“Running Away From Home”

I put this collage together to reflect the thought

Well, “running away from home” isn’t exactly what happened (which is why I have the title in quotes), but watching a tiny kitten-size pup the other morning trekking decidedly away from his home inspired the idea. For a fun twist, I put together the above collage, and have written this posting sprinkled with that thought.

The morning began with a coyote dad bringing in a mouthful of animal-prey to his denning area. It was too far off and I wasn’t quick enough to see what they prey was, but it was the size of a large duck. He disappeared into the brush, and I hoped I would see him again. Within a very short time, I heard a coyote calling to another — I wasn’t given enough lead time to record it, it was not a sound I hear often: a short, warbled sound.

a pup follows his parents, but is told *no*

I looked up to where the sound came from and saw him standing and apparently waiting close to where I had seen him disappear earlier. He had been calling to his mate, because within a minute, she joined him. As they headed off, one and then two of their pups attempted tagging along. They either were told *no* or knew they wouldn’t be able to keep up because they immediately turned back. Youngsters desperately want to be with their parents, but no means no, and they were left in the safety of their den area. That was all I saw of the parents that morning.

One pup of this litter is a runt. I’ve observed runts before. They often don’t play with litter mates because their size makes it not fun for them: who likes to be beat up all the time? So they frequently play by themselves. And they go off by themselves. I’ve also seen runts given special attention by their parents: the extra nurturing probably helps their survival. Mom was there today most likely to nurse them, and I saw Dad bring in solid food as I stated above. I wondered if the runt might have been unable to get his share of milk or of what was brought in by Dad? I thought of these things immediately after what I saw next.

Leaving the den took several tries, each ending with his return to the den. On the fourth try, he made it across 100 yards of ‘treacherous terrain’, including flower beds, trees, lawn, and paved paths.

Within the next ten minutes, I saw the runt heading off and away from his denning area. My eyes popped out of my head when I saw him because it was broad daylight and he was so tiny — so much smaller than other pups at this stage of their development — he was alone and completely vulnerable out in the open in a high foot-traffic and dog area, and in the daylight. I seldom see pups, much less traveling alone over vast expanses of open areas where they are totally visible. Of course, I kept my eye on him to see what he was up to. He moved with purpose, the same way you see the adults do: they always seem to know where they are going and what they are doing. Thrice he turned back after about 100 feet, as though he were trying to make up his mind whether to proceed. But the fourth time he reached the point where he had turned around before, and he made a sudden dash forward, across a network of paved paths and a large open lawn. I was able to watch him for about 100 yards before I lost track of him in the ivy. Ivy is a wonderful coverup for them. If a dog had been there, that might have been his end, and I prepared myself to grab any unleashed exploring dogs, but none happened by at the time.

My next post will be about dens, but here I need to state that immediate denning areas are larger than the size of football fields — they don’t simply encompass the temporary dugout birthing den — they are much larger areas than that. Parents will defend this football field size area and more than 1/4 mile beyond it. This youngster was well within his football field area, but because of his direct trajectory, the idea of his running away from home popped into my mind and made me smile. I wondered about the issues faced by a runt: his likely inability to compete for a fair share of the milk or food brought in. I wondered if there might be more going on than simply being a runt: such as illness? He was wobbly in his steps and rickety in his appearance, with bug bites over his back and watery eyes. That’s all I saw of him in the morning and those were my thoughts. No parent was present to lead him back or protect him had he needed it.

Dad waits outside den area for mom to finish nursing and then tires of waiting and leaves.

In the evening his parents returned and everything looked normal. It is customary for parents to leave their pups all day long. They tend to stop by very sporadically, including at dusk for nursing or feeding before heading out again. They are not at the densite often, though Dad in particular, will hang out within several hundred feet, snoozing away the daylight hours and performing his sentry duty. This evening when she came, Mom disappeared into the brush and Dad waited for her on the periphery. He waited and waited, and finally trotted on by himself because Mom was not appearing. I saw her later playing with two of her pups. I could see that Runt was not among them. I despaired for him.

very kitten-looking

The next morning I was there to observe any changes, and to docent, asking folks to please keep their dogs leashed. I saw Dad looking around, but he didn’t seem particularly concerned. Another thought popped into my head: Being the runt, this one looks somewhat like a kitten with its exceptionally short baby snout. What if some human were to *save* him by either adopting him or taking him into the SPCA or ACC. It is illegal to keep wildlife as pets here. In addition, separating a youngster from its family drastically diminishes the youngster’s chances of survival. Few animals taken to wildlife rehab centers survive in the long-run: they simply have not been given the skills to survive: only parents can do this. Please leave all found pups alone — you can only hurt their situation.

Runt is back and safe

I was back in the evening and heaved a sigh of relief when I glimpsed Runt. He’s there! For him, it was just another day, as if nothing special had happened over the last 24 hours — and it hadn’t — but for me, I wrote a whole post about him running away from home and ruminating about a runt’s welfare. But these little guys are hardy and resilient and much smarter than we think. However, it’s important to remember that pup survival rate can be as low as 20 to 30%.

Runt back home

PS: Although I distinguish coyotes by their faces, I have real trouble distinguishing pups. However, Runt stands apart and is very identifiable by his underdeveloped size and ragged/rickety appearance. He’ll probably emerge as King of the Forest some day!! :)

All About Coyote Pups: A Primer

I’ve put together some information on coyote pups based predominantly on my own observations. Other information is included, including some hearsay, which I’ve stated as such. Push the underlined links I’ve provided for even more information.

Coyote pups are about two months old now here in San Francisco.

Etiquette: Please stay away from any place where you even suspect a den might be, and please especially keep your dogs away from those areas. Besides cars, dogs are coyotes’ biggest threat in urban areas. You can prevent stress and trauma to yourself, your dog, and coyote parents with new pups by leashing your dogs if you must move through such an area. Word-of-mouth from other park visitors about a den’s general whereabouts should be enough for you to voluntarily avoid those areas.

Terminology: Baby coyotes are referred to as “pups” (not cubs)!

Dates of birth: In San Francisco, pups are normally born towards the beginning of April after a gestation of 63 days. Coyotes come into heat just once a year (as opposed to dogs’  twice a year cycle) — they can only produce one litter a year which is usually born sometime in the Springtime. The courting behavior which leads to pups can be observed at the end of January.

Litter Sizes: A “litter” is the group of pups that are born and raised together in one family. Some yearlings from the previous year’s litter or before — those that didn’t disperse (leave) — may remain in the family and may even help out a little by bringing in food for the youngsters. I have seen anywhere from one to seven pups born in one litter in San Francisco: that’s quite a spread!  I have heard of larger litters, as many as 11 to 19 (not in San Francisco), but I’ve also heard (but not seen) that this very large litter size may actually be the result of “den sharing”: two females sharing the same den.

From my own observations, I’ve seen litters vary in size over several consecutive years from the same parents as follows: Maeve and Toughy 1-2;  Ma’am and Monte 2-5-1; Cai and Yote 7-2-? (haven’t had a chance to count this year’s yet); Maya and Ivan (3-4-5); Chert and Silver 1-0-0-0-4;. These are all variations of normal litter sizes. The exception was the five litters where there were sometimes no survivals: this anomaly was almost certainly related to inbreeding in this family; Chert went through the motions of having pups during those three years of no pups, but none ever appeared. Besides these normal, small fluctuations, the litter sizes I’ve seen in San Francisco have not changed over the 12 years that I’ve been studying coyotes, even though the coyote population here has grown from an initial 8 in 2002 to several score and appears to be at its saturation point, as revealed by more and more brutal territorial battles that have displaced resident coyotes.

So although I’ve heard it speculated that coyotes “regulate” their litter size: I’ve not seen an indication of this here in San Francisco. They appear to just ‘get what they get’ — like the rest of us (those who don’t take hormones). And rather than the proviso that “locations dictate litter size”,  I would think that litter size might have a genetic component. I know that natural multiple births seem to run in human families, so might litter size also have a genetic component?

Newborn pup size: Coyote pups at birth weigh between 1/2 and 1 pound. This has been measured by wildlife rehabilitation facilities which take in these newborns. Weight can vary substantially between the pups in one family which may include some “runts”. Their personalities also develop differently. Some, right from the start are adventuresome and exploratory: they are curious about everything and wander far, rather brazenly. Others have more of a built-in wariness and fear: they are on-edge and more anxious and keep closer to home. Some are more interactive and social, involved in a lot of rough-house playing and teasing, while others are more withdrawn, preferring to sit back and watch the others. Each of these has it’s benefits for survival: one is not necessarily a “better” personality type than another.

Dens and birthing: Coyote pups are born in dens which were either dug for this purpose by their parents or they were pre-existing “homes” of other animals, such as raccoons or skunks, that were broadened and enlarged by the to-be coyote parents for their purposes.  A den can also be an existing hole in the ground, cavities under tree trunks, a depression with good covering, or a nook under a ledge. I have only seen dens long after they were abandoned, I have never seen an occupied den: I keep my distance from these.

Coyote dens are used only for a short time: for birthing and nursing during the very early life of pups. Dens are outgrown, just as are birds’ nests or human cradles, after which the youngsters sleep in protected or hidden areas as do the parents. At around six weeks of age pups begin venturing beyond the den.

Here is a video of a wolf giving birth: I think we can assume that it must be pretty similar to what a coyote goes through. They emit howls as they give birth, and you hear a little of that here:

Do mothers stay in the dens for an extended period of time after giving birth? Well, if some do [this video shows pups right after, and pups’ first howls], it’s not a hard-and-fast behavior practice:  I’ve seen one mother out within a day of giving birth and I’ve seen others out in far less than a week.

Coyote pups may be left all alone for extended periods of time while the parents go off hunting. So, please don’t “save” what you think are “abandoned” pups — parents are likely simply off hunting. NO ONE can raise coyote pups as well as their own parents. You are actually hurting their chances for survival if you take their welfare into your own hands. If you truly believe they’ve been abandoned, then monitor them for several days before taking them to a wildlife center.

Nourishment: Coyote pups live on their mother’s milk alone for the first few weeks. This diet is soon supplemented with regurgitated food at about one month of age. The regurgitated food consists of whatever the parents consume, mostly rodents, but also fruit, amphibians, insects, birds and even garbage. How long do the youngsters lactate? I’ve seen mothers’ tit size shrink by the end of May, so I assume by that time the youngsters are well accustomed to semi-solid diets and on their way to whole prey soon. First, dead prey is brought to the youngsters, after which the pups are taken out to practice hunting on their own. Interestingly, I’ve seen coyotes over one year of age still being brought regurgitated food from a father: the youngsters approach Dad from below his chin, wedging their muzzles under his upper lip. This causes the regurgitation response. Dad then expels the food onto the ground, and the youngsters grab and eat it.

As the youngsters grow, Dad continues his contributions in the food department by bringing home prey to help feed the youngsters. Both coyote parents, unusually, raise the youngsters and you may find Dad at times sitting out and “minding” the offspring, giving Mom a break.

An interesting observation I’ve made is what I call “facilitating.” When the pups are learning to hunt, a mother will kill a rodent and  bury it where the pups can easily find it!

Survival rate:  Survival rate of pups is known to be low — 20-30% is what the literature says, but what I’ve seen in San Francisco is closer to about 70% from the time the pups can first be seen. However, it should be noted that I myself never know how many pups were actually born because I never intrude into their den areas: I wait to see what a litter is like until Mom brings them out or they are spotted through the bushes. Between birth and when I see them, there could have been more pups who didn’t make it.

First appearances: You might glimpse youngsters now, at two months of age, through the bushes, but it won’t be because coyotes want you to. Youngsters are highly protected as they grow up. And if a youngster sees you, he/she is bound to head straight to the bushes to hide! And parents are bound to come out to warn you to stay far, far away!

Family howl session in response to sirens. The howling family consists of Mom and Dad and four two-month old pups! Note that, although coyotes keep youngsters hidden as much as possible, they seem to have no qualms about being heard!

Here is what coyotes look like during their first year of growth:

Coyotes may leave home (dispersal) anytime after they are about 9 months of age, which is about January in SF. The earliest I’ve seen was a female who left home at 9 months of age. And the latest I’ve seen was a male who didn’t leave until he was 2.5 years of age, even though his father attempted pushing him out almost a year beforehand. The Presidio has tracked some of these dispersals to 60 miles south of the city, and I’ve been able to track some to vacated niches within the city itself. Many dispersing youngsters get killed by cars during this treacherous dispersal time in their lives. They also come across extremely hostile territorial coyotes who make it clear that they are not one bit welcome.

Please Don’t Rescue “Abandoned” Coyote Pups!

UPDATE: An observer in June, 2017 became very concerned when she didn’t see parents attending to a den in her back yard. She contacted us when she hadn’t seen either parent for several days. We devised a plan for feeding the pups and then moving them to a rehabilitation center, but we delayed the move since no one at all can raise coyote pups as well as their parents. Then, VOILA! A full week later, the parents resurfaced. This is not unusual in the coyote world. Please know this and leave coyote pups alone! If you are concerned, keep an eye on the area for a good, long time before doing anything!

Why, you might ask, would you not try to save abandoned coyote pups? The reason is that they are probably not abandoned at all. Coyote pups are left for extended periods of time while both parents go off hunting. In 99% of the cases of puppies found without a parent around, this is what is going on. You will actually be hurting the situation rather than helping by “kidnapping” them from parents who love them and know how to give them the best upbringing. In the wild, and with their parents, they have a huge chance at survival. Once they are removed and placed in a rehabilitation center, their chances go down. The rehabilitation center can take care of their physical needs, but cannot train the pups early on how to fend for themselves: hunt, avoid, interact with other animals.

The hand that intends to help may, in fact, be causing their doom. Rehabilitated baby animals have a much harder go in life and many do not make it.

Here are some pups that were found “abandoned” and taken into a wildlife center. They are doing superbly well in the center. But they would have been doing better in the wild with their parents. Note that pups in the wild are now about the size of those below that no longer fit in the bucket!

 

If you want to donate to a Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, here is a great one: AWARE. Melanie Furr took the photos of coyotes in the bucket and wrote a fabulous newsletter featuring coyotes for AWARE — press HERE to read it. Alex Johnson took the three coyote pups, upper right.

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