Havin’ A Ball!

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I’ve chosen bursts of still-shots over a video for this post — this allows time to stop and savor each moment during an activity which was moving along so quickly!

Dispersed coyotes often become transients and loners, living on the margins, fringes and interstices of other coyotes’ territories. They are alone with no family to socialize with. They often get bored and lonely — but this one is havin’ a ball!

For entertainment, and to break the boredom and loneliness of a single’s existence, coyotes often engage in innovative play, including with found objects, such as poop-bags, crackling water-bottles or boxes, sticks, or even, as here, with a found ball! In the wild, without a ball to be had, coyotes toy with their prey in this exact same manner.

Playing hones fine skills and judgements, which could come in handy at some point. Innovative play helps the mind and body develop, and may help problem solving in the future, according to behaviorists.

Might it be that she was playing up to the several people who had gathered to watch — actually performing for them? They were thrilled, and she continued, only stopping when everyone had left (it was a workday, these were people on their way to work).

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 the 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].

Gravity

I first noticed this coyote when I saw her slipping down the hill as she tried hunting: she appeared not to have too much trouble in her battle against gravity, but I thought I would videotape it. Then she found a ball and discovered that she could use this gravity to help her play ball! She had a great time and put on an excellent show!

To combat their loneliness and boredom, *loner* coyotes — those that have dispersed from their families and no longer have a social group with whom to be social or play — often create amazingly imaginative play and games. Doing so not only helps fill the time with fun, it also stimulates their growing bodies and minds and helps them grow into more innovative problem-solvers. Most coyotes that I know are happy critters.

The video is a little long and becomes repetitive — I did not cut it because I wanted everyone to see how involved a little coyote could become in a game she herself invented.

Coyote Battles A Crackling Water Bottle

Coyotes are happy critters. Each has a very different family situation, history and personality, so no two coyotes will ever be alike. Here is a playful *loner* coyote. She was *dispersed* from her territory and family a year-and-a-half ago and has not teamed up with a mate, so she is alone.

Since coyotes are very social, what do they do when there is no one to socialize with — no family? How do loners spend their time? Many folks have commented to me that they see *boredom* and *loneliness* as driving some of their behaviors. Here is a video showing a loner coyote entertaining herself with a crackling water bottle. She treats it as though it’s dangerous prey.  She seems to really *get into it*. I have watched this same coyote play with balls, dead branches, clods of dirt, tossed packaging. I have seen other coyotes play with these same things and also pieces of human clothing or dropped children’s toys. It’s always thrilling to watch and somewhat infectious!

Many folks have told me that they feel as though the coyote was actually *performing* for the various onlookers, all of whom showed and expressed their delight at the coyote’s antics. Coyotes are superb at reading this kind of reaction, and may be spurred on in their play by it.

Dogs pass close by through *her* park shortly before the bottle battle began

Others see this play as *displacement behavior* of a very anxious coyote. Living in an urban environment creates continual stresses which may cause coyotes to *act out* some of their frustrations. In which cases are one and not the other going on? Or are there always degrees of both?  Whichever the case is, we’re trying to create the conditions that make our urban environments as hospitable as possible for coyotes so that survival is not a chore for them. Please follow the guidelines by reviewing the video, Coyotes As Neighbors.

An Exuberant and High-Energy Pre-Dawn Play Session

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Coyotes, like we humans, go through mood swings, as can be seen by their behaviors. On this particular morning, this young coyote was in a very happy mood, and showed this by racing around wildly in circles — it was a spurt of sheer joy and energy.

Then, a clod of dirt was energetically and excitedly dug up and tossed into the air. It became a toy which was chased, and jumped after any number of times.

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And then a plastic water-bottle was found:  It cracked and crackled loudly when it was (warily and distrustingly at first) pounced on or bitten, rubbed on or stepped on. The coyote seemed to love producing the sharp sounds.

When coyotes find themselves alone, they often play and entertain themselves, and often they use found objects as toys. This young coyote is one of the loners in the city who has not yet claimed a territory nor found a mate.

[Note that it was before dawn when I observed this and took the photos. I’m surprised my camera even caught these images in the dark. I was able to increase the exposure once I got home, so you actually can see what is going on!]

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The Log Wobbled From Under Her

Have you ever stood on a log and then had it wobble out from under you because it wasn’t as solidly planted as you had imagined?

Perching high on a log for a view

Perching high on a log for a view

So, I watched this happen to a coyote. She stood on a log for a better view — coyotes like perching high for good views — and watched the world go by. Coyotes are sure footed, but how could she have known that the footing of the footing was not a sure thing? It wasn’t. The log began wobbling under her weight, and then she, too, began wobbling. She lost her balance and jumped off to investigate. She pulled and tugged on the log, this way and that, and finally she pushed it and it began to roll down the hill.

She, as we would have, watched in amusement as it rolled off. Unlike us, she went after it — maybe she was thinking, “tit for tat”? First she chased it, then she bit at it a few times — “take that!” “It’s not nice to play tricks on wildlife!” And then she pushed it with her front legs and it rolled some more, with her chasing after it.

Coyotes are particularly fun-loving and know about tricks. They play tricks on each other, and tease each other all the time. So maybe this young coyote — a loner without a family to interact with — was just doing to the log what she would have done to a sibling had she had a sibling around.

Or maybe she just really wanted a peaceful perch from which to view the world, because when the log stopped rolling at a pile of brush which would have blocked her view had she tried to get up on it, she found another perch and remained there, doing what she had wanted to do in the first place: watching the world go by!

Ahhh, here's another log that can be used for a lookout

Ahhh, here’s another log that can be used for a lookout

Playing Coyote, by Audrey Chavez

“My friends and I were delighted to witness a lively urban coyote enjoying a morning romp with a tennis ball.  We felt so fortunate to have the opportunity to observe a wild animal at play.”

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