Rendezvous, Mid-January

The Rendezvous is a recurring nightly coming-together of coyote family members. It usually happens at about dusk, right before taking off together or separately on their treks to mark their territories and hunt and otherwise be together. It’s a highly social event with interactions occurring between each individual: there are greetings following rank protocols, and there’s usually play and teasing between the different individuals.

These rendezvous are always interesting to me — great for learning about individual and family dynamics. Each rendezvous is different, with different seasons revealing different priorities and seasonal stages. Their individual personalities pop open when they’re together, as well as their stages of development — things you don’t always see when you see individuals alone, or see them only very occasionally, or without knowing who each individual is, including teasing, affection, disciplinary level, etc. Because they aren’t just hurrying away or hunting, certain things become more obvious: statuses, injuries, courting behavior, changes in relationships such as burgeoning rivalry between brothers, who is missing (because of death or dispersal). If dogs interfere, then their reaction comes into view.

Rendezvous usually occur at dusk, so the waning light makes observing, and even more so, “capturing” the observation, more difficult. Towards the end of this session, I was literally guessing where the coyotes were as my camera captured the blackness, which I was then able to edit into readable, even if extremely substandard images. So here are a few sequences that had meaning for me. I’m sure there was a lot I missed in-between these, but these will give you an idea of how full those get-togethers are. I believe you all can see more through still images, rather than a video where you might actually miss what is going on. But also, videos take up a lot of space and, for me, are harder to edit down. Nevertheless, I have included two short video sequences here and inserted them where they fit in chronologically.

1 & 2 pup cowers as dad approaches; 3 & 4 pup reaches up to dad with snout and paw

This rendezvous, from when the first coyotes appeared, until they departed the area, lasted exactly half an hour. As I said, by the time it ended, I could not see anything clearly. It began with a youngster appearing and looking around. He soon cowered submissively asa snarly Dad approached him. After cowering acceptably to Dad’s satisfaction, the youngster — 9 months old at this point — still keeping himself low to the ground, stretched up his snout and then his paw in a submissively accepting gesture to Dad. But the status routine apparently wasn’t settled yet, because the youngster, see second group of photos below, attempted following Dad, and was repelled by Dad’s snarly glare — communication is very clear to every coyote. The youngster again cowered and went the other way. Within a few minutes after this, Dad was happy with the respect shown him, and allowed the youngster to relax close by (last of the 8 first photos).

5, 6 & 7 pup follows dad but is repulsed by dad’s expression; 8 finally the two relax proximately to each other [each galleries can be clicked for a larger view, and then scrolled through]

Most observers aren’t able to break apart these different interactions as they observe. More is going on here than mere greetings, statuses and interactions. It’s pre-mating season, so mating time is going to commence soon, if it hasn’t already.

Then, Mom arrives. Mom arrives and vocalizes, and the rest of the family joins in as she hurries over to them (video below)

Above video: Mom arrives and vocalizes, and the two other family members join in.

Above, 1) Mom arrives and begins howling. #2 Dad responds as does the one youngster there. #3 Mom hurries over to them and sniffs around. #4 Mom urinates. #5 Her urine is full of hormones at this time of year and Dad, you can see, is keenly interested in their levels. #6 Dad lets youngster know he’s in the way with a snarl: pup pulls his mouth back in a grimace and sits back to allow Dad plenty of room

#1) Second pup arrived on the scene and Dad gave him the same treatment his brother got. #2) Brother takes in that family interaction — they all can and do read minute nuances in each other’s interactions and know the meaning of it all. #3) Dad is heading the youngsters away from Mom who you see to the right. I don’t know what her intent here is, but you’ll see her later reaching out to say hello to this male pup of hers. #4 Mom heads away from them and eats grass: she’s nervous, while #5) Dad dozes nearby. At this point, #6 it’s the youngster who heads towards Mom, possibly indicating that he’s ready to get going.

Two other family youngsters were not present. One yearling may have dispersed, but the other youngster is probably still around. Not all family members are always present for these rendezvous. After the last photo above, all family members got up and interacted as you see here in the video below.

Video shows a few moments of the interactions: Dad wove himself between his mate and the youngsters — he didn’t want to give them the opportunity to become interested in her other than as a mom. Mating season is about to begin, so he has to keep this kind of order.

#1) Mom stretches and then leads the family pack out, but then she waits for them all to catch up and she #2) brings up the rear. #3) Note that her interest is first and foremost Dad: they touch noses as she reaches them, with the youngsters knowing to wait their turn. #4) Mom seems to be intent on saying hello to the youngster she was unable to greet earlier (because of Dad’s interference). The last two photos #5) and #6) show them four of them just before they disappeared, with Dad reaching out to touch one of the youngsters at the end there. I’ve included a small photo here showing how dark it actually was out there for these last images. Photo editing is amazing these days: that is the same unedited photo as #6 above.

Surviving Pup is Excluded

This was an eye-opening, unexpected observation. I arrived at dawn on October 30th to fog so dense that I could barely make out the outline of anything ahead of me. I was at a dog play pen and noticed what I thought were three German Shepherds meandering around. I climbed up the trail parallel to the enclosure looking for the owner of the three dogs. That’s when I encountered Ana, with her dog barking ferociously as she approached me on the trail and I wondered why. I asked her if she had seen the coyotes this morning, and she pointed to within the enclosure. The dogs in the fog had sure fooled me — they were the resident coyotes!

Most of my observations lately have involved single individuals, so I was happy to see several coyotes together for a change and hoped to record some interactions. Coyotes are highly social, so that was bound to happen. The fog and bad lighting were a problem — the “auto” focus was giving me a lot of blurr, but I managed to capture some telling activity.

I began taking still photos. The ones here show Dad, Step-mom and the single remaining pup. The pup’s sister had been killed by a car only a few weeks before. If you know coyote youngsters, you’ll know that they play with each other incessantly: they are always on top of each other, chasing, tackling, poking, teasing — life for them is one of perpetual motion. There were two pups that survived in this family until a couple of weeks ago when Sister was hit by a car and killed. So this remaining pup must feel exceptionally lonely. You would think that Mom and Dad might fill in the void, but that is not what happened as I watched. In fact, the youngster was excluded from the mated pairs fun and games.

Above you see Mom and Dad together, horsing around and teasing each other. Six-month old pup is off to the side.

Here above is the pup, reaching in their direction but not part of the play.

And here, above, he is looking on as his parents play.

The youngster attempted several times to join the fun, but they never invited him in. Instead, the parents were into their own courting play: pair-bonds are being formed and/or strengthened at this time of the year, so that’s where the focus and energy were going. In the last series of photos above, the adults end up turning on the pup angrily, snarling at him and grabbing his snout. In the last photo he snarled back at his step-mom. Below is a video of the group’s interactions immediately after the above stills were taken.

A Rendezvous (with changing sibling dynamics)

One of the most exciting parts of a coyote’s day is the nightly rendezvous. Here, family members who have been resting and sleeping during the daylight hours in spread-out parts of their park, come together to socialize and reconfirm their bonds and statuses before going off on their hunting treks. Each rendezvous can be quite different, some involving the whole family, some involving just parts of the family, some all wiggly and happy with play and games, and some not so. As the pups and yearlings grow, their relationships to each other develop in a gamut of directions. Here is one such rendezvous. Unless you know the individuals and can tell them apart, and know what is going on, these interactions and their nuances can be easily missed. They often occur within a split second, so a camera helps firm up what’s happening. The portion of the rendezvous that I saw and wrote about here lasted a little over an hour. I use a lot of photos to explain the abundance of interactions and activity.

The picture galleries can be clicked on to scroll through them at a higher resolution.

It was hot when I arrived at the park about half an hour before sunset. Mom was napping only about 50 feet from the path — unusually close to the path for her — while one of her yearling sons had begun some early exploring and hunting before the family rendezvous. The few humans, some with dogs, who passed by were a quiet bunch. Many did not even notice the coyotes. The sleeping coyote raised her head off and on to watch some of the passers-by, especially if their unleashed, active dogs caught her attention, and the yearling wandered over to a secluded spot in the field where he sprawled out in the growing shade to cool off. It appeared that not much was going to happen with the coyotes socially until the evening wore on a little more — everyone was waiting.

Yearling brother #1 wandering around aimlessly waiting

But then a second male sibling appeared. He looked around, assessed that nothing was going on and found a spot where he, too could bide his time until the evening meetup.

Brother #2

And that’s when both brothers set eyes on each other, and things were not calm from then on. These two brothers used to be best buddies, but over time this devolved to where now Brother #1 can’t stand the presence of Brother #2. So, Brother #1 came charging towards brother #2 who knew exactly what to expect because the behavior had become routine by now. In response, Brother #2 crouched, drew into himself, and fell to the ground on his back while Brother #1 stood over him with hackles up and snarling menacingly. When Brother #2 found an opportunity, he made a dash to get away as Brother #1 watched him almost disdainfully (see photos immediately below).

Brother #2 continued heading away from his tormentor towards Mom who was still lying on her side in the grasses not far away. Brother #1 followed him. As they approached her, they hugged the ground and crouched, respectfully acknowledging her alpha status. When this ranking is no longer respected, if it comes to that, the youngster will be pushed out of the territory.

Approaching Mom requires a show of submission

But the two brothers were dealing also with their own interpersonal dynamic. In the first row of three photos below, Brother #1 makes an effort to divert Brother #2 away from Mom by getting between them. This is a coyote tactic I’ve seen before for keeping a rival away from another coyote. But Brother #2 still had his eyes on Mom, and was not giving up on reaching her as seen in photo #4. By photo #5 Mom snarls at what she knows is going on. She doesn’t normally care if they fight, but she doesn’t want it happening right next to her, so she squelches the activity by grooming the yearling closest to her. Grooming is often used to keep an underling coyote still and force submission — the youngster has to put up with it.

But the very minute Mom stopped grooming her yearling son in order to scratch herself, Brother #1 took the opportunity to attack his sibling again.

Above are a VIDEO and a few photos of the short but telling fight. When the fight subsided, Brother #2 walked away, but both brothers obviously retained stress from the event: Brother #1 started pulling up dry grasses and chewing on them nervously, whereas Brother #2 lay down closer to Mom and did the same thing. I wonder how much of Brother #1’s behavior is built in: this antagonism with siblings seems to be one of the factors that leads to dispersal. These siblings are 18 months old — the right age for dispersal.

Shortly after this, and as they were calming down, Dad sauntered into view.

Dad

Brother #1 seemed to have moved out of the area by this time — I did not see him again before I left. Brother #2 (below) greeted his approaching Dad appropriately by crouching low and reaching up to lick his muzzle, and then Dad hurried off to greet Mom, with Brother #2 at his side.

Mom and Dad with yearling between them.

When they caught up with Mom they exchanged nose touches, with youngster Brother #2 in-between, remaining in a crouched, close-to-the-ground position. The youngster appeared anxious to make contact with Mom — maybe this is what drove Dad again to make sure the youngster knew his place in the family scheme. The youngster obliged by flopping to the ground on his back.

And here is another VIDEO showing more of the above. The video actually consists of three clips from this rendezvous. 1) Mom, Dad, and Brother #2, showing how reactive Mom got when her son touched her — yikes! Family life is not all warm and cuddly as many people might think. 2) As it gets later and darker, a third brother arrives and is greeted by brother #2 and Dad; 3) People are still out walking at this time, and Dad diverts them away from the rest of the family.

Everything then calmed down and three of them — Dad, Brother #1 and Brother #3 — spaced themselves at comfortable non-interacting distances, yet together, ready to go when the cue would be given by Dad for the evening hunting trek.

There’s plenty of space between them now

My camera caught a few more interactions, such as the teasing and playing below, and then it was too dark, so I left.

Calm bantering continues on and off until I can no longer see in the dark.
Last shot of Brother #2 as I leave. The camera, amazingly, captured this and adjusted the light.

Scout Fall Update

Scout’s story continues, but without the obvious adventures she had in her early life, or maybe they are continuing in a more subtle way, below most human’s radars. I see her only periodically where she had her pups this year, and just as periodically in her old hangouts where I used to see her almost single day. Instead, she’s become a stealthy shadow which my field camera occasionally picks up on, and who I see in person only a couple of times a month, if that. But I know from other people who know her that she has been moving deeper into her new territory which has/does belong to another coyote family. Will this be a territorial takeover? We’ll see. Remember that she had a baptism by fire in territorial battles and takeovers when she was younger, so she’s well seasoned if this is the direction she’s taking.

Over the last month she has appeared a couple of times during daylight hours at her old, original territory. During one of those appearances, she spewed her anger and displeasure to the one dog on her nemesis list. I wasn’t there to see or hear it, but I was told about it and sent a video. I guess she’ll never give that battle up. Interestingly, her two-year-old son who serves as the mainstay of the old fort, has taken on doing the exact same thing to the exact same dog, most likely in imitation of his mother. Coyotes do pass things along to their offspring in an almost “cultural” sort of way.

On her second daylight appearance, I found her and this same two-year-old son curled up in balls where they used to hangout regularly over a year ago on their old territory. She slept — with one eye open — right through my arrival there, not budging at all, but HE slipped off warily into the bushes where he remained hidden from view.

Two-year-old slithers into a quieter space, while Mom keep her eyes closed.

Meanwhile she went back to sleep. It was before most dog walkers were out and about — she knew she had nothing to worry about until they started arriving.

BUT, soon the dogs arrived. These three photos above shows her lifting her head, and then slowly spiraling her way to a standing position and finally “messaging” an approaching dog to leave her alone. She really didn’t want to move, but with the dog slowly approaching, and her son on the other side of her, she put in the effort to look scary. The dog walker got the message if the dog didn’t and complied by going the other way, and Scout went back to snoozing for about 20 more minutes. That’s when sirens sounded.

Interestingly, these coyotes have never vocalized a whole lot during daytime here in a response to sirens — these have more often kept their vocalizations to night and twilight hours. I wonder if daytime vocalizing is reserved for strongly established territories that the coyotes are able to defend? For many years, Scout was a loner here and she rarely howled during the day, even to sirens, unless she was chased by dogs, particularly her nemesis I mentioned above.

Left: stretching in all directions; Middle: looking over at her son and subtly communicating with him; Right, she begins to howl.

Anyway, a siren sounded when I was there, and Scout got up, taking her time about it. She stretched backwards and forwards and upwards. She stood there a moment as though debating whether or not to howl, and then looked over to where she knew her son was hiding, possibly signaling him to join her, and she began howling in response to that siren.

After she began howling, he then joined her from the distance: you can hear him in the video. After a minute, she walked in the direction of his howls and met up with him. By that time the howling from both of them had ended, and they both walker off together.

Scout walks with her son to keep him company as he leaves. Her son is the bigger coyote to the left.

She then returned alone, and, as seen below, stretched again in all directions and again looked over her shoulder to where her son was, assuring herself that he was happy and safe, and then she fell asleep again — with one eye again partially open. I waited a little while for something to happen, but nothing did, so I left..

A couple of days later I found her and her mate at their new territory at dusk, or maybe it’s their territory’s extension. I saw them as silhouettes, but the camera sometimes does better than my eyes and captured the images below. She’s with her mate in the first photo. They’ve always worked together intuitively and in tandem, almost as one. I love watching them work together, communicate, and even look at each other. He looks so much bigger than her when they are next to each other.

And below she’s doing what mothers do: grooming the one yearling youngster that went with her to the new territory (or extension of her old one). I see her two pups very seldom which is a good thing. Pups throughout the city this year are running the gamut from casual acceptance of their surroundings which include people, to continued careful wariness of them. I don’t know where Scout’s pups this year fit into the continuum, but I think it’s a good thing that I haven’t seen them.

Antidote to my Posting on Discord within Families

My last postings were harsh ones: they were about rupture and fighting between siblings one year apart in age: the younger one was driven away. Dispersal doesn’t always occur this way: Some youngsters just pick up and leave when their time-clocks tell them it’s time to go, making the process an easy and smooth one. And some linger around longer: I’ve seen dispersals take place as early as 9-months of age, and one case as late as 3-years-old who was ultimately driven out by his father. Some are driven out by another sibling, and this is what happened to that family in my last posting.

Here is another family where Older Brother grooms his Younger Brother. Grooming is equivalent to an invitation to stick around. The circumstances are quite different in this second family: here, Older Brother has moved into the vacated alpha male position, so he’s actually more like a surrogate father than a brother, helping to take care of the brood born two years after him whose father abandoned the family.

“Abandoned” is really not the right word because his mate at the time, who is mother to these two in this posting, never really welcomed him. He happened to come by during breeding season shortly after the previous alpha male died of old age. He filled that position for only a few months, but long enough to sire the yearling pups which include the one year old in this posting. That male was disliked and never really welcomed into the family: he was given the cold-shoulder, and never lovingly groomed as I see with other mated pairs. *Mom*, it happens, had her eyes on this three-year-old son of hers as her next mate and companion, and the two, in fact, are a pair now and had a litter this year. I have not seen the pups yet, but I saw Mom only a few days ago who is still lactating.

Younger brother grooms older brother here.

Anyway, the point is that older siblings can drive out younger members of the family rather viciously and harshly, OR they can establish warm bonds with their younger siblings. Here, you have the latter. The bond only works as long as this hierarchy is maintained, and in fact, grooming can also have a hint of domination and hierarchy: “You just sit there until I’m done grooming you.” But here, younger brother also spent time grooming his older brother: there is mutual respect and warmth between the two.

PS: These photos were taken at the cusp of darkness, in the waning light of twilight hours. It’s only with intense editing that I’ve been able to make them usable and come to life. They seem to work!

Family Infighting Leads to Dispersal

Coyotes are fascinating family-minded social critters whose lives seem to parallel ours in many ways. I write about their family life and interactions and I can see a lot of ourselves in them. They (predominantly) mate for life, both parents (normally) raise the young, and they form intra-family relationships which very much parallel what you’d find in our own families. They each have personalities, individualisms and quirks that other family members learn to deal with . . . or not. There’s play, affection, mutual care, and rivalries. There’s teasing, mischief, one-upmanship, and competitiveness. There are alliances. There’s bullying. They communicate between themselves constantly: most communication is silent through body language and facial expressions. They use vocalizations for emphasis sometimes. Fighting is an amplified negative communication.

There comes a time when the youngsters in a family grow up and leave home. Sometimes, *when* they leave home is based on their own internal time-clocks, and they just pick up and go. At other times they are forced to leave due to growing animosity and conflict with another family member, OR another family member may actually drive them away. Coyotes appear to be programmed to live predominantly in sets of two adults, with pups and yearlings as welcome additions. Beyond this combination makes them edgy and reactive. Their leaving home is called *dispersal* and usually happens sometime between one and two years of age, though I’ve seen it as early as 9 months and as late as 3 years. In our human families, it usually happens after high school, though it could happen earlier or later, depending on the circumstances.

I was able to capture this video, above, of a two-year-old male driving out a one-year-old female from the family and territory. In this case, it was intense, brutal and painful to watch: and it was to-the-point: “LEAVE”, no *ifs* or *buts*.

One thing most people don’t realize is how hard life can be for a coyote. Once they disperse, their survival rates plummet: many are killed by cars here in San Francisco (25 last year), and others are forced to keep moving by other coyotes who own territories. Life is always safer for coyotes with territories, which may be why some youngsters desperately hold on and don’t move on, but in order to be able to stay, they must be *allowed* to stay by the others, and must accept a subservient position and never rock the boat.

BTW, most dispersing coyotes move south and out of the City of San Francisco because the limited territories within the city are already taken. The Presidio ecologists have documented this really nicely. I have found that many of the territories within the city have been owned by the same families over an extended number of years, which creates a lot of stability in the city’s population. When a vacancy does occur within the city, it’s because a territory was either abandoned by an older coyote pair whose reproductive years were over, or because a younger coyote or coyote pair were able to challenge and drive out such oldsters. A visibly weak alpha may also be displaced from his/her territory, as was the limping alpha male in West Portal at the beginning of this breeding season: his disability was obvious, and incoming coyotes took advantage of it to displace him. If anyone sees him, please let me know: I have not seen him at all since Spring began. The Presidio territory was taken over by an energetic younger coyote and the remaining older female alpha was forced to move on.

These hardships are part and parcel of coyote life which can appear idyllic at times, and exceedingly brutal at other times. We humans are their stewards: the best way to steward them is to keep away from them, not feed them, and not interact with them. That’s what they want, and that is what’s not only best for them, but best for us in terms of keeping a peaceful coexistence in place.

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