Beatings: Rank Issues Leading To Dispersal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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”?

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