and it was mating season. Although coyotes mate for life, I asked myself if there might have been some kind of a showdown? Our male was observed at this park (C) for only a couple of weeks before moving on — the female was seen even less — and then they disappeared from this site as well and I lost track of them for a few weeks.

The gypsy-coyote pair and a pup

The next thing I knew, the pair had settled into yet another area (#D), about a mile away, where pups were obviously born — it was obvious because Mom was lactating again. This coyote pair has remained in this area (#D) now for over four months with their growing pups. The male performs his territorial sentry/reconnaissance duty several times a day as any good guardian father would, and in the evening he meets up with his mate for lots of fun and play without the youngsters, and the youngsters join them later.

However, a month ago Dad started returning to his original park (#A) for one-day long visits, always traveling to and from there at night, and always returning to the park where he had his last litter of pups (#C) the next evening. Those visits have become regular, occurring, to begin with, every 2 weeks, and now every week or less, and they’ve grown from one-day visits to 2 and then 3 days in length. During the visit yesterday, BOTH parents traveled the streets at night to the original park (#A) where they remained all day, leaving this year’s pups at the only home they have known so far (#C), and returning to them that evening. During today’s visit, only Mom made the trip for part of the day and returned before evening — walking the streets of San Francisco during daylight.

And there’s actually a 4th park involved (Park E), where several of us watched the female attempt to stake out yet another park for almost a week before returning to park #A after her first litter had been born. This park was clearly inappropriately too small for her needs.

This is a developing story, so there’s sure to be a sequel at some point.

[I spend my time observing and documenting coyote behavior and then writing and posting about them, in order to show people what they are really like. Mine are all first-hand observations, made on my own, usually about family life, which you can’t find much about beyond a few photos of pups on the internet. I get into what is actually going on. I’m a self-taught naturalist who is in the field many hours every day. I don’t know of any academics who are doing this, so this information is not available elsewhere. Hope you enjoy it, learn from it, and then embrace coyotes for who they really are! Janet]

Our Playful Neighbor, by Gina Solomon

I was walking my dog yesterday morning when I spotted movement on the hillside across the road. There, fairly close, was our local coyote in action! At first I thought she was hunting, but it soon became clear she was playing with a ball. She was clearly having a blast, tossing it up in the air, letting the ball roll down the hillside and then leaping after it. Several times the ball rolled nearly as far as the road. She was cautious, however, and always looked around for potential danger before dashing down the hill.

I sat on a rock across the road and watched her for a few minutes. This little video clip only gives a hint of the fun she was having. A few times I laughed out loud because her antics were so cute and funny, and I had to remind myself that I was watching a wild animal in her own habitat, not a dog. The happiness I felt from watching her play stayed with me all day, and I’m smiling at the memory as I write this. We are so lucky to have such intelligent, playful, and athletic creatures in our midst!

My Spot Taken

This had always been my spot . . . until now!

Although I walk all over various parks to do my observations, I have a few favorite static spots where I’m prone to linger and hang out. So, yesterday, after hiking around, I headed to one of my spots. I had in mind 20 minutes of writing and reflecting. As I approached the spot, my eyes were on my pack as I pulled out my pen and tablet — I was not looking where I was going — where I was going had become pretty automatic, so I didn’t need to look.

When I did look up I stopped in my tracks. I couldn’t believe one of my coyotes had taken my spot. This coyote had seen me many times at this spot, so she knew it was mine. A couple of times she had even come over to check if I was there. So I wonder what she was trying to tell me by taking my place? Did she not want me there?

She looked at me nonchalantly — see photo — and then looked away. She did not move or get up, and she wasn’t going to. I suppose the spot now belonged to her. I would have to find another place for myself. I myself wouldn’t even think about taking any of her favorite spots!

[this was actually written but not posted on 7/12/13]
071213

Coyote Dominance Is Not About Brawn

I’m reposting a video I took several years ago showing dominance behavior between two coyote family members. What happens in the video is that the underdog did not like being bumped by the dominant coyote and reacts — he’s annoyed. But the dominant one does not allow him to get away with his disrespectful reaction, and she literally puts him in his place. This is how ranks are confirmed in the animal world. You’ll see there is a slight struggle here, but that it is minimal is the point.

The underdog struggles a little, but the dominant one is much more adept, smarter and wiser. The physical hold is finally let go when the underdog calms down. But not until the underdog reveals that he accepts his place does the top dog actually let go of the psychological hold over the underdog. When the less dominant coyote bows, keeping his head low, and stays that way for a few seconds, he has shown his submissiveness and the little display is over. The ending includes a little playful skip on the part of the dominant coyote. Both then continue grooming themselves and hunting, best friends as ever before.

This particular female was much smaller than the fellow trying to gain the upper hand: dominance is about personality and intelligence, not brawn. This coyote’s control always made me smile. There is literal truth to the phrase “top dog”.  These coyotes get along really well, but it is obvious that the existing hierarchy needed reconfirmation now and then. [see the original posting: Dominance Display]

There is a lot of *order* out there in the animal kingdom — and it’s all there to prevent fighting that could get out of hand — even though that too exists: no different from in our human world, in spite of our systems of order. However, they work for the most part..


I’m including below some interesting dominance observations from Kathy Lally who is in charge of the coyotes at St. Augustine Wildlife Reserve. These coyotes are where they are because they can no longer survive on their own in the wild. These coyotes are no longer truly wild, but their behaviors, of course, are the same as coyotes anywhere:

Sundance

“Janet, your email made me laugh last night.  Sundance, our friendliest female coyote, flipped her mate Yosemite on his back a few weeks ago.  She then stood on him.  His yelping could be heard everywhere.  I was at the next enclosure when it happened so was able to see her standing on him.  She will normally chase him into a den box when she’s had enough of him – this was quite impressive stuff!  Attached a picture of Sundance.  You will notice a large piece of plywood in back of her.  We’ve had to do that to keep the pairs from fighting with their next door neighbors.”[NOTE: Why would they fight? Since coyotes are territorial, they are compelled by their innate territoriality to keep other coyotes out of and away from their territories.]

Yosemite

“Janet, again I was thinking of you and your observations of dominance with your urban coyotes.Of the 3 pairs of coyotes (male/female pairings) which I look after,  two of the females are definitely in charge.  They are friendlier & will put the males in their place in a heart beat. I stuck around a few minutes when I was delivering diets to the coyotes yesterday morning. Sundance, the little rascal, displayed some amusing behavior: After I put the meals down, she immediately went over, sniffed both of them, peed on one, and took meat from the other. Poor Yosemite [her mate].  He just waited until she was out of the way & went over & grabbed what he wanted.”

Individuality: Coyote Faces and Personalities: WHO are they?

Among other things that I’ve focused on in documenting and investigating coyote behavior and family life, is coyote individuality. This little summary actually is from my  February Sausalito exhibit: “Coyotes, Beyond The Howl”, which appeared in the above 5 foot panel.

Coyote Faces and Personalities: WHO are they?

As I wrote in an article in 2011 for WildCare Magazine, “Your average little coyote — only 30 pounds concealed under all that fluffy fur — is intelligent, curious, playful, protective, adventurous, cunning, independent, self-reliant, has family values, a frontier spirit and strong individuality. Hey, aren’t these the same rugged frontier characteristics in which we ourselves take pride? They also exhibit some “softer” characteristics, such as affection, care, happiness, patience, timidity and dejection.”

But beyond these generalizable characteristics, what are individual coyotes really like and how are they identifiable as unique individuals? What their behavior has shown me is that they indeed are very individualistic — they are individuals and should be looked at as such. We should be asking, WHO are they?

Using fur and markings to identify coyotes is not very effective. For one thing, different lighting conditions can alter our perceptions. But also, fur changes over time: every year it is shed and along with that shedding, the markings become muted until a new coat grows back. However, each coyote has a very different face and can thereby be distinguished this way. And the distinctions go much deeper than their looks: each coyote has his/her discrete personality, a unique history and their own social situation — each is an individual, and this is what I see. This is one of the reasons they are so fascinating to study and document.

What characteristics might make one coyote different from the next? First, family situation is very important, with many behaviors stemming from family roles and interactions: Mom, Dad, pups — or the lack thereof for recently dispersed loners. And each of these roles is carried out a little differently depending on the individuals involved.

Personality characteristics also define each coyote: Some are tricksters or teasers, some are more adventuresome, curious, intrepid, shy, bold, bossy, wary, patient, persistent, easy going, tense, care-giving, more or less social or playful. Some are domineering by nature, some are more submissive, and so forth. Some of the traits appear to be ones individual coyotes are born with. Others seem to arise or develop over time, possibly as a reaction to siblings and parents, to repeat situations and environments.

Personalities are a matter of degree: by comparing and contrasting various coyotes, you can see very palpable differences. Here are some very short snippets about seven of the more than 30 coyotes and their family situations I have come to know and see regularly or have known (some of these have moved on):

Maeve, age 6, is a single mom, acutely aware of her surroundings and totally in-charge of her family — a true alpha — in spite of her very tiny size. She knows every single regular walker and dog in her park and knows which may go after her or her pups — she goes into high-alert when these are around, and keeps her eyes on them. She exhibits double the personality and fun of other coyotes. She’s always out doing things during daylight hours and she wears her feelings on her sleeve, which is why it’s so rewarding to watch her. I tend to think she has a sense of humor about herself. She teases her pups good-naturedly.

Silver, age 9, is an incredibly devoted male. He follows his mate around everywhere and wants to be with her, always solicitous and displaying a huge amount of affection. He’s a father who is a harsh disciplinarian with his pups — he’s had six litters so far. He’s the one who is always on the lookout for threats to his den, and on the slightest suspicion of danger, he moves them. As he has aged, he displays less bravado, preferring to hide out — unless his mate is threatened! He’s an alpha by default and often uses brawn to lead.

Gum Nut, aged 2, was the guy who always ended up at the bottom in a vie-for-superiority pileup with siblings. He loved to play and get along, had not an ounce of bad will or competitiveness, spent all his time with his sister and would have become her mate if Dad hadn’t kicked him out. He endured being at the bottom of the totem pole in the hopes of staying with Sis. Daily bullying and harassment by Dad (this was the father role at work) finally got to him.  One day he was no longer there. He existed for the love of his sister, and for their exuberant play, wrestling, grooming, nuzzles. After he left, I found him in another park where he lived for a while as a transient. I no longer know his whereabout.

Chert, age 5, was always the most fearless and adventuresome of her litter. I would find her exploring far afield way before the others did. She’s still very independent, to the point of being aloof, and enjoys going off on her own. She’s affectionate towards her mate, but submissive him, the dominant one. In the past was not a good mother — she fussed minimally over her brood and seemed just to *put up* with motherhood, but Dad filled in for her! This year is different. She’s been minding her brood, possibly because, for the first time, there’s more than just one pup in her litter.

Scout, age 3 1/2, was an *only child* though more infant pups may simply not have survived. Suddenly one day, Dad turned on her and forced her to leave. She had a mind of her own and was somewhat of an upstart, which may be the reason she was kicked out fairly early — at 9 months vs. some who don’t leave home until as late as 3 years of age. She found herself an open space where she has survived for over 2 years as a “loner” coyote. After neighbors’ initial alarm and fear of the newcomer, they took a liking to her — too much so — and fed and befriended her. Tossed food from cars and on the side of the road, this little coyote’s life now is in constant danger from cars.  Please don’t feed or befriend a coyote — it hurts them! She is spunky and full of fun, but much too uppety — approaching some dogs testingly even when they bark at her ferociously. She loves to play with toys, be they sticks, balls, old shoes or jackets, or even bushes, and she seems to appreciate an audience, judging by her eyeing hers repeatedly to see their response and then continuing.

Sonny, aged 1.5, is particularly unique. His twin sister is his opposite: out in front, investigating new situations, not fearful,  and imposes dominance on a younger sibling . Sonny, on the other hand always keeps back. He assesses everything visually from afar, and is quick to flee. But if there is trouble, say from a dog, he’s there to help defend. He is peacekeeper among his siblings: if one taunts or threatens another, he steps in and disciplines with a threatening snarl and snout clamp. He does not like dissension. I saw a Ted Talks video recently which emphasized that these are the markers of a true alpha. Bravado, by the way, is not one of the markers. Also, he consoles any of the others who have been heavy handedly disciplined by Mom. Interestingly, he’s buddies with his Dad.

Ivan, aged 12, is the oldest living coyote I know. He’s also the largest and the gentlest. He’s the alpha of his family, though his mate often attempts wresting control. This fellow just watches it happen, doesn’t respond, and picks up where he left off. Dispersion for his last son of last year was such a joy to watch. There was always respect and encouragement, never any bullying as I’ve seen in other coyote families. Shortly before this last son took off, I saw Ivan encouraging this youngster to play as an equal with him, his dad. The youngster was overjoyed and so was the dad. It was their last play session together before the youngster left. I’ll always see that session as an encouragement by Ivan, and their mutual acceptance that the next step was departure. This easy-going and caring family ruler, however, is a toughie when it comes to intruder dogs who he would message ferociously — no holds barred!

(To be continued)

[Note: What I say here is entirely drawn from my own extensive and long-term, first-hand observations of coyote interactions within their families]

 

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