Screening: “don’t feed the coyotes”, a film by Nick Stone Schearer

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Coyote Denning Behavior 101

The main point to understand about coyote denning behavior is that it is *protective territorial messaging behavior* and should not be equated with *unprovoked aggression*, which indeed is how it might look. Our Officials need to learn about these behaviors and help the public understand them: the outcome of not doing so, as seen here in San Francisco, has been the death of a coyote who was not *read* properly by authorities.

Coyotes have ONE precious thing they own: their pups.

Their whole social system and territoriality are geared for successful raising of their litters. There is just one family on any territory. They keep other coyotes out of their almost two square mile exclusive territory: this is what their territorial behavior is geared for. That territory provides the food they need to sustain themselves, and the area they need to raise their young safely. They are pretty successful at keeping other coyotes out, however wolves, mountain lions, and even dogs and their owners are constant problems for them. And it’s dog owners who often walk their dogs into coyote areas in the first place, knowingly or unknowingly. Please learn what to expect and what to do if you encounter a protective denning coyote.

Dens may be dug from scratch, or pre-existing burrows from other animals under tree trunks or rocks, and may even be found under our porches!

Dens and Den areas.

We have just about 20 coyote territories here in San Francisco, each with ONE alpha male/female pair of coyotes who may or may not have produced a litter of pups in any particular year. Please see the territorial map I researched and made to get a sense of these territories.

The actual den is used only temporarily for the pupping season. Then — just like bird nests or our own bassinets — these are soon outgrown and abandoned, to sleep out in the open, usually in hidden places.  Dens might consist of openings under trees or rocks (which could be expansions of pre-existing burrows of other animals), or they dig their own dens from scratch, or they’ve even denned under our porches

Coyote pairs usually dig several dens in their territories — not just one — which mostly may never be used. Pups may be moved between dens several times in the first few months of life, usually for safety reasons or possibly due to a flea infestation. I’ve seen pups rotated between dens at one month after birth, at 6 weeks and again at 3 months of age. One of the families I know gave birth within one of the water reservoirs, but within 6 weeks those pups were moved out of there. Why? Turns out the holes under the fence which they used for access were being closed-off/plugged-up by the Water Department and the parents must have feared eventual complete blockage of their escape routes. After about four months of age, coyotes seem to shuffle through wider and wider areas constantly, and of course, the pups are roaming and exploring more and more as time moves on. By four months of age I’ve spotted some as far away as a mile from their birthplaces.

It’s important to understand that coyote *den protecting behavior* extends FAR beyond the immediate den itself — the protected area is not just the immediate area around the den. It covers a large playing field within the territory where the pups will eventually be exploring and hunting — half a mile to a mile from an actual den is not an exaggeration.

WHO might the coyotes target with their protective den behavior?

ANY dog may become a target for being messaged, no matter what its size. These fellas are smart and self protective: I’ve seen them more frequently approach the more mellow dogs such as labradoodles, even without provocation, “just as a precaution”, whereas they might more often keep their distance from larger or more powerful dogs. Coyotes feel more comfortable approaching any being their size or smaller. Unfortunately, small children fall into this category — they also are seen by coyotes as smaller, unthreatening and mellow, and therefore they could be, and have been approached. Coyotes approach to message their warning to “get away” and “be aware of me”. Please supervise small children closely in coyote areas. Small children, of course, need to be protected constantly from many dangers including right in and around the home: from dogs, from traffic, from pools and even ponds which they could fall into, from cleaning poisons in the house, even from some foods which might be harmful to them: this is why they can’t be left alone and must be supervised constantly. And beware that very small pets — mostly cats — have been grabbed by coyotes. Coyote nutritional needs skyrocket during pupping season, so they may grab what opportunistically appears in their pathway: a coyote has no idea who is your pet and who isn’t.

A coyote may follow or try “escorting” your dog out and away from areas they want to protect.
Screaming his anger from a distance

What the behavior entails:

Below is a video of a mother coyote dealing with a dog who came into her immediate denning area. You’ll notice in the video that, not only is this mother jumping around angrily with hackles up and a snarly face, images of which you’ll see in the gallery above, but she is also screaming piercingly and angrily. The screaming doesn’t occur as often as the posturing behavior seen in the still images, but growling can occur, and ultimately, if the message is not heeded, short charges towards and a nip to the dog’s back legs or haunches may result, cattle-dog-fashion, to get the dog to leave. The behavior, of necessity, is intense, persistent and insistent because that is what gets a response — we humans are actually scared into action by this behavior, whereas we probably would not be to anything less. The behavior can occur at very close range to the dog, which of course intensifies the message and its scariness. Dogs tend not to take the message too seriously and usually go chasing after the coyote, often returning with a nip to their haunches. I want to emphasize that the intensity, persistence and insistence are SCARY to us humans. I’ve been watching this behavior in multiple den areas every single year for the last 14 years: it is absolutely normal denning behavior, even when it involves children, and has nothing to do with a particular coyote “having become aggressive due to feeding”. Coyotes don’t become aggressive when they are fed, they become mellow and docile — they lose their concern and wariness . . . until they are under pressure, such as during pupping season.

Along with this posturing seen in the video, beware that coyotes usually sneak up from behind (NextDoor posting) to deliver their scary message, often with short bursts of darting-in and retreating towards the pet they are worried about. However, if you turn and face them, they are bound to stop in their tracks — until you turn your back on them again. They do not want to risk injury to themselves, and so they avoid approaching the front of a dog — where the teeth are — and a human gaze.

Another important point to make is that you are not very likely to ever encounter this behavior — it’s simply not a constant occurrence, especially where there is good signage. But having said that, you really need to know about it just in case you do come across it: please educate yourself about it and be prepared.

What can you do?

Remember that the pupping season lasts a good part of the year: February through the Fall. First, know WHERE denning areas are and try to keep away from them. If you find yourself within a denning area, keep vigilant, especially if you have a child or dog with you. Be prepared for a coyote suddenly appearing and making a beeline towards your dog or child. The minute you see a coyote, please pick up a small child or small dog and walk away from it. Larger dogs or children should always be led away or be taught to walk away from the coyote and should keep going away from it, even if the coyote follows. Although coyotes may follow a dog out of simple curiosity at most times of the year, during pupping season, the following could be “escorting” behavior, i.e., making sure you leave the area. It’s easy to walk away, so just do it: most importantly, GET AWAY from the coyote. And please know it is protecting something it cherishes and considers very precious.

I’ve asked myself WHY it is that people, who KNOW of denning areas and of coyote behavior, persist in taking their pets through these areas.  I think the issue is that people don’t really want to change their habits, and I understand this. We’ve all worked out the easiest way of doing things for ourselves and we like sticking to our routines. The coyotes have thrown an extra step in our way and it’s simply inconvenient. I think you have to like the coyotes to willingly make changes, but, of course, many people do not.

What needs to be done by our city authorities?

It is really important for authorities to educate themselves and the public about what is going on and what to expect. The City of San Francisco recently killed a coyote for its very normal denning “messaging” behavior. If there had been better signage, if there had been flyers explaining what to expect, if there had been a docent on hand, it might have helped. The people who complained to me didn’t fault the coyote at all, they faulted the city for not getting out proper, useful and timely information. People need to know *what to expect*, *what to watch for*, and *what to do* during denning season. Plenty of good signage can go a long way in fulfilling these needs, and a handout would be awesome.

For the love of . . .

One of my sons told me that my message needed to be more directly to the point with as few words as possible. I think this will work now. Please don’t feed coyotes. Please spread the word.

Mom Brings in the Grub and Helps Eat It

Many species regurgitate food for their youngsters, including wolves, wild-dogs, gulls, bats and apes.

For coyotes, regurgitated food is a kind of pablum or baby food which is fed to them as the milk-weaning period ends at about 6 weeks of age. And regurgitated food usually ends as the parents begin bringing in more and more whole prey, and as the youngsters become proficient at hunting for themselves.

In this video, Mom rushes in to feed her brood and they know what’s coming: two of her three four-month-old pups dance with excitement around her, barely able to contain themselves, one emitting little vocalizations of anticipation. As the youngsters close-in excitedly towards Mom’s mouth, she has to weave herself through them to find space where she is able to regurgitate the large quantity of food which she has brought to them in her belly. Before it’s even all out, they dig in. . . . and she partakes in the banquet! Soon the third pup appears. There is sibling competitiveness, and in the end Mom begins to groom one of the pups.

It’s really cool that this occurred right in front of my field camera!

The “Abandoned” Family

Old alpha female guarding her pups from atop a knoll overlooking the area, and snoozing at the same time, always with one eye open!
Here she is barking at a dog lingering too close to her denning area.

What’s happening in the family Rookie abandoned, and why might he have left?

You’ll recall from my posting that Rookie was actually an unwelcome intruder to begin with within the family he joined and then left. He had moved in on that family which had lost its long-time alpha male to old age, and he moved in right during the short breeding period. The scent of hormones called and he filled that role. But I don’t think Rookie was ever totally accepted. I continued to see the original family grooming each other ever so affectionately — in Rookie’s presence — but he himself, Rookie, appeared to be groomed less often and more out of a sense of duty than anything else.

The remaining yearling male in that family, a two-year-old who might otherwise have been encouraged to disperse, was obviously being encouraged by his mom and remaining sibling to stick around — something I could see through the family’s greetings, grooming and interactions. Well, he’s still there, and with Rookie gone, he appears to be in the process of moving into that alpha male position if he hasn’t already done so.

I get the impression that both Rookie and his abandoned family are happier and better off with the change. Rookie has been warmly and openly accepted by his new mate in a new territory, whereas I don’t think he had ever been totally integrated into the family he left — he always remained “the outsider”. This may be the reason he left. From what I’ve seen in coyote families, interpersonal dynamics and feelings run very much parallel to our own, the big difference being that they seem to move on quickly with the challenges and changes that confront them: with an attitude of, “it is what it is”. And this “abandoned” family is doing just fine — even better — without him. Several generations before this, by the way, within this same family, the family existed and thrived without an alpha male — that male had been killed by rat poison. Over time, one of that alpha’s male offspring ended up moving into that alpha position. This family is quite an inbred one.

How has the abandoned family adjusted to Rookie’s departure? The old alpha female is now the sole overseer and guardian of the family — she had been very much under the thumb of her previous old mate — the one who died of old age — she was always “second” to him in command. But that has now changed. She can be seen guarding and messaging intrusive dogs. Her vigilance keeps her more out in the open, and takes her to knolls with vistas where she perches herself for snoozes, always with one eye open. And she is raising her pups born this year. She still keeps them well hidden, and disciplines them severely for breaking her rules. A couple of days ago I heard intense angry growling, and then the response: the high-pitched complaining yelps of a pup being disciplined. I tried recording it, but did not catch enough of it to post it.

I have not seen the alpha female’s two-year old daughter lately — this is a littermate of the remaining male yearling. Remember that she also and unusually, for being in the same territory, became a mother this year. The last time I saw her she had a horrible huge (6″x 12″) raw, red, inflamed wound on her side. I got the impression it was some kind of mite. I hope she’s healing and I hope she’s still around. I’ll keep my eyes open for her. [UPDATE: Good news! I saw the two-year-old daughter one day after I posted this writeup: she was hunting alone in a field and her hotspot seems to have resolved itself!]

Two-year-old male son of the alpha female is acting as the ipso facto alpha male now. He obviously feels very relaxed at the way things are now.
Alpha mom grooms her yearling male son, creating a tighter bond and promoting him as the territorial male.

And her son grooms her in return just as affectionately.

And off this pair goes, for their evening trek together, probably very happy that Rookie left.

© 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/

Family Update, by Walkaboutlou

Hi Janet.

I hope all is well. We are enduring the heat and various smoke levels and life moves on. I wanted to update you on the coyote pack I’ve told you about. Short history: Chica was Top Female and Mom. Slim Jim her elderly Mate. Big Brother their Son. Daughter Janet who had left returned when her mate was killed. Chica and Janet denned together creating an 11 pup litter. It was a challenging denning season. An eagle likely got 2 pups. And later a wolf pack decimated the coyotes. Chica and 6 of the 9 pups were lost. Slim Jim badly injured. Janet, 3 pups, Big Brother all followed old Slim Jim to new part of area. And took refuge among Cottonwood stands and Bison herd. [See: Nature, by Walkaboutlou]

How are they now? Thriving actually.

It’s very easy to emotionally become involved and feel the happenings of “my” known coyotes. The rancher family that knows and follows the local coyote really know their lives. It’s hard to be open minded when a pack is decimated. But then you become amazed at the recovery too.

Slim Jim has healed very well despite the graphic injury to neck and back. We thought his old body would surely give out. He is bald on part of back. And has no fur over middle throat. But he has healed and is mobile. He does seem faded in some ways. But his advanced age, incredible exertions of season and his loss of mate and many pups all tell. Still..he is remarkable.

Mom Janet is Lean, and looking better, less ragged. She has weaned her pups and keeps more food for herself by the week. She also has picked up a “mate” it seems. She is seen regularly alone trotting with a young male in another area. He then heads off when her brother and Slim Jim show. Obviously…..they both seem to be developing some sort of friendship.

Big Brother is really a great help. He fed his father Slim Jim for weeks. And the pups as well. He is a hero to the 2 male pups.

The pups which were part of an 11 member litter are now 3 very distinct and VERY well fed and large pups. We wonder if the sheer number of 11 pups would have meant nutritional challenges. Whatever the case, these 3 are truly thriving.The male pups are called Batman and Robin. Always in a caper. And Robin the smaller pup is always in a pickle and looking for Bigger Batman to help him.

This image is not of Kinky Tail, but it’s the size I imagine Kinky Tail might be right now — still a young pup, but old enough to be developing who she is.

Kinky Tail is the 3rd pup. She is VERY big for a female. And a coyote. She is VERY bossy to her brothers. She is rather severe in her play and is top pup for sure. She dominates adult Big Brother. Only her Mother and Slim Jim are exempt. She follows Slim Jim almost constantly. She does not stay with her brothers. Kinky also is no longer fed. She doesn’t ask or beg the adults for food. She hunts her rodents and grasshoppers and was seen eating a young jackrabbit. 

Kinky forays with Slim Jim and Big Brother at times. She is very alert and immediately hides hearing distant ranch dogs or sheep herds etc…she seems very very keen for such a young one. I think the tragedies of loss and even decimation are at same time….for coyote..refiners. When you see a super pup developing from a tough time, you are seeing what made coyote thrive when Maga Fauna fell. Coyote thrive after hardships. They ARE NOT diminished or weakened as many other beings can be. It’s hard to see this unless you literally experience it.

Also…Kinky pup…she may be hard to brothers…but..she loves her Grandpa. Robin caught a vole. And as he proudly trotted…Batman took it. And even more proudly displayed it. Kinky ran in from some hidden spot and put the smackdown on both brothers. As the dynamic duo fled tail between legs, Kinky trotted off…fat vole gripped tight, and went to sleeping Slim Jim. She dropped the vole in front of his awakening bleary eyes..and watched him gulp it happily. Then he groomed her a few minutes. You could see her beaming under the doting grandpa.I think…it’s a good chance…Kinky will claim her spot in the future. I think she is the kind of coyote nature creates…to keep her kind the AMAZING canines they are.

Unexpected Aftermath of Killing a Coyote

I just posted about the 7-year-old alpha male coyote father who was heartbreakingly killed by our City’s dog catcher (ACC). That occurrence left a gaping vacancy in his territory. What has been the aftermath in the family so far?

I have the perfect opportunity to observe this situation right here and now in San Francisco — so I am doing just that. A previous case I documented, where the alpha father died of natural causes, resulted in a period of chaos before things settled down to a new normal and a new dynamic — and THAT story actually dovetails into this one, which I’ll get to towards the end of this posting. But there has been no chaos here, fascinatingly.

For a couple of days after the alpha male was killed, things went on as normal: the male didn’t seem to be terribly missed by his mate, afterall, coyotes may wander off for a short day or two when they aren’t missed by their families. After several days, however, I noticed his “widowed” mate, the alpha female, wandering around more and marking more and leaving her own scent — more so than had been her normal routine. Was she putting out beacons to signal him to return? Was she looking for him? She would not know that he had been killed by humans, but she would know that he was missing, and so was his scent.

At first marking (left) and then intense sniffing (right) [these are cropped and enhanced trail camera images]. I put out field cameras along what I had seen as their well-travelled routes, hoping to get a glimpse of the activity.

Over only a couple of days, I was surprised to see that she didn’t become more frantic as might be expected, but rather she calmed down, it seems, into a kind of acceptance mode. Her sniffing seemed to segue from searching for something lost into intense inquisitiveness about something new and unfamiliar: her perfunctory quick glancing sniffs changed to intense and lingering poking.

Her family consisted of herself (alpha mom), her mate (now gone), and a four-year-old “nanny” who seems to be helping out with the unusually large litter of seven pups. The “nanny” continued her habitual behavior of simply passing by now and then — I didn’t notice a change in her behavior. Maybe there has been a change in pup behavior in the aftermath of dad’s disappearance: they don’t appear to be exploring as widely as before the killing: is this a safety precaution due to their dad’s disappearance?

Then, within just four days after that shooting, a newcomer male appeared in the area. And he has remained for the last 6 days. Yikes, that was fast! “Vacant niches” in coyote families are notoriously soon filled, we’ve heard. A male outsider would not have been allowed here if alpha dad were still around. But he’s not around, so he’s not marking and leaving his scent, nor is he physically present to drive an outsider away. It’s incredible how quickly “word spread” about his absence: these animals are obviously quick to read scents and other markers that we humans aren’t even aware of, and to appraise situations.

And alpha mom seems to be more than welcoming him! Maybe she had no choice; maybe survival of her family depends on having an amenable “guy” there. My trail camera caught her hopping all over him and putting her paws on his back — she’s asking him to stay. She didn’t spend much time mourning the loss of her just-lost mate. Coyotes are survivors. They don’t feel sorry for themselves or dwell on the past — coyote life seems to be about business as usual and keeping the show on the road. A territory needs a male to better keep things in order and defendable. Will he take on helping to raise the youngsters, or will he shun them? There’s a lot to find out.

SHE is welcoming him by hopping all over him, and then you can see them trekking together in tandem — all within less than a week of her mate’s having been killed.

Interestingly, I know the new male, an older guy, who came from a not so distant territory within the city where he himself already has a family. Hmmm.

And this is the most interesting and juicy part: that new male is one and the same individual who just at the beginning of this pupping season joined an existing family, filling a vacancy in THAT family caused by the loss of its alpha male to natural causes: old age. Let’s call this new fella Rookie. Apparently Rookie went to town when he joined that family because both the alpha female there AND her two-year-old daughter produced pups this year. I called this “den-sharing”, and think of it as kind of “Rookie’s harem”. So it appears that he already has two mates. And now a third? Does this make him into a sort of super alpha male, or will he be giving up that previous family where he has pups from two females? Or maybe he’s just checking out the new vacancy here and won’t stay?

Background information: We all know that coyotes are famously monogamous and mate for life — this is all I had ever seen in 14 years here in San Francisco with two rare and recent exceptions: the den sharing which involved this particular new male, and a divorce which, strangely, involved a previous life of the killed alpha male. It’s a small world.

AND — to further confuse the issue and expand the exception to “mate for life” and “monogamous”, within a distant fragment of that “den sharing” territory, I had seen yet another lactating female WITH this same male, Rookie. Hmmmm. What’s that about? Is Rookie just a rare exception? We’ll have to wait and see how all of this pans out over time. It’s nothing less than a soap-opera, with cliffhangers and all!

© 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/

Vital Changes Caused by a Death

This post details the behaviors beginning the previous year leading to the den sharing I wrote about in my last post.

This family left their main haunt of their fragmented territory in March of 2020, shortly after the Coronavirus shelter-in-place rules took effect: these rules encouraged more and more people and their dogs into the parks. The influx was apparently overwhelming to this coyote family. The parents moved themselves and the three new vulnerable pups out of the park in May. Two of the five yearlings born in 2019 dispersed from the area, while three remained at the old main haunt and could be seen periodically, but even they kept themselves well hidden most of the time due to the influx of people and dogs. Mom and Dad returned about once a week in the evenings — sometimes I was able to watch their behavior and interactions at the cusp of darkness. What was noticeable was Dad’s continued firm display of dominance over his yearlings, all of whom accepted the order of things: Dad was still the alpha male and the king of his family. Mom, too, seemed rather dominatingly strict, and after her grooming/greeting sessions with the youngsters she remained apart from them as they all horsed around exuberantly.


Alpha Dad confirming his dominance towards the yearlings left in the old main haunt of their territory

This changed in October of 2020 — last year. Dad stopped returning at all, even though Mom continued to return at that dusk hour. Several people told me that they had observed a very old coyote in the other fragment of this family’s territory through December — the new place to which they had fled during the virus overcrowding — but I had to rely on others’ reports because I didn’t have time to fit in yet another park: there are just so many hours in a day and I’ve been working alone on this. Dad would have been almost 12 years old when he was last seen in December. Family howling sessions at the old homestead were notable for the absence of Dad’s signature vocalizations, his voice I had come to recognize. His absent voice was sad for me because I knew what it meant.

The three yearlings remained on this segment of the territory, with nightly visits from their parents. To the left: yearling and her favorite brother who apparently was forced out when the newcomer came. Until that time, the three yearlings were inseparable buddies.

So, I would see the three yearlings, but only sporadically, as time passed. Then, in January, I started seeing a little more of Mom. She, along with her three yearlings would come together for their greetings at dusk, then hang around for a little while, spending time grooming, sometimes hunting, sometimes just sitting around, sometimes playing, and then the four would take off for their evening trekking routine.

Mom and three yearlings at their nightly rendezvous, now without Dad

Towards the end of February there was another change. Suddenly the entire park — the older main part of their homestead — was filled with distressing vocalization sessions multiple times a day — at least five times a day. These vocalizations were different — something new was going on. These vocalizations were distressed and disturbed, coming from within the thick bushes where we could not see what was happening. This went on for a couple of weeks.

After one of these sessions, at dusk when I could still see but with difficulty, I spotted a coyote on a distant hill. It was getting dark and the coyote was far off: not good for seeing or for a clear photo. But I took a series of photos of the fella. In fact, I thought it might be Dad returned. My heart skipped a beat . . . or maybe a number of beats . . .  at the prospect!  From first glimpse, I could tell he was not young. He had run up to some rocks where he perched himself, as I remember Dad used to.  When I got home, I was able to zoom-in on the photos. Yikes! This was not Dad at all, but a totally new older, but not “old” coyote. Ahhh, so HE had been the cause of all the vocal commotion over the past few weeks! After zooming into the photos at home, I could tell that his running up to the rocks and perching himself there was probably him defiantly sticking around under vocalized assaults from the rest of the family.

The intensely distressed vocalizations continued the next day and for days to come, in fact they continued over several long weeks. One day, towards the end of one of these intense vocalization sessions, the alpha female Mom jumped out of the bushes and ran towards the family’s routine rendezvous spot, and right after her, almost at her heels, ran that new coyote — the newcomer. They were behaving in unison, and not antagonistically against each other.

The next day I only saw Mom and the one remaining male yearling. I now no longer ever saw the other male yearling. What became of him? He had been his sister’s favorite, but he was gone. Now I continued to see Mom, Daughter, and one remaining Son. Mom spent a huge amount of time grooming the remaining yearling son. She seemed intent on strengthening the bond. And the youngster stood with new self-confidence and stature because of it. The next day there was an intruder dog, and this twosome — mother and son — belted out their proclamation barks, warning all dog-comers that they were not welcome here.

Mom does a super-grooming job on her remaining son, while Newcomer watches from the distance with lowered ears.

Two days later, I saw the male youngster after a normal howling response to sirens. The howling this time was cut-off rather suddenly, something I’ve seen before. The coyotes seemed to be directed to stop by one among themselves, and they all immediately complied. Right afterwards I found the Yearling Son hunting contentedly on a hillside. Before long two other coyotes appeared together: Mom and Newcomer. And this is where it gets interesting. Newcomer held back, remaining close to the bushes. This makes sense since he was new in the area. But Yearling Son approached  Mom and there was a long and deliberate grooming session by Mom. Newcomer just watched, with his ears lowered . . . just lowered, not air-planed. Then Mom and Son began hunting and walking on, but Newcomer remained back. Mom and Son would stop now and then and look back at Newcomer, but he didn’t join them. I saw him get up to make circles of 8 before settling down in the tall grasses where it was hard to see him and where he remained.

Mom and Son sat down and waited, but newcomer remained where he was. When he didn’t budge, they ended up moving on and out of sight. A few minutes later, newcomer got up, and then went in the opposite direction.

Was Mom showing Newcomer, with all the attention she lavished on her one remaining son, that she wanted this son to stay? Might this be because the newcomer had just sent the other son packing — that other son has not been around since Newcomer came. Or might Mom have been grooming her remaining son to become the next alpha male?  This family already is very inbred. We’ll have to wait and see how the story unfolds! Last week I observed Daughter, Newcomer, and Brother together in a threesome grooming session (see photo below); and a few days later, both moms hanging out with their pups. So it’s an unusual family that breaks the generalized standards I have been seeing over the last 14 years.

© 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/

Den Sharing Case in San Francisco

I’ve put together a simple map of our coyote territories here in San Francisco — we have just about 20 such territories covering most of the 49 square mile city. In addition, there are a fair number of temporary holding spots, including a few backyards, which over the years have been used off-and-on very sporadically by numerous coyotes, and even families, for very short periods of time as they disperse. The important point is that I’ve achieved this without the use of radio-collars or tags. I’ve been able to do so, working alone, through my own recognition and knowledge of individual coyotes and their families. And we’re on track for all of it to be confirmed using DNA from scat for which I have collected almost 500 samples here in San Francisco over the past 12 years. A couple of graduate students at UC Davis are now collaborating with scat finds and the DNA analysis for their own dissertations. I will post the map shortly and then continue to refine it if needed.

Each of these territories, I’ve determined from my visual observations, runs from 1.5 to 2.5 square miles, and is occupied by just one family. Each of these families, families which I’ve gotten to know, consists of an alpha mated pair (Mom and Dad), their pups born this year, if there are any, and sometimes a lingering yearling or two born the previous year who will soon disperse. There are occasionally variations of this arrangement, consisting of just a portion of the standard family — i.e., any one of these elements might be missing for awhile. The alphas keep other coyotes out, except for the rarely-seen “dispersing” few who might pass through inconspicuously and quickly, or may even more rarely remain several weeks before moving on. Coyote population is controlled naturally through their territoriality, as just explained above, and also through their biology, as will be explained below. Limited resources are also a factor in their population numbers, but this appears not to be a limiting factor here in San Francisco with all the feeding by humans occurring here.

Biologically, as documented by F.F. Knowlton in 1972, only the alphas on any particular territory reproduce — the terms “alpha” and “parent” are synonymous when talking about coyotes — and this is what I’ve seen in almost every instance here in San Francisco over the last 14 years. However, according to Knowlton, when coyote alphas get removed (i.e., killed by humans), it creates social chaos, and then the younger females — who are usually “behaviorally sterile” in normally very stable and well organized family situations — produce litters. This means more litters, which means more coyotes. I can only imagine that this is the extenuating circumstance that happened in the family I will describe here  — although in the case here, the removal of the alpha male was an act of nature and not caused by a human. This posting points to the important point that there always are variations and exceptions to the defining generalities.

So, last winter, the long-time resident elderly alpha male in one of the territories passed away at almost 12 years of age: he had been the alpha there his whole life. Vacancies in coyote families are usually filled pretty quickly. It seemed logical to me that one of the remaining yearling males — two males and a female youngster remained from the litter born in 2019 — would take Dad’s place. That has occurred in the past on this territory. But two years old is a a bit young for becoming an alpha male: I myself have only seen it happen at the age of 3 or older.

Instead, an older newcomer male — I say “older” based on the wear and tear in his appearance and the way he carries himself — who no doubt sensed the situation, came into the territory. At the same time, there was no alpha male to fight him off — the yearlings were probably not up to the task. Initially the newcomer was not welcomed: lengthy and repeated distressed vocalizations by the territorial family could be heard for several weeks after his arrival. But he was the only viable male around and he stayed and now he is part of the family, the alpha male.

To the left is the lactating 8-year-old mother; to the right is her daughter, the 2-year-old mother who also is lactating on the same property at the same denning site.

First video is of 8-year-old mother with her new litter; then her 2-year old daughter with two pups (one pup is far in the back and is hard to see).

So, the result is that we now have TWO moms in this territory: 1) the eight-year-old “widowed” mother AND 2) her two-year-old daughter (daughters, as opposed to sons, appear ready to reproduce at 2 years of age). Both of these females have been lactating over the past couple of months. I’ve seen both of them with pups in the exact same denning area and on the exact same paths around that denning area. I’m calling it den-sharing. However, I don’t venture close to any active dens, so I don’t know if the actual den itself has been shared, nor do I know if each set of pups sticks with only its own mother. Whatever that exact situation is, there are two mothers in one small area on one territory which I have not seen before here in San Francisco. Of the nearly twenty territories I’ve delineated covering the whole of San Francisco, this is the only such case up to now, and I’m pretty sure — this is my opinion and a likely explanation — that it is related to the extenuating circumstance of the older alpha male’s death. Another possible simpler explanation might be that most youngsters disperse before the age of two which is when they become reproductively viable, but this younger mother remained on the territory past that point. The trigger, here again, would have been the instability caused by her father’s death.

I’ll post more about the behaviors I saw leading up to and during this development next time.


© 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/

Pack Strategies, Growing Pups, by Walkaboutlou

Hello Janet!

I hope all is well with you as the season progresses. This time of year flies. I am walking well after hip surgery and slowly recovering.

The updates on the 2 mom coyote pack continue thanks to the careful work and amazing skills of the knowledgeable ranch family who have allowed coyote to share their massive ranch properties. Decades of tolerance and behavior modifications have created a land where coyote, livestock, wildlife all thrive. (LGD dogs are big part..but thats another story) The extended family all take turns monitoring and studying the coyotes. They are documenting great stuff.

Old SlimJim, (father) Chica (Mom) Janet (daughter and 2nd mom) and Big Brother (yearling) all thrive. They indeed, moved the pups from the rocky cliffs to the open Oak Savannah ecosystem. Incredibly, all 9 pups have still been accounted for. Originally 11, it’s still a big group of pups.

One adult is almost always with or near pups. They have had several moves and it seemed Slim Jim initiated every move. The family discussions about why Slim Jim moves them so much are awesome to hear. Was it because the local cougar made fresh marks nearby? Was it because soon a salmon run will deliver salmon to a riverbank where Slim Jim gathers the expired fish? Is it because the wolves come around and scout? One ranch youngster has an observation. “Bigger Grasshoppers and more Voles” he says. “Slim Jim took the pups where the grasshoppers are already big and the voles are everywhere there”.

It’s true-the pups are already foraging and catching rodents and grasshoppers. It is very important for pups to forage and feed themselves ASAP. 

It’s likely a culmination of all these and more. Slim Jim is an old coyote who knows all these areas. And the food sources. He has literally moved his pack where this summer, rodents, insects, wild plum groves, and expired salmon all will be. Slim Jim also has a unique skill which he’s shared with Big Brother his son. A few miles away a ribbon of country road unfortunately delivers deer being hit and killed, or running off to die. Slim Jim takes full advantage of such road killed deer. And delivers huge meals of venison. It is very rare for pups to eat so well. Big Brother and Dad have hugely impacted pup nutritional provisions.

Other note: All the adults are super lean and seem exhausted at times. They seem to take turns pup sitting. Big Brother the most. Pups are weaned it appears. Of the 9 pups, one with kinked tail sleeps with adults rather then littermates. Kinky Tail seems a favorite. It is groomed more than any pup.

Turkey Vultures make the pups duck or hide, indicating the local golden eagle may be why 2 pups are gone. 

Pups also seem to hunt then bolt at times.  Its suspected snakes are instinctively avoided at least by pups. Many rattlers here. So snake aversion is good. 

The Patriarch of Ranch family has studied “his” coyote over 60 years. He is house bound usually. But still listens to coyote news and gives his thoughts. 4 generations of family discussing coyote packs is very special.

His thoughts: “That’s a really big litter. By summer’s end the adults will be tired and ready to stop providing. The pups will develop extra fast and really scatter about. And Big Brother will be a great dad after raising all those pups. Janet the Daughter will get a new hubby. Old Slim Jim…well, let’s hope best.”

Big Litter, lots of food, and tired but skilled adults here. A structured but unusual pack going fwd. And a Ranch family sharing it all from 10 years to Great Great Grandpa.

Take Care Janet, 

Lou 🐾

[All photo credits are from the author, Walkaboutlou]

Four-Year-Old Sitter to the Rescue?


Photo credit: The Chronicle

The above photo appeared in The Chronicle a week ago, caught on a field camera by RPD in Golden Gate Park. Of primary interest is that there are SEVEN pups — that’s a huge litter — it’s a lot of mouths to feed and a lot of bodies to take care of.

Often, yearlings — those born to the family the year before — remain on a territory as part of their birth-family and help raise the new litter. But none of the yearlings born last year to the mom are around to help and the dad didn’t even have pups last year, so the only caregivers in this family are the parents. Unusually, BOTH of these coyotes were attached to OTHER mates last year. Although  the vast majority of coyotes mate for life, there are exceptions, and this is one of those. The upshot is that no yearlings are around to help out. And, although each of these parents is seasoned at pup-rearing, neither has had seven pups all at once. Yikes!

Outside help? Intriguingly, a 4-year-old at-this-point unattached female — I’ll call her PETAL — appeared on the scene about a month ago, and I’ve seen her within the denning area. Might Petal have offered herself as an additional caretaker — a nanny? I can’t think of why else she has been allowed to stay.



Petal indeed served as caregiver to her own younger siblings in 2018 — this is a very normal situation — so she knows what’s involved. Therefore I’m wondering if she might be related to this Golden Gate Park hepta-mom — this might explain her acceptance there, but we’ll have to wait for DNA results to find that out. Then again, maybe a close genetic relationship isn’t necessary for such an arrangement. ?? I use the word “close” because, based on scat analysis to date by Monica Serrano in Benjamin Sacks’ Lab at UC Davis, it appears that all of our San Francisco coyotes come from just four founding individuals.

Petal was born in 2017 in the Presidio where she was tagged and collared. Through the first half of 2018, as a yearling, Petal remained in the Presidio attached to her birth-family where she helped out with the pups born that year.  By fall of 2018, during her second year, she began long forays out of her territory for several days at a time: I spotted her in and around Golden Gate Park for short periods over the course of several months. She appears to have ended up with a companion coyote at Candlestick Park, the closeby shipyard and Bayview Park. I assumed she had a family in that location, but her move back to and remaining in Golden Gate Park indicates maybe not, or that her companion/mate was killed, possibly by a car along the freeway there. Cars are one of the chief killers of coyotes in urban areas. Candlestick is one of the parks I don’t normally visit, so I did not keep up with her.  If/when I find out more about that situation, I’ll amend this posting.

So, is she an outside babysitter, an insider babysitter, or will she soon move on? We’ll have to wait and see. If she stays, I have a couple of questions:

I’m curious as to how this apparently unattached female discovered the large (needy?) family, or how those parents found her? Was it purposeful, or serendipity?  Communication in the coyote world is on a level humans don’t and may never fathom — it’s below our radar. Coyotes communicate through eye contact, facial expression and body language. You can see all this easily if you watch them. They also use vocalizations. But maybe there’s more than that? We are limited by our five senses which are very weak ones. Our hearing is poor (compared to that of animals), we practically can’t smell, and our sight needs lots of daylight with practically zero nighttime vision without light. In this regard, coyotes operate on a higher plane than us. And I’m wondering if their GPS navigation system, if you want to call it that, may in some way have aspects similar to that of migrating birds: coyotes have been navigating through and then out south of the city when they disperse. Is there something guiding them besides trial-and-error and memory? By the way, coyotes have fantastic memories. I’m hoping to post an update at some point.

6/29 update: This four-year old is still hanging out in the area! It’s been several months now. She’s skeletal looking, which is what I have seen parents often become at this time of year when they are regurgitating food for the youngsters which in turn limits the calories which their own bodies are able to absorb. Is she regurgitating food for the resident youngsters? I have not seen this, but her appearance indicates this might be going on. On June 24th she was seen again at her old haunt at Candlestick, but on 7/12 and 7/14 she was back at Golden Gate Park. These are the kind of forays I see before dispersal (a final move) takes place. And August 18th she was seen at her babysitting post, but on the 19th she had again made it down to Candlestick, but returned by August 23rd.. :))

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

A Case of Polygyny

The literature has it that only the alpha pair (i.e., the parent-pair) ever reproduce, monogamously, in any particular coyote family on any given territory. And this is all I had ever seen here in San Francisco over the last 14 years. The younger yearling females are referred to as being “behaviorally sterile”. This is one reason why you don’t want to start killing coyotes with the purpose of reducing their population: once you do, the phenomenon of the younger females being behaviorally sterile goes out the window: breeding becomes wild and rampant, and soon you have more coyotes than when you began. In fact it’s been noted that 400K (yep, that many) coyotes are killed every year in the US, but this slaughter has not made a dent in their population because they make up the difference with more breeding when their social system is disrupted.

So, you can imagine my surprise when I found a two-year-old mother lactating on the same territory as her eight-year-old alpha mother who is also lactating right now. And here are their images:

The old alpha male, the 8-year-old-female’s long-time mate, had passed away, leaving a vacant niche in the family — this may be the extenuating circumstance that allowed two litters on the same territory. He happened to pass away shortly before the next breeding season began, so there was no male around to protect his surviving mate (or their daughter) and keep the social order. Normally the alpha male closely and jealously guards his mate and keeps any unconnected suitors who might want to move in far away. But he was gone, and the scent of hormones during the breeding season beckoned. A new coyote, an older guy (very likely a relative judging by his appearance) moved in and into the vacated alpha male position. Apparently both the alpha female and her daughter were impregnated by this same guy. The loss of the original alpha male caused a social disruption. I’ll use DNA analysis to confirm, but that will take a while. There is no other alpha male around.


New alpha male

The territory is a large fragmented one. A year ago, this alpha female and her mate had moved off from their main hangout area for pupping purposes to a more remote branch of their vast territory, where they remained during the day, returning to the area they left every few evenings where they rendezvoused with their yearling offspring: there was grooming and playing and then they headed off on trekking expeditions together. During the COVID outbreak, parks were one of the few places open to everyone, so many more people and their off-leash dogs than usual visited the parks: chasing coyotes became rampant, causing the coyotes to leave this part of their territory. In spite of their move, the alpha female — and the male until October — continued and continues to visit her main old hangout almost every night, and that is where her daughter had her pups this year. 

Back in November/December, the alpha female began spending more and more time back in the main part of her territory, grooming her two remaining two-year-old offspring, as though she were soliciting them to PLEASE stay. Then, well into their pregnancies, with the due date approaching, I found both mother and daughter grooming each other frequently and extensively, as though they would be moving forward as a team.

See Walkaboutlou’s observation which is both a similar and very different situation. In both cases, it is the alpha female (the mother) who allowed the “other” female to remain, and that other female is a daughter in one case, and is most likely a daughter in the second case. Lou’s story involves a shared den, the two females likely mother/daughter, one older alpha male, and a yearling male. In this case, there most likely was a different male who sired the daughter’s offspring and is no longer around. In contrast, my story involves two separate dens about half a mile apart, the two females who are definitely mother/daughter, a two-year-old yearling male (brother to daughter, son of mother), and one newcomer alpha male who appears to have sired both females’ pups. These both are unusual situations — as I’ve said, I’ve not seen this situation before — but such situations do occur.

One may wonder if two-year-old yearling brother could have sired the daughter’s pups. I myself haven’t seen a male produce pups here in San Francisco until he’s three years old at the earliest. In addition, this two-year-old male youngster is not an alpha, he’s submissive to the new alpha male and travels nightly with him between the two pupping areas. Eight year old Mom is often with them, but not two-year-old Mom who remains always close to her pups.

Alphas are intent on control and dominance within their families. Here are some postings, along with videos, showing a mom dominating and showing who’s boss to her seven-month old youngster, and a mom imposing her hegemony on her two-year old, if not actually trying to drive her out. See Beatings and Rank Issues, A Mother’s Harsh Treatment of a Pup, Punishment, and this video below. This dominating and controlling behavior, meant to impose a clear hierarchy, is not occurring between the two females described in this posting, and there is only one dominant male, so I’m calling it “polygyny”.  We’ll have to wait and see how the situation works itself through.

Coyotes are famously known to mate for life — one-on-one — and that’s what I’ve always seen except for one unusual “divorce” last year: the split led to separate bonded nuclear families. Polygyny is something different.

© 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/

Provoking a Reaction

This is not an aggressive coyote. I know this coyote well — he simply wants to be left alone. The dog and walker in fact came upon this peaceful fella calmly sunning himself — that’s how it began. This is a defensive coyote being threatened by an aggressive dog. The dog is provoking the reaction by focusing on the coyote, barking and lunging at the coyote. IN RESPONSE to both the dog’s presence and the dog’s behavior, the coyote is displaying its scariest behavior, trying to warn the dog to stay away (“hey, look how ferocious I am; you might want to stay away”) and to get the dog to leave. The coyote is messaging the dog and owner, in the only effective way it knows how, to move away from itself and the area, and not focus on it.

Rather than heeding the message and moving the dog along and away, the dog-owner plants herself and her dog in sight of the coyote to take a sensationalist video for Facebook — it’s a clear provocation to the coyote. All she had to do, was walk away from the coyote, dragging her dog if she had to.

Please heed the message: walk away from coyotes, especially if you have a dog! Please remember that we’re in the middle of pupping season, when coyotes will particularly defensive about themselves and areas close to their dens. [Video extracted from Jennyfifi Facebook]

What Do Coyotes EAT Here In San Francisco?

People keep asking me, WHAT do coyotes eat here in San Francisco? Is there enough food for them?

My reply is always that there’s plenty of food for coyotes in cities. They are known as “opportunistic” eaters — meaning they can eat almost anything.

My observations tell me that their preferred foods are small rodents, such as gophers which run from one to two pounds and voles. Rats and mice are part of their diet.There are plenty of these and coyotes catch them often.

Squirrels are harder to catch for them, as are the more scarce brush bunnies and jackrabbits here in San Francisco, but they do catch these as well. I’ve seen coyotes climb the lower branches of trees in pursuit of squirrels. Rabbits, however, often are just not worth the effort for the coyote, so they often just ignore them.

Even less frequently, I’ve seen them catch and eat insects such as crickets, and snails. I’ve seen them catch snakes and lizards, but only seldom have I seen them actually consume these — or maybe they were just chewing on them and not consuming them.

I’ve seen coyotes gorge on fruit when that becomes ripe in the summer and fall, including apples, pears, loquats, blackberries. You can see when this becomes a larger portion of their diet because their scat becomes very different: goopy and full of seeds and peels.

Mature raccoons are ferocious and can fight off a coyote, but not so juveniles. I’ve seen coyotes feeding on raccoon and on opossums here in San Francisco, but I’ve also seen a coyote almost interacting with a raccoon family socially!

And yes, they catch birds as in the video above: I’ve seen coyotes catch ravens, bluejays (see photo below), and pigeons: they are impressively fast at plucking their prey clean by grabbing a huge mouthful of the feathers and yanking them out quickly and forcefully, and immediately going in for a second mouthful. The lactating mother in the video above is skilled at catching ravens and catches them regularly. But not all coyotes have the same skills and therefore not the same diets: often food preferences seem to run in families, making some of their preferences a “cultural” or “learned” thing which are specific to specific families: these predilections are often “taught”. And I’ve seen coyotes pick up owls who have been sickened by rat-poison which slows down the owl’s reaction times. This is very sad because that rat-poison is hurting many animals. I once found a dead coyote and had it analyzed to determine how it died: its body was riddled with rat-poison.

Coyote catches a bluejay, an opossum, a mouse, a lizard

And coyotes eat roadkill, or carrion — these are already dead animals killed by cars — which helps clean up the environment.

Garbage is usually just a small part of their diet, as seen in scat analysis. They prefer natural foods. However, human food which is left out is picked up by coyotes. Sadly, coyotes get used to this human food and start hanging around for it: the salts and fats are as addictive to them as they are to us — and it’s much easier to sit and wait for food than search and hunt for it: we all tend towards the easiest route. Please don’t leave out your leftovers. Worse, of course, is when people toss food to coyotes on purpose, and even from their cars: I’ve known a couple of coyotes who actually chase cars down the street regularly in pursuit of the food that might be tossed to them. Feeding them directly will cause them to start approaching people as they beg.

There are parking lots at park entryways where coyotes actually hang out waiting for food from humans. Food is used as a reward to train many animals: we are simply training these animals to hang around people and our roadways which is endangering them on roadways, and we are altering their natural and usually wary habits. Please spread the word that feeding coyotes is damaging them, not helping them: there’s plenty of natural foods for them in the city as I’ve shown above.

And . . . hey, don’t allow your cat to roam free! Coyotes DO nab roaming cats, though I know a number of coyotes who actually run in fear from cats! Unless a dog is extremely small, coyotes interest in them tends to be more of a territorial issue: coyotes want to exclude dogs from their areas to keep them from hunting there, the same as they do to other coyotes. You can avoid trouble with your dog by simply keeping away and walking away with your dog leashed the minute you see a coyote.

Coyote skillfully hunting by leaping high over his prey and then stunning it with his nose or his paws.

The Dilemma of Denning, by Walkaboutlou

Hi Janet. 

The continued scouting of the 2 mom pack carries on and is really amazing.

So the situation was Chica Alpha Mom, and Janet the Yearling Daughter (possible) denned together to combine 11 pup litter. The Alpha male is Slim Jim, old but more than capable. Yearling male, Big Brother, rounds out adult pack. 

Mom and Daughter early in denning were fed regularly by the males. Deer scavenging, and Bison afterbirth proved to be fortuitous finds for males. About 3 weeks into denning, both females suddenly went back to foraging and hunting. Big Brother was relegated to #1 pup sitter which he seems made for. He alternatly is playful, guardian, and cleans pups for hours. At night he is relieved, it seems, to forage and water for himself.  

Last year the pack denned in hilly country, surrounded by thousands of field rodents, etc. This year, they moved their early dens to a rocky series of cliffs-like terrain miles from the hills. This is very likely the regular passing area of foraging wolves. Also…this year is far drier. There are less rodents.

The cliffs are perfect for tiny pups to start. But they aren’t ideal to raise a older litter. We suspect the calorie and water needs for large litter, will mean a move soon to a late spring/summer rendezvous area. It also will mean pups can start foraging for rodents and grasshoppers themselves. This is pivotal. I think especially of Slim Jim and Chica weighing denning safety vs feeding family. Its really a process. The cliffs mean some safety. The hills mean pup development and food. And the hills hold danger in every way. 

It has been a great start for the den but not perfect. The pups went from 11 to 9. A golden eagle who regularly soars over is suspected. For 2 days the pups seemed to stay in den. And Big Brother snarled up into the passing sky silhouette. We dont think this a coincidence. 

Also, Old Slim Jim showed us how seriously he takes denning. Coyotes are vocal. Notoriously vocal. Big Brother was yipping and howling and was even joined by several pups. It seemed he was literally leading a puppy chorus when Slim Jim came racing up to the den and literally slammed Big Brother down and gave him a very big round of discipline. Big Brother slunk to a nearby rock, chastised and mournful.

The watcher (the family members are taking turns in observations) was pretty stunned at Slim Jims ferocity. He is actually a very laid back guy (and really tired and slow) But then we discussed-how many times have they vocalized at this den? Well…until that incident, no one has heard vocalizations. It would appear, Slim Jim, Chica, and Janet have been mute here for some weeks.

We think we know why. Trail cams reveal passing wolves just miles away every few evenings. As they trot through, they no doubt are hard at work raising their litters too. But wolves are very hard on coyote dens. They will not hesitate to raid and dig out denned pups. We believe Slim Jim knows too well, the risks of denning with wolves about. And he has perfected ghost like habits this year. Big Brother learned a big lesson.

So…Slim Jim, Chica, Janet and Big Brother all are working hard and 9 of 11 pups still thrive. They likely are on the cusp of moving their litters to the hills and spring/summer areas. BTW-every night Chica and Janet clean the pups and attend them. Big Brother leaves. And when pups go down, Slim Jim hops a tall rock to do the night’s sleep sentinel post. Chica often approaches him. She grooms and nibbles his face and sparse coat. He seems to greatly relish this short time. His old tired white face relaxed and strong. 

I am very moved at this pack. And old Slim Jim’s efforts to raise his latest family. 

1) rocky cliffs; 2) This area of vast foothill ranges will be likely where this year’s pups will be taken for summer rendezvous. It is much more dangerous but this is where the pups will need to be. It’s here they will learn to be Coyote survivalist. 

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