FOOD: The Behavior Shaper

I’ve written this posting to clear up the difference between food-conditioning and simple acclimation — there seems to be confusion about these terms. 

This coyote pictured here has been listlessly hanging around, within five feet of a path in a park, where he dozes and waits for food to be tossed to him. Food is tossed to him off and on, so he is being rewarded for his efforts.  He has a family he could be with — a pup, a yearling and a mate — but food trumps that for this coyote. He should be hunting — but then again, why would he do that when food will just come his way if he simply lies here? In fact, I have not seen him hunt in a while.

There’s a person who feels he is “protecting” the coyote by letting people know he is not dangerous: “Look, I can go right up to him and he does nothing,”  he tells people multiple times, daily. I tried convincing him that his constant approaching the coyote is not helping matters. This guy also feels the coyote needs to be fed: “He’s hungry, right? or he wouldn’t be there begging for food.” Other people approach to look or photograph him with their iPhones, getting as close as 5-10 feet away: few people carry a good zoom lens which would allow them to keep their distance. And further: they then post the coyote’s location on their social media which draws in even more people to approach or feed and iPhotograph. The feeding incidents take a mere second: it’s hard to catch beforehand even if you are standing right there constantly, so the “no feeding” ordinance is hard to enforce.

I’ve been here educating, but I can’t be here all the time, so I’ve been soliciting as many people as possible to be ambassadors to help others in the area understand that feeding by humans and friendliness — which encourages coyotes to view us as potential feeders — are actually “faux amis”: they are robbing the coyote of his independence and survival skills, and encouraging him to lie around within 5 feet of heavy human pedestrian traffic all day. It’s heart-wrenching to watch if you know coyotes.

Some people have even asked me, “What’s wrong with that, after all, he’s not hurting anyone.” But others are more in-tuned and ask if he is sick, or even dead when he’s dozing off. A handful of people have admitted to me that they had been feeding the coyote regularly — they hadn’t known better — but now they do: they thanked me for the clear signs. The signs I recently put out seem to be yielding some results.

Contrary to what many people have been led to believe, the problem here is not caused by the coyote’s having become acclimated to humans. I know lots of coyotes who have become acclimated to our presence without ending up in our midst or as “problems”. In fact, coyotes throughout the city, in any urban area, are all acclimated to humans by definition: they get used to us because we amicably share the same environment, including in the parks. Be that as it may, almost all remain wary and keep their distance: coyotes don’t just up and start mingling with us simply because they’re in the habit of seeing us or no longer see us as fearsome. Why would they — what would be the draw? Nor is there any “progression” in this acclimatization behavior whereby they eventually come ever closer, and then even become assertive or even threatening towards humans. Yet some people promote this as a truth, using the word “habituation”. It’s a concept causing people to fear the presence coyotes unnecessarily. These people are actually confounding “acclimation” with “food-conditioning”. The two are not the same and have to be kept apart.

“Food conditioning”, when it occurs, on the other hand, especially over time, indeed becomes a problem, and that is what is going on here with this coyote. This coyote’s behavior was not caused by simple acclimation to human presence. The rest of his family does not behave as he does. It was caused by the consistent and persistent proffering of food by friendly humans, so that he now associates humans as a friendly food source. Also keep in mind that every coyote is different, so innate personality plays a role.



Words and their meanings. Exact word meanings are important when talking about such an emotionally charged subject as coyotes, where everyone has a strong pre-conceived opinion. Without using exact language you cannot convey what is really going on or how to deal with it, and this seems to be the case where the meaning of the word “habituation” which is supposed to mean “the diminishing of a physiological or emotional response to a frequently repeated stimulus”, has been expanded to include food-conditioned behaviors: wouldn’t that then be the “increasing of a physiological or emotional response”?  This confounding, then, attributes incorrect causes to certain behaviors. I’ll avoid the word in order to avoid tapping into anyone’s pre-conceived misunderstanding of the term. We need to understand these as two separate phenomenon: “food-conditioning” vs. simple adaptation to humans. I’ll use the word “acclimation” instead.

“Acclimation” is defined as the “the process or result of becoming accustomed to something new.” In this case it means simple “accommodation” and nothing more: the definition is congruent with the italicized definition given above.  Its effect has been noted in all animals including us. So, for instance, by living in the city, we humans learn to ignore and even screen out noises so that we need not waste energy worrying or reacting to something that isn’t going to harm us: these non-threatening sounds include sirens, a blown-out tire, fire-works, or even a rock band in the park.  Acclimation does not cause us to increase our reaction to those non-dangerous things we become accustomed to, it diminishes our need to react.

This is also true of coyotes. When coyotes become used to humans by adapting to our habitual presence — accommodating us — they ignore us because they realize that we are not a danger, that we are simply part of the environment that’s out there. They do not come towards us or beg for food or become aggressive towards us just because they have become used to us. Think about it: why would they? Getting to know humans and our behavior as we go about our normal and separate lives — without trying to intimidate or scare them all the time — actually creates calmer and, yes, LESS reactive coyotes! But scare them all the time and they’re bound to start showing their teeth self-protectively. Walkaboutlou has noted that if you treat coyotes harshly, they’ll become hard coyotes.

Watch the process as it develops to know what is going on: I have been watching specifically this for over 12 years — for coyote reactions over long periods of time from birth to people and our behaviors [dogs and pets are a different issue which I will cover later].

Wariness and keeping distant are actually built into coyote behavior naturally as you can see by the aversive behavior of all youngsters. But this can be trained out of them by humans: food is this behavior shaper. This coyote here is hanging around unnaturally close to human activity: this was not caused by his becoming acclimated to us. What led to this behavior is humans breaching the natural divide by INTERACTING with him first and foremost through friendly feeding. This, then, coupled with befriending, attempting to communicate, approaching, and even prolonged mutual visual contact exacerbated the problem by making all humans potential feeders. These, interactive behaviors by humans, and not simply human presence, are what alter the behavior of coyotes so that they may hang around close to human activity and even follow people in an attempt to get more food: for them, it’s an easier thing to do than hunting. Coyotes are opportunistic and towards that end are constantly pushing their boundaries to their advantage: if it is advantageous for them, they will change their behaviors.

And BTW, I have never seen feeding lead to aggressiveness. In fact the feeding that I’ve observed over time — and it’s always very friendly feeding — results in very docile, meek, and almost tame coyotes who hang around listlessly waiting for food to be tossed their way. They become nuisances more than anything else, and the situation becomes circular and perpetual. Most importantly, this situation could lead to more negative consequences in that this “proximity” could provide opportunities for these animals to grab a kid’s sandwich or even react to a hyperactive small child. My wildlife animal behaviorist contact says that “feeding changes the relationship between a wild animal and humans, putting them on a more equal footing with us, which, if the animal were to become desperate enough it might, potentially, ‘demand’ food from a human. This is not something that is a regular occurrence, but it has happened.” By feeding we are training the animal — shaping the animal’s behavior (talk to any dog owner to find out how food is used to train an animal) to hang around, which could possibly lead to demanding or intrusive behavior. Food is the behavior shaper. Friendliness abets the process.

IN SUM, ALL of the URBAN coyotes that I know are acclimated, and this is due to the urban situation and by definition: they become used to us because we are there –we are ever-present in the parks we share with them. Nevertheless, they naturally keep their distance and only occasionally cross paths with us. They learn to ignore us because we are not a danger to them. We are simply a part of the environment “out there.” This should not be a problem.

But SOME coyotes have been encouraged by people beyond acclimation, to INTERACT on some level with us and become absorbed into our world. Again, every coyote is different, so innate personality will also play a role here. THIS interaction then, is what is unhealthy for everyone: it breaks down the natural safety barriers that were innately in place. It is occurring more frequently due to a pendulum swing from too much fear towards coyotes, to too much love, primarily through feeding, compounded with befriending, interacting with, approaching,. . . . etc.

People need to understand that they are hurting the coyote by interacting — they are shaping the coyote behavior away from its natural state.. Please, always walk away from a coyote, not for your own safety necessarily, though for that too, but for the well-being of the coyotes. Understanding this process is helping many people change their too-friendly behaviors towards coyotes. However, when this education is ignored, maybe it needs to be backed up by enforcement with fines.

Coyotes, too, have attempted to initiate interactions with some dogs as we walk them — it’s a way they use for finding out about these dogs who they see as “intruders” in “their” territories. Coyotes and dogs generally do not like each other, and small pets, of course, can be vulnerable as prey. I’ll get into this in another posting, but it’s important to prevent engagement by simply walking the other way, away from a coyote. If a coyote has approached your dog too closely as you are trying to move away from it, this is when you’ll need to react more pro-actively with anger and intimidation. More on this soon.

Note 1: One of the rationales that has been tossed at me is that feeding coyotes will keep them from grabbing pets. I read where a neighborhood in Los Angeles put out dog food which apparently cut down on disappearing cats. But in fact, you may just be encouraging the coyote to hang around closer to where s/he CAN indeed grab a pet. Even in this case, you would still need to leash your pet to keep it safe especially from chasing the coyote, so why not just start here in the first place and work on keeping away from coyotes?

Note 2: I hope you noticed that this coyote’s ears are hanging low — almost “floppy ears”. I’ve noticed its persistence in fed coyotes. It has been noted by a Russian scientist that this trait grows, and eventually is inherited, as wild dogs, specifically foxes, become tamer. See the famous red fox study about this.

End of Summer Ranch Observations, by Walkaboutlou

Here are some amazing end-of-the-summer observations I wanted to share. There’s so much information here, lots of detail, and incredible insight, beautifully woven together into a letter. Enjoy and learn! Janet

Hi Janet,

Lou here. Summer is ending and I’m piecing together local coyote snippets and news and ranch situations. All told, very consistent with local human behaviors.

On the ranches where no coyote are hunted, (and livestock are cattle) everything seems very “stable” to minimal. Small litters of 2-5. Predictable vocalizations. The usual subtle background living Coyotes seem to enjoy. The scat in these areas is full of plum and apricot seeds, deer hair, tons of blackberries, and overwhelmingly rodents.

Overall, of course each coyote is a fluid and distinctive individual, subject to rapid change and stages.

But if my summer scouting had a theme, it would be the contrast of Coyotes behavior even in similar regions.

For example, non hunted coyote in cattle ranches (4000 acres or more) seem to develop small, stable packs and territory. The food and ecosystem are abundant in large ranches. If the cattle can range, grass grows leaving vast regions of insects, and rodents. The pups learn early to forage on grasshoppers, mice. Very predictable quiet patterns. Often seen in distance in diurnal behaviors. By Fall, usually 2-3 pups remain. (accidents and natural predators curb litter survival) Pups seem to want to hang with pack a year or 2. Also, prey is scavenged until gone. A deer dying from being hit by car (running off to die in brush) or fawns harvested are eaten and visited until gone. Nothing is wasted.

The contrast again in ranches that hunt coyote hard is almost shocking. I have determined large, sheep operations are very challenging for Coyotes to coexist peacefully. If it’s large, LGD can only be in so many places. Also, large herds of sheep graze the land intensely. The cropped grass becomes a giant short lawn, unsuitable habitat for rodents, insects etc..if sheep are grazing long, you’ll notice hardly any sounds of crickets etc…and blackberry bushes are cut by ranchers because sheep get entangled. So the lack of forage, food and cover changes the setting. Add to this intense human hunting. Very intense. The coyote often become nocturnal. The closely cropped land and human hunters do not favor open, relaxed foraging. There are minimal rodents. So the coyote tend to hole up all day and hunt far and wide very hard at night with time as a factor. And pressure. Another complication-large herds of sheep especially isolated always have old, sick, hurt or dead. Or a scattering of lambs in all directions. The coyote scavenge dead sheep, or prey on lambs. Their pups are weaned on sheep. The smell becomes embedded as food-and a cycle is created.

Other reactions caused by human pressure-non hunted coyote females pick a mate around 2nd year. Hunted female coyote often pair bond as yearlings. So daughter’s breed earlier and with larger litters in answer to hunting pressure.

The social ramifications are evident. Many ranchers will hunt and leave a coyote as a magnet for surviving pack members to investigate, becoming targets themselves. Only this doesn’t work long. Hunted Coyotes learn to truly leave the dead behind. Some mothers will not check out a deceased pup or mate. This detachment of survival to me is amazing but sad too.

Also, such hard living Coyotes show other behaviors. They quickly, hurriedly hunt. And more readily raid any livestock or pets that opportunities give. They often do not return to a carcass after one feed. They’ve learned hunters, greyhounds or snares are sometimes waiting.

Pups scatter and really practice independence by Fall. The long puppyhood of stable packs is absent in hunted coyote.

All in all, stable coyote packs and hunted coyote are vastly different. And unfortunately, the unpredictability of hunted coyote makes them unwelcome even among stable packs. They really are different. And bring behaviors that can influence others.

I wish I could just make everyone leave coyote alone. They would still be amazing. But we would see and learn so much more without ignorance or outright war. Coyote are definetly mirrors of the local humans. If I want to know about people’s culture/lifestyle/knowledge or lack of, the local dogs and coyote will inform me.

Keep Studying and Coexisting.

Lou🐾


Hi Janet-I did forget to add one element to my summer coyote scouting.

This pic off internet sums it up well.

In areas where packs of coyote live more or less normally, you’ll find more or less the usual range in size and color of coyote. Especially in West. However, where coyote are hard hunted and scattered year round, you will find some that obviously have more then coyote genetics. This goes in hand with younger females (yearlings) breeding and also lower coyote numbers. If they are hit hard locally, surviving coyote have no hesitation breeding with dogs, especially free roaming ranch dogs (often kelpie/cattle dog/collie types).

This, in turn, can create more variety in local subspecies of coyote-and no doubt affects some. Larger size or bolder demeanor are often traits of 1st generation crosses. They tend to be absolved back into wild populations. But are another aspect of hard hunted coyote.
In laymans words-if you take away a coyote’s mate and think she’s beat, she’ll just recruit your dog as her next husband. And the pups won’t be Lassie. Either way, coyote will turn the dice of man’s efforts into a win.

Lou🐾

Magic Experience With A Coyote Pup, by James Romano

Good morning!

I have to relate an experience I had with a coyote pup that was apparently separated from his family.

I am a tanker (fire bomber) pilot. I am currently based in Lancaster, CA on Tanker 107. On Tuesday morning, I was walking across the ramp from my aircraft to the crew shack and I saw a very young coyote pup sitting on the taxiway between me and the shack. I am guessing he was about 4 weeks old, +/-. He was all alone. I walked around him and sat down on the ground about 10 feet away from him. He was very calm, but was looking around – I assumed for his family. He was very weak on his feet, but otherwise looked healthy. He was absolutely adorable – cute and sweet as can be.

I am not a fan of making contact with wild animals because I believe it ultimately leads to their destruction at the hands of humans down the road, but this guy needed help. As I sat there, I invited him to come to me. After a short time, he did just that. He was only mildly cautious as he approached, continuing to stop and look around. I felt he knew he needed help, and seemed to be comfortable with my energy. He would start briefly as I moved my hand slowly, but immediately relaxed as he continued his movement closer to me while looking around.

Finally, he came to me and leaned against my right thigh. He allowed me to pet him immediately, and was calm and gentle as can be. He never opened his mouth or let out a sound. I gently pet him as I removed the fox tails from his coat. It was cold and windy that day, and I think he appreciated the warmth of my body and the protection from the wind. After a short time, I picked him up and placed him in my lap where I continued to caress and groom him. His coat looked good, but he was very thin. Pretty unstable on his feet.

After a time, a woman from the fire station came out to see why I had been sitting in the dirt for the last 20 or so minutes. When I showed her the coyote, she told me there was a vet tech inside that works on the base part time. I handed the pup over to her. He was very content to go with her.

The short story is the tech took him to Fish and Game. The plan is to get him healthy again and then release him in the same area. I am happy he gets another chance. I just hope my experience with him and his experience with the Fish and Game people do not lead him to be less cautious of humans.

It was a blessing to me to have this experience with this beautiful creature. It was a very spiritual moment, for which I am very grateful. The little soul had messages for me, which I believe I received. My hope is that he does not suffer in the future for delivering them.

I have some videos I took on my phone. If you are interested in seeing them, I will forward them.

Blessings,

James

[Post Script: Shockingly, James passed away unexpectedly a week after he sent me this wonderful story]

Hello Stranger!

Today, who should appear across a chain-link fence but this fella I knew well from a place miles away, but hadn’t seen in many months. Although most coyote families I document are long-time residents of their territories, a few leave their homes for greener pastures. What an amazing surprise! He saw me from the distance and came up to investigate, recognized me, and lay down in the grass facing me but on the other side of a chain-link fence. He remained there, watching me with soft eyes: closing his eyes repeatedly ever so slowly in recognition and acceptance, and I, of course, beamed inwardly and blinked back!

I stayed only long enough to snap a few record shots because I know this is denning time and coyotes don’t want their hideouts discovered. When I began walking away, he knew the visit was over: he got up and stretched and watched me go, and then he turned around and went in the other direction as I looked over my shoulder. He had come over specifically for a little visit with someone he recognized from his past life!

I suppose that I had been somewhat of a fixture in his life as he had been in mine: he had watched me frequently call out to folks to please leash their dogs when he was around, and I’m sure this coyote knew exactly what was going on: that I was watching out for him. I meticulously respected him and his space, and over time he came to know this: the trust and respect were mutual, which was confirmed by his coming over to see and acknowledge me with a, “hello there!” from way across the fence.

Humans Caring

These videos are old, but they tell a really sweet story of human kindness. We should all be aware that when we take over the environment for our own use, we inevitably destroy habitat for other critters. The human in this video, once he realized what he had done, does his best, and succeeds, in helping a youngster out of its dilemma. The event must have been terrifying for the youngster who was not used to humans, but through eye-to-eye contact might he/she have been able to read the benevolence in the big man? It’s how coyotes read each other.

The story: Two years ago, David Bradley was digging through a pile of bedrock to run through his rock crusher when he realized there was a coyote den right there. “On first breaking it open, 4 coyotes ran off. Going back for another rock I uncovered this little guy. The den had collapsed around him trapping him 5 foot below ground. Amazingly enough, even though I couldn’t possibly know that he was there, I didn’t hurt him, and when I moved the next rock he was just ‘there’.” The text continues, so make sure to read it beneath the video on YouTube.

 

Diverting Attention

The coyote had made herself very visible on the side of the hill during the early dawn hours, sitting there and watching the sparse activity on the path and street below: a few walkers, dog-walkers, workers and traffic. Whenever she spotted a perceived potential *threat*, she ran out onto the path in front of whomever she was worried about, forcing attention towards herself so that the youngster up the hill would not be noticed; or she ran onto the path in back of a dog to make sure dog was moving on. A couple of times she got too close to a dog and the dog reacted by growling and barking. But when the dog and walker moved on with a shortened leash, as I advised, that was always the end of it: this is what the coyote wanted.

I looked up and saw the youngster there watching the goings-on. When looked at directly, he moved to a bushier part of the hill and watched from behind the thicker foliage — this was a shy one.

Soon Mom headed down the street a ways while maintaining eye-contact with the youngster, and then she stood in the middle of the street, eyeing the youngster repeatedly. At this point, it became apparent that she was trying to coax the youth in her direction so that she could take him away from the open space. He was too fearful, and during her ten minute effort he did not come. So Mom returned to the hill and sat there close to the path, again drawing attention to herself apparently as a ploy to keep attention away from the kid. It worked: no one saw the kid except me while I observed.

By the next day, the youngster had still not left that space. Maybe reinforcements were needed to entice the little guy to leave, because now, there were two adult females with him. I spotted the three of them sleeping together on the incline before dawn.  The second female was much more reclusive than the first one — she made no attempt to serve as a decoy. Instead, she, too, remained as hidden as possible, similarly to the youngster, while the first female performed as she had the previous day. You would have thought that during the night there might have been a change in the situation, but there had not been.

On the third day, the lot was vacant! I guess the two adult females had accomplished their mission! The day before had been one of the few times I had seen that particular second female whose relationship to the family I have not figured out. Some coyotes are much more reclusive than others. Most likely, she would be related: either a yearling pup herself from the year before, a sister, or even a parent or aunt of the mother coyote. Coyotes are territorial, and it’s only family groups that live in any particular vicinity, keeping all other coyotes — intruders — out of the picture. This is one reason they feel territorial towards dogs.

An Incident: Embracing the Neighborhood Coyote, by Deb

Photo credit: Deb

Yesterday was bizarre. Early in the morning, while sitting in my car (getting ready to take my dog out) I observed a white male jogger stop near where our neighborhood coyote was lying hidden in the bushes. He was angry and started waving his arms menacingly as he quickly walked towards the bush.

The coyote froze for some reason. The man in a very angry tone started shouting, ”Get outta here you nasty thing”. Next he started kicking the bush.  I jumped outta the car & asked the man to leave the coyote alone — that he had been injured. He said, “Lady I don’t have to”.

At that point a Mom driving her daughter to school, stopped her car. She willingly took the time to talk to this man. She walked up to him and said she had seen what was going on and wasn’t going to leave until he did. What a gal! She was spectacular. Her name is Lisa. We exchanged phone numbers. At that point, she persuaded the man to leave. She is very fond of our neighborhood coyote as well — as appear to be most folks as they get to know about him!!

THEN, a neighbor, Jake, who lives across the street came out and said he wanted to help. He had seen the incident unfold while he was getting dressed for work. What is great here is how our neighbourhood community positively responded when we saw a mean person trying to hurt a wounded coyote.  I am proud of my community for quickly defending our wild neighbour whom we have become deeply fond of.

Previous Older Entries