Dens: Precarious Situations

Forward: Almost ten years ago, in 2012, in Atlanta, several people noticed coyotes in and around Candler Park (450 acres or 2/3rds of a square mile) where they had not been spotted before. City authorities were brought in to assess the population in the park and discovered 6 coyote dens. They concluded that coyotes were multiplying wildly and taking over, and they would have to get rid of them. I was contacted to help fight this proposal and educate the public about the reality of coyotes. Because of our efforts, the neighborhood association in charge decided not to cull/kill the coyotes. Unfortunately, I was told later on, that a couple of homeowners wouldn’t accept this studied decision, so as individuals they hired a trapper who eliminated them. :( Other coyotes soon filled the vacated niches — shooting coyotes doesn’t get rid of them for very long.

By the way, if you are interested, “fear of another species taking over” is a common human fear, and has been written about in this recent article: https://milliontrees.me/2022/06/08/starlings-vagrants-and-dead-birds/. Targets include coyotes, plants, birds, and other people who in various ways can be labeled differently from ourselves.

Coyote facts: On any one territory, with rare exceptions, there is just one coyote family consisting of an alpha male and female, their pups born within the year and in some cases one or two of the pups born the previous year — the older youngsters stick around long enough to help with the new litter before dispersing. All other coyotes are kept out of the family-owned territory, thus limiting the population to that one family. Territories run between 2 and 4 square miles each, so population is not all that dense. All youngsters inevitably and eventually disperse, leaving the two alphas as the static owners of the territory over a longer period of time.

As for the number of dens on each territory, each coyote family always digs multiple sets of dens — over 20 have been found in one of our territories here in San Francisco, all dug by the same coyote parent pair — to have ready to move into if needed, though most are never used. More dens on one territory do not mean multiple families — it’s simply a safety measure.

This video shows two denning areas of the same family. First you see Dad digging and then youngsters exiting and entering where he dug. The video then shifts to a small opening in a tangle of blackberry brambles as coyotes enter and exit. These dens with the same family are 300 feet apart and used synchronously.

Last week I wandered through a small 100 square feet area of another of our coyote territories here in San Francisco and randomly spotted six such dens. The majority of them were not in use, but two that I found — maybe there are more — were being used synchronously, with pups apparently moving between them at their own will, as I was able to detect over the next few days. Five of these dens are dug into sandy soil. The other den being used simultaneously by this particular family is hidden in a tangle of blackberries, about 300 feet away. [Addendum: on June 13th I discovered another such active den, 600 feet away — that’s about a tenth of a mile between active dens belonging to the same family!]

Sand-dune den to the left; the one in the middle appears not to be used; and to the right, a den hidden within a tangle of overgrowth (with a pup snoozing in front of the opening).

Having multiple dens allows families to readily move to escape any dangers if needed. The photos below show a youngster with bug-pocked marks on his side, and a dad scratching himself vigorously to dislodge fleas: flea infestations in the dens is one reason they move to another den. Pups are also moved if parents sense potential dangers near their dens, mostly from dogs and insensitive people.

Pup and an adult showing signs of flea issues.


Examples of other dens throughout the city where I’ve spotted pups can be seen above: to the upper left is a den nestled under a carpet of ivy (yes, that’s a coyote pup visible through the tangle); in the middle is a hollow under a log; to the right behind a cyclone fence is a den in the no-man’s trashed area running along a freeway; and below, yes, they sometimes den right under our back porches!

Coyotes either dig their dens from scratch, as you saw in the sand-dune den, or they take over existing burrows of other animals and expand these. Caverns under rocks or openings under fallen tree trunks, or even non-dugout hidden areas with piles of leaves which are protected with brambles are used as dens. Fenced-in areas such as PUC Water Reservoirs or the fenced-off shoulders of freeways are also used: these areas are free from dogs and therefore very attractive to new coyote parents. And I’ve seen several dens under people’s porches! Unfortunately, there was a case several years ago where humans didn’t want coyotes around, so they boarded up the area under their porch to keep them out — but in this case, the pups already had been born and so the parents were blocked from their infants on the outside and unable to get in and nurse them. When it was all figured out, it was too late, and the pups perished. :(

A youngster has been given a squirrel by a parent.

Most coyote dens I’ve seen are meticulously hidden from access to people and dogs, at least 100 feet away from pedestrian traffic — off the beaten track. Coyote parents want to keep their pups secret in order to protect them. But some are not hidden very well at all and I really can’t imagine what went wrong with such a den placement. These dens might be placed just 15 feet from a walkway in a park with plenty of foot traffic and plenty of dogs. Even in these less-than-hidden dens, interestingly, the pups are left to themselves most of the daylight hours and much of the evening. The parents come to nurse and feed them: the above video shows a little pup running off excitedly with a prey squirrel brought by a parent — youngsters at this time of the year are still too young to hunt for themselves.

The immediate dugout den/crevice/bramble den itself is a temporary structure and used only for birthing, nursing, and as a hideaway for several months. The dugouts have an opening of about 10″ at their entrances and are a little wider within: they are a little like a long tunnel and I’ve measured some abandoned ones to be around 6′ deep. After several months — the same as with birds’ nests or our own bassinets — these are outgrown and abandoned until the next season. An full-size coyote could enter and hide there, but the whole family as it grows would not be able to.

Beyond the den structure itself, the greater denning area is larger than the size of a football-field. Parents defend this football-field size area and more than 1/4 mile beyond it from dogs. Dogs routinely pursue coyotes and threaten them: coyotes have learned that dogs are their chief enemies in the city. The entire area should be referred to as a denning site, and this whole area should be a no-dogs or leashed-dogs-only area.

To the left, a Mom is keeping an eye on active dogs several hundred feet away. In the middle, a Dad in another territory, snoozing and guarding not far from (but neither close to) his densite. To the right: a dad may approach a dog he feels is threatening with a snarly face and arched back: you’ll need to tighten your leash and do as he asks: move away from the area.

A dad will walk around the denning area, and by the den itself on his patrolling rounds several times a day during daylight hours. Sometimes he’ll snooze nearby, within visual range of the den, but seldom (as far as I have seen) immediately beside the den — he doesn’t want to give the location away. I seldom see Moms in the area, though I know she comes by to nurse the pups — she is able to slither in and out, evading detection, and she comes at night when no people are around. I have seen a mom standing or sitting sentry on a lookout, maybe 100 feet away from her den when a groups of dogs was around. If the dogs were to chase her, she would lead them away from this den site. In contrast to this kind of sentry duty, I saw a mother a few days ago, off alone in a distant and totally different hidden part of her park away from people, dogs, and her own pups, relaxing and seemingly enjoying her solitude — this was about 1/4th mile from her densite, in a fenced-in area. I had to wonder why that fenced-off place was not chosen as a denning area. But it wasn’t.

I tried to think of why the parents spend so much time away from their pups. Of course they need to hunt and patrol the area. But also what comes to mind is what I’ve read about baby deer: they apparently have no, or very little, odor, the better not to attract predators. A parent, of course, would have strong odors. So for example, dogs will pick up on the scent of the adult coyotes and pursue them. Might this be one of the reasons the parents don’t spend a great deal of time with their new pups? I’m just trying to think it through. Having said this, I need to point out that parents do spend plenty of time playing with and cuddling their pups — family time is an important part of their lives.

A furious Papa coyote runs after his pups to push them to safety.

Some coyote parents are more laissez-faire than others in their pup guarding. I just wrote about “running away from home” where the parents are seldom around, and some of the youngsters are wandering between dens during daylight hours. At the other extreme, here’s a short video clip showing a much stricter father who obviously is furious that his youngsters wandered out of the safety limits he imposed on them! This family’s den, BTW, is in a super well hidden location, and hidden under a tangled carpet of ivy in a backyard.

Litters may be moved at any time. Over the last two years, in June, I’ve seen two such moves of two-month-old litters. Youngsters are strong walkers by this stage of their development which may be a contributing factor. They may be moved because of bugs, or because their parents have become aware that their den is no longer secret — it’s been discovered by people or dogs who have become more omnipresent, or in one case, within a PUC Water Reservoir where construction was beginning AND many of the under-the-fence escape routes which the coyotes had been using were plugged up. The coyotes must have felt a need to get out before all entry/exits were boarded up.

Gathering her youngsters for a move

The new locations have been between 500 and 1500 feet (1/10th to 1/4th of a mile) from the original den. This video shows a mother gathering her youngsters together for such a move which took place at 9:00 am: You can see that the youngsters are very excited about this event — not so different from our own families before a trip! Their new den must not be far since a pup has been spotted recently back in this area.

What coyote predators might invade a densite here in San Francisco? Of course, the pups as pups have to be differentiated from the adults who have very few predators except cars in urban areas, though larger dogs chasing them cause a lot of leg injuries. Domestic dogs would be the primary threat to coyote pups — this is why dogs are *messaged* by parent coyotes within a fourth of a mile from their dens. The coyote communication of necessity must be intense if the dog is going to get the message: it involves an arched back, snarly face, tongue sticking out and wagging, and may include a number of darts and retreats and even a nip to the haunches or rear end of the dog — cattle-dog fashion — to get the dog to leave the area if the dog didn’t respond to the original message. Small dogs are as much of a threat as larger dogs — any carnivore is a threat that has the potential to grab a small pup.

In addition to dogs, there are raccoons in most denning areas. It seems a coyote pup might be as vulnerable to raccoons as are domestic kittens, which raccoons are known to capture as prey. And then there are the owls which have been hovering right above some of the dens I’m keeping track of. Very young pups the size of kittens are a perfect size for an owl to snatch up, yet pups are allowed by their parents to roam free during the hours when owls are most likely to capture one. I’ve never seen it happen, I’m just listing it as a potential possibility.

Threats to small pups include dogs running loose, raccoons, owls.

The greatest other intruders to denning areas, besides dogs and their walkers, are photographers with absolutely no sensitivity for the animals, including iPhone photographers who feel no compunction about walking right up to a resting coyote, as close as they can to snap a shot — most coyotes will flee, but some have become inured to this human behavior which erodes their innate wariness. It still produces stress. Fortunately, I’m hearing more and more walkers telling these folks to please leave the coyotes alone.

A week ago, my eyes popped wide open when I saw a photographer stationed and hovering right at a densite, waiting for them to appear, and I saw him there again, and again. Several large signs indicated this was a den area, yet the photographer seemed oblivious to the stress he was imposing by statically stationing himself where he was. And then when Dad coyote came around on his regular rounds, I saw him kicking dirt in anger when pursued by this same photographer — the coyote was obviously distressed about the situation in his denning area, and the photographer was totally indifferent to it and denied the coyote was reacting angrily to him.

One’s photos shouldn’t take precedence over the well-being of the coyotes, especially during denning season. Please everyone, give the coyotes space and walk away from them! If you have to be a paparazzi, do so at a distance where they won’t feel a need to react in any way to you — you’ve intruded if you cause them to alter their behavior in any way at all, including fleeing from you!!

© 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/coyoteyipps.com.

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