“Demand” Behavior

I have written about how feeding coyotes robs them of their “essence”, causing them to become meek, docile and listless beggars. Coyotes are superb opportunists and extremely intuitive about getting what they need in the easiest and most efficient way possible. Given the opportunity for an easy and free meal, they’ll seize that opportunity and go for it.

I spoke with Lesley Sampson, founder and director of Coyote Watch Canada, about another facet of feeding coyotes: she told me about a coyote who had been labeled “aggressive” because it had, under no provocation, approached a man and punched his hip. This was a man on a substitute job for the day. He of course found the behavior very alarming, as anyone would have.

But coyotes aren’t naturally outright aggressive to people, so what was going on? Lesley was called in to help with the case. With a little bit of investigation, she discovered that the regular job-holder routinely put his hands in his pockets to withdraw the food he would toss to this coyote.  Ahhhh. The coyote was displaying “demand behavior”, having been taught, by the regular job-holder, through repetition, that food was coming, and it was coming from a pocket.

This can happen. A coyote is fed out of the bigness of someone’s heart — “Oh, the coyote looks so thin and hungry” (which, BTW, happens to be their natural state) — setting the stage for a problem. After a very short time, the coyote comes to EXPECT the food, and when the food doesn’t come quickly enough, or when it doesn’t come at all, the coyote becomes impatient and may actually DEMAND the food, as in the case above. Lesley spoke of her dogs doing the same thing: it’s a common trait in canines. This is not an “aggressive” coyote, though humans will see it as such. It’s a “trained” coyote: humans set the expectation by repetitive feeding and then the coyote acts on this: “where’s my food!” It’s really important not to feed coyotes in the first place. Authorities, not knowing the background, will eliminate such an animal for his/her apparent “aggressiveness”.

Coyote pups are born with the instinct to seek/demand food from their parents by inserting their muzzles into the mouth of a parent which triggers a regurgitation response in the parent. The result: food. They learn that this is where food comes from, at least to begin with. Habit and reinforcement keep them doing this until parents start teaching them to hunt — parents teach the pups that, in fact, food comes in many forms and from many places and they can find it, but they have to go looking for it. The easiest sources of food will be the most attractive, and they’ll return to these.

Below is a photo sequence of a five-month-old youngster seeking food from where he’s been taught it comes from — a parent. His mother has just arrived home after an evening of hunting. Pup approaches her, but she doesn’t have anything for him. He persists, and even punches her angrily on the back. She runs away with her defensive hackles up. This is demand behavior: when the food isn’t forthcoming as expected, the pup who is expecting food “as usual” demands it. This is no different from Lesley’s example of the friendly man offering food from his pocket.

Youngster punches mom, DEMANDING the food

And here’s a further possible complication. Parents eventually, normally, teach their youngsters to hunt. BUT what if the parents are being fed by humans so much so that they don’t need to hunt, and therefore don’t, and consequently they don’t teach their youngsters how to do so? Remember that coyotes learn by imitation and example. The youngster may even be taken to where the food is left or even worse, to the feeder him/herself. Hmmm. What works best and easiest for the coyote parents will be passed on to the pups.

And another speculative complication: Could the population grow beyond the natural carrying capacity of the area with this extra food being handed out regularly? It’s food for thought.

Please don’t feed coyotes, for their sake.

FOOD: The Behavior Shaper

I’ve written this posting to clear up the difference between food-conditioning and simple acclimation — there seems to be confusion about these terms. 

This coyote pictured here has been listlessly hanging around, within five feet of a path in a park, where he dozes and waits for food to be tossed to him. Food is tossed to him off and on, so he is being rewarded for his efforts.  He has a family he could be with — a pup, a yearling and a mate — but food trumps that for this coyote. He should be hunting — but then again, why would he do that when food will just come his way if he simply lies here? In fact, I have not seen him hunt in a while.

There’s a person who feels he is “protecting” the coyote by letting people know he is not dangerous: “Look, I can go right up to him and he does nothing,”  he tells people multiple times, daily. I tried convincing him that his constant approaching the coyote is not helping matters. This guy also feels the coyote needs to be fed: “He’s hungry, right? or he wouldn’t be there begging for food.” Other people approach to look or photograph him with their iPhones, getting as close as 5-10 feet away: few people carry a good zoom lens which would allow them to keep their distance. And further: they then post the coyote’s location on their social media which draws in even more people to approach or feed and iPhotograph. The feeding incidents take a mere second: it’s hard to catch beforehand even if you are standing right there constantly, so the “no feeding” ordinance is hard to enforce.

I’ve been here educating, but I can’t be here all the time, so I’ve been soliciting as many people as possible to be ambassadors to help others in the area understand that feeding by humans and friendliness — which encourages coyotes to view us as potential feeders — are actually “faux amis”: they are robbing the coyote of his independence and survival skills, and encouraging him to lie around within 5 feet of heavy human pedestrian traffic all day. It’s heart-wrenching to watch if you know coyotes.

Some people have even asked me, “What’s wrong with that, after all, he’s not hurting anyone.” But others are more in-tuned and ask if he is sick, or even dead when he’s dozing off. A handful of people have admitted to me that they had been feeding the coyote regularly — they hadn’t known better — but now they do: they thanked me for the clear signs. The signs I recently put out seem to be yielding some results.

Contrary to what many people have been led to believe, the problem here is not caused by the coyote’s having become acclimated to humans. I know lots of coyotes who have become acclimated to our presence without ending up in our midst or as “problems”. In fact, coyotes throughout the city, in any urban area, are all acclimated to humans by definition: they get used to us because we amicably share the same environment, including in the parks. Be that as it may, almost all remain wary and keep their distance: coyotes don’t just up and start mingling with us simply because they’re in the habit of seeing us or no longer see us as fearsome. Why would they — what would be the draw? Nor is there any “progression” in this acclimatization behavior whereby they eventually come ever closer, and then even become assertive or even threatening towards humans. Yet some people promote this as a truth, using the word “habituation”. It’s a concept causing people to fear the presence coyotes unnecessarily. These people are actually confounding “acclimation” with “food-conditioning”. The two are not the same and have to be kept apart.

“Food conditioning”, when it occurs, on the other hand, especially over time, indeed becomes a problem, and that is what is going on here with this coyote. This coyote’s behavior was not caused by simple acclimation to human presence. The rest of his family does not behave as he does. It was caused by the consistent and persistent proffering of food by friendly humans, so that he now associates humans as a friendly food source. Also keep in mind that every coyote is different, so innate personality plays a role.



Words and their meanings. Exact word meanings are important when talking about such an emotionally charged subject as coyotes, where everyone has a strong pre-conceived opinion. Without using exact language you cannot convey what is really going on or how to deal with it, and this seems to be the case where the meaning of the word “habituation” which is supposed to mean “the diminishing of a physiological or emotional response to a frequently repeated stimulus”, has been expanded to include food-conditioned behaviors: wouldn’t that then be the “increasing of a physiological or emotional response”?  This confounding, then, attributes incorrect causes to certain behaviors. I’ll avoid the word in order to avoid tapping into anyone’s pre-conceived misunderstanding of the term. We need to understand these as two separate phenomenon: “food-conditioning” vs. simple adaptation to humans. I’ll use the word “acclimation” instead.

“Acclimation” is defined as the “the process or result of becoming accustomed to something new.” In this case it means simple “accommodation” and nothing more: the definition is congruent with the italicized definition given above.  Its effect has been noted in all animals including us. So, for instance, by living in the city, we humans learn to ignore and even screen out noises so that we need not waste energy worrying or reacting to something that isn’t going to harm us: these non-threatening sounds include sirens, a blown-out tire, fire-works, or even a rock band in the park.  Acclimation does not cause us to increase our reaction to those non-dangerous things we become accustomed to, it diminishes our need to react.

This is also true of coyotes. When coyotes become used to humans by adapting to our habitual presence — accommodating us — they ignore us because they realize that we are not a danger, that we are simply part of the environment that’s out there. They do not come towards us or beg for food or become aggressive towards us just because they have become used to us. Think about it: why would they? Getting to know humans and our behavior as we go about our normal and separate lives — without trying to intimidate or scare them all the time — actually creates calmer and, yes, LESS reactive coyotes! But scare them all the time and they’re bound to start showing their teeth self-protectively. Walkaboutlou has noted that if you treat coyotes harshly, they’ll become hard coyotes.

Watch the process as it develops to know what is going on: I have been watching specifically this for over 12 years — for coyote reactions over long periods of time from birth to people and our behaviors [dogs and pets are a different issue which I will cover later].

Wariness and keeping distant are actually built into coyote behavior naturally as you can see by the aversive behavior of all youngsters. But this can be trained out of them by humans: food is this behavior shaper. This coyote here is hanging around unnaturally close to human activity: this was not caused by his becoming acclimated to us. What led to this behavior is humans breaching the natural divide by INTERACTING with him first and foremost through friendly feeding. This, then, coupled with befriending, attempting to communicate, approaching, and even prolonged mutual visual contact exacerbated the problem by making all humans potential feeders. These, interactive behaviors by humans, and not simply human presence, are what alter the behavior of coyotes so that they may hang around close to human activity and even follow people in an attempt to get more food: for them, it’s an easier thing to do than hunting. Coyotes are opportunistic and towards that end are constantly pushing their boundaries to their advantage: if it is advantageous for them, they will change their behaviors.

And BTW, I have never seen feeding lead to aggressiveness. In fact the feeding that I’ve observed over time — and it’s always very friendly feeding — results in very docile, meek, and almost tame coyotes who hang around listlessly waiting for food to be tossed their way. They become nuisances more than anything else, and the situation becomes circular and perpetual. Most importantly, this situation could lead to more negative consequences in that this “proximity” could provide opportunities for these animals to grab a kid’s sandwich or even react to a hyperactive small child. My wildlife animal behaviorist contact says that “feeding changes the relationship between a wild animal and humans, putting them on a more equal footing with us, which, if the animal were to become desperate enough it might, potentially, ‘demand’ food from a human. This is not something that is a regular occurrence, but it has happened.” By feeding we are training the animal — shaping the animal’s behavior (talk to any dog owner to find out how food is used to train an animal) to hang around, which could possibly lead to demanding or intrusive behavior. Food is the behavior shaper. Friendliness abets the process.

IN SUM, ALL of the URBAN coyotes that I know are acclimated, and this is due to the urban situation and by definition: they become used to us because we are there –we are ever-present in the parks we share with them. Nevertheless, they naturally keep their distance and only occasionally cross paths with us. They learn to ignore us because we are not a danger to them. We are simply a part of the environment “out there.” This should not be a problem.

But SOME coyotes have been encouraged by people beyond acclimation, to INTERACT on some level with us and become absorbed into our world. Again, every coyote is different, so innate personality will also play a role here. THIS interaction then, is what is unhealthy for everyone: it breaks down the natural safety barriers that were innately in place. It is occurring more frequently due to a pendulum swing from too much fear towards coyotes, to too much love, primarily through feeding, compounded with befriending, interacting with, approaching,. . . . etc.

People need to understand that they are hurting the coyote by interacting — they are shaping the coyote behavior away from its natural state.. Please, always walk away from a coyote, not for your own safety necessarily, though for that too, but for the well-being of the coyotes. Understanding this process is helping many people change their too-friendly behaviors towards coyotes. However, when this education is ignored, maybe it needs to be backed up by enforcement with fines.

Coyotes, too, have attempted to initiate interactions with some dogs as we walk them — it’s a way they use for finding out about these dogs who they see as “intruders” in “their” territories. Coyotes and dogs generally do not like each other, and small pets, of course, can be vulnerable as prey. I’ll get into this in another posting, but it’s important to prevent engagement by simply walking the other way, away from a coyote. If a coyote has approached your dog too closely as you are trying to move away from it, this is when you’ll need to react more pro-actively with anger and intimidation. More on this soon.

Note 1: One of the rationales that has been tossed at me is that feeding coyotes will keep them from grabbing pets. I read where a neighborhood in Los Angeles put out dog food which apparently cut down on disappearing cats. But in fact, you may just be encouraging the coyote to hang around closer to where s/he CAN indeed grab a pet. Even in this case, you would still need to leash your pet to keep it safe especially from chasing the coyote, so why not just start here in the first place and work on keeping away from coyotes?

Note 2: I hope you noticed that this coyote’s ears are hanging low — almost “floppy ears”. I’ve noticed its persistence in fed coyotes. It has been noted by a Russian scientist that this trait grows, and eventually is inherited, as wild dogs, specifically foxes, become tamer. See the famous red fox study about this.

Night Vision Snippets: Peeks at Pup Feedings

Here, I’ve consolidated several very short video clips from over a month ago which I caught on a trail camera: pup feedings. You’ll see a mother coyote regurgitating food for a very hungry and excited pup who can’t wait to eat. Then you’ll see the same youngster happily carrying a small rodent off to a quiet place where she can enjoy it. Thirdly, you’ll see Dad on his way to deliver food to his brood at 3am in the morning: you have to wonder how many trips he must make to feed four young mouths. Next, a youngster runs excitedly after Mom and yanks away the prey which she has brought home for the pup. Finally, a pup, now several weeks older than before, carries something large which I can’t really make out in the infrared light. It’s either prey that has been given to her by a parent, or a toy which she has found and is treating as prey.

Coyote Mums May Be Very Scrawny Right Now

A hollow, indented abdomen

This is a particularly hard time for coyote mothers whose nutritional needs have skyrocketed. This mother, photographed here, is one who has not been able to keep up with her nutritional needs. She has to find enough food to sustain herself and to provide the milk for the five 2-month-old pups she is still suckling. The pups have begun eating regurgitated semi-solid food brought by Dad and their yearling sister, but they are still suckling from Mom who is stunningly gaunt, emaciated and skeletal looking.

The suckling period of a growing litter of pups coincides with the season for shedding fur, so many coyotes look much thinner right now (and scraggly because of fur loss), even though they in fact may not be, and even though they are not lactating. But Mums indeed ARE thinner, and some are much more so than others, and you can see it, including in their faces and jaws where the skull bones are revealed right through the skin and fur. Moms I’ve known have always gained their weight back over time once the demands of providing milk end, but until then, it’s a strain on the body.

This mum still has her winter fur on her neck which helps hide her scrawniness

You can see the round shape of the femur bone through the skin in her leg and an indented thigh (taken at dusk which makes her look even wispier)

 

These Yearlings: Still Being Brought Food By Dad

Dad expels food for yearling youngsters — Dad is to the left in all these photos

Coyote pups were born at the end of March and the beginning of April this year here in San Francisco, so they are now four to six weeks old. To begin with, all pups are fed with their mother’s milk. Depending on the mother coyote and her age, this is either obvious or not so much so, as you can see in these photos.

Lactating mothers

As the pups grow, soft food is introduced into the youngsters’ diet. Regurgitated food is what young coyotes are fed as they are weaned off of their early milk diet. Eventually more solid forms of food are introduced: first, parts of and then whole dead rodents, then incapacitated prey, and finally live prey is brought home for the youngsters to learn to deal with and eat.

The youngsters depicted in these photos here were born last year. They appear to still be enjoying an extended puppyhood, even as their mother has gone off to give birth to a new litter. Uninhibited play and fun are still the order of the day for them. Interestingly, they are still receiving presents in the way of food from Dad.

A yearling youngster elicits the regurgitation reflex in his father before a sibling joins him as Dad watches

Upon seeing Dad, the most exuberant and active youngster of the litter runs to greet Dad and thrusts his snout into Dad’s mouth which elicits a regurgitation response. I don’t know if the regurgitation is actually voluntary or an involuntary response. This sort of feeding and being fed keeps everyone in their same states of dependence (for the youngsters) or leadership (for Dad), and is a strong solidifier of bonds and affection.

This particular family was a large one, with seven youngsters being born last year. This is the largest litter I have ever seen here in the city, with most litters being one, two, or three youngsters. But this litter is now down to four. One youngster was killed by a car, and two more were found dead. Although I haven’t found out what those two died of, I can pretty safely assume it was rat-poison or less likely, a natural disease. Coyote pup survival rate is only 20-30%, which, by the way, is actually higher than some human infant survival rates in Africa today where infant mortality is 92% in some villages.

A little about this family: of the four youngsters who survive, there are three rough-and-tumble youngsters — a female and two males — who throw themselves fully into their interactions and play. One of the males is the outstanding activist in the family. Then there is a smaller gal, a loner, who doesn’t appear to like the rough play of the others, nor the competition. And I’ve noticed that she doesn’t hurry over to partake in the regurgitated food her father proffers. In fact, that might be why she is comparatively smaller than the others. Coyotes have innate and very individual personalities which, just like with us humans, are further developed through each coyote’s individual place in the family and the feedback they constantly receive.

On Being Alone: My Observations

Summary/Abstract: Coyotes are highly social. They mate for life and have families. Interacting, including playing with each other, is a mainstay of their existence. But when they disperse they may find themselves alone in the world with no one (of their own species) to socialize with. They become bored and lonely. Here one rekindles some fun and interactions for herself.*

Coyotes are very social animals: they have an intense family life and interact constantly with one another within their families. But youngsters grow up and must leave home due to their territorial imperative, so they either *disperse* on their own, or are *dispersed* by the parents. This keeps the population down in any particular area, ensuring that there are enough resources for those who remain — for the mated pair who claim that territory and for their future offspring.

So dispersed individuals head off on their own: they may remain *loners* for a while. Dispersal can be a treacherous time for them. Some have made it all the way to Los Gatos from San Francisco, as discovered by Ecologist Jonathan Young, but many if not most get killed by cars. A few have been able to find vacated territorial niches right here in the city. In my ten years of observations, I’ve only seen two youngsters, whose birth locations I knew, find locations in the city, including this one. Others, of course, must have, but I don’t know which of the parks they dispersed from. The previous coyote who lived where this one now lives, remained a loner for many years until he was killed by a car. It is his vacated territorial niche which this coyote now occupies. Will she ever find a mate, will she ever move on? Each coyote is a unique individual, so we’ll only find out with time.

Being the social animals that they are, but without a social group to interact with, loner coyotes can become excruciatingly bored and lonely. I say this based on my own observations and based on comments from other people who have observed the same coyotes. The time normally directed at family interactions — including playing or hunting together, figuring out and maintaining their relationships and hierarchy in the family, and even the sheer entertainment of living in a family unit — are simply not there for the loner. They must figure out how to fill in with some substitute activities. Each coyote is a unique individual with a unique personality: not all coyotes will follow the patterns of behavior I’m describing here. In fact, I’ll describe quite a contrasting loner coyote in a future posting.

Boredom: To fill her time, this loner coyotes often engages in innovative play using her creative imagination. This is no different from the coyote youngsters I’ve watched who are still connected to their families. I’ve watched this particular little gal play with a ball and with many other objects, including poop-bags, crackling water-bottles or boxes, sticks, torn-up shrubbery, almost anything! I’ve seen her pester bees and then chase them around trying to catch them and interact with them. I’ve seen her run away from a cat she approached in a playful manner — the cat rejected her advances by hissing at her, and the coyote ran off. Her play can be very intense, as though she’s battling some dangerous prey, or very mild, as when she just rolls a ball around and rubs on it caressingly — small prey is often treated this way.

 

Stressed out? Turid Rugaas wrote me about her observations of wildlife when I sent her several videos of this coyote playing exuberantly, which a dog-walker, based on her own knowledge of dogs, claimed showed the coyote displaying “displacement behavior”. Turid disagreed with the dog-walker. She said that in the USA (as opposed to other places where she has taught), there is a high demand from owners for a dog’s obedience and following commands which often creates stress in the dog:

“So among dogs in USA I will agree that doing these things might often be a result of stress and nervousness, simply because they are never allowed to be natural. But start observing wild animals and learn how they behave – and their natural curiosity will, when there is nothing more interesting to do, come out in creative playing and doing other things. And because they develop naturally, they also become very smart and creative. 

Of course the coyotes play ! and wolves – and dogs – and all animals – they will find things to do for fun, and especially if they have no big family they live together with they will activate themselves, – they do not need to be nervous to do that ! They need an outlet for their curiosity and active brain, which is so important . Observing wild animals could teach the trainers something instead of getting hung up in theoretical and scientific blabbering.

Playing means activating the brain, and getting mental stimulation, and that is completely necessary for humans and animals for the development of the brain. It creates curiosity which is necessary, and the mental stimulation makes the growth of new brain cells, which in its turn helps them cope with problems and difficult situations in daily life.”

So, according to Turid, dogs’ nervousness and anxiety (the displacement behavior) is caused by them being forced to do something unnatural — there is no escape from the demands of their owners for them — so they calm themselves with repeat behaviors that don’t fit the situation. Coyotes are not constrained by the same circumstances of needing to please a demanding owner.

Another advisor, a 40-year-veteran wildlife behaviorist from one of the large wildlife organizations here in the city, also confirmed that *fight or flight* still rules supreme, and a little coyote will not put herself into a stressful situation if she can avoid it. Certainly an urban environment will create stresses for a little coyote — it does for all of us. I’m suggesting that this coyote’s playful behavior is driven much more by being lonely and bored than by stresses from the urban environment, based on my observations over many months.

Loneliness: In addition, coyotes often watch the world around them — maybe it’s entertaining: to sit in the distance and just watch. They get used to the goings-on, and to the dogs and people seen daily — habituated to it all — and then, again because loners are social animal, they may seek interactions and even action. They may attempt to actually *participate* on some level, say by approaching a dog simply to get noticed and to get a reaction.  Some people have noted that they seemingly enjoy attention from onlookers — could it be that they actually might be *performing*? It must be very frustrating for them to be alone. These coyotes may feel a push-pull towards, and away from *the madding crowd*.

It is often hard for folks to stand back from such a situation, as has happened to this coyote. For a while, when she first appeared in the neighborhood, some dogs were allowed to interact with her, some people approached closer and closer, and some even fed her — some even throwing food from their car windows so that this coyote grew attracted to cars and to chasing cars in the street in hopes for a handout. By educating everyone about the need to stay aloof and apart — to *love her wildness* at a distance — and by stopping the feeding, I, with the help of most walkers in the area, lessened these interactions immeasurably. But it takes a village, and not everyone is on-board.

A period of increased energy. Last week, this little coyote’s playful activity suddenly picked-up. Her bouts of play with objects increased, she approached more dogs either with her play-bows or by dashing in-and-out around them. Chasing birds became a regular activity. And her chasing cars increased to several times a day (up from *zero to at-most a couple of times a week*).  Her activity often begins with her excited pogo-stick-like leaping and then she sometimes takes off after a car, or towards a dog who has piqued her interest. Dog owners have been advised to simply keep walking on, and, if needed, to toss a small stone angrily towards her (not at her). It should be emphasized that everyone has noted that this coyote is not at all aggressive — she is just plain playful. In the case of the cars, she mostly has been running parallel to the road and not on it, but also she has been in the street, even reaching for the cars’ tires as if to bite them. A couple of onlookers informed me that chasing cars is seen commonly in South America by stray dogs and by dogs on farms, dogs who also are bored and looking for entertainment — they do it for thrills. The onlookers suggested that this might be an explanation for why the coyote was re-engaging with cars suddenly after she had stopped for a while — i.e., for the fun and thrill of it due to boredom! It’s worth considering because it sure looks like this to me, and these observations have been seconded by a veterinary behaviorists who knows canine body-language.

This coyote also has been engaging in more bouts of what we call *the zoomies*. Anyone who has a dog knows this crazy behavior: the dog races around, sometimes jumping on the furniture and sometimes in circles, full of energy, defiantly, daringly, a bit naughtily, as though testing you. Well, coyotes do this, too. I’ve repeatedly observed youngster coyotes do it, especially in the presence of their parents, exactly the way your dog does it! In the case of this lonely coyote, it was happening in-between other energetic activities, be it car chases, attempts to engage dogs, or gleeful play, as with a ball.

Coincidentally, during this sudden phase of increased playful and exuberant activity, a new coyote was sighted in the neighborhood — the first new coyote seen since our loner coyote appeared there over a year-and-a-half ago. Are these two things related? Let’s see! It could just be a coincidence. Another explanation comes from my wildlife behaviorist contact who told me that if you stop reinforcing a behavior with food, or ignore the behavior, the behavior will eventually extinguish, but that *extinction bursts* may occur before behaviors are totally extinguished — this is when the animal will try a little harder to get the reward she’s been given in the past by, say, running more after cars, or play-bowing more intensely to get the attention of dogs. Could this be what is going on?

This increased activity level lasted several days, and then it plummeted during the next three days of almost full-time hunting, which pleased all of us no end. We’ll just have to keep a watch to see how this story develops. It might be of interest to everyone that her scat these days is loaded with fur (indicating she’s hunting) and/or is liquidy-dark (indicating high protein) and/or full of seeds (indicating she’s eating fruit). And I’ve documented her with apples, dead lizards, mice, gophers, a bird (yes, she even caught a bird and ate it) and even an opossum! Yay! Last November, when she spent most of her time panhandling, we almost never saw her hunt, and her scat was grainy and dog-like, instead of being twisted and rope-like and full of fur or seeds as it is these days!

Generally, in all the parks where I observe here in San Francisco, be they loners or family groups, the coyotes are doing well. There was a fearful reaction to a coyote in the Presidio recently that was in the news. Trails were closed around the den where the incident happened to all dogs for the remainder of the pupping season: this protects coyotes, dogs, and people from having to deal with a similar encounter: it’s a perfect solution!

People are, on the whole, slowly learning about our coyotes. They are learning to live with, and to accept, them — and, best of all, to love them. My request to everyone is to love them at a distance — love their *wildness*. Don’t ever feed them, don’t be overtly friendly towards them, don’t approach them, and please keep your dogs away from them. If a coyote approaches you and your dog, simply tighten your leash and keep walking away without running — and keep walking away, dragging your dog if you have to. If needed, you should pick up a small stone and heave it angrily towards (again, not AT) the coyote to dissuade it from continuing to approach. It’s pupping season, and they have a job to do as family protectors. Their method of choice, if you’ve encroached on their space, is through *messaging*.  Their message towards your dog could become very insistent: it could begin with little in-and-out darts towards your dog in an attempt to move the dog away, as cattle-dogs do, or standing their ground and displaying a menacing-looking Halloween-Cat pose — indeed scary looking — or even nipping your dog’s haunches to get it to leave. Please, just heed the message and move away from them quickly without running. As you leave, they may even follow: please just keep walking away.

For additional pertinent information, please see my presentation video, Coyotes As Neighbors:  And visit other postings on this blog — it is full of information about coyote behavior here in San Francisco, which I’m sure is no different from elsewhere.

 [*My postings are based on my own dedicated observations, as stated in the introduction to my blog].

Responding to Recent Postings on Social Media: A Recap of Some Urban Coyote Behaviors and Some Explanations

This posting is a slightly revised and expanded version, with photos, of what was originally written for, and posted on, Bernalwood.com on May 27th.

our Bernal coyote at dawn

coyote at dawn

We have coyotes in most of our parks here in San Francisco, and most folks I’ve spoken with are thrilled about it!  Enjoy it and respect its wildness! At the same time, there are some people, especially pet owners, who are not so thrilled. Here is some information I’ve put together about coyotes, much of it based on my own observations, as a response to concerns and comments which have appeared in some of the social media recently. This is information that applies to urban coyotes everywhere, not just here in SF.

COYOTES ARE TERRITORIAL AND LIVE IN FAMILIES

coyotes in our parks

coyotes in our parks

Most parks in San Francisco have one stable resident family, or a loner. Coyotes are not “pack” animals of unrelated individuals. Families “claim” territories which they “own” from which they exclude other coyotes — this is what keeps the population density down. They trek through the neighborhoods every night, during the early morning or early evening hours — and, more rarely, during the brightest hours of the day — marking their territories to keep other coyotes out and looking for hunting opportunities. Studies show that in urban areas, there is generally about one coyote per square mile — a family of 4 would require about 4 square miles. You will always be seeing the same individual coyotes in any particular area.

Although we have parks with loner coyotes, most parks have mated pairs with families. Coyotes mate for life, and both parents raise the young. Coyotes mate in January or February and produce young in April — births occur only once a year. 

The number of family members fluctuates up and down continually over time. In one park, it went something like this: 2-5-3-4-2. The fluctuation is due to new pups, and then to their dispersal or deaths. There is only about a 30% survival rate of pups during their first year — disease and nutritional issues take their toll.

When it’s time for youngsters to “disperse”, the parents will drive them out, or they may just pick-up-and-go. This usually occurs between one and two, and sometimes three years of age, and it occurs throughout the year — there is no “dispersal season”. However, the breeding adult pair will remain in the same territory over many years. Interestingly, wolves will actually kill their own kin in order to preserve their own statuses and territorial rights. I’ve not seen this in coyotes, but I have seen the altercations that drive coyotes out of their birth territories.

Cars are urban coyotes’ chief cause of death — please drive carefully! They often trek on our traffic grid — it’s often the “path of least resistance”.  A few days ago, in our Diamond Heights neighborhood, a car swerved right into someone’s house to avoid hitting a coyote during the early morning hours.

MORE ASSERTIVE OR INSISTENT BEHAVIOR

coyote shows her anxiety and displeasure with a dog by jumping up and down

coyote shows her anxiety and displeasure with a dog by jumping up and down

As the individuals in a family mature, some of them may go through phases of what might be called more “assertive”  or “insistent” behavior, such as: following or running in the direction of a dog. During pupping season, the assertiveness is strongest, with coyotes even approaching and possibly even nipping at a dog’s haunches. These are coyote “messaging” behaviors: coyotes want dogs to move on and to know the territory is taken. These behaviors don’t “define” a coyote, and they don’t last. Think of these as phases in a teenager’s life, or in a parent’s life — there’s an ebb and flow to behaviors for each coyote, often based on what is going on within the coyote’s individual family: Are there new pups? Is there increased sibling rivalry? Are parents having issues with the offspring, or trying to get one to disperse? I’ve seen no evidence to indicate that such behaviors build up towards more aggressiveness. Many of the more apparently “assertive” behaviors, both in juveniles and adults, are based solely on circumstances and happenstance encounters, so keep your distance.

SIGHTINGS

trekking through the neighborhood

trekking through the neighborhood

A substantial increase in “sightings” doesn’t necessarily translate into a spike in the coyote population, though this is what many people assume. Again, increased sightings could be due to their current family dynamics which may cause individuals to wander farther afield.

Unusual weather conditions can have an effect on sightings. San Francisco has just been through a four-year drought. Drought conditions cause coyotes to hunt further afield and for longer hours. They become more visible to humans and more prone to incidents during these times when their activity overlaps with ours. It takes 8 full months for an ecosystem to recover from a drought.

Human changes to the environment, including new construction, will affect coyotes in an area. In San Francisco, coyotes may be lingering longer in neighborhoods recently, and therefore be seen more, because of the current program of thinning and eliminating dense and protective thickets in the parks, reducing coyotes’ normal secure habitat.  Stopping the destruction of the habitat, and compensating for the exceptional weather or drought in various ways until the ecosystem has recovered, both are steps that could be taken to reduce sightings, and possible dog/coyote encounters, and coyotes’ spending the past-twilight hours in neighborhoods.

FEEDING

feeding coyotes is not good

feeding coyotes is not good

Please don’t feed the coyotes. Feeding breaks down the barrier that keeps coyotes wild. If they become food conditioned  — which is different from “habituation” (see below) — problems could develop, including approaching people, which increases the chances for a negative incident to occur. Feeding them also encourages them to hang around yards where people don’t want them.

Coyotes are opportunistic eaters, which means they can eat almost anything, but their preference in San Francisco is for gophers, squirrels and voles, which they eat whole: they need the meat, muscle, bones, fur — all of it — to nourish themselves properly. They also eat fruit, nuts, bugs, weak or juvenile raccoons, skunks, opossums, and possibly snakes. They prefer their whole foods over human-made foods, but if that human food is available, they’ll try it. And they will eat the occasional cat or small dog if circumstances are right — they don’t know who is a pet and who isn’t. Don’t create the right circumstances that could add your pet to the food chain. Please protect your pets by not allowing them to roam free and by supervising them closely when out-of-doors.

As top predators to an area, coyotes have helped rebalance the environment: they control rodents and some mesopredators, such as opossums, skunks and raccoons.

HABITUATION

a habituated coyote is not a dangerous coyote

a habituated coyote is not a dangerous coyote

Urban coyotes do not “fear” humans — that is an incorrect term. Rather they are “wary” of humans. This means that, although a coyote won’t flee lickety-split in fear when they see a human, they nonetheless will maintain distance and not approach us. And we, in turn, need to respect them and their wildness by keeping as far away from them as we can. “Habituation” is a normal progression in urban areas — you cannot prevent it because you cannot stop coyotes from seeing humans on a daily basis — they get used to seeing us. A habituated coyote is not a dangerous animal. In fact, the term “habituation” was first used to describe bears as being more dangerous if they got used to people and lost fear of us. This assumption has been turned on its head: scientists now know that bears who are habituated tend to ignore humans, whereas bears who have never seen humans become reactive. In Africa, to make gorillas less reactive to humans, for the tourist trade, people purposefully habituate them — they become less dangerous.

Coyotes also habituate to “hazing” tactics, which is why such tactics should not be used if a coyote is way out in left field. Scaring off a coyote should be used sparingly. It should be reserved for when a coyote has come too close to you. It is a useless tactic unless the coyote is closer than 50 or so feet to you, which generally delineates its critical distance for discomfort.

Note that “habituation” is different from “food conditioning”. When visibly feeding or hand-feeding a coyote, you are conditioning it to approach humans. Don’t feed coyotes.

THE ISSUE IS WITH PETS

suspicious coyote mother and a dog owner not being vigilant

suspicious coyote mother and a dog owner not being vigilant

Whereas coyotes don’t approach humans, dogs are a different story because of territorial issues and because of prey issues. In many ways, coyotes and dogs look alike, but coyotes and dogs are naturally antagonistic towards each other. Remember that coyotes keep other coyotes out of their territories. Coyotes are also both curious and suspicious of dogs: they may feel compelled to come in closer to investigate. Always supervise your pets to prevent incidents: the minute you see a coyote, leash and go in the other direction. Most dogs have a tendency to go chasing after coyotes. Please don’t allow your dog to do this.

coyote messaging a dog -- the dog should have been kept away from the coyote

coyote messaging a dog — the dog should have been kept away from the coyote

Coyotes have approached dogs. If they get too close, they could either grab a small dog or “message” a larger dog who the coyote considers a threat to its territory or its personal space. They can only do this when they get close enough. Don’t let them. You can prevent an incident by keeping your dog away from coyotes in the first place, by leashing when you see one, and by walking away from it. It’s no different than when you encounter a skunk with its tail up: keep your dog off of it, and move away from it. 

coyote following

coyote following

 IF, inadvertently or by surprise, a coyote gets too close, that is when to scare it off, otherwise just walk away without running: see http://baynature.org/article/how-to-get-along-with-coyotes-as-pups-venture-out/

Coyotes may follow dogs to find out what the dog is doing and where it is going (they do the same to non-family coyotes). If you and your dog are moving away from the coyote, and away from any denning site, the coyote soon will no longer follow. If you don’t want the coyote to follow at all, toss a small stone in its direction (not at it), and/or approach it (but don’t get too close) using your own blatantly angry body language and angry yelling. Noise alone, or waving flailing arms, is not always effective in making a coyote move — something has to move  towards the coyote. And it isn’t going to help if you are too far away. You’ve got to get within the coyote’s critical distance — at most 50 feet — and you have to be assertive about it. Walking towards the coyote while slapping a newspaper viciously on your thigh works, but tossing stones towards it is probably more effective. However — and this is a very important “however” — if the coyote doesn’t budge, it is probably protecting a nearby den site. In this case, turn around and leave. Do not provoke an incident. See the above link in Bay Nature.

It’s always best to be proactive in keeping a coyote away. The minute you see a coyote, leash up and move away from it, and know how to shoo it off effectively if it comes closer to you than 50 feet.

Note that practically all scratches or bites by coyotes to humans are due to feeding the coyote, or to an owner getting him/herself between a coyote and a pet, so don’t do these things. And, never run from a coyote: this activity actually initiates the chase response in a coyote who may also nip at your heels. They also sometimes nip at car tires when the car is in motion. The phenomena is called “motion reactivity”.

ENCOUNTERS CAN BE SCARY

Encounter: the dog chased the coyote and the coyote stood up for itself

Encounter: the dog chased the coyote and the coyote stood up for itself

Encounters CAN be scary if you are unprepared and don’t know what to expect or what to do. Please learn what coyotes are like, not what you think they “should” be like — for instance, that they don’t “fear” humans but are “wary” of them, and not that “coyotes should be heard and not seen”. By knowing their true normal behaviors, and by knowing what to do *IF* they approach your dog, you will be informed and you will not be so fearful. For starters, watch the video, Coyotes As Neighbors:  https://youtu.be/euG7R11aXq0, which will spell out normal coyote behavior and what you can do to keep coyotes away from a pet.

MANAGING COYOTES

The number one method of managing coyotes for coexistence is through human education and human behavior modification: that is what this posting is trying to help with. These have been shown to be extremely effective. The City of San Francisco has been lax in putting out signs or getting educational material to folks. Some of us have been filling the void, getting material, information and guidelines out to people, but as individuals or as small organizations, we have not been able to reach everyone. Please visit coyotecoexistence.com for specific information, and  coyoteyipps.com.

Many cities have coexistence policies — they all work when folks abide by the guidelines. BUT, as with car driving laws, even if you know them and follow them, there will be some fender-benders that might be frightening. We have fewer than 100 coyotes in the City; the number of dogs is in the 250,000s. There is bound to be an incident now and then.

The number of real coyote incidents in the City is not many. There have been less than a handful of dog fatalities by coyotes — all were unleashed small dogs in known coyote areas — all were preventable. There have been many incidents of people being frightened and reporting “attacks” on their dogs. Few if any of these attacks were reported on a questionnaire which would tease out what actually occurred. Instead, these incidents have been spelled out on the social media with warnings of doom that is awaiting us all.

Most of the sightings of coyotes have been reported as charming. But there have been some fearful encounters, and recently groups of dog owners in some of the parks have turned decidedly against them. Social media tends to perpetuate, spread and amplify the fears, and encounters are inevitably worded as deliberate “aggressive attacks”. For instance, recently, there was a report of an attempted “attack” on a dog at 5:30 in the morning. However, a lone coyote, who weighs 35 pounds, is not going to “attack” a 130 pound Mastiff… Coyotes may watch dogs, follow, or hurry in your direction for many reasons, including curiosity, or investigation. They may jump up and down because of anxiety. These are not “attacks”, nor are they “attempted attacks”. Hopefully, by learning about coyotes, we can diminish the very real feeling of fear which comes from not knowing what is going on.

a coyote standing on a pathway, watching

a coyote standing on a pathway, watching

Our Animal Care and Control Department has had many people report “aggressive” coyotes: but when questioned further, the majority of these reports were of a coyote just standing, or doing nothing but looking at the purported victim.

Two years ago I watched a man, straight faced, tell me that he had been frightened “out-of-his-wits” by a monster 100-pound coyote just a few moments before seeing me. He was visibly shaken. He hadn’t seen me watching the whole incident a little way down the path. The incident involved his dog chasing a coyote. The coyote turned around to face the dog. When the dog ran back to its owner, the coyote proceeded on to where it had been going. But the owner was left frightened, and justified his fright by saying it was a “monster 100-pound coyote”. If the dog had been leashed, the incident would not have happened. It happened in a park where everyone knows there are coyotes.

If you have questions, or if you want help with specific issues, please contact me or anyone at coyotecoexistence@gmail.com

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