What Coyotes Do: Deliberately & Consciously Weighing A Risk

We were out on a trek this morning. I say “we” because I am allowed to tag along in the distance sometimes. Not always, and not even often by any means, but sometimes. Today I wasn’t given the “look” which says, “please don’t follow me”. It wasn’t an invitation to come along, but neither was it a “no, you can’t come.” So I tagged as far behind as I could without losing sight of him, as this male coyote made his circuit — or at least for most of it.

This is the last 1/2 minute of a 5+ minute howling session. You can hear *her* faintly in the distance at the end.

The day “for us” began with me finding him in his park howling in response to a siren as dawn broke. His mate responded from far, far off — barely audible, but distinctly her response. I’m sure he knew where she was. I did not, this time. She was obviously tucked away and safe, which gave him one less thing to be concerned about at that moment. So off he went, with me bringing up the rear at about 100 feet. It was very uneventful. We met few people or dogs and then only two at the very end of the trek.

Over hill and dale, within the park, we remained on a long path, he stopping to sniff now and then, and mark sporadically. At one point he pooped — diarrhea — and I wondered at the cause.

We came to the edge of the park, and here he paced along the edge of the road, watching out for traffic. Coyotes trek through areas much larger than their park territories — this is part of their daily behavior. As he began to cross the wide road, one car whizzed past. When this happened, he edged his way slowly and carefully back to the sidewalk, away from the car, where he stood very still and on full alert, with all of his senses focused and with every muscle taught and ready to respond. He had obviously gone through this experience many times and had learned to avoid the risks of quick-moving traffic. When the way was clear, still focused and tense, he crossed the road quickly and directly, and headed towards the long open space in back of the houses lining the street.

There were no fences between those apartments or between their backyards, so it was a perfect coyote-corridor. Here, he continued stopping, sniffing and marking the length of the very long block of connected apartments. He was always on alert. Sometimes he would stop longer at certain spots. Occasionally, nonchalantly, he turned his head, or head and body, just enough so that he could keep an eye on me.  This one knows I’m interested in him. He also knows that I’m not at all interested in getting close — it’s probably confusing for him. Other animals who would be interested in him would either be interested in him as prey, or in messaging him antagonistically. I simply didn’t fit the bill.

After about half an hour of trekking, he came to a fence with a plank missing. The gap was big enough for him to fit through. Should he try it? He spent well over a minute intently assessing the opening. His head would go forward and then he would withdraw it and look up and around in all directions, including at me. He did this maybe about 8 times, and finally, bravery won the day and he went through. I went up and examined the opening: the opening abutted the low support beams under a porch, and these were less than a foot off the ground. The coyote would have had to squeeze tightly and then bend to make it through. There was no chance for me, so I returned to the park, thinking my observations were over for the day.

But, within twenty minutes, who should come trotting up the path to the spot where I had first seen him howl in the morning, but Mr. Coyote himself! He continued along the path, now going in the other direction, somehow avoiding detection, between a couple of runners. He climbed a steep knoll where he then spent a few moments surveyed his domain — this “surveying” is a common coyote activity — and then he continued on his way, over hill and dale, through a field of waist-to-chest-high dense brush. I hurried over his lookout hill to the field below and was able to, at times, see his back as he slithered along, hidden by the bushes. When a dog and walker appeared in the distance, the coyote loitered behind one of these bushes until they had gone, and then he himself hurried along his chosen route and disappeared into a dense thicket, and I knew he had “gone in” for the duration of the day. His trek lasted a little over an hour.

slithering away in waist-to-shoulder high shrubbery

slithering away in waist-to-shoulder high shrubbery

Garbage Patrol

in a parking lot – rejected item – in the parking lot  
retained item – ten minutes of leaning up – peeing/marking

It was dark out, so the photos were blurry, and there was no feel for nighttime or darkness because the camera compensates for the lighting, making it look like daytime. So I experimented and came up with a lighting solution which really does give the viewer the right feeling I had when I took the photos — taken in the dark. Is this how things look in infrared? The tint seems to mask the graininess caused by low light.

Only about 2% of a coyote’s diet, as revealed by scat analysis, is composed of human produced items. Coyotes always prefer their more healthful, natural diet of rodents, berries and vegetation, but sometimes they indulge in “finds” for the change. Coyotes at times will visit picnic areas, trash cans and grocery parking lots where, if our trash is lying around, they will opportunistically pick things up for a special treat. I’ve seen them spit out stuff, so much of it is totally unpalatable to them. But some is enjoyed as you can see here.

On this particular evening, there was debris strewn in this parking lot, and the coyotes noted it as they trekked by. After briefly surveying the surroundings for safety, they did not hesitate to enter the area and went at it! Almost no one was around, and there were few cars — I guess the coyotes noted this, too, and that’s why they entered the parking lot. They wandered around, sniffing things on the ground — almost all of it was rejected and they’d turn their attention to the next piece of trash littering the ground. Finally I saw one of the coyotes pick up a plastic bag and run to the grassy edge of the lot with it. She spent a full ten minutes cleaning up whatever was in the bag. I guess that was enough for her because immediately left the lot after peeing on the spot where she had eaten. I have no idea what she had consumed, but  thought that it could have been the discarded portion of a burrito or sandwich.

leaving – walking down a street – about to cross street
something sumptuous found – keeping an eye on the moon? – rubbing her face
rubbing her back – crossing a street – body rub under some bushes

I followed her down several streets to a neighborhood residence where she went straight to a spot she must have known about, dug something up and nibbled on it. She stayed there eating whatever she found and looking around, and up, to make sure she was safe. She was there over ten minutes. My thought is that, since she went straight to that spot, she may have buried something there. When she finished she licked her snout, then went over to a patch of ground with grass only a few paces away and rubbed the sides of her face on it and then her chin. Hmmm — interesting! Then she got up and walked over to a bush which she used to rub her back against, back and forth: was she actually scratching her back, or was there an oder on the plant which she was trying to absorb? She then crossed the street where she found more shrubbery which she rubbed against and under, again, for a considerable period of time, as if she were wiping on, or wiping off, an odor.  Finally she trotted off, peed again, probably as a message, and was off and out of sight.

Trek, Far and Away, Beginning At Dusk

A few days ago, I was able to keep up with one of the coyotes I know as she began trekked at dusk.

caught a gopher

caught a gopher

She started out in a park where she found a gopher as she lingered, waiting for the day to fade. Then she headed out into a neighborhood street, with plenty of parked cars but no moving traffic. She picked up a couple of mice at the edges of driveways. She didn’t have to search for them — they were just “there”. She couldn’t have seen them. Did she hear them or smell them?  They were small and eaten quickly.

through a neighborhood

through a neighborhood

She then headed, decisively, to wherever she was going. She walked at a fast pace and kept her body high and tall — she was on high alert. She was amazingly tuned-in to her surroundings and the human world she entered as twilight set in. I’ve been told that pet dogs know their owners better than the owners know themselves. This is because they watch you all day! Well, coyotes don’t watch you all day, but they do watch us — from behind the scenes — and they learn our patterns.

middle of street

middle of street

She seemed to know where human perception lay, and that it wasn’t as keen as hers, especially at night. She knew when to stand still, when to duck down or simply walk behind a tree so that only part of her was visible — not enough to make her recognizable. Only one person saw her — amazed — “is that a coyote!” She stuck to the side of the road where she could duck into high grasses or shrubbery if she needed to — and she needed to three times, when three different cars went by. But she also wandered into the middle of the road several times, zigzagging right down the middle of it.

gopher in open space

gopher in open space

Her next stop was way down the street at an abandoned field where she hunted and caught another gopher. It took her only a short time to eat this, crushing the bones so the gopher could be consumed whole. Then she trotted assuredly onto a long church driveway. She seemed to know where she was headed. She moved along the driveway fairly quickly, stopping to sniff and “mark” in a couple of places, before climbing a hill at the edge of the church property. Here she hunted a little, but didn’t find anything.

dashing through a break in the traffic

dashing through a break in the traffic

She was now at the edge of a 6-lane thoroughfare. I thought she would turn back and descend the hill — but she waited there as the traffic whizzed by — she was hidden by the fading daylight and the darkness under dense trees. Then she took off — resolutely — across the street! “Oh, no,” I thought, “I’m going to have to watch her die”. But, as she crossed, the traffic magically parted for her. In fact, I was able to cross during the same brief break in the traffic. Her judgement and timing were excellent.  She got to the other side of the street and climbed the steep grassy embankment and was off down the next winding two-lane road. Please note that it’s much darker than the photos show — the headlights of the cars are on because they need them.

up an embankment through dense brush

up an embankment through dense brush

I exerted myself  to keep up but lagged behind because of the steep hill. When I got to the road she was now on, she was way way ahead — almost invisible in the dusk. I decided to give catching-up a try. I was able to do so because she stopped to examine and pick up some road kill — I think it was part of a squirrel. She carried it off to the side of the road where she was somewhat hidden in the tall grasses. This is when I caught my breath. She spent several minutes eating her find. She then descended from her hiding place and continued on her way, up the two lane road.  Her trajectory as I followed was in a single direction — far and away from where she began.  I wondered where she was ultimately headed. I would have needed night vision goggles to follow any further.

car headlights help me focus

car headlights help me focus

what you can see with night vision goggles

what you can see with night vision goggles

I actually tried on a pair of night vision goggles from my son’s lab. Wow! In a totally blackened room, you can SEE! What you see is a very clear and sharp black and green. I wondered how close these are to coyote night vision. Most of the daytime treks I’ve kept up with lasted anywhere from one to three hours. I’ve always assumed that nighttime trekking was a more substantial endeavor, maybe lasting all night. I wasn’t able to find out how long this one lasted because of my own inability to see. I turned around and went back.

Avoiding Danger: People and Cars

It was dusk when coyotes headed out on their evening trek. They followed the street line at first. Coyotes, like the rest of us, take the path of least resistance. Within minutes, the one in front stopped short, stood very still and listened. Yep, although you could not see them, there were people talking ahead. Better change to a less conspicuous route.

They took a path under a thicket, following the street line, but way in from the street, along the backside of houses and apartments — it was an overgrown green corridor never used by people. Soon they emerged from the overgrowth. The dim dusky light hid them well. Nonetheless, two cars stopped to observe, and commented to me excitedly. Everyone wanted them to be safe.

One of the coyotes headed to the sidewalk and street curb, with the obvious intention of crossing the street. Four years ago, this very coyote was hit by a car and remained lame for over a month: she healed on her own. She learned from her experience and now plans her crossings carefully.

She stood there, hidden on one side by trees and by a parked car. Cars, their headlights on, passed by pretty consistently. When there was no car in view, she used her ears to get a sense of how safe it was, and when a person walked by, she hid behind a tree and was not seen. She kept waiting as cars continued to come by. Obviously, in her experience, this would not be a good time to cross. She turned around and went up the hill and disappeared from my view instead of crossing the street.

The camera has compensated for the dim light in these photos: in fact, the coyotes blended into the background and were difficult to see in the dark.

Mapping Trekking Behavior #2: In An Urban Park & Woods

I’ve been mapping some trekking behavior lately. Here is a second trekking map. The mapping allows me to describe a larger, yet delimited chunk of time and space: where do coyotes go and what do they do? This trek was two hours long and covered an area of about 1/3 mile — as the crow flies — in an urban park with surrounding woods.  There were two coyotes involved.

During this two hour trek I took about 300 photos. I culled these down to 100 — but, I thought, who’s going to look at 100 photos? So I cut them down to 50 photos — but who’s going to look at 50?  Well, I needed 50 because I’m using the photos this time to tell the story — without any additional text except this introduction. Hope it works and is interesting! In summary: the coyotes explored, sniffed, marked, hunted, constantly communicated between themselves, waited for the other, avoided human and dog activity except to watch it at a great distance, played, looked around, hid, spooked at times, were wary of cars, were in the street, drank water, caught a gopher, did not catch a squirrel they went after, had a dog encounter, followed a dog. These coyotes saw 5 dogs with their owners during this trek — two of the dogs & owners did not see the coyotes. The trek included a couple of “dips” into “people” areas.

There are 50 slides, 12 of which are referenced to the 12 points on the map, so you’ll know how they fit into the trek: photos 1, 3, 15, 26, 27, 29, 32, 38, 39, 47 and 50. The lower map may be clicked to enlarge it.

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Trekking Map #2 [click to enlarge]


Mapping Trekking Behavior: In A Residential Neighborhood


I’ve been mapping some trekking behavior. It occurred to me that documenting coyote behavior during a larger, yet delimited, chunk of time and space would increase our understanding of them: where do they go and what do they do?

What is trekking? It involves the several excursions/tours, both short and long, which coyotes engage in every day. They use these outings to hunt, scout, mark, play, watch, etc. When they are not trekking, they may be just hovering around their home base or sleeping!

Keeping coyotes in sight as they trek along is not easy and can’t be done all the time. For one, I often can’t fit through some of the spaces on their routes. Secondly, most of their trekking is done at night — that’s when I sleep, and anyway, it’s impossible to see and even less possible to record with a camera. So, I limit my observations to times when there is enough daylight. Thirdly, in the wild, another critter would go in their direction only if it was a pursuing predator. I have to be careful how I keep them in sight. If I simply hang around in one location appearing disinterested, they ignore me as a fixture, but this is harder to do as they move along — and may put them on alert, altering the behavior I want to observe.

I have seen how they react to humans and dogs going in their direction, and it makes them uneasy:  they look back at them — almost glaring, they poop or mark with urine sometimes while looking at them, they hurry, they are not sure of themselves so they come to a standstill as if they can’t make up their minds how to proceed, they duck out of sight, they watch out of the corners of their eyes. I cut my observations short if I sense any of these signs of discomfort from them.

How much territory do they generally cover? The distance could be as short as 1/3 mile and as long as several miles or longer, as the crow flies. Of course, they do not follow a straight line, they turn back on themselves and wander in all directions, so the amount of territory actually covered is much more than a straight line from point A to point B. They are on the streets and sidewalks, on park paths, they go through thickets and brush, they are on playing fields and golf courses. It’s easy to lose sight of a coyote. I’ve learned to listen for ambient sounds and to use other clues to help me reconnect once I’ve lost sight of them, such as the alarm cries of ravens, squirrels or a red tail hawk, or the sound of a distressed human voice yelling “get outta here!” I’m also aided by patterns of behavior I’ve become familiar with over the years.

Charles has posted excellent observations on rendezvous/reunions engaged in by coyotes before their treks. It’s fairly routine and standard, unless a coyote decides to head off for a little lone activity.

Treks can last half an hour, a couple of hours, or, I’m sure, all night. My observations involve daylight trekking — always delimited by either dusk or dawn when I no longer can see.

The camera time-stamps all my photos, and, of course, the photos show me what is going on and where: it serves as a great notebook, and I don’t need to stop to write anything down! There is immediacy in my first-hand observations and, since I am there, I can pick up on so many things missed by “devices” of any sort. Devices, such as radio collars, cannot give you the full picture. They create one more degree of separation and removal from what you might be able to observe first-hand. They also cause irritations and can cause damage to the animals, including the process of capturing them to put on the collar. I admire the information that can be retrieved from these devices, but, personally, I think they should be used as little as possible.

Here is one of my maps showing time and distance traveled, and context. The photos above go with this map.

Trekking Map #1 [click image to enlarge]

Coyote Behavior: Coyotes in Neighborhoods

Dear Ms Kessler,

I love your website...and have enjoyed your writings on coyotes. I 
was wondering if you would be able to share some information. Most 
of the people-dog incidents seem to be related to meeting a coyote 
in a park area.

Personally, I am happy we have coyotes back in our parks, they are a 
special part of the wild bay area eco-system.

However, we have recently begun having incidents of coyotes moving their 
way through residential areas at night. Also, the established "family" 
of coyotes in the Fremont Older open space area (Cupertino, CA) have 
all but disappeared.

The "prey" at risk in our area in Sunnyvale, are cats. And, yes, I think 
cats should spend the night inside, but I guess it's not quite that easy 
for somepeople. Plus, there are "visiting cats" that kindly people try 
to take care of. Anyway, there have been a couple of incidents with the 
remains of cats being found.

In your research on urban wildlife have you encountered a website 
that might help me understand this migration? I am not saying these 
are the animals from Fremont Older...but it is odd that they seem to 
have disappeared.

The actual sightings of a pair of coyotes have taking place between
11p.m. and 1 a.m.  Perfect time for coyotes to be out doing there thing.
It could be we have just one pair of coyotes that are trying to set up
a territory(?)

However, there have been other sightings over in San Jose (Quito Road  
area) of multiple coyote individuals.

I would like to understand this phenomenon better...can you direct me?

Marcia Bacher
Hi Marcia —
Thank you for writing!!  I’m so glad you like the website! I don’t know your specific situation, but I can address generalities about various issues you raise. I’ve been mapping some coyote trekking behavior, so I’m quite interested in this topic.
Traveling through residential neighborhoods is a normal component of coyote behavior — their “territories” can be quite large. I don’t think you can keep them out of neighborhoods — it is their instinctual nature to trek substantial distances and check things out — they are constantly defining and marking their territories. Coyotes do move/migrate, but I don’t think they would leave Fremont Older unless they were forced out by a more dominant coyote group — in other words, there would still be coyotes there. They might also leave a territory if a larger predator moved into the area, such as a mountain lion. I’m wondering if human harassment, in the form of severe hazing, might also cause them to actually move away vs. having the intended effect of keeping them away from certain areas, influencing the times they are out or making them fearful of humans? — just a thought! Individual coyotes, when they first disperse, seem to have no territories, or they have very fluid territories, and they may wander more into newer areas.  
Coyotes have taken cats, but it is inaccurate to assume that every cat that goes missing is caused by a coyote. Cats were disappearing long before coyotes appeared. It is known that older cats frequently “leave” their homes when they sense their time is up — nature is humane in its own way in taking care of these animals. Raccoons also eat cats, and both coyotes and raccoons will eat cats that have been hit by cars — carrion — which they did not kill.  This being said, small pets do need to be protected.
To dissuade coyotes from doing more than just passing through, it is important not to have any accessible food available. Pet food should never be left out, and garbage should be well secured. All pets, particularly small ones, need to be supervised or kept indoors. Coyotes don’t see these as your pets, but rather as moving prey, like any other gopher, skunk or raccoon. Very high fences work — here is one of the best websites I’ve seen with practical solutions for coexistence: http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/coyotes.html
Why are we even seeing coyotes in parks and neighborhoods? Might they be learning that they are safer in these areas? Please remember that coyotes are shot from helicopters en-masse in “wilder” areas, or they are pursued by hunters. This murdering activity is, for the most part, not allowed in our suburban and urban areas. Coyotes which have discovered this new niche are benefiting from it.
I do know some academics who have studied, or are studying territoriality and migration. Professor Stan Gehrt of Ohio State University is doing amazing studies on coyote territoriality and social structure in the Chicago area where they have 2000 coyotes. Professor Ben Sacks of UC Davis has studied coyote DNA to determine where coyotes emanated from and what kind of habitat they eventually choose. If you would like me to search further, or contact these academics — I would be very happy to do so, since this topic is something I’m working on. I don’t know of any particular websites that go into this.
Sincerely, Janet
Dear Janet-

Thank you again for all your suggestions.
I read the State of Washington’s suggestions…very good.
Went to the Ohio State article about Professor Gehrt’s research in Chicago…
(That was really an eye-opener…WOW!)
I also looked up Professor Sacks published papers on coyotes.
And, after all that, I can only think we (in the South Bay) are at the edge
of “a change” in what we think constitutes our environment.
I have high hopes that it’s something people can adjust their think too,
without over reacting.
Thank you again.
Marcia Bacher

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