Beatings: Rank Issues Leading To Dispersal

Summary: I describe a beating and associated behaviors that appear to be leading to dispersal, and I speculate about the role of hormones in this process.

The evening of observations began uneventfully: three coyotes sitting in various locations, within view of one another, but several hundred feet apart. Then a siren sounded. Mom got up and after a moment of bobbing her head up and down emitting a few barely audible grunts — a sign that she was thinking of howling but hadn’t quite arrived there yet — she began to howl. Interestingly, the normally enthusiastic female yearling did not join in, and the 6-month old male pup only produced one long clear note and then stopped. These are the three coyote players in my posting today. “Okay”, I thought, “something’s going on.”

The next thing I know, Mom walks over to Yearling Daughter who, upon seeing her mother coming towards her, crouches low and remains motionless with a fearful expression on her face. Mom walks stiffly and stands over Daughter threateningly, with hackles up, stiff and erect tail, teeth bared, lips curled back, and narrow-slit eyes. With only minor repositioning of themselves, they remain this way for over a minute,  though it seems like forever. During a millisecond of Mom’s inattention — though Mom may have allowed this — Daughter slithers out from under Mom, crouching low and keeping her rear-end tucked in. Looking at these photos later, I could see that before I had arrived in the park, there had been a battle: Daughter had a bleeding mouth and a bleeding tear under her chin.

Six-month old male pup then walks over to his older sister inquisitively but leaves it at that, and then all three coyotes walk away from one another and lie down again in separate areas. Eventually, Daughter rises and heads over to join her younger brother, possibly for the greeting which hadn’t taken place a few minutes before.  As she does so, Mom immediately gets up and jolts over to them, and as she does, both offspring descend into the sand pit and I’m cut off from seeing them for a few seconds. Immediately, I hear a squeal of pain, and growling and shuffling in the sand pit. I run over and take this intense video:

Not only is Mom beating up on Daughter, brutally shoving her with the side of her body, hovering over her, punching and biting her, but her 6 month old son — normally a buddy of Daughter’s — has followed Mom’s lead and is doing the same thing, just as fiercely. The scene is intense.

As seen in the video, finally Daughter extracts herself and runs off, but Mom races after her and slams her down one more time, in a way that suggests, “You better just watch yourself”. Daughter sits still, appearing to shrink into herself for protection and maybe to make herself look smaller, and finally she is left alone. She then runs off, distancing herself from her mother and lies down to rest. Now I’m able to see her numerous fresh wounds, and I can see that she’s utterly dejected. She puts her head down and closes her eyes several times.

Meanwhile, Mom heads back to sniff the areas where the altercation took place, and then walks intimidatingly past the daughter who remains prone and still, hugging the ground, so as not to further raise her mother’s ire. 6-month-old pup keeps his distance from both coyotes. Sirens sound again, and this time Mom and 6-month old pup hop up and howl, but the normally spirited little Yearling Daughter does not join in at all. I don’t know if this was of her own accord, or if she had been *told* not to participate.

After a time, Mom and son head off on their evening trek. Daughter watches them go and remains where she is as the two of them disappear into the distance. She then gets up and goes the other way, limping, and ends up in some tall grasses, where her yearling twin brother comes by and touch noses with her. The 6 month old pup reappears and, true to form, follows the older brother’s lead in touching noses with her. Is the 6-month old simply conforming to the behavior of his elders?


Associated Observations and Speculations about the role of hormones in this process:

Coyote yearlings are maturing into adults with increasingly independent drives which appear to be upsetting the established social order in their families. Coyotes live in highly structured families on exclusive family-owned territories. They have a rigid hierarchy for maintaining social order and for maintaining territories with low population densities. Here are some of my additional observations of behaviors that appear to be associated with the beatings, along with some of my speculations.

1. Yearling Daughter appears to have become too independent and too much of a leader. She has been out in the forefront often, leading the others. For instance, it’s this daughter who has figured out where scraps of food can be found, and she always gets there first and eats first, and she’s the one who leads the others there. Could this type of upstart leadership be a threat to Mom, and might Mom sense this as a threat to the whole family?  Aside from the leadership question, might Mom consider that particular location dangerous (having dangerous dogs or people) and therefore warrant putting an end to going there? One of the recent *beatings* took place at this location. The result: Daughter does not venture over there anymore.

2. Youngsters are disciplined in order to maintain social order.  The discipline is often severe: tough action speaks louder than tough words! In the video, Mom’s harsh lashings could be aimed at squelching an intensifying hierarchy dispute between the stronger yearling and her 6-month old sibling.  Younger son’s participation may simply be *getting back at* his sister for previous incidents against him. However, the picture actually looks much bigger than this one incident.

3. Deference towards Mom by Daughter has been sliding recently. Kowtowing and submission is now being forced by Mom instead of being a willing component of the daughter’s behavior.  Interestingly, mom no longer grooms Daughter, even as she continues to groom all her other offspring, be they yearlings or this year’s pups. Is the mother distancing herself from this offspring? Mom’s “beatings” as seen in the video have served to demote the female to lowest man on the totem pole — even below the much younger 6-month old son. Ever after I took the above video, Mom, if she’s there, puts Daughter down for pulling rank on ANY of the other family members. The 6-month old pup has taken advantage of the situation to actually prod and poke his sister — literally. The 6-month old pup isn’t smart enough or strong enough to dominate his sister yet, but with Mom’s presence preventing Daughter’s reaction to the prods, he seems to have climbed above her in rank. So, Mom has knocked the female yearling down a few notches in her relationship to all others.

6-month-old brother, in the middle, has just prodded his yearling sister by poking her with his paw.

4. And, ever since the beating in the video, Daughter takes off running whenever she sees Mom coming from the distance, and most of the time sits on a little knoll far from the rest of the family when the rest of them congregate. Mom’s (and 6-month-old son’s) persistent antagonism is leading to Daughter’s increased isolation and exclusion from family events, though she still joins when Dad around.

5. The hierarchy issue appears big, but the ultimate result might be dispersal of the yearling, unless things change. Driving youngsters out is called dispersion, and it’s necessary, not only to keep the population numbers low enough to insure there are enough resources (resources are always scarce) for everyone who remains in the territory, but also to insure the smooth functioning of the family unit. There is no room for upstarts or two alphas.

6. Reproductive competition may be one of the biggest factors in the beatings and then dispersal. I’ve seen this same antagonistic behavior in another family between a mom and her daughter, and in a family between the father and his son. In all cases, the *upstart* yearlings were demoted to the very bottom of the established family hierarchy. I’ve observed that it’s the mothers who drive the female yearlings out, and the fathers drive the males out, though I don’t know if this is always the case. It makes sense: the dads do not want reproductive competition from a son, and the females do not want reproductive competition from a daughter.

SPECULATIONS, in the yellow box below, for those who might be interested in the hormone question:

7. SPECULATION ABOUT THE ROLE OF HORMONES: It has occurred to me that the *beatings* and *intimidations* may go on for another reason which falls short of actual expulsion of the youngster female from the family. We’ve all heard that, in any coyote family, only the *alphas* reproduce, yet yearlings often are allowed to stay in the family. Why don’t they reproduce? The *reign of terror* as you can see from the above video, is pretty strong. Although this would have to be explored by an endocrinologist, I do know that fear causes cortisol to rise in animals, and heightened cortisol, in turn, inhibits the production of reproductive hormones. Could this be causing the beta adult females in any family to become temporarily sterile? In this case, the *reign of terror* by the mother would be geared to insure that only she, the mother, the alpha female, will be reproducing within that family. Food for thought.

8. FURTHER SPECULATION: Could Mom’s behavior be triggered by her sensing a competitive hormonal state in her daughter? I’m throwing this out there as a possibility because, in this and in another family where I observed the same beatings, the mom was particularly interested in smelling the reproductive areas of her female daughter. It would be interesting to investigate this if it hasn’t already been.

If it is possible for menstrual cycles to align themselves when all-females cohabitate (all-girl dorms and nuns), it might not be so far-fetched to think that some form of hormonal communication could be occurring between female coyotes, and could be a factor in adult beta females remaining *behaviorally sterile* within coyote families. For instance, could one female’s strong hormones act to inhibit those of another proximate female? An alpha with strong hormones would be able to retain the status quo, but what might happen if a youngster’s hormone levels surged in response to Mom’s weakening hormone production as she ages? Would a mother’s *reign of terror* raise cortisol enough to scare a youngster’s endocrine system from producing?

There’s one more interesting factor here associated with hormones, I think. Females go into estrus and reproduce only once a year. The odd thing is that males, too, only produce sperm — spermatogenesis — at that one time of year. What triggers their overlapping schedules? More food for thought.

9. For the purpose of this posting, I’m not going to get into the different personalities and histories of each coyote in the family except to mention that *Dad* in this family has a fondness for all his pups and indulges each and every one of them: he grooms them, nuzzles them and shows them affection. The same affection is not conferred on Mom — he appears to have chilled towards his mate who he sometimes prevents from grooming him and who he never grooms: her advances for purposes of grooming/affection and even rank confirmation/testing seem to be rejected. In addition there frequently are growls and teeth baring between these two, including at his initial interactions with the yearling daughter. Simultaneously, Dad seems to soothe and comfort Yearling Daughter after Mom’s attacks sometimes.  Might all of these little behaviors cause Mom to feel competition from Daughter? It seems to me that this could be a contributing factor in the alpha female’s need to drive Daughter to the lowest rungs of the group and maybe off.

10. The phenomenon of territoriality keeps the population density down. The territory in the case of this family is a golf course. You might think that golf-courses are large enough to be home to many coyotes and that they are ideal habitat, but they are not. In this particular golf course in the past, there was desperate internecine warfare between two coyote families. I’m told that the puppies of one family were killed off: this shows how severe the battles can be. There is room for only one family and the other family was forced to leave.

Golf courses are kept for golfers, not for coyotes, so overgrown foliage areas where rodents might live are cleared out regularly. The lawn/turf areas are not much better than plastic astroturf or concrete in terms of the foods they supply: they are cleared of gophers on a regular basis with one-way traps which break the gophers’ necks: not a pleasant death, but the point is that gophers are eliminated, and gophers happen to be one of the coyote’s staple foods here in San Francisco. So a golf-course serves mostly as a home base, not as a food gathering area. Coyotes trek further afield for most of their sustenance, into neighborhoods and other open spaces and parks. Coyotes actually trek further than their claimed territories, be they parks, golf-courses, or open spaces, no matter how dense the resources are. I’m simply suggesting that golf-courses are not sustainable food areas for coyotes.

Territories (home bases) and surrounding ranging lands only support so many coyotes: the population is kept low through the phenomenon of territoriality, as far as I’ve seen. In any one territory, grown coyote pups eventually disperse, or leave the territory between the age of one and two years usually, and those that don’t leave are betas who do not reproduce.  Dispersal is necessary to keep the population numbers low enough to insure there are enough resources for everyone who remains.

12. What’s fascinating about this video is that the 6 month old pup has joined his mother in beating up his elder yearling sister just as vehemently as is the mother is. He’s always been a buddy to his older sister, following her, copying her, the two of them grooming each other, and she coming to his rescue/defense whenever she felt he was in danger. Now, suddenly, he has taken on his mother’s behavior and ganged up on his older sister. His survival, of course, depends on his aligning himself with Mom. And it is through copying that coyote pups learn. So, the sister gets beaten up. The sister is clearly traumatized both physically (see wounds I’ve circled in the photo), and emotionally. Puppy also suffered collateral damage, but only physically.

11. After the beating, the Yearling Daughter wanders off to be far away and acts dejected. Do coyotes have feelings? I myself have no doubt. You can figure out how they feel by the way you might feel under certain similar circumstances (see some of Carl Safina’s videos). This is not anthropomorphizing in the sense that purely human characteristics are placed on animals. These animals actually have these feelings which are best described by the language we use to describe our own emotions. However, it is anthropocentric for humans to believe that they are the only ones who feel things. Finding similarities is what helps people relate to wildlife — we need more of it, and less of a divide than what some academics have clung to. The new models are Jane Goodall’s and Carl Safina’s. More and more scientists are seeing animals as sentient beings who share many of our own, or very similar to our own, feelings and emotions.

The young female coyote has gone off to be alone, far away from further parental and sibling torment. The normally perky and energetic youngster here puts her head down, as though defeated. She stays off to herself. She doesn’t joint the next howling session. She doesn’t join the family for their rendezvous and trekking session. In fact, she trots in the opposite direction: she’s been excluded from participation in the family — shunned. Remember that family life is what they live for.

So she can’t join the fun and games: you can tell she wants to by the way she lurches forward just a little sometimes and then restrains herself. She behaves exactly like my dog when he’s been told to sit/stay, yet he wants to join the rest of us.

As I left the park this day, I heard loud squawking and branches rustling strongly in the branches way above. I looked up to see a red-shouldered hawk fighting with another red-shouldered hawk, and I wondered if dispersal was in the air. Nature is not always as kind or sweet as many of us might want to believe: it has its heartaches as well as its joys.

Havin’ A Ball!

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I’ve chosen bursts of still-shots over a video for this post — this allows time to stop and savor each moment during an activity which was moving along so quickly!

Dispersed coyotes often become transients and loners, living on the margins, fringes and interstices of other coyotes’ territories. They are alone with no family to socialize with. They often get bored and lonely — but this one is havin’ a ball!

For entertainment, and to break the boredom and loneliness of a single’s existence, coyotes often engage in innovative play, including with found objects, such as poop-bags, crackling water-bottles or boxes, sticks, or even, as here, with a found ball! In the wild, without a ball to be had, coyotes toy with their prey in this exact same manner.

Playing hones fine skills and judgements, which could come in handy at some point. Innovative play helps the mind and body develop, and may help problem solving in the future, according to behaviorists.

Might it be that she was playing up to the several people who had gathered to watch — actually performing for them? They were thrilled, and she continued, only stopping when everyone had left (it was a workday, these were people on their way to work).

Dispersion Efforts — and Resistance — Continue

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When father and daughter returned from their hike out alone together today — without son who probably had been forcefully prevented from joining them — they saw him (son to one and brother to the other) and slowly made their way towards him. He was hunting in a field alone, but he looked up and saw them coming, and then continued his work — he did not run over to greet them excitedly the way he used to. They approached him, calmly, and there were greetings, which nowadays always involve submissive behavior on his part. The submissiveness had always been part of a dance of activities which segued smoothly into the greeting and had not always been blatantly perceptible, but now it dominates, and in addition, today, there was a curt angry hiss-growl voiced by Dad instead of the high-pitched joyful squeals which used to color these meetings.

The young male has learned to submit more quickly than ever when Dad approaches, but, magically, as if the demand for submission were just a minor annoyance, he then always continues his activities as usual. But Dad seems to be getting more and more antagonistic and more intolerant of his presence. The young female does her best to keep the peace, running interference, it seems, by interjecting herself between her dad and her brother, which always has the effect of diverting Dad’s attention away from his son, and it works. Dad ends up concentrating on her and the son slips away from underneath his dad, distancing himself from the parental bullying. 

Today Dad watched his son for a moment after he had slithered away, and then headed into the bushes — it was time for him to “go in” for the day.  The sibling youngsters, now without Dad around to dominate, began playing an exciting game of “keep the rat away from each other”. They ran all over the place, leaping around and over bushes as the female teased her brother and kept away from him with the treasure in her mouth. Finally they both latched onto the dead rat and there was a tug-of-war.

This is when Dad came out with his gaze fixed on the male youngster — he must not have liked his son’s hyperactive play with the daughter because he went for the young male again — he doesn’t do this to the female — and put him down again on his back — as if to say “stop having fun, you’re supposed to be off skulking somewhere after my last demand for obeisance”.

Son, who now had the rat in his possession,  reacted as he had at the earlier greeting, submitting instantaneously by turning over on his back, while Dad stood over him with a menacing expression.  At an opportune moment, son slipped away, with his ears plastered back against his skull, thus showing his acceptance of lower status. The intense playing activity did not resume. Son headed off a little distance to hunt and Daughter approached Dad to groom him, again diverting his attention away from the young male. Within a few minutes, Dad again headed off into the bushes, and daughter soon followed, while young son stayed out in the tall grasses for a little while longer.