Airplaned Ears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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