Sneaky Thief: A Famed Trickster

Having fun with his dead rat

The observation began at dusk, during very poor lighting (i.e., blurry photos), with a 1.5 year old male toying with what looked like a large dead rat. Indeed it was a dead rat, but when I examined it later, it turned out to be a very small one. For some reason, next to the coyote it looked big. Both rat and coyote were smaller than I had projected from the distance. I did what many people do: I mistakenly had judged a coyote’s size based on something else nearby and the setting — and judged the coyote bigger than it really was. Many people tell me thy just saw a “very big” coyote: 50 or 60 pounds. Actually, Western Coyotes don’t come that big. They weigh 30-35 pounds and in the winter have 3″-4″ fluffy fur which makes them look larger than they are.

The coyote toyed with the dead rat: he tossed it, caught it, twirled with it, practiced pouncing on it, jumped for it. After a short time, maybe only 3 minutes or so, he walked off with it, searched for an appropriate spot to hide it. He found the spot, dug a little depression, placed the rat in that depression, and then covered it all up, using his snout to push leaves, dirt and debris over the burial site. He looked around — the coast looked clear — so he walked away. He hadn’t bothered looking around in back of himself WHILE he was digging the depression and burying the rat — maybe he should have?

Unbeknownst to Bigger Brother, Little Brother was watching

Not far off, and unbeknownst to that coyote, Little 7-month old Brother observed Big Brother’s every move — it was year-and-a-half-year-old Big Brother who had buried the rat: to be used later either for play or for eating. As soon as Big Brother was out of sight, Little Brother headed directly over to the burial site at a trot. He sniffed around and found what he was looking for and dug it up. He did this secretly, sneaking over there only after the first coyote had left. He looked around to make sure he wasn’t being watched. And then he stole the rat — the bandit. Ahhh, now the rat was his.

He grabbed it and began to play happily with it: same rat, but a different coyote: tossing it, catching it, twirling with it. After he had enough playtime,  he would bury it in a different place where only HE would be able to find it.

He entered the forest with the rat. I heard sticks crackling and leaves rustling. When I was able to locate him, he still had the rat in his mouth: the forest, apparently, was not a great place to cache the rat. As he left the forest grove, rat in mouth, sirens began to blare, and other family members who were close by began yipping along, joining-in one at a time.

Coyotes love their yipping sessions — it’s lots of fun for them and definitely an emblem of their community/family spirit. But what do you do if you have a prized rat in your mouth WHEN sirens sound? Do you continue what you are doing, or join the chorus, or . . .  both?! Find out in this video below! The coyote was definitely conflicted about his priorities. During the course of the video, his priorities shift from the rat, to both the rat AND yipping, to yipping, back to the rat and burying it (going so far as to half-heartedly dig a depression, becoming distracted again and then covering up the depression without having placed the rat in there), and then sitting, facing his nearby yipping family before heading off to physically join them.

The rat was abandoned in favor of family activities: social life and family interactions are of utmost important to coyotes, and, actually, it’s what they live for. The next day the rat was not there. It had been taken, but I wonder who ended up with it, or where it might be buried?

Coyote Voicings

Artwork by Kanyon Sayers-Roods

I have added to my Introductory Pages a writeup of Coyote Voicings — Yips, Howls and other Vocalizations: a Panoply of Sounds and Situations.

Summary: Coyote communication occurs mostly via eye contact, facial expressions and body language and it can be very subtle. Coyotes are not forever vocal as humans are; they tend to be on the quiet side — except when they aren’t! Here I explain their voice communications, based on my own daily dedicated observations over the past 11 years, and then I give about 20 examples.

A Puddle

This scene brought to mind the opening line in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ “One Hundred Years of Solitude”,  where the author remembers going “to discover ice”.  Here, the discovery is water. Of course, the coyote knows water — he drinks it all the time, but here he seems to discover something about it beyond its thirst-quenching capabilities or its wetness. For one, the large puddle suddenly appeared where there hadn’t been one only the day before: THAT was something to investigate.

The youngster, a six-month old, curiously tests and discovers its qualities as an object and a phenomenon.  He touches its surface several times: it sends out waves when he does so, he can step through it even though it looks solid, he can see reflections (might he see himself?), it splashes, he can lift a little on his paw before it falls apart and off his paw, he can feel it and it “responds” but doesn’t hurt him, and of course he can drink it, and it’s wet and cold. The natural world is endlessly fascinating, isn’t it!

I was able to capture some still shots when this occurred, which you see above. The video, which I switched to at the very end, captures only the last few seconds of the coyote’s charming investigation.

“Messaging” May Include Growling

Coyotes live in all of our parks, and they can be seen on the streets sometimes. So always remain vigilant when out walking your dog. If you see a coyote, keep away from it. Most of the time coyotes will flee as they see you coming, but sometimes they may not, and I want to address this potentiality here. The safest protocol always is to shorten your leash and walk the other way, no matter how far or near a coyote is. This sends a signal to the coyote that you and your dog are not there to challenge the coyote’s personal or territorial space.

If you see a coyote while walking your dog, shorten your leash and go the other way.

Coyotes are territorial animals. They don’t allow coyotes other than family members into their territories unless they’re maybe just passing through. The good news about this is that territoriality keeps the coyote population down naturally in any particular area. You and your leashed dog should just keep walking on and away from the coyote — just passing through.

Coyotes and dogs know how to read each other on a level that we humans are not very tuned into: the same thing occurs between dogs: one twitched facial muscle reveals their position to other dogs.  So, when walking your dog, please don’t stop and allow this communication to take place or be acted upon — just keep walking away, dragging your dog after you if you must, showing the coyote that you have no interest in her/him.

If for some reason you find yourself closer to a coyote than you should be and the coyote growls at your dog — know that this is a warning message meant to keep your dog from coming closer: “please stay away from me”, “please don’t come closer”, “please go away”.  It may be set off by the dog being in, or heading for, the coyote’s personal or territorial space, and/or may involve negative communication between the animals. It is not necessarily an indication that it’s “an aggressive coyote”, rather,  it’s more likely to be “defensive” behavior aimed at making the dog keep its distance or leave. Please heed the message!  Coyotes and dogs generally do not like each other. Every coyote I know has been chased multiple times by dogs, and they remember this and are ready for the next time, or the next dog. You can prevent this message from escalating by shortening your leash and walking away — this shows the coyote you aren’t a threat, and the coyote will learn this.

If you have a dog, always walk away from a coyote, dragging your dog if you have to.

This also holds true for when you are in your car with a dog. If close enough, the coyote might growl if he/she perceives your dog — who is usually hanging out the window and staring or even barking — as a territorial or personal threat. It’s best to drive on rather than allow visual communication between your dog and a coyote.

A coyote who is walking towards you, again is messaging you more than anything else: making sure you are aware of its presence so that you and your dog will know he/she is there, i.e., that the territory is taken, and possibly even assessing if the dog will come after it. There’s an aspect of curiosity here, but it’s more investigative. Again, just walk away, and keep walking away with your short-leashed dog in-tow, even if the coyote follows you for a little bit.

Prevention is always the best policy, and that involves keeping your distance. Once your dog and a coyote have engaged, you’ll have to try your best to pull your dog away and then keep moving away from the coyote. Scare tactics — such as making eye-contact, lunging at (without getting close), clapping and shouting aggressively at a coyote — do not always work. If you choose to shoo it away, follow the guidelines in the video at the top of this blog: Coyotes As Neighbors: what to know and do, but know that it’s best to practice utter prevention proactively than to reactively have to scare off a coyote who comes too close.

Here is a concise flyer on  How to Handle A Coyote Encounter: A Primer.

[These guidelines are the most effective, and the safest I have seen, based on my daily observations of interactions between coyotes, dogs and people in our parks over the past 11 years]

Coyote Sibling Discord

These are two siblings who, until only a few weeks ago, were buddies and pals.  SHE is the older, by a year, and HE used to love hanging out with her, copying her, and watching her. I never saw any animosity, and the rank difference must have simply been understood: all small pups begin with a low in rank: they are small and they don’t know very much, so SHE was above.

Then, Mom belted the older female which I delineate in detail in a previous posting,  Beatings: Rank Issues Leading to Dispersal. This younger brother participated in the lashing of his older sister. Ever since then, the younger male lords it over his older female sibling who remains subservient, crouched to the ground and lower than her brother, yet she lets her true feelings be known with a snap now and then. The young male often continues these bouts of provocation for several minutes and then wanders off, but sometimes, he begins anew.

I still don’t know if the battle in the previous posting was simply a hierarchical one, or if it was meant to actually drive this female out: it was ferocious. We’ll find out eventually, but for now, she’s still there.

Battling Balloons: Compelled to Find Out About A Novel Object

Coyote Contends with Curiosity and Fear: Curiosity Wins

At first glance, you might think the little coyote in this video has flipped out, but keep watching: she’s found a bouquet of balloons that were left overnight and is having a ball testing them and making them bounce around. She zooms past them quickly because she’s not quite sure what they are capable of. As she does so, she prods, taps and tests to find out. Contrary to what some folks think, coyotes are drawn to novel objects, not driven away by them!

Coyotes are innately curious, inquisitive and nosy: they have a need to know. So they are compelled to investigate, to test new objects: it’s a survival skill. Place any novel object, including unpredictably bouncing balloons in a field, and although their initial reaction to most new things might be to stand back and watch, soon, sometimes over the period of several days, but sometimes right off, they begin to investigate, gingerly moving in closer and closer until they can touch it ever so quickly and then jump back or withdraw their paw — just in case it bites — little by little examining and testing its reactions/responses.

Coyotes test an object’s danger and limitations in order to allay their fears. This may be one of several reasons they approach some dogs: they are investigating what a particular dog’s reactions might be to them and if the dog’s intentions might be harmful. How to handle this? Keep your distance always. The minute you see a coyote, especially if you have a dog with you, shorten your leash and walk away.

 

Carl Safina: A Talk at WildCare

Carl Safina is one of my great heroes, as he is many other people’s.  All my views about sentient wildlife, examples of which I see daily as I watch my coyotes, are confirmed by Carl. When he speaks, I feel as though he is taking the words right out of my mouth — every single word and thought about animals as feeling and thinking critters. The difference is that he is an academic, and to have an academic stand up for these things is an important turn of events, though late in the coming. Academics have long separated humans absolutely from all other species and they don’t tolerate anthropomorphizing which they consider unsupportable and therefore fanciful. In fact, accurate anthropomorphizing is no longer thought of as unsupportable: it’s the path that behavioral research is now taking.

I see a lot of coyote behavior for many hours each day. I have spoken a lot about coyote feelings and their intense family lives — lives which really are not so different from our own in a great many respects. I’ve had some academics pooh-pooh what I say. But Carl, as Jane Goodall, who has actually spent time watching the animals as I have, supports these same ideas. Theories and studies of focused slices of animal behavior do not cover the same ground as being in the field watching the whole picture: an animal going about its life.

It’s because an animal feels hungry that he eats, feels tired that he sleeps, feels joy that he plays, feels affection that he caresses another. It’s what they feel that actually drives their lives. Above that, their amazing family ties and lives are a wonder to watch: a microcosm of your favorite soap opera, with a cliff-hanger every day!

Carl says that our need to see ourselves as above anything else speaks volumes about our insecurities. In fact, what makes humans different is that we do things to the extreme, which animals don’t do: We are, at the same time, the most compassionate and the cruelest of the species; the most creative and the most destructive of them. This is what makes us human. Having emotions and emotional bonds are not what distinguishes us as human.

Please make sure to check out Carl’s recent book, which now can be obtained in paperback: Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel.

I took notes at Carl’s talk, but rather than present them here, I’m linking to a video of the exact same lecture given by him elsewhere: straight from the horse’s mouth.

 

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