Camaraderie and “Checking-In”

Although coyotes have nabbed raccoons and often work as a team to do so, our coyotes here in San Francisco usually forage individually because of the nature of their prey: small rodents, squirrels, voles, even birds, berries, etc. Even so, they often head out to hunt in pairs. They are social animals, so being together is as much fun for them as it is for us. They often become separated as they follow their noses to areas quite distant from the other, but eventually, they come together to “check-in”. When this happens, there is a little greeting and acknowledgement which consists of eye contact, nose touches, and sometimes some play.

These photos today are of a recently bonded pair of coyotes. Their relationship as a pair is new. Their regular “checking-in” involves more overt displays of joy than most: you can just hear them thinking: “I’m so happy to see you, I’m so happy that you are here with me!” Their interactions at this time are much more similar to what happens at an evening rendezvous, when coyotes come together after having been sleeping apart most of the daylight hours. The rendezvous is a very intense time of socialization between coyotes: there are wiggles and squiggles and joyous jumping over each other, chasing, lots of body contact, body hugs and love bites. Well, this pair greet each other in this manner after they’ve been apart for only 5-10 minutes! It appears that this new match was made in heaven!

A joyous game of chase and catch-me-if-you-can

Playful jumping all over each other

Hugs and togetherness in midair

Body contact even as they run off together

A provokingly affectionate teasing nip to the leg

Contact again, with a paw on his back

Background on these two coyotes: This pair of coyotes came together only several months ago. In her birth family, the three-and-a-half years old female had been an “only child” where her parents left her by herself hours on end, so she was used to being all alone. She dispersed early and became the resident coyote in her new claimed territory which had been left vacant by a coyote hit by a car several years earlier. Here, she remained a loner, and over time, began focusing on cars, humans and dogs for entertainment: coyotes are social animals, and with no other coyotes around, she made do with what there was in sort-of the form of virtual interactions. I worked with the community to discourage interactions in order to preserve her wary and wily wildness as much as possible. Education of this sort worked because most people wanted to do what was best for her. It appears that this coyote didn’t know what she had been missing in the form of “real” interactions until the male showed up. Suddenly, she was overjoyed to finally have a real companion! She is the one who displays the most exuberance and joy when they “check-in”.

The younger newcomer male arrived after having been dispersed — driven out — from his birth family in August by his own siblings who had formed an alliance or bond between themselves: there was no room for him there as an adult. Once youngsters disperse, I usually don’t see them again, but I have been privileged to reconnect with three of them after they dispersed. Once I get to know coyotes, they become easily identifiable through their very distinct appearances and behaviors. Of interest to many people might be that there happen to be “family resemblances” in some coyote families, no different from family resemblances in human families. This male came from a family of four siblings who used to play endlessly together through a year-and-a-half of age.

The play gets more rough and tumble, but is always affectionate

Jumping all over each other with hugs

“Ha ha, gotcha!” Teasing is how they display their connectiveness

Pulling him by his fur has got to be high on the list of tolerances between bonded coyotes

Only a good friend would allow you to grab him by the scruff of the neck with your teeth!

Pestering and Taunting: Sibling Rivalry


Sibling rivalry and discord are part-and-parcel of coyote families, just as are the formation of tight and everlasting bonds and friendships.

Here a younger sibling continues to harasses his sister (see Yearling Taunts) through body blows/bangs/punches or smacks. He seems to have a need to egg-her-on, whereas she just wants to be left alone atop the mound. This younger brother followed her there explicitly to taunt her and dives into his activity the minute she tries lying down. This is now an established behavior between these two.

No other coyote in this family engages in the type of body blows he performs at the beginning of this video except his mother. Mom is an expert at this, and this 8-month old pup watched and learned from her, and now uses his sister as his punching bag to practice his technique. Coyotes are keen observers: they learn by watching and copying. It’s fascinating to watch.

After the body bangs, the younger sibling continues to be “in his sister’s face” by yanking up dried sticks disruptively right next to her. He’s purposefully making himself into an utter nuisance and is probably hoping for a rise from her.

Eventually, a third older sibling comes to check out the activity, but he soon leaves because the disruptive behavior is not enough to warrant interference. This older sibling is very mild, peace-loving, and generally aloof from the first two, but he has occasionally been a disciplinarian when their behavior became too disruptive, and he also has approached the female to comfort her after some of the youngster’s harassment sessions, which lately are growing in number and intensity.

Coyote families are orderly, so growing disruptive behavior is not tolerated for long. This behavior will eventually lead to someone’s dispersal.

Sibling Best Friends Become Arch Enemies

I missed capturing the first skirmish in this battle, and when I finally turned on the video camera, the three coyotes were in a standoff — standing absolutely still, facing each other, tense, waiting, daring an interaction, prepared for the other’s next move. There was no physical activity during this time; the activity was all psychological and internal. They held this stance for many minutes. I cut out that long section from the video, but know that for several minutes before this video begins, that was going on. The video actually begins right before a snarl that leads to more fighting.

On reflection and with hindsight, all the activity of that early morning was headed in the direction of this showdown. Instead of their normally exuberant playing, exploring and hunting, the two coyotes I was observing in the video remained fairly immobile, with their eyes fixated on a far-off object which I could not see. That they remained this way for more than 15 minutes, with just slight movements, should have been a dead giveaway as to what was going on. These two were waiting for any false move or “moving in” from the coyote they were watching. And that coyote, no doubt, was watching them just as intently, assessing what his own next moves would be, and what theirs would be, possibly daring the situation into a showdown.

Finally the two rushed up apparently to head off the third coyote who decided to enter this area, and that’s when the first skirmish occurred.

The fighting here includes snarling, teeth displays, raised hackles, intense biting and punching, jumping on, charging and slamming against, and brutal tail-pulling by two siblings, a brother and a sister who joins him, against a third brother who cries out in pain (about :44) and fights back, but who ends up running off after the showdown. The sister’s behavior is interesting and I’ve seen this before: a subordinate coyote joins in the fray led by an aggressor in ferociously attacking a third. In a couple of cases it made sense because there had been a bit of antagonism between the two subordinates, but I’m not sure this is always the case. Maybe the sister was primed instinctually to team up with the would-be-winner as a population control mechanism? I’m speculating because I don’t totally understand this why a third would join in.

This fighting is not a simple family spat to resolve who gets what or who sits where: those issues are worked out by hierarchical behavior which is less intense. This fighting here, in its consequences, will decide fates and destinies that will be monumental for the lives involved. It will decide who gets to live a privileged continuance of patterns and routines he has known all his life and within a territory which he knows every inch of, and who will be put at risk for hardship, survival and even death by traveling away from the familiar and into the unknown through hostile territory (with unfamiliar routes, cars, other territorial coyotes, people), where food and water also will be scarce and hard to find.

That’s the physical side of what’s going on, but there’s also an emotional side: that of finding oneself all alone and self-dependent after a life of intense family interactions, companionship, and mutual care. Dispersal can be a trying time, and it is often initiated like in this video. This rivalry here hasn’t been going on for too long — these fellas were still buddies less than a month ago. The rivalry has reached a crescendo now. Hopefully the underdog is resilient and lucky and will survive and become a stronger individual through his uncharted trials.

Already the siblings in this family are down to three from seven. One was killed by a car when under a year old. Two were found dehydrated and beyond help (I’m told by ACC), probably poisoned by some human element — possibly car coolant left out in the open. A fourth female recently picked up and left amicably of her own accord. She was the one who had always held back and was not totally a part of the fun of the others.

And now it appears that this brother has to go: there’s no room in one territory for the two males, and the remaining sister has taken sides. Eventually these last two siblings will also leave, and I wonder if they will go off as a pair: I’ve seen that inbreeding is not so uncommon in coyotes. Because of dispersion, we are not overpopulated with coyotes. At this point, these particular yearlings are 16 months old.

Coyote Sibling Discord

These are two siblings who, until only a few weeks ago, were buddies and pals.  SHE is the older, by a year, and HE used to love hanging out with her, copying her, and watching her. I never saw any animosity, and the rank difference must have simply been understood: all small pups begin with a low in rank: they are small and they don’t know very much, so SHE was above.

Then, Mom belted the older female which I delineate in detail in a previous posting,  Beatings: Rank Issues Leading to Dispersal. This younger brother participated in the lashing of his older sister. Ever since then, the younger male lords it over his older female sibling who remains subservient, crouched to the ground and lower than her brother, yet she lets her true feelings be known with a snap now and then. The young male often continues these bouts of provocation for several minutes and then wanders off, but sometimes, he begins anew.

I still don’t know if the battle in the previous posting was simply a hierarchical one, or if it was meant to actually drive this female out: it was ferocious. We’ll find out eventually, but for now, she’s still there.

Father and Son

Coyote fathers are totally involved in the raising of their youngsters. Here, Dad and five-month-old son spend a few moments watching the goings-on around them before Dad then grooms the pup — probably removing ticks — and then son prods Dad for some food, unsuccessfully.

Hi Dad, Wanna Play?

The pup has received a strict and heavy-handed (and probably not-expected) retort and rejection to his enthusiastic, happy invitation to play. He responds, expressing his feelings through tucked chin, ears swiveled back, squinting eyes, tight jaw — not so different from our own painful grimacing to such a retort. The flopping over is rather melodramatic, but I know human kids who might have done that!  :)) I’ve seen coyote pups react this way many times — usually when they are conflicted: it’s as though all synapses fired at once without a clear outcome!

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.

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