Playfulness of Coyotes


Being the social and family oriented animals that they are, coyotes who are “loners” — without families — often get . . . lonely!

Most coyotes eventually find a mate and live in families, but there is a time after dispersal– when they leave “home” — when they may be on their own, alone, and when they may miss the companionship they had growing up with their parents and siblings. Coyotes are often forced out of their birth families and territories by other family members. This usually happens between one and three years of age for various reasons, for example, when the smooth-running of the family is interfered with, because of growing competitiveness due to a domineering parent or sibling, because of new pups, or because of limited resources in an area. So the coyote moves out and on. Each coyote needs about a square mile of territory to provide for itself. When they find a vacant niche, they’ll fill it.

As seen in the video, this little coyote very definitely wants to engage with other canids — he’s running back and forth in an engaging sort of way, with his head bobbing up and down like an excited pony, and he even poses with his rump up and paws out front in the classical “lets play” stance which dogs use. But he’s also testing and assessing — notice that he does not fully approach the dogs who are facing him and close to their owners. He appears both excited and a bit anxious about initiating the interaction — there’s a push-pull of desire and fear.  I have seen short romps shared by dogs and coyotes, and then, the coyote is off — but the coyote may return day after day for this same type of  contact. Please beware that even a playful coyote such as this one in the video may suddenly nip at a dog which has been allowed to play with it: this just happened in one of the other parks where the coyote began to feel threatened or harassed and ended up biting the dog’s leg. We need to remember that wildness will always be part of who the coyotes are. At the same time, the coyote’s good will and good intentions can be clearly recognized.

The first coyote which appeared in the City outside of the Presidio (where they first re-appeared in the City in 2002) actually appeared on Bernal Hill in about 2003.http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Coyotes-usually-seen-in-West-spotted-in-2633779.php, and this coyote, too, was reported to have romped with one of the dogs.

Respecting the coyote’s wildness means keeping our distance and not allowing our dogs to engage with them. When a coyote eventually does find a mate, he may feel very protective of his chosen mate, of himself, and of his territorial claim from all potential threats, be they real or perceived. He’ll do so with “warning messages” in the form of body language. Sometimes this “messaging” is conveyed assertively, as with a nip. Think about it: how else might coyotes clearly get their message across? Know what is going on, and please respect him by keeping your distance. And know how to shoo the coyote away if he comes too close to your dog.

At the same time, be thrilled and filled with awe and wonder at this wildlife returned to the City! Coyotes are fascinatingly social and interact with each other in the gamut of ways we humans interact with each other, including through playing, through a full array of family interactions which show that they share many of our emotions, and through protecting personal and home spaces from dogs who  they consider potential threats.

Coyotes have been moving into all urban areas — into what we consider “human areas”. It’s interesting because we humans have excluded, persecuted and wantonly killed this species for so long. Our presence helps keep away other top predators which is why they may feel safer living among us.

Thank you everyone for trying to understand coyote behavior and for accepting them as a neighbors! To become more aware of coyote behaviors, watch the video presentation,  “Coyotes As Neighbors”. And, stay tuned! In a new posting which will be appearing here and on Bernalwoods.com within the next few days, I’ve addressed some of the issues and hype that have been appearing on some recent social media sites.

She Hides From & Avoids Him

I watched as the male of this pair searched for his mate. He wandered all over the place, looking up and down and over ridges, but he couldn’t find her. He then gave up and headed for the cover of bushes where he would spend his daytime hours. As he headed away, she appeared and watched him leave — he had not seen her. She then turned and went in the other direction, away from him, and into another brush area of the park. Was she hiding from and avoiding him on purpose? It looked that way.

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.

Hmmm. Not So Sure About the ‘Closeness’ Here

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Coyote pairs are becoming cozy again. It’s that time of year. They are spending more time together than in the last few months. Most of the time, both partners appear to be mutually involved — mutually attracted. But I wonder if this is always true?

I watched as the male (right) of this mated pair came out of the bushes and approached the female who was lying in the grass. Rather than joyful greetings when she saw him coming, she put her head down in a manner of *resignation* and waited. The greeting ritual here involved dominance on his part, and some kind of trepidation on her part. It was not the “ever so happy to see you” excitement that I’ve come to expect from other coyote pair greetings, even though those, too, involved a degree of hierarchical activity.

I wondered how often coyotes are in relationships that aren’t mutually desired?

This female seems to like her independence. She spends time alone on a hill where she hunts or rests curled up in a little ball. He, on the other hand, keeps himself less visible by spending time in the bushes during daytime hours. Whereas she always takes off to walk and explore on her own, he has a need to shadow her or wait for her, and when he looses her, say because of dogs or people approaching, he’ll look for her for a short time and then head back to his bushes at a slow and listless pace with head slumped down — one can’t help but read this as disappointment and dejection. Of course, they’ll meet up later in the evening, but he obviously wants to go trekking with her. She doesn’t seem to really care, and makes no effort to locate him after they get separated.

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.

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.

Vittles For the Family: Over River and Dale With Grub In His Mouth

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He caught this vole, killed it, and headed home. At one point, his grasp wasn’t right, so he put down his prey in order to carry it more securely, or, perhaps, more comfortably.

Then the long trek home began — it would be about 1/2 mile over stream & dale, field & forest, meadow and sports field. When he saw a runner, he hurried off the path until the runner had gone by. When he saw a dog pack and their owners — all dogs were unleashed, he ducked behind some bushes and was not detected. He waited there for what seemed like an interminable amount of time, though it actually was probably only a few minutes. Finally he re-emerged to continue on his way, trotting, climbing, hurrying to where he wanted to go.

He went fast — I couldn’t keep up, but I could watch him in the distance using the zoom lens of my camera, still carrying his prey in his mouth as he trotted homeward.

He had to get by one last walker, but this was close to a secret passageway where he knew he couldn’t be followed. So he made a dash for it, right across the pathway of the walker who, I’m not surprised to say, didn’t even see him! People are often preoccupied with their own lives and forget to look around.

The coyote continued up a cliff and down again into his secret alcove, where he would deposit the vole in front of a hungry little pup, or in front of the pup’s mom, who then herself would offer the prey to one of her pups. The coyote’s outing had lasted an hour, and his trek back with food in his mouth had lasted almost 20 minutes minutes. This is what coyote family life is about.

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hunting

trekking along with grub in his mouth

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