Coyote Youngsters In San Francisco in January

Nine month old coyote pup

Nine month old coyote pup

Youngsters are approaching 10 months of age here in San Francisco. Above is a photo of one of them. They are still slightly smaller than adult coyotes, but seen alone, most folks would not be able to tell the difference.

Coyote youngster hides behind bushes

Coyote youngster hides behind bushes

If you are lucky enough to observe them in action, you will find that their behavior gives away their young age: they are more flighty, erratic, awkward, zippy and distrustful than older coyotes. They are curious but most likely will observe folks and dogs from behind a bush and at a substantial distance, as seen in this photo to the right.

Coyotes tend to play with their siblings, unless it is an “only child” — I’ve observed several one-pup families in San Francisco — in which case they play with a parent. Play is their main interest and occupation, and when they are together, they are constantly and joyfully playing roly-poly, pell-mell, tumble-bumble wrestle, chase and tug-of-war.

Youngsters are also good at entertaining themselves. I’ve seen individual youngsters play with an abandoned tennis ball for over 20 minutes, bounce themselves down a hill repeatedly, chase their tail — no different from your own pet.  They can also be seen practicing their hunting skills alone, though with substantially less aplomb than an adult.

Even if you don’t see a parent around, a parent is very likely to be close by keeping an eye on things, just in case a dog might try chasing. A parent will run in to its pups’ rescue if it feels the youngsters are being at all threatened. Youngsters normally take cues for their own behavior from the parent who is nearby.

Abandoned Coyote Dens in San Francisco

In San Francisco, coyote dens were abandoned by their occupants long ago — dens are used for birthing and for the first months afterwards before the pups move around much. After that, although coyotes return to the denning area, they sleep out in the open and in various locations. Here are two dens, no longer being used, which I saw on the same outing.

This first one shows an opening which has closed up a bit with debris due to non-usage. It’s a hole dug into the root system of a fallen tree. When it fell, the tree was sawed into pieces and left there. The upended tree left openings through the partly buried root system in the ground which the coyote then dug even further for its use as a den. The landscape it is found in is a small redwood grove, as seen above.

The second den, below, is one which was entirely dug out by animals. It is located in a scrub area which faces a protective forest. It may have been originally built and used by another burrowing animal. When the coyotes found it, they expanded it for their own usage. This den, as opposed to the one above, has an opening that has caved-in and opened up.  The opening probably had some kind of foliage hiding it when it was in use. It opens to the top and side of a hill and goes way back, with a ceiling which is about a foot under ground level. We could have found out more about it by destroying the den, but our aim is always to interfere as minimally as possible: hopefully a family will be occupying it next spring!

Every den is different. In urban areas, coyotes have been known to build their dens near buildings, under porches, close to roads and even in parking lots! Last year in San Francisco, one mother had her pups under a parked car in a driveway right off Capp Street at 24th Street, which are busy and noisy streets. This year a coyote gave birth in one of the public restrooms of Golden Gate Park!

Coyotes Use Dens Only For Pupping

It may come as a surprise that coyotes do not use dens year round. They use the dens to give birth to their pups and as a place to nurse their young — whelping. The pups move out soon after these beginnings, however, they retain use of the well hidden areas around the dens — these become their secret resting places. Most coyote families retain several of these areas for their use. The pups are moved regularly to escape flea buildup and as a safety measure. I think of  a coyote den as being similar in usage to a bird’s nest: it is a temporary “nursery”. However, the nest, if it is still somewhat intact, may be fixed up the next year to be used again. This is how the coyote dens I’ve seen work. People are constantly asking me where the dens are, and I have to respond that, unless they are having pups, there are no dens: coyotes sleep out in the open and can sometimes be seen doing so. See my posting of July 15, 2010: Sleeping and Resting Right In The Open.

The den is dug by both parents-to-be on sandy hillsides and steep creek banks, under logs or rocks, within underbrush and in open areas where the digging is easy. These are always areas chosen for protective concealment, but also, they are places that can be watched by a coyote parent from some distance, again for protective purposes. Not all coyote dens are made by coyotes themselves: coyotes sometimes dig out and enlarge holes dug by smaller burrowing animals, such as badger or fox dens. In suburban and urban areas coyotes may dig dens in golf courses or in other vacant lots, under sheds and under culverts and storm drains.

Dens are usually three to six feet below the surface and can run from only a few feet to 50 feet into a hillside.  The dug out tunnel leads to a large chamber, which often has a second or even more entrances that are better hidden than the digging entrance.  Active dens are hard to find because of the various entrances — and because coyotes are very careful not to lead anyone there. Coyotes have not one, but several dens which they move between, not only to protect the pups from predators, but also to protect the pups from the fleas and other parasites which build up.

A coyote will fiercely defend its den if it believes the pups are in danger, even charging full-grown grizzlies who came too close. This is why dog owners are warned to keep their dogs far away from coyotes during pupping season. Pups are born from March thru mid-May, and then are nursed for 4-6 weeks. But the end of nursing is not the end of “pupping”. I’ve seen mothers fiercely defend pups who are approaching two years of age when dogs go after them. It is best to respect coyotes and allow them the space they need to feel safe.

Here is a wonderful link to a video of pups emerging from their den for the first time, produced by BBC Worldwide. It is called Coyote Cub Singing, and shows a very young coyote pup producing his first high-pitched howl!! Also, see more, slighlty older coyote pups emerging from their den.