Experts at Eluding Detection: Coyote behavior

I keep my eyes open for wildlife — this is where my focus is, so I have become pretty good at catching what someone else might miss. Today I spotted a coyote on a path — pretty visible right in the open — but it was gone in the blink of an eye. The minute it knew it had been seen, it immediately was absolutely and totally GONE. It had bounced, like a rabbit, into some underbrush, and although I thought I might be able to see it again, I did not. The day before I was able to make out two ears way up ahead on the horizon with the sun coming from that direction — visibility was bad. When I got there, no critter was to be seen anywhere until with much effort I was able to detect a slight movement off to the side. It was the coyote, well camouflaged behind some thorny underbrush. I had only an instant to look, before it was off and gone.

Coyotes are often not seen by walkers: they easily elude detection, even if you are looking for one. I have seen many walkers not see one that crossed very close in front of them! Of course, at other times you might see one wandering boldly on an open path, totally unconcerned, and it might turn around and examine you out of curiosity. Or you might see one surveying the area from a lookout. There are no generalities with coyotes.

Fleeing from a Mountain Biker

I came across a young coyote sitting in a field, facing a small path. I sat down to watch for a few moments. Suddenly, and quietly, a biker on his large, very bright yellow mountain bike came up the winding dirt path. The bright colors of the biker and bike were in complete contrast to all the other outdoor colors that one would find in a natural setting: the bike clashed with the environment. The coyote immediately took off at a high speed run — really flying with both feet off the ground — into the distance, about 120 feet away. Here it stayed and watched until the biker had passed through. Interestingly, once the coyote was far enough away, it did not slither into the underbrush, but turned around to watch the biker. This may be because the coyote was aware that the biker was not pursuing it and probably had not even seen it. People very often do not notice a coyote, even one that is only a short distance in front of them — I think we humans have our minds on other things. When I spoke to the biker, he told me that he had not seen the coyote.

Another interesting thing about this particular incident is that shortly after the biker passed, who should appear on the scene but mom coyote. Had she been watching the entire time? When the young coyote saw her, it bounded up to her, and they both proceeded slowly across the field, looking for gophers until they disappeared from my view into a thicket area.

Like Mother/Like Pup: Coyote behavior

Today I saw a coyote which I know to be nine or ten months old — this is full grown in coyote terms. Coyotes at this age are ready to move out on their own if they want, though some wait another year, or even remain with the family. I have observed this one’s mother over a long period of time, and now I’m seeing some interesting similarities and differences between the mother and this pup. I’ve seen no real behavioral similarities between this mother and her other pups. I have not seen the mother and pups together recently, nor have I seen the mother in a while.

In the early morning at first, as usual, I saw no coyotes. But then one was suddenly there where none had been. It was in the exact spot that its mother used to hang out to watch the world, sometimes for almost an hour. This one appeared to be following in its mother’s footsteps: it sat on a little knoll, at a safe distance, where it kept its lookout in several directions: up above there would be unleashed dogs and walkers, down below there would be unleashed dogs and walkers, and then there I was, on the same middle ground as the coyote but a ways off to the side.

The coyote never lay down, as its mother would have, but remained sitting upright. And it was on edge, I could tell, because the part of its body which was in contact with the ground was twitching: so the coyote was alert and ready, though it appeared pretty calm. As a dog — a dog which frequently chases coyotes — and walker passed on the far upper path, the coyote remained still and seated, only turning its head to observe.  And, again, as a man with his three dogs — non-chasers — walked on the path below, the coyote remained seated upright, but watchful. The coyote allowed me, off to the side, to take some photos in the bad light. I had seen the mom with a couple of her pups in this same spot once before for a short duration, but this is the first time I had seen this young coyote imitating its mother in this way.

“Observing” at this same location would have been a taught/learned/imitated behavior. But there also must be a predisposition to do so. Like mother, like pup? This coyote is the leader of its sibling. Is it destined to become a dominant one?

More loud walkers could be heard from below, and when the coyote saw them, it headed off, slipping into the brush area. But it reappeared again shortly thereafter, further along in a quiet area of the park, and began to forage — keeping me in sight but pretty much ignoring me. And then, with me not too far off and in plain sight, similar to its mother, it curled up on the ground by a tree. I, of course, took photos.

The biggest difference that I have seen between this coyote and its mother is that this one is much more ready to flee from humans and dogs — active humans and dogs — and has a much longer critical distance it keeps from them  – this difference may simply have to do with this one’s young age and inexperience. And the difference may also have to do with the fact that the mother is a mother. Motherhood brings with it dominance and leadership: one can sense that this is HER park — her territory — from the way she sits, from the way she interacts with other coyotes (the few times I have seen this), and from the way she expresses her dominance to the dogs that chase her: she does not just flee, but stands her ground. She has been dubbed “bold”.

The younger coyote, on the other hand, is much more careful and is always ready to flee — it would not, at this stage, stand up to another dog, nor stand its ground if it were chased. It would have fled rather than confront or offer resistance. However, this one has followed a couple of dogs (leashed dogs or dogs that don’t chase)  and their walkers, for a short distance off to the side of the path: this coyote has shown curiosity. Is it learning to become bold?

Most dogs are pretty keen on coyote scent, but they sometimes can’t figure out the time frame: they know the coyote has been around, but they really can’t tell if it just passed by or if it is still in the area. I know this, because some of these dogs would like nothing better than to chase — they only turn away because they think the coyote has already gone. I observed this today with this coyote.

Defensive, Dominant or Aggressive: Coyote Reactions to Dogs

I’ve realized recently that the coyote reactions to dogs which I have written about involved mostly a dominant female coyote — a mother of pups. I need to distinguish between various individual coyote reactions to dogs which deviate from those of a dominant female. The dominant female with pups will always have the severest reactions to dogs — defensive reactions and controlling reactions. Most coyotes have milder reactions to dogs. Several distinctions might be useful.

1) Almost all coyotes will “flee” from humans. Coyotes do not want to tangle with humans. Humans are larger and more intelligent than coyotes, so invariably when the two approach in the same vicinity, the coyote will run off. I have never seen a coyote not run off when a person walks toward it. Approaching a coyote defiantly and noisily will make it leave faster. Most coyotes will also flee from dogs that run after them.

2) I have seen a coyote approach a dog on a path non-antagonistically if the dog has been previously seen by the coyote as fairly benign: the coyote may be curious. If a coyote approaches a leashed dog, please know that it is the dog, and not the human, which is attracting the coyote, and the approach may be antagonistically motivated. It could be that a dominant female coyote feels a particular dog is a threat — it appears almost always to be a dog she has seen before and evaluated. The dog may be one who pulls at the leash, or looks at the coyote defiantly or maybe it has chased the coyote in the past. The dog owner may be seen only as a minor deterrence to the coyote’s approaching. The coyote will approach with a dominance display, described below. A human can get the coyote to leave by facing the coyote and flailing his arms and making loud, sharp noises, such as clapping or shaking a can with bolts in it. HOWEVER, whether a coyote is in the distance or approaching or already close by, it is always best to leash and WALK away from it: utter and complete avoidance is always the safest policy.

3) “Defensive” means that an animal will protect itself when it is attacked or feels threatened. A coyote might begin by fleeing from a dog which goes after it, and when unable to get away, it goes into a defensive mode. Or, it may just stand its ground without fleeing: in this case it is just standing up for itself and is not going to be pushed around. Most animals will try to defend themselves at some point when others intrude upon them, and we all expect this. I’ve seen a gopher bite a coyote back, even though there was no hope. He was fighting for his life, but it was a defensive fight, not an aggressive one. The coyote’s defensive behavior towards dogs involves a dominance display, then a charge-and-retreat sequence, and ultimately a nipping at the haunches of the dog to get it to leave, much as a cattle dog does.

4) A “Dominance display” can be distinguished from aggression. It is more about “bluff” and “show” and is used to impart a message. It lets dogs know — dogs who are perceived as a threat to a coyote, such as active dogs or dogs who have chased — that they are not welcomed or liked by the coyote. It looks very much like the defensive behavior, which also might begin as a display, except it is initiated by a coyote as a message to the dog, usually because of previous negative encounters, be they overt chases, or simply messages imparted by body language and eye contact. We humans are simply not in tune to a lot of canine communication behavior.

Bluffing displays are used to dissuade and move other animals in hopes of averting a fight that might actually cause injury. We’ve all seen dominant dogs: they want it to be known that they think of themselves as “top-dog” by displaying their bigness and ferocity. They do this by standing up straight with their head high, raising their hackles, maybe growling, not wagging their tail or wagging it stiffly, looking down on the other animal, etc.

A dominance display is a warning — all dogs can read this. The dog is not only saying “don’t mess with me”, but maybe expecting its will to be the controlling factor — for instance, it may want a hyperactive dog to calm down. The dominant coyote behavior I have seen is more pronounced than dog dominance displays, after all, coyotes are fairly small animals and need to appear much more fierce and scary to have the same effect. It appears unprovoked to us humans — but often is provoked in subtle ways by the dog’s behavior which we humans seldom are aware of. The display serves as a clear message to ward off a dog: “go away” or “don’t mess with me.”

5) Coyotes in our parks are seldom outright aggressive towards dogs. We normally think of an “aggressive” animal as one who will actually attack without provocation — it just doesn’t like the other guy, and may not like most other guys. There is less of a message than an attack, though the attack itself leaves a message. Coyotes are not known to be aggressive. However, it is the exceptions you want to be prepared for, even though statistically this is so rare that these are seen as anomalies. We have learned that the few aggressive encounters between coyotes and humans have almost always been preceded by humans feeding them. I have never seen an aggressive coyote of this sort. For safety’s sake, please, never, ever feed wildlife. The closest looking thing to an aggressive coyote that I have seen is one defending itself from a dog — see the defensive photo above.

Please see posting of  December 7th: “Dog Reactions to Seeing a Coyote”, November 4th: “ANOTHER reaction to dogs”, November 17th: “More reactions to dogs”, and December 1st: “Significance of a Seemingly Unprovoked challenge”.  Also, please see the entry on “Coyote Safety” of 11/3. Blatant Visual Message to Newcomer Dog of 2/9/10. “A short back-and-forth chase: coyote interaction with a large dog” of 2/4/10.

Fleeing: Coyote behavior

In contrast to the dominant coyote in the previous posting which felt secure enough to sit out in the open while watching and assessing the walkers and dogs in a park, this coyote here immediately became alert when it heard dogs and humans approaching in the distance. When I first saw it, it was walking as if it needed to get away. It was on the move and very aware of “danger” to itself from the possibility of a human or a dog encounter.  It didn’t seem to be headed in any particular direction, rather, it was assessing its immediate options for fleeing: looking around in a nervous sort of way for escape routes and for exactly where the “danger” was. It climbed up on a rock for a better view, but it could not see any more than when it had been on the ground. As the noisy group of dogs and walkers came down a main path, several hundred feet away from the coyote, the coyote suddenly dashed, swoosh, into a dense brush area where no dogs or humans could follow. I did not see it again. None of the humans saw it, and if a dog saw it, it did not go after the fleeing coyote. I noted that this coyote was visible for less than 4 minutes.

This particular coyote has always reacted to human and dog sounds in the manner described here. Although it has allowed itself to be seen for a few moments, it always has dashed off shortly thereafter. The behavior is consistent for this particular coyote and cannot be generalized to all coyotes. Each coyote is different. Each coyote is an individual. The same is true for the “monitoring” behavior of the coyote I posted below: that coyote is consistent with itself. It will also flee when it needs to, but it has a predominant need to “check things out”, which requires it to be out in the open more.

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