Lugubrious Howl After Picking Up An Unwelcome Scent

 

Kicking dirt after his howl (with a youngster beside him)

This lugubrious howl capped extensive and intense sniffing by the resident alpha male of his territorial area. He had been picking-up the scent and following it fervently for several days, and I wondered what was going on. Right before the howl, his nose again was to the ground as he zig-zagged intently over the area. Immediately following the howl, he “kicked” the ground: he was clearly angry, but whomever he was angry at was not present.

Nose to the ground, following the scent

The intense sniffing occurred regularly for several days.

My initial thought was that a wayward dog might be causing alarm, but seldom have I seen dogs here. HOWEVER, the day after the recording, I spotted an intruder female yearling sniffing through the area evasively. She was a coyote I knew. Recognizable facial features apart, she was encumbered with a hefty radio-collar. These are used only in only one park in San Francisco — most of our city coyotes are free of them. So I’ll take this opportunity to say a little about her.

She had been “babysitter” for her own younger siblings born this year in her park several miles away. Pups in the city are more than five-months old now and require less looking-after, so relieved of this responsibility, she is freer to explore away from her home. Might she be making tentative steps at dispersal and looking for an unfilled niche within the city? She’s a year-and-a-half old and ready to move out on her own. Her brother, apparently, dispersed out of the city, dozens of miles south. On the contrary, this gal has been making forays within the city since March, but she always returns home (per Jonathan Young).

The yearling interloper

Might the howl have been either a warning to the intruder, or at least a vocalization of discontentment — the same as when coyotes howl after having been chased by a dog? Most intruders are chased off by resident coyotes — this is what I normally see — but if it happened here, I was not there to see it.

Papa’s five-month old pups.

Whatever was going on seems to have been resolved for the time being. I say this because the very next day this papa left the area for the day, leaving three youngsters and mom there alone. He would not have done so had there been danger lurking nearby. Leaving them for day-long intervals has been a routine behavior of his over the last couple of months, so things seemed back to normal and calm again. The youngsters seemed to know how to take care of themselves by doing what youngsters do best: playing chase and wrestling with each other, and keeping (fairly) hidden.

If the sniffing and howling were indeed because of the intruder, I wonder how serious of an infraction the intrusion was? My only clues that there was a problem were the alpha male’s repeated intense sniffing and his mournful howl, and then the intruder’s appearance. She has not re-appeared and neither has the intense sniffing behavior. Whatever was going on, no longer is.

Specificity: An Instance of Coyote Behavior Towards One Dog

I want to address one specific coyote’s behavior towards one specific dog.

We all know that our domestic canine companions themselves can be very specific and particular about who and how they relate to regarding each and every other individual dog, and even individual people. For example, today I was approached by several dogs who knew me and were all hugs and kisses, wiggles and squiggles, towards me when I saw them. Cool!

Then there is another dog who barks at me ferociously — I keep away — the owner herself doesn’t understand it beyond what we’ve agreed on, that just like humans, likes and dislikes exist in animals, and some of these are strong. Maybe my camera equipment initially set off the dog, but now it’s an ingrained pattern. The owner of yet another dog told me that although his dog is outrageously friendly to almost everyone including me, there were two very specific dogs — only two — who raised his dog’s ire whenever he saw them. He didn’t know exactly why it was just these two dogs, but he told me that one of the dogs walks by his house every day, and so there may be a territorial issue involved in that case.

When chemistry is bad between certain dogs, the result is growling and lunging and worse. Fights can only be averted by tightening the leash and walking away. The behavior is first set off, no doubt, by communication that insinuates some kind of oneupmanship: a threatening or even a disdainful *look* from one dog to another, or maybe one dog reminds the reactive dog of another disliked dog in some way, which might explain why some dogs, I’ve been told by their owners, react to only a certain breed of dog. Dogs read each other well and they are constantly communicating, mostly in subtle, body-language ways, unbeknown to most of their owners.

Once a fight begins between dogs, it becomes difficult and even risky to separate them, so prevention in the first place is always best. Note that coyotes, unlike dogs, seldom actually engage on a fighting level with dogs. Any injury to them could spell death. So their strategy is to “message” through body postures. It’s best to heed their warning messages at a distance: just tighten your leash and walk away. As they get closer, they are more apt to engage in a charge-and-retreat messaging system that could involve a nip to your dog’s haunches. Small dogs could indeed be injured or worse, so please keep your distance in the first place!

1) So, the behavior of the coyote I want to describe — a behavior which for a while replayed almost daily — can be described like this:

Early in the morning, the coyote hangs out on a high knoll close to the entrance of a park, relaxing and taking in the view, watching dogs as they walk with their owners, or jumping up to watch any spurts of dog activity, such as barking or running after a ball: she’s curious about what’s happening on her territory and likes to know what is going on. In particular she keeps her eye out for one single dog who makes her feel very uneasy. That dog eventually appears with its owner and proceeds to walk into the park. (The owner is very aware of the coyote’s presence and behavior, and has learned how to deal with it by just walking on).

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Hanging out on a little knoll

At this point, the coyote hops-to and starts to follow them. Today, unusually, the coyote was intent on getting closer to the dog, so the owner did the right thing, picking up a pebble and tossing it towards (not at) the coyote and walked on. The coyote distanced herself as expected. In the two years that I’ve been watching this behavior, there have been only a couple of instances when the owner has had to do this — her behavior is almost always at a safe distance.

1) coyote jumps with uneasy excitement when she first sees the dog; 2) sometimes her hackles go up, she lifts her lips and scrunches her nose, and she might kick the ground if the duo turn to look at her for any length of time; 3) she follows.

From the moment the coyote sees the dog-and-owner, the coyote could begin her screech/howling. Sometimes there’s no vocalization from the coyote as she follows, but most of the time there is a distressed, high-pitched, raspy grunt/scream, on the level of a “tongue-lashing” tirade. During these sessions, the 100-pound dog, to all appearances, calmly ignores the coyote — that she is leashed helps. And the dog owner with his dog just continues on his way in-spite of the coyote screaming her heart out in back of them.

 

After about 300 or so meters of this, at the crest of a hill where the coyote is able to keep an eye on the dog as it walks on, the coyote invariably stops following and stops screaming, and watches silently as the man and dog distance themselves around the bend and out of sight within the park. She usually then sits here for a few minutes, looking around, and finally gets up and walks about apparently a little aimlessly, but in fact there is purpose to this: she is waiting, biding her time, because that’s not the end of it.

The coyote eventually meanders over to a ledge where she can see the road below. She stations herself here and waits — about 10-15 minutes or so. She knows the dog and owner will be returning that way eventually, and eventually they do.

They re-appear on the road where she expected them

When dog and owner re-appear into view, she keenly watches them again as they walk parallel to where she is, and then she hurries to a second location, still keeping an eye on them, where she can observe dog-and-owner making their last retreat out of the park for the day. And this is when the tongue-lashing can begin anew — with dog and owner again ignoring it and proceeding as though she were not there: this is their best option for handling the situation. Sometimes dog and owner look back at the coyote and smile. Soon the vocalizations stop, and the coyote simply watches as the two — dog and owner — disappear for good for the day into the distant mass of the city and away from her park, her territory. Occasionally she’ll run a little way after them from far in back to make sure they are gone. At this point, the ritual is over, until the next day or the day after that.

The behavior here is intense and specifically focused on this one dog and no other. It’s alarming for many people when they see or hear it for the first time until I can explain it to them.

I should point out that the dog involved has a past history of chasing this coyote, and even running to the coyote’s favorite hangout areas and peeing there, in a sort of “So, there…”, one-upmanship way. This kind of rather casual animosity — there is no barking or growling — is also conveyed through subtle eye twitches or the raising of a lip: these communications are chalk-full of meaning to canines, no matter how subtle and barely perceptible they might be to humans, and they are ever-present.

In addition though, in the past, this owner used to sit with his dog fairly close to the coyote and “chat” in an attempt to “break the ice”, he told me. The result was the opposite of what was intended. The intense focus  may have actually conveyed to the coyote that she was “an object of special interest”, and may have caused her to become more suspicious and more wary of the dog than ever. If you focus on a coyote, they’ll focus back to figure out the reason for your interest: it’s part of their very inquisitive nature. In the wild, of course, there would probably be a sinister reason for another animal to focus on you, right? So the dog became something that the coyote watched out for. My advice is always to avoid focusing on coyotes when you have a dog — always just walk on.

So this particular dog became this particular coyote’s nemesis, and to a certain extent vice-versa. It is the only dog that gets this treatment from this coyote. We are fortunate that the owner is more amused — and maybe somewhat bemused — than anything else, with the coyote’s behavior. How different it might be if the owner had been fearful and intolerant, or had chosen not to flow with the situation: the situation would have been splashed, detrimentally for the coyote, all over the news, with the coyote’s reputation plummeting and fear levels stoked. Instead, a thorough explanation of the behavior and how to deal with it and even how to avoid it calmed everyone down. So we are lucky the owner of the dog is who he is. Thank you, Pete!

Until I’m able to explain the situation to any newcomers, they often come up to me with questions such as, “What is the coyote doing to the dog”, or the opposite, “What is the dog doing to the coyote?”, or they even come up with their own interesting interpretations, such as that, “The coyote was screaming ferociously for a mate.” But no, coyotes don’t scream for mates, and mating season is once a year, not in June, but in January/February. Once folks understand the situation, they are soothed, and become amused and even charmed. It’s much easier to embrace coyotes if you understand them. Certainly, it’s easier to coexist with them with the proper information.


2) I have seen this exact same behavior in another area of San Francisco: another coyote, another dog, and a different place. The setting was along a wide, paved, inner city park path taken regularly by dogs. The coyote’s behavior was reactive against one particular dog she felt threatened by and was worried about — even though that dog had never chased her in the past. This is self-protective and territorial behavior. The behavior might well have been initiated at some previous time through subtle negative communication or possibly even by a memory of a dog of similar breed, as previously explained.

Here is a video of that behavior. Or you may hear an audio below of this coyote’s upset and distressed deep guttural barking — so entirely different from a dog’s bark — as the coyote follows, with distressed bouncing steps and hackles up, within 30 feet of the dog and walker. This might be very upsetting to someone who does not understand the behavior and doesn’t know what to do. I advised the walker to just keep walking steadily away, and sure enough, as they continued to walk away from the coyote, the coyote soon turned away from them:

3) A somewhat related situation occurred years ago in a park where a group of off-leash dogs — always walking together at the exact same time every morning — were allowed, and even encouraged (unbelievably), to chase and harass the coyotes. It was only this one group of rowdy dogs that the coyotes always watched for and followed until they left the coyote’s critical areas. That group considered the coyotes bold, aggressive and antagonistic so they felt justified in letting their dogs pursue them.

They never did accept that it was their dogs’ behaviors which were causing the problem in the first place. The coyotes just wanted to be left alone.  If the dogs had left the coyotes alone, the coyotes would no longer have felt a need to “push back”. This didn’t happen to dog groups that respected the coyotes by preventing harassment by chasing. By the way, the intense, agitated and distressed vocalization after being chased by dogs can go on for 20 minutes or longer.

The Golden Rule for dealing with a dog/coyote encounter is always the same: Your safest option is AVOIDANCE: Whether you see a coyote in the distance, approaching you, or at-close range, leash your dog, shorten your leash, and walk away from it to minimize any potential dog/coyote confrontation or engagement. If you choose to shoo it away, follow the guidelines in this video, but know that what’s safest is complete avoidance. [This advice comes to you from over 11 years of keenly watching what works in this situation. This is the best option for preventing any kind of escalation. And here is a complete guide on “How to Handle Coyote Encounters: A Primer”]

Coyote Speaks Her Mind, An Update

I want to update the continuing story of the loner coyote I wrote about in: Coyote Speaks Her Mind to the Dog Who Chased Her Three Weeks Ago! The story through that posting evolved from a dog who repeatedly chased the coyote, to the coyote finally vocalizing her distress at being chased while remaining hidden in the bushes.

Soon thereafter, this coyote would follow that dog, which is now kept leashed, screaming out her anguish, now in plain view — no longer hidden in the bushes. For months this behavior continued, daily, and then the vocalizations stopped, but the following behavior still continued, always at a safe and great distance. 

One might ask, “Why would a little coyote follow a dog — even a large 100 pound dog — if she were fearful of the dog?  The answer appears to be that ‘following’ is used by coyotes both to escort out and to assure themselves that a threatening (or perceived as threatening) animal is leaving an area. It is a territorial behavior. Coyotes’ survival depends on their territoriality: they claim, and exclude other coyotes, from the land which will supply them with, and ensure them a supply of,  food and protection from competitors. The screaming, which incorporates deep raspy sounds, is a brave warning, more bluff than anything else, but also a release of the coyote’s distressed feelings. The coyote appears totally aware that the dog is tethered: she has fled like a bullet when the dog got loose and turned towards her.

The little coyote’s behavior towards that dog is continuing to evolve. Yesterday, after seeing the dog in the far distance, she simply ran the other way and disappeared from view over the crest of the hill before the dog had a chance to see her!

A few days ago, having seen the dog from a great distance, she ran off and hid rather than take a chance at being seen.

Crouching low the minute she saw the dog, in hopes of not being seen

And today, the little coyote didn’t notice the dog — the dog is walked daily in the park — until the dog already was close by. Her evasive strategy this time involved crouching down into the grasses and ducking so as not to be seen. She was not seen by the dog, but she was seen by the owner.  She remained in her crouched-down spot as the dog didn’t seem to notice her (the dog was leashed and couldn’t have moved towards the coyote even if she had wanted to). 

The coyote got up and watched them walk away and disappear over the horizon and then took after them, but remaining out of sight.  She spotted them at the crest of a hill where she sat and kept an eye on them from the distance until they left. This owner is doing as much as he can to avoid conflict by walking his dog on the leash and always walking away from the coyote. Fortunately, he is fascinated and amused by her behavior!

By the way, I have seen this same behavior in a number of females, and one male coyote — it’s not so unusual, so folks with dogs should be aware of it so they don’t freak out if it happens towards their dog. What to do? Simply shorten your leash and keep walking away from the coyote. Also, try to minimize visual communication between your dog and a coyote — the communication is most likely to be negative, so why even go there? Again, simply shorten your leash and walk on and away.

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, chosen from about a thousand that I’ve recorded.

Four Month Old Pup Howls Back at His Family / Dispersal Behavior

This video is a very short (20 seconds) clip of a youngster coyote, a little over four months old, responding to the howls of his family after a siren had sounded. He is on one side of the park alone, independently and very self-sufficiently, exploring and hunting on his own. It’s late dusk and there’s almost no light, but the camera was able to focus on this. Notice that the youngster is listening intently for the rest of the family which is far in the distance, in back of where I’ve standing to video. When he thinks he knows where they are, he takes off in their direction, running.

Interestingly, as he approached them, he veered off and went the other way, never meeting up with them. The howling had stopped by the time he reached them. Might he have decided to avoid what was going on between them? There were four other coyotes who were at the site, including Mom, Dad and two yearling siblings born last year.

I say this because it’s at this point that I and another onlooker heard strong deep warning growls. We heard them again, and then a third time. It’s not often that we hear coyotes actually growl like this because it seems to be limited to use within the coyote world between themselves, apparently to express anger or discipline. Unfortunately my recorder did not pick up the low frequency sounds.

I strained to see what was going on but could only make out that one coyote had pinned another one down and was growling at it. By focusing my camera on the light in the background, I was able to get these two photos below. Once home, where I could actually see the image, I could tell clearly that Mom was standing over her yearling daughter, exercising her dominance. Dispersion time is coming soon for that young female. Punches, nips and dominance displays as this one will increase in order to drive the youngsters off. This is an important part of the coyote’s life cycle: it keeps the population down in claimed territories.

Interestingly, Dad still grooms this female for long stretches of time and very affectionately, reconfirming his bonds and affection for her. In the families I’ve observed, it seems to be the Moms that drive out the females (who I suppose could become competitive with them), and the Dads, or sometimes male siblings, who drive the youngster males out.

Social Communication After A Siren

This vocalization here is the flip side of the “Stormy Monday” posting which depicted distressed vocalization by a coyote who had been pursued by a dog. I have seen that two vocalization types predominate in urban areas: 1) the distressed howls and yips due to the intrusion of a dog, and 2) The cheery howls and yips during greetings and long-distance social communications, which can occur at any time of the day or night.

These vocalizations here — although the one close by sounds a bit harsh at first due to the coyote’s proximity to the microphone — is a much more gentle and peaceful communication than in the Stormy Monday posting, engaged in by two coyotes after a siren has sounded. In this case, the coyotes are simply confirming their unity as a family, their well-being, location, and no doubt more about their mundane situation. It also may serve as a territorial message proclaiming ownership of the turf by the family: in other words, a confirming “Keep Out” message to other coyotes in the distance.

Coyotes are able to convey, who they are, where they are and how they are doing, something like: “Hey over there, how’s it going and where are you? I’m fine, looking forward to seeing you, nice hearing from you, see you soon!” The variety of sounds produced by each coyote often makes it sound as though there are many more coyotes than there really are. They produce a variety of tones, pitches, modulations, and inflections of their various sounds. The unique combinations, lengths and use of these various articulations form signature howls for each coyote. I myself can distinguish a number of coyotes from each other simply because I know their very individual howl patterns. Female voices tend to be higher pitched than the males.

 

A Stormy Monday – The First Day of Spring

This video is very long at 11 minutes, but less than 1/3 the length of the dog/coyote interaction. It’s not necessary to see it to understand the post.

I donned my heavy raincoat and boots and went out to walk my son’s dog and to post some signs as the rain let up a little. When we got to the park, I thought I heard a distressed, loud scream in the far distance. I finished stapling up a sign and then became aware that the screams were occurring at very regular intervals. It had to be a coyote who was upset.

As I hurried towards the sound, I passed a dog owner who was calling and searching for her dog who got away. Okay. Now I had the picture. The coyote would be very upset because it was being pursued: Coyotes howl for two reasons in our parks: either they are communicating and responding to sirens, or they are being harassed by a dog. It was a large 70 or so pound pooch who had gone after coyotes before. I ran towards where the sound was coming from and found the dog running and weaving excitedly through a thicket in pursuit of a coyote. I could not help the owner retrieve her dog because of the little dog I had in tow, so I began documenting the upsetting activity. The coyote did a great job of keeping away from the dog with minimal effort, and when she wasn’t actually evading the dog’s advances, she screamed loudly and incisively in regularly spaced spurts — she was piqued.

Meanwhile, the owner climbed up and down the hill, over and over again, exhaustively, looking for her dog and calling him repeatedly, but to no avail. The dog would not come. Some onlookers arrived asking what all the noise was about. They, too, attempted calling the dog, enticing him to come with cookies. It didn’t help.

The coyote’s intense screams continued over a period of about 20 minutes. She was venting: expressing her anger and displeasure at the dog’s onslaughts. Most urban dogs are wary of this noise — dogs read it as a warning — most will keep away. The dog didn’t seem to approach when the coyote was howling like this. As time wore on, the screams stopped occasionally as the coyote looked intently into the thicket, watching the owner make inroads into the thicket to get  her dog.

At a certain point, the coyote stopped screaming and looked around, and began sniffing something in the air by putting her nose up high. She seemed relieved, relaxing a little, and hurried off to behind a bush. It was HIM, her mate who had arrived. Her screams must have alerted him — possibly purposefully — to come help — he was now there to aid her.  They had work to do. Now they would work as a team to fend off the dog. They proceeded to the edge of the thicket, better prepared for the dog to come after them again. They didn’t have to work hard though, because the large dog was already exhausted and the owner must have been able to grab her dog just about when the two coyotes met. When the coyotes saw the dog leave the area, they ran back and forth with their body’s wagging, wiggling and squiggling. There were body presses and nose rubs and smiles and twists. It was a more exuberant form of their routine evening greeting. I almost read these as a victory celebration.

We next saw the owner and her leashed dog walking on a path in the distance. About 100 feet behind them, on the same trail, were the two coyotes, making sure that that particular dog left the park — escorting them out. The coyotes watched the duo exit the park and then the male went back into the bushes. But the female lay down right in the middle of the path. She, too, was probably worn out from the harrowing experience. No other people except me and my dog were to be seen in the park — it was very quiet.

As she lay there, I noticed that she kept her eye on something off the path up ahead. I went to investigate what it was, and as I did so, I heard sobbing. It was a young woman, sitting in the grass in the rain under a large black umbrella, crying. I asked her if she was okay, or if I could help with anything. She told me that she was just having a very hard day.

A man and his dog then came walking down the path towards us. I called out to him that the coyote was there, and he leashed his dog. I told him about the upsetting coyote activity — that was why the coyote was lying there — and about the young woman who was having a hard day. He said, “Man, it’s just a stormy Monday”. He was about to turn to go the other way so as not to disturb the coyote, but the coyote got up, stretched, turned around and wandered down the path out of the area. So, the man continued his walk and I, too, left the area with little dog in tow.  In the video you can hear the raindrops hit the plastic I use as a raincoat for the camera. Yes, it was a stormy Monday.

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