Looks Like A Pup, But It’s A Mother Coyote!

Here is a mother coyote that people have been mistaking for a pup. At this time of year, after the entire coat of fur has been shed, coyotes indeed can look very small and thin, with very large ears that seem too big for their heads — just the way a coyote pup might look. This particular coyote is on the smaller side to begin with — probably under 25 pounds which may contribute to people’s thinking that she’s a pup.

Please keep away from all coyotes, be they pups or adults.

Intent On Not Revealing Where She’s Going

coyote stops and turns to look at me

coyote turns and looks at me

This mother coyote tried remaining out of sight — I saw her keeping to the bushes — but she had to cross the path I was on, so, of course, eventually she knew that I saw her. She was very aware of me. After coming to the path, she trotted on over its crest, down an incline and remained out of my sight until I came to the crest of the hill. She continued trotting along this trail until she came to an intersection of paths. Here she stopped and looked back at me. Then she looked in other directions to assess the situation, and then she looked back at me again. I took her photo. She then squinted at me — she was communicating her needs to me. I stayed back, letting her know that I understood her message and would comply: I would not follow her.

She then proceeded around the bend of the trail and out of sight. I did not follow, as she had requested, but climbed a ridge from which I could see her on the trail below. She had trotted on and then come to another standstill, looking back to see if I had followed. I knew from her behavior that, if I had followed, she would have lead me down this path which was away from where she had intended to go. Instead, since I was not behind her, she turned back about 100 feet and slithered into one of her secret hidden tunnels through the brush and, most likely, on to her pups, which we’ve heard but never seen. By respecting the coyotes’ needs, by actually listening and understanding their communications, we are achieving a mutually acceptable coexistence with these urban neighbors or ours.

when she realizes no one is following, she turns back to her secret escape route

when she realizes no one is following, she turns back to her secret escape route

Pups!!! And How The Divide Suddenly Doesn’t Feel So Vast, by Ella Dine

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I spent several hours observing the family yesterday, mostly because I wanted to catch a glimpse of the pups. I thought there were two, and based on my observations, I have no reason to suspect more. It was well worth the wait. The pups bounded out of the den area toward mom looking very much like similarly-aged, wiggly, exuberant canine pups. When asked what word comes to mind when folks think of coyotes, most are probably not inclined to say adorable, but I am convinced this is because we don’t often get the chance to watch these creatures interact with each other. These pups were utterly Adorable. They showed appropriate deference to mama, and when she nudged them back into hiding, they complied obediently. They appeared so energetic that I wondered what they do all day–how are those energetic little bodies confined to what appears to be a small den area? This is purely speculative, but I imagine they do sleep a fair amount, at least during the hottest part of day. I also began to wonder about the parents–what having a litter would be like, for instance, for the first time? How startling would it be that suddenly this mix of instinct and responsibility becomes your single overarching biological imperative? How stressful would it be to try to protect your babies in the wild?

I realized that part of the fascination in observing this family is watching instinct in action, animals with no agenda other than pure survival and all the attending struggles and challenges inherent in it. It’s quite beautiful.

Surrounding the area, people passed leisurely, most looking down at phones. I had a million gadgets myself– a phone in my pocket, a clunky camera around my neck. It brought to mind the most obvious thought: of course we sometimes harbor an irrational fear of wildlife. We know next to nothing about what their experience is really like. We are so removed from our own inner-wild (conditioned as we are to tame and master our own, uglier impulses) that witnessing that shadow side–that latent part so familiar to our most distant ancestors (and the very thing coyotes depend upon to thrive) can be spooky, but also exhilarating. Anyway, we certainly have more in common than not–all it took to convince me of that was to watch a mama with her two adorable babies.

You can see by this pic how well the pups blend in!

You can see by this pic how well the pups blend in!

 

More Fleeing From Father

During a calm early morning walk I spotted a coyote running at top speed, bounding in long leaps, through some brush in the distance. Within seconds I could see that this coyote was chasing another coyote who was running lickety-split from his pursuer. Soon the larger, faster, and older coyote caught up and threw the youngster on his back and pummeled him with his snout, delivering a few emphasizing nips in the process.

There was intense rustling of the brush and squeals of pain — the same squeals of pain a young domestic puppy might make if it were hurt. Soon, Dad, because that’s who the disciplinarian was, and discipline is what was going on, descended from that clump of brush where the beatings had occurred, walked on a few paces, and then stopped to look back, to glare back. He remained in this location, turning his attention to sniffing and looking around, and then headed back into the brush where the youngster was. Dad was checking to see if he had gotten his message across. He re-emerged again, glared back again, and then sniffed around some more.  He repeated this about four times, and then finally wandered away from the area through the dense foliage.

Soon, within minutes, Mom appeared from out of nowhere. I don’t know if she had witnessed what went on, or if she just happened by at this time. She looked around and slowly headed to where the youngster was. She found him, greeted him, and offered consolation in the form of grooming and affection.  Several minutes later, they both emerged to where I could better see them. Mom spent time carefully grooming the kid who stood still and lovingly absorbed all the attention directed at him, and he returned the favor, a little. Soon she stopped, and both coyotes directed their attention towards where I was, but it wasn’t me they were watching. Dad suddenly appeared at my lookout point, a point with a good view of where the other coyotes were. Dad was keeping an eye on them. He spent a few minutes staring at them, and they at him.

I had left my crutches (I had twisted my knee several weeks earlier) at the base of the steep and craggy slope with dry grasses which I had inched my way up for a better view, scooting myself upwards on the seat of my pants. I was now 30 feet from the crutches at the base of the hill. The coyote stopped to look at the crutches and then went over to a piece of trash, sniffed it and marked it. I was sure he was going to mark my crutches, which had my scent on them. But no, instead he looked at me respectfully and went on his way without leaving me any messages! He disappeared from view.

Youngster and Mom were sitting perfectly still. Their eyes followed Dad’s trajectory until he was out of sight. Then they continued their activity of grooming and being groomed. I wondered if Youngster had actually been wounded by Dad, because, although I couldn’t see any damage to him from the distance,  Mom’s actions suggested to me that she might be licking small wounds on his haunches. Pinch/bites are messages that dominant coyotes give other coyotes, and dogs, to message them to leave.

After the Youngster had regained his composure following Dad’s treatment, and with the help of Mom’s grooming, affection, attention and solace, Youngster began feeling playful. He jumped over Mom, which must have been a signal or invitation to play. She acquiesced — parent coyotes love playing with their youngsters. After a few minutes of playful wrestling, she led him on a long extended chase up and around and through the bushes and back, over and over again. More grooming ensued and then these two, as Dad had, disappeared from view.

Had Dad been disciplining Youngster for failing to be submissive? Or was there a lesson in boundaries and territoriality, or possibly an issue about the youngster’s safety at the center of Dad’s tough discipline? Dad’s intense bullying is disciplinary now. This pup is 7 months old and there is a lot to learn. Mom’s affection and solace seem to compensate for Dad’s harsher attempts to discipline and teach. Both parents teach and discipline, but it always appears to be the alpha — and the alpha can be either the male or female parent — who is the harshest. The alpha is the coyote who maintains an overall overview of the situation in his/her territory, keeping an eye out for everyone’s safety.

Fleeing From Father

I’m trying to get a handle on a family where the youngster is never present. The parents’ daytime resting time is almost always in close proximity to each other, either in an open field or under cover of some forest edge habitat. Even when I can’t see them, I can tell they are fairly close together because when a siren whizzes by, they respond by yipping which reveals their proximate locations.

It’s hard to tell what’s going on with the youngster — and with the parental relationship with him — because I seldom see the youngster. Until today. Today I watched this youngster out in the unhidden open. What a rare treat! He did not immediately flee to the underbrush the minute he saw a person (me), but rather allowed me to spend time observing. He just sat there and looked around from his safe-zone in the far distance where I know he stays, but this time he wasn’t concealed behind bushes and thickets.

Soon he got up to go: he stretched and yawned, and obviously was at ease, even though a person was observing him. He looked at me, but basically went about his business. He casually walked off, and then started descending a hill when suddenly he stopped cold, did a quick about-face, and headed up the hill in a hurry, lickety-split. He stopped to look back once and then disappeared over the crest of the hill. I looked down the hill to find out what he might be running from and was surprised to see his father staring at him. Hmmm. Instead of running towards each other for a happy greeting, the youngster was running away with trepidation!

Father glaring over his shoulder, up the hill, at his youngster. Youngster hurries away.

Father glaring over his shoulder, up the hill, at his youngster. Youngster hurries away.

Had there been an altercation earlier? Might one of these coyotes have secretly taken and reburied a food cash that belonged to the other? Might there have been an issue with insubordination? Might lessons about territoriality and not crossing boundaries have been involved, or even safety issues about remaining away from dogs? Might the firm establishment of a hierarchical order be involved? Or, highly unlikely, might this have been the beginnings of an early dispersal process? I’ve never seen a coyote dispersed under one year of age here in San Francisco, but I’ve heard it alluded to. The bullying that precedes dispersal may go on for months before the youngster decides to take off for a better life elsewhere. I’m sad that I haven’t been able to see coyote family behaviors from this distant fella. We’ll see what happens.

These Parents Spend Bulk of Their Day Together and Far From Their Youngster

In one of my coyote families, the parents have been spending all dusk, dawn and daytime hours far removed and distant from their one single pup. He’s been an “only” pup since he was very small, so maybe it was a single birth.

In the other families I’ve observed, these daytime hours, when the coyotes are visible to me, have included a good deal of “family time”, where parents can be seen engaging with youngsters: playing, sharing, grooming, resting within view of each other.

Not so in this particular family. Although I’ve seen the parents take food to their youngster and groom him — indicating that the family is still intact and functional, I’m seeing these types of behaviors only very sporadically — almost never — and they occur in the most secluded parts of their park. I wonder why more of these quieter daytime hours aren’t being spent with the youngster?

I don’t know the answer to this question, but the possibility occurred to me that the parents might be trying to entice the youngster out of his hiding places — to join them where they are. The parents have been hanging around in a field, at about the distance of several football fields away, but within view of him for the most part. Then again, as opposed to enticing the youngster out of his seclusion, maybe it is the parents who have prompted him to stay there — forbidding him to leave that safe zone? Teaching him about territoriality?  Or, it could simply be that all the interactions always, without fail, take place only during the darkest hours of the night when I am not around to see them.

The youngster is extremely shy and wary — more so than most youngsters. Each coyote, like each human, is an individual and different from the next. I’ve seen this one duck under cover if a person even looks at him from the far distance across a meadow. He ducks into the forest and can only be glimpsed now and then from between the bushes and trees. Maybe he’s just shy, but now I’m also wondering if he might not fit in?

A couple of years ago, in a larger family, I observed that one of the youngsters was shyer and more wary than the rest of his litter. He also seldom ventured into the areas of his park where there are people and pets, even though his siblings did when park patrons were few and the light was still, or had become, murky and dim. He didn’t interact well with his siblings: they played catch and chase and had wrestling matches, whereas this one would sit off to the side and watch, almost afraid to enter the fray, and then try to calm the exuberance between the others as though they were fighting and not playing — he did this by being aggressive. When they tried to include him in their play, he did the same thing. So the siblings just moved off a ways and continued their play. He was a loner who didn’t fit well into family life. He was dispersed soon after his first birthday. Is this is what is going to happen in this family with an “only child”?

A One Hour Peek Through An Opening In The Bushes At A Coyote Family’s Interactions At Dusk

I peeked through an opening in the bushes into coyote family life during the hour before their active life begins in the evening at dusk. This entire family was together: mother, father, uncle and one pup. There is only one pup in the family. The pup is super-well protected and superbly indulged by the three adults in the family: the third adult is a male from a previous litter who I will call Uncle, even though that’s not exactly what he really is.

The hour was spent in constant interpersonal interactions — there was not a moment when something was not going on or when some interaction was not taking place. Coyotes are some of the most social of animals, and their social life takes place via their intense family life.

The activities during this hour included Mom grooming Dad and vice-versa, Mom grooming Pup and vice-versa, affectionate play between Mother and Pup, all four coyotes aware of me and glancing at me in the far distance, Dad dominating Uncle — this happened continuously, Pup dominating Uncle who is low man on the totem pole, Uncle standing off to the side alone with ears airplaned out submissively, Pup hopping and jumping around trying to get others to play — as any only child might. And, most interesting, a sequence where Pup jumped on Dad (oops) with unexpected consequences and confusion.

Grooming, playing, cuddling and general interacting were constant activities (below).

This sequence (below) was pretty interesting because Dad ended up disciplining Mom instead of the Pup who caused the disturbance! Pup had jumped over — or onto — his parents who were lying next to each other. Dad either got confused and disciplined Mom — she’s the one lying on her back as he stands over her — OR, Mom’s growl at the Pup may be what Dad was reacting to. Dad coyote does not tolerate any aggression in his family, even from Mom. At the first sign of any antagonism or dissent, he squelches it. Dad is the oldest and wisest in this family, and the ultimate authority. In another family I know, Mom is the ultimate authority: every family is different.

Rigid status preserves order, but sometimes it’s hard to watch. Uncle is low man on the totem pole, and he’s made aware of this constantly: what is Dad’s “order” is Uncle’s strife and oppression.  There seemed not to be a minute that went by when Uncle was not reminded of it. It happened with physical put-downs three times in this hour, and in a more subtle manner, with glances, many more times.

Dad stretched, which meant it was time to go.

Dad stretched, which meant it was time to go.

As it got darker, the time came for the family to trek on. The move was signaled by Dad’s signature stretching. Dusk had settled in and their day was beginning. And my viewing time had come to an end because as they slithered away into the night, I could no longer see them.

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