The Gypsy Coyotes Continue Their Peregrinations

Some coyote individuals compromise their reclusiveness and wariness when food is around: they are opportunists after all, and what comes easy they’ll latch onto. However, pups are not something they are willing to compromise for: pups are coyotes’ biggest kept secret.

Two years ago, this coyote pair raised pups here in one of SF’s smaller parks. The coyotes had been tamed by feeders who not only fed them, but befriended them to the degree that the coyotes would wait around at the park entrance for handouts, as close as 5 feet or even less from people and their mostly leashed dogs. But unleashed dogs went chasing after the coyotes on a regular basis, making the coyotes very uncomfortable. The pups of course were kept totally secret, but I suppose dogs and people came close enough, often enough, to the secret den so that Mom decided she didn’t want to repeat the stressful experience.

The pair played like youngsters at dusk, while the youngsters remained secretly hidden from dogs and people — this was in 2017, when few folks saw or knew about any pups in the area. Notwithstanding, the adults were pursued by dogs regularly.

So last year these parents left that park for the duration of the pupping season, in spite of the plentiful supply of food there. They ended up raising their family at another, even smaller, but much more secluded location, where there were fewer dogs and fewer intrusive people. The problem with the new location was that it began being hugely developed and cleared for building purposes, and its diminished natural area became too small to accommodate the family.

So at about the age of six months, the youngsters began navigating back and forth, at night, between this smaller location and the “feeding/dog” park, making it obvious that this family claimed both areas — about a mile apart. Theirs was what is known as a “fragmented” territory.

But there at the old park, the number of incidents of unleashed dogs chasing and attacking coyotes grew, to the point of leaving coyote adults and pups with leg injuries. Some people felt entitled to not leash their dogs and went so far as to claim that the coyotes were playing with their dogs — that the coyotes “liked” being chased by dogs. In addition to the menacing dogs, other coyotes began appearing at that park in the middle of the night, so by the end of the year, we suddenly began to hear territorial fights between the resident coyotes and interloper coyotes at night. The territory would obviously not do as a pupping area for next year’s litter.

Last year’s litter were kept secret at first

This was the situation when, again, the coyotes picked up and left in January of this year.

Their exit, as in the previous year, was orchestrated by Mom. For months before their departure, she was the one who went out each evening, traveling far and wide, mostly alone, but sometimes with her mate, surveying for a more suitable location for her next litter. When she found the right spot, she returned to gather her mate, and with one yearling in tow, off the trio went, traveling through some of the same open spaces they had been through the year before — spending about two weeks at several of these — before packing off to the next temporary 2-week place.

The one yearling they brought with them.

Finally, they settled down, a full 5 miles from their previous two pupping haunts, but still within the City of San Francisco. This is where it appears they will stay to have their pups this year, due in only a few weeks. Human fast-food toss-offs can be found even in this new location, but best of all: dogs are not an issue here since there aren’t any, and humans give them the respected space they need to live more natural lives. It’s not as easy as you might have imagined being an urban coyote.

The expectant parents, Dad grooms Mom

Moving Around

Maybe you’ve been noticing coyotes where you haven’t seen them before? Or maybe you haven’t been seeing them where sometimes you did? These are the same coyotes. There aren’t suddenly more of them right now, even though it might APPEAR so when they appear in never-before-seen areas. Those I observe have recently been spending less time where they were, and more time roving. They aren’t just wandering aimlessly about: they have purpose to their gait, and intent to their direction. Here is a gallery of travels as I’ve recorded some of them. In this casual gallery, I’ve included photos of a red dawn, a red dusk, and a rainbow which I captured during my recent outings. [The rainbow photo has been enhanced with the “saturation” button — a rainbow is never as brilliant as this, but the dawn and dusk photos have not — the sky really looked like this!]

What are the coyotes actually doing? Those who have left home are searching for new areas for themselves at the same time that they are being driven away by established resident coyotes with territories: they are having a hard time. The resident coyotes, on the other hand, are getting things in order for the next big event of the year: pupping season is just down the road. They are surveying every nook and cranny of their vast homesteads for safety from other coyotes and from dogs and people, they are checking out the food supply, and they are scouting-out the safest den sites in out-of-the-way places where they can hide their precious new arrivals for many months. Pups are one of their best-kept secrets. I make it a point to stay far away from any area where I know there might be a den — this is what coyotes want or they wouldn’t take pains to hide their youngsters so well.

So lately I have been seeing them fleetingly and on the move in a variety of novel places. Folks have recently reported that they’ve spotted coyotes in their yards or even on their porches, or down the street where they hadn’t seen them before.

If you see coyotes where you haven’t before, know that this is normal behavior. Coyotes are regularly in the surrounding neighborhoods of our various city parks, and sometimes, as now, there appears to be somewhat of a spate of such activity. They are not coming after you. It’s not an invasion. They are simply minding their own agendas which have nothing to do with us. Please make sure to continue keeping your distance from them, and always walk away from them, especially if you are walking your dog [see “How to Handle A Coyote Encounter: A Primer” for more on this]. It’s best not to let pets wander freely or unsupervised, and if you don’t want coyotes repeatedly visiting your yard, please remove all food sources!

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.

Beatings: Rank Issues Leading To Dispersal

Summary: I describe a beating and associated behaviors that appear to be leading to dispersal, and I speculate about the role of hormones in this process.

The evening of observations began uneventfully: three coyotes sitting in various locations, within view of one another, but several hundred feet apart. Then a siren sounded. Mom got up and after a moment of bobbing her head up and down emitting a few barely audible grunts — a sign that she was thinking of howling but hadn’t quite arrived there yet — she began to howl. Interestingly, the normally enthusiastic female yearling did not join in, and the 6-month old male pup only produced one long clear note and then stopped. These are the three coyote players in my posting today. “Okay”, I thought, “something’s going on.”

The next thing I know, Mom walks over to Yearling Daughter who, upon seeing her mother coming towards her, crouches low and remains motionless with a fearful expression on her face. Mom walks stiffly and stands over Daughter threateningly, with hackles up, stiff and erect tail, teeth bared, lips curled back, and narrow-slit eyes. With only minor repositioning of themselves, they remain this way for over a minute,  though it seems like forever. During a millisecond of Mom’s inattention — though Mom may have allowed this — Daughter slithers out from under Mom, crouching low and keeping her rear-end tucked in. Looking at these photos later, I could see that before I had arrived in the park, there had been a battle: Daughter had a bleeding mouth and a bleeding tear under her chin.

Six-month old male pup then walks over to his older sister inquisitively but leaves it at that, and then all three coyotes walk away from one another and lie down again in separate areas. Eventually, Daughter rises and heads over to join her younger brother, possibly for the greeting which hadn’t taken place a few minutes before.  As she does so, Mom immediately gets up and jolts over to them, and as she does, both offspring descend into the sand pit and I’m cut off from seeing them for a few seconds. Immediately, I hear a squeal of pain, and growling and shuffling in the sand pit. I run over and take this intense video:

Not only is Mom beating up on Daughter, brutally shoving her with the side of her body, hovering over her, punching and biting her, but her 6 month old son — normally a buddy of Daughter’s — has followed Mom’s lead and is doing the same thing, just as fiercely. The scene is intense.

As seen in the video, finally Daughter extracts herself and runs off, but Mom races after her and slams her down one more time, in a way that suggests, “You better just watch yourself”. Daughter sits still, appearing to shrink into herself for protection and maybe to make herself look smaller, and finally she is left alone. She then runs off, distancing herself from her mother and lies down to rest. Now I’m able to see her numerous fresh wounds, and I can see that she’s utterly dejected. She puts her head down and closes her eyes several times.

Meanwhile, Mom heads back to sniff the areas where the altercation took place, and then walks intimidatingly past the daughter who remains prone and still, hugging the ground, so as not to further raise her mother’s ire. 6-month-old pup keeps his distance from both coyotes. Sirens sound again, and this time Mom and 6-month old pup hop up and howl, but the normally spirited little Yearling Daughter does not join in at all. I don’t know if this was of her own accord, or if she had been *told* not to participate.

After a time, Mom and son head off on their evening trek. Daughter watches them go and remains where she is as the two of them disappear into the distance. She then gets up and goes the other way, limping, and ends up in some tall grasses, where her yearling twin brother comes by and touch noses with her. The 6 month old pup reappears and, true to form, follows the older brother’s lead in touching noses with her. Is the 6-month old simply conforming to the behavior of his elders?


Associated Observations and Speculations about the role of hormones in this process:

Coyote yearlings are maturing into adults with increasingly independent drives which appear to be upsetting the established social order in their families. Coyotes live in highly structured families on exclusive family-owned territories. They have a rigid hierarchy for maintaining social order and for maintaining territories with low population densities. Here are some of my additional observations of behaviors that appear to be associated with the beatings, along with some of my speculations.

1. Yearling Daughter appears to have become too independent and too much of a leader. She has been out in the forefront often, leading the others. For instance, it’s this daughter who has figured out where scraps of food can be found, and she always gets there first and eats first, and she’s the one who leads the others there. Could this type of upstart leadership be a threat to Mom, and might Mom sense this as a threat to the whole family?  Aside from the leadership question, might Mom consider that particular location dangerous (having dangerous dogs or people) and therefore warrant putting an end to going there? One of the recent *beatings* took place at this location. The result: Daughter does not venture over there anymore.

2. Youngsters are disciplined in order to maintain social order.  The discipline is often severe: tough action speaks louder than tough words! In the video, Mom’s harsh lashings could be aimed at squelching an intensifying hierarchy dispute between the stronger yearling and her 6-month old sibling.  Younger son’s participation may simply be *getting back at* his sister for previous incidents against him. However, the picture actually looks much bigger than this one incident.

3. Deference towards Mom by Daughter has been sliding recently. Kowtowing and submission is now being forced by Mom instead of being a willing component of the daughter’s behavior.  Interestingly, mom no longer grooms Daughter, even as she continues to groom all her other offspring, be they yearlings or this year’s pups. Is the mother distancing herself from this offspring? Mom’s “beatings” as seen in the video have served to demote the female to lowest man on the totem pole — even below the much younger 6-month old son. Ever after I took the above video, Mom, if she’s there, puts Daughter down for pulling rank on ANY of the other family members. The 6-month old pup has taken advantage of the situation to actually prod and poke his sister — literally. The 6-month old pup isn’t smart enough or strong enough to dominate his sister yet, but with Mom’s presence preventing Daughter’s reaction to the prods, he seems to have climbed above her in rank. So, Mom has knocked the female yearling down a few notches in her relationship to all others.

6-month-old brother, in the middle, has just prodded his yearling sister by poking her with his paw.

4. And, ever since the beating in the video, Daughter takes off running whenever she sees Mom coming from the distance, and most of the time sits on a little knoll far from the rest of the family when the rest of them congregate. Mom’s (and 6-month-old son’s) persistent antagonism is leading to Daughter’s increased isolation and exclusion from family events, though she still joins when Dad around.

5. The hierarchy issue appears big, but the ultimate result might be dispersal of the yearling, unless things change. Driving youngsters out is called dispersion, and it’s necessary, not only to keep the population numbers low enough to insure there are enough resources (resources are always scarce) for everyone who remains in the territory, but also to insure the smooth functioning of the family unit. There is no room for upstarts or two alphas.

6. Reproductive competition may be one of the biggest factors in the beatings and then dispersal. I’ve seen this same antagonistic behavior in another family between a mom and her daughter, and in a family between the father and his son. In all cases, the *upstart* yearlings were demoted to the very bottom of the established family hierarchy. I’ve observed that it’s mostly the mothers who drive the female yearlings out, and the fathers who drive out the males, though I remember seeing one  father drive a daughter out. It makes sense: the dads do not want reproductive competition from a son, and the females do not want reproductive competition from a daughter.

SPECULATIONS, in the yellow box below, for those who might be interested in the hormone (or pheromones, as in urine) question:

7. SPECULATION ABOUT THE ROLE OF HORMONES: It has occurred to me that the *beatings* and *intimidations* may go on for another reason which falls short of actual expulsion of the youngster female from the family. We’ve all heard that, in any coyote family, only the *alphas* reproduce, yet yearlings often are allowed to stay in the family. Why don’t they reproduce? The *reign of terror* as you can see from the above video, is pretty strong. Although this would have to be explored by an endocrinologist, I do know that fear causes cortisol to rise in animals, and heightened cortisol, in turn, inhibits the production of reproductive hormones. Could this be causing the beta adult females in any family to become temporarily sterile? In this case, the *reign of terror* by the mother would be geared to insure that only she, the mother, the alpha female, will be reproducing within that family. Food for thought.

8. FURTHER SPECULATION: Could Mom’s behavior be triggered by her sensing a competitive hormonal state in her daughter? I’m throwing this out there as a possibility because, in this and in another family where I observed the same beatings, the mom was particularly interested in smelling the reproductive areas of her female daughter. It would be interesting to investigate this if it hasn’t already been.

If it is possible for menstrual cycles to align themselves when all-females cohabitate (all-girl dorms and nuns), it might not be so far-fetched to think that some form of hormonal communication could be occurring between female coyotes, and could be a factor in adult beta females remaining *behaviorally sterile* within coyote families. For instance, could one female’s strong hormones act to inhibit those of another proximate female? An alpha with strong hormones would be able to retain the status quo, but what might happen if a youngster’s hormone levels surged in response to Mom’s weakening hormone production as she ages? Would a mother’s *reign of terror* raise cortisol enough to scare a youngster’s endocrine system from producing?

There’s one more interesting factor here associated with hormones, I think. Females go into estrus and reproduce only once a year. The odd thing is that males, too, only produce sperm — spermatogenesis — at that one time of year. What triggers their overlapping schedules? More food for thought.

9. For the purpose of this posting, I’m not going to get into the different personalities and histories of each coyote in the family except to mention that *Dad* in this family has a fondness for all his pups and indulges each and every one of them: he grooms them, nuzzles them and shows them affection. The same affection is not conferred on Mom — he appears to have chilled towards his mate who he sometimes prevents from grooming him and who he never grooms: her advances for purposes of grooming/affection and even rank confirmation/testing seem to be rejected. In addition there frequently are growls and teeth baring between these two, including at his initial interactions with the yearling daughter. Simultaneously, Dad seems to soothe and comfort Yearling Daughter after Mom’s attacks sometimes.  Might all of these little behaviors cause Mom to feel competition from Daughter? It seems to me that this could be a contributing factor in the alpha female’s need to drive Daughter to the lowest rungs of the group and maybe off.

10. The phenomenon of territoriality keeps the population density down. The territory in the case of this family is a golf course. You might think that golf-courses are large enough to be home to many coyotes and that they are ideal habitat, but they are not. In this particular golf course in the past, there was desperate internecine warfare between two coyote families. I’m told that the puppies of one family were killed off: this shows how severe the battles can be. There is room for only one family and the other family was forced to leave.

Golf courses are kept for golfers, not for coyotes, so overgrown foliage areas where rodents might live are cleared out regularly. The lawn/turf areas are not much better than plastic astroturf or concrete in terms of the foods they supply: they are cleared of gophers on a regular basis with one-way traps which break the gophers’ necks: not a pleasant death, but the point is that gophers are eliminated, and gophers happen to be one of the coyote’s staple foods here in San Francisco. So a golf-course serves mostly as a home base, not as a food gathering area. Coyotes trek further afield for most of their sustenance, into neighborhoods and other open spaces and parks. Coyotes actually trek further than their claimed territories, be they parks, golf-courses, or open spaces, no matter how dense the resources are. I’m simply suggesting that golf-courses are not sustainable food areas for coyotes.

Territories (home bases) and surrounding ranging lands only support so many coyotes: the population is kept low through the phenomenon of territoriality, as far as I’ve seen. In any one territory, grown coyote pups eventually disperse, or leave the territory between the age of one and two years usually, and those that don’t leave are betas who do not reproduce.  Dispersal is necessary to keep the population numbers low enough to insure there are enough resources for everyone who remains.

12. What’s fascinating about this video is that the 6 month old pup has joined his mother in beating up his elder yearling sister just as vehemently as is the mother is. He’s always been a buddy to his older sister, following her, copying her, the two of them grooming each other, and she coming to his rescue/defense whenever she felt he was in danger. Now, suddenly, he has taken on his mother’s behavior and ganged up on his older sister. His survival, of course, depends on his aligning himself with Mom. And it is through copying that coyote pups learn. So, the sister gets beaten up. The sister is clearly traumatized both physically (see wounds I’ve circled in the photo), and emotionally. Puppy also suffered collateral damage, but only physically.

11. After the beating, the Yearling Daughter wanders off to be far away and acts dejected. Do coyotes have feelings? I myself have no doubt. You can figure out how they feel by the way you might feel under certain similar circumstances (see some of Carl Safina’s videos). This is not anthropomorphizing in the sense that purely human characteristics are placed on animals. These animals actually have these feelings which are best described by the language we use to describe our own emotions. However, it is anthropocentric for humans to believe that they are the only ones who feel things. Finding similarities is what helps people relate to wildlife — we need more of it, and less of a divide than what some academics have clung to. The new models are Jane Goodall’s and Carl Safina’s. More and more scientists are seeing animals as sentient beings who share many of our own, or very similar to our own, feelings and emotions.

The young female coyote has gone off to be alone, far away from further parental and sibling torment. The normally perky and energetic youngster here puts her head down, as though defeated. She stays off to herself. She doesn’t joint the next howling session. She doesn’t join the family for their rendezvous and trekking session. In fact, she trots in the opposite direction: she’s been excluded from participation in the family — shunned. Remember that family life is what they live for.

So she can’t join the fun and games: you can tell she wants to by the way she lurches forward just a little sometimes and then restrains herself. She behaves exactly like my dog when he’s been told to sit/stay, yet he wants to join the rest of us.

As I left the park this day, I heard loud squawking and branches rustling strongly in the branches way above. I looked up to see a red-shouldered hawk fighting with another red-shouldered hawk, and I wondered if dispersal was in the air. Nature is not always as kind or sweet as many of us might want to believe: it has its heartaches as well as its joys.

The Older Man No Longer Hangs Out In The Open

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This older man, King of his territorial domain, no longer hangs out in the open where folks and dogs can see him, the way he often did when he was younger. He’s King because he’s the alpha leader of his family group: either the female or the male breeding pair can be dominant over the others, and in this case it is him. Coyotes hang together in families, not as unrelated members of a “pack” — which is what feral domestic dogs do — and the coyote families “own” their territories from which other coyotes are excluded.

This fella is wiser than ever due to his age and experience, and he now prefers safety to beating his chest. He has been through his fair share of injuries — these are unavoidable in the wild, even in the “urban” wild — and they’ve taken a toll in his response times, both physical and judgmental. Injuries are constant in everyday life: they come from fights with raccoons, during hunting when bites and twists and scratches are endured, from human-made items in the environment, including debris that can cause lacerations and cars. In addition they are subject to a number of diseases and parasites, both internal and external which are ever-present in a coyote’s life. He’s almost 7 years old, which is pretty old for a wild coyote, though I’ve known some who were older.

As coyotes get older they fit into their urban setting better. They’ve had time to learn the ropes and learn what is a true threat. So, although this fellow still sometimes comes out from hiding in the bushes to defend other members of his family who are harassed by dogs, and although he still may, rarely, follow a dog he feels is a potential danger to his family to make sure the dog leaves his critical areas, for the most part, the only time I see him is when he’s navigating from one of his hideout locations to another, or hurrying along as he carries food at twilight to his family.

This progression in behavior as a coyote gets older is a normal development. However, it’s not the way all coyotes progress. Each coyote is an individual — same as we humans — and there’s no predicting what path they may take as they age. I watched one female alpha leader actually become more assertive and visible as she aged through her 9 years. Maintaining a visible presence and standing up for her territorial claim was her way of letting others know — coyotes and dogs — that she was Queen of her territorial domain.

Regarding visibility of youngsters, I’ve seen mellow youngsters hang out in a field only as long as there was not a lot of human and dog activity in the park — when that activity picked up, they fled into the bushes. And I’ve seen others ready to take on any comer (any dog) who ventured too close to where the family was hanging out, becoming “front men” (the “linebacker” so to speak) and putting themselves at risk for the safety of their family.

Dispersion in Progress — with complications

in happier times: male youngster resting with sibling

in happier times: male youngster resting with sibling

Imagine yourself as a young coyote in a perfect world. You live in an urban park which is ideal as a habitat — ideal beyond imagination: there are forests of trees with thick undergrowth for protection, a lake and streams with fresh water, open fields for hunting the overabundance of gophers and voles, there are snails and fruit to eat, there are dogs passing through which provide you with visual entertainment — even if some of them go after you, and you are protected by a city which encourages coexistence and does not allow trapping and killing of its urban wildlife. Pretty fantastic!

It’s true that nasty rumors and myths about coyotes spring up now and then which could result in harm to you, but most are short-lived and, more and more these days, the misinformation is brushed aside by a majority of park goers who have learned about coyote behavior and know that the sensationalist stories are all hype.

Family life, too, is ideal. You live with a father who has raised you and cared for you, and you have a sister who absolutely adores you as much as you adore her. You spend hours together, grooming each other or exuberantly playing all sorts of games you’ve invented for yourselves, such as chase and catch, tug of war, wrestling, steal the meal, jump over one another, hide and seek. Life is really a blast, and it’s been this way for the entire 16 months you’ve been alive to enjoy it, except the brief interlude immediately after Mom went missing — but you were young and  that was soon forgotten because Dad was there to carry on for you. Things would have to be really, really bad for you even to consider such a thing as leaving.

in happier times: joyfully playing with sibling, and a family outing

But life is not static: we all graduate to new levels and must go on at some point.  Life is ever-changing and change is occurring now, not because of anything you’ve done, but because of who you are. You are a young male, and any territory only has room for one adult coyote male. Dad is feeling your coming-of-age and his instincts are becoming stronger, day by day, to push you out and away from his turf.

Recently, Dad has been charging at you, coming at you like a bullet to kick or nip you. You submit always and quickly, but that isn’t enough sometimes.  More and more, you’ve been staying out of his way. You don’t join him and your sister so often, and you spend your time more and more alone. However, you have strong yearnings to be with your sister, to play with her, to exchange mutual grooming and care, after all, you are a very social creature, and family life has been an integral part of your life since birth. Recently, greetings with her have changed to include sniffing and having one’s underside sniffed — something new is going on.

times have changed: Dad bullies his son & puts him down on his back

times have changed: Dad bullies his son & puts him down on his back

Sister has found herself in the middle. By loving and playing with you, her brother, she’s inadvertently hindering her father, it seems. When she sees the antagonistic behavior of her father, she does her best to keep the peace, running interference, by interjecting herself between the two males to divert Dad’s attention by grooming him (Dad) or sticking her muzzle in his — and it works.  After, or even before, taking care of Dad, she approaches you with her warm and affectionate greetings, and then she plays with you wholeheartedly, and Dad seems to accept that he must let her be this way, so you still hang in there, at least for now..

even now: sister adores brother and lets him know it

sister continues to adore brother and lets him know it

We all know how this is going to end, and it is definitely heartbreaking to watch the process. The Dad’s dispersing ritual is happening more and more frequently.

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Yesterday I saw the process again — it’s in full swing.

Dad and Sis had been out foraging, and began heading off on a trek when the yearling male — her brother and his son — appeared out of the bushes. He had kept apart and away, but was very aware of them as revealed when he tried joining them on the trek, albeit tailing them at a considerable distance, possibly so as to avoid detection by Dad. There was such a pull to be with them. But the minute Dad saw him, he, Dad, launched himself in the male youngster’s direction, charging at him, punching with his snout, nipping, kicking and turning him over on his back.  

This intense attack happened in tall grasses, which prevented me from taking clear photos. At the beginning of the encounter I heard an unusual, never heard before, short throaty snarl or gnarl. It was a warning of some sort. And I don’t know if the attacker or the defender made the noise because they were partially hidden from view. Besides the gnarly snarl,  there was flailing in the grass, running off a little and more flailing in the grass. When they emerged enough for me to see them fully, Dad was walking away from male youngster, and youngster was keeping his distance from Dad but following, not fleeing. Young male desperately wanted to join sister and dad for the family trek.

Sis, who had been standing far beyond Dad, looked back to see her brother sitting beyond Dad, and came running over to him joyfully to greet him. She brushed right past Dad, straight toward her brother and these siblings engaged in a long greeting, body contact, nose and paw touches and finally grooming. Dad looked on and did nothing. Sis wasn’t taking sides, she was just being “Sis in the middle.”

When the warm sibling greetings were over, Sis ran to catch up with Dad, looking back invitingly for her brother to come along. She loves her father as she does her brother. She approached Dad and engaged in grooming him while he looked back over his shoulder, glaringly at the younger male, his son: “do not come”. But the male youngster did come, with Sis encouraging him. Sis no doubt sensed the tremendous tension between the males in her family probably without comprehending any of it, and so, possibly in an attempt to dissipate it, she dashed off as if in hot pursuit of prey, enticing the others to join her and in the process to forget their strife. It kind of worked because they now were concentrating on other things, on hunting in the forest.

Then, sirens sounded and they all howled together — was the spat over? I don’t think so. Dad then walked on, all alone, without being joined by either of the two youngsters.  That is the last I saw of him that evening. Had he lost the skirmish? Even if he had, he won’t loose the battle — he’s a five year old mature male, and his son is just a 16 month old ingenue.

Sis went off hunting, and young male was left standing on a path looking for her. Not being able to locate her, he headed off in a direction opposite from the one his father took, looking dejected as revealed by his slow pace and lowered head. But Sis must have had her brother in mind. She picked up his scent and caught up with him. There was warm body contact, nose touches and wiggles, and Sis put her paws on his back again — was she showing who was boss? Or was this just her way of showing affection — this last is what appears to be the case. It now was dark so I had to leave. I had witnessed an episode of a dispersion process, where a parent forces out a youngster from his territory.

Young Male will eventually have to leave. But I wondered if Sis would stay on the territory with Dad, or if she would go with her brother? I wondered if Dad’s attacking the male youngster would in fact have repercussions of driving out Sis as well. I’ve already seen where both youngsters now flinch in anticipation of Dad’s antagonism: the young male from being on the receiving end and Sis from simply observing it.

This dispersion process has been going on for some time — it’s recently reached a crescendo. I’ll post if things change.

Up Against A Wall and Walloped

A father and a daughter coyote had been lolling on a hillside when the daughter’s attention became riveted on something in the distance. She stared at it for a minute and then darted off, at a full run. Dad was surprised at her suddenly bolting away, but he followed not too far behind. And I, too, ran, but at a relatively slow follow.

When I caught up with them, they were sitting next to a house and their attention was focused on something I could not see. One of the coyotes then ran forwards and I could see flailing tails and lowered bodies, and rolling around. There was a third coyote there. It was because of this third coyote that the others had made their mad dash over to this area.

I soon recognized the third coyote as a male sibling to the female, son to the father — a family member! I had not seen him in months. This is a coyote whom I had characterized as timid and careful. He preferred “watching” his siblings roughhouse rather than entering into rough play. The last time I saw him, he had hurried off quickly — he avoided being seen by people and pets. I imagined that he had either moved into the bushes for good, where he would live his life hidden from view, or dispersed.

Could this be a joyful greeting of the kind I have seen so often? As I got closer, the sad truth revealed itself: teeth were bared. I realized that this male youngster had probably been driven off, banned, from the territory at some point. Today there was a confrontation because of the male youngster’s return to “forbidden” territory. This would explain his absence.

The fray moved to the open lawn at first but soon the yearling male coyote backed up against the wall of a house — and he remained there, possibly for protection. At first both father and daughter coyote charged him. But then the female youngster went off in the distance, focusing her attention elsewhere, but intermittently updating herself on the battle between father and son, with a glance in that direction.

11-month old male coyote, up against a wall

11-month old male coyote, up against a wall

Dad coyote would stalk, then strike. The strike consisted of punching, nipping, and knocking the youngster over with a shove from Dad’s hindquarters, maybe in an attempt to sit on him, or throw him on his back. The son yelped and fought back in self-defense, all the while standing his ground and not succumbing to lying on his back submissively. I wondered why he didn’t just run off. Did he know he might be chased, and, out in the open, there would be no protection at all? Or was he himself making a “comeback” claim?

The assaults were not aimed to maim, they’re intended as a firm messaging device: “Leave! You are not welcome here anymore!” The father’s strikes were short but intense. After a few seconds of contact, Dad would withdraw about 30 feet and watch, either lying down or standing, probably giving the youngster “the evil eye” — communicating through facial expressions and body language. After a few minutes, there would be another round of this activity.

At one point a dog and walker appeared. I suggested to the owner that he leash his dog and keep moving. The man waited there for a few minutes. At that point the young female jumped IN FRONT of the dog and walker and lured/led them away from the battling coyotes! Fascinating!  The young female returned to her spot in the near distance after the dog and owner were far enough away.

Eventually Dad decided to walk away from the “interloper” coyote, but not before giving several backward glances over his shoulder at the young male — shooting him the “evil eye” again, and peeing a dislike message. He then slowly walked off, with the female close behind, stopping every now and then to look back at the young male who remained with his back up against the wall. When they were out of sight, the young male lay down for a minute, but only for a minute, and then he, himself, darted off quickly in the other direction, and into the bushes.

I caught up with the Dad and young female as they, too headed into bushes. I suppose that the young female is being guarded and protected, and that the territorial domain will be hers. I’m wondering if she has alpha characteristics which might have driven the mother away. Just a thought.

Interestingly, I’ve seen moms beat up female youngsters in this same manner, and now a dad doing the same to a male youngster. It’s as if each parent is jealous of it’s unique position and wants to keep it that way. It’s same-sex youngsters who present the biggest threat to any adult. Is it dispersal time, or some other rule which is being imposed? Pupping season is beginning, which means territories have to be secure for any pups which might be born this year.

Pup at 8 Months Still Getting Food From Dad

Although I could not see the details because this occurred within a tree grove, there is enough information here to see that the full-sized, though only 8-month-old, pup approaches its father for food by sticking its snout into the father’s mouth. Apparently, the pup gets something because its attention is on the ground in the second photo, and it stays behind to “finish up” whatever Dad had given him in the third photo.

At 8 months of age a pup does not need help from its father in getting food. However, giving the pup food tightens the strong bond which already exists and may keep the family together for a longer period of time.

It’s The Winter Solstice!

Coyote youngster with thick neck and breast fur for the winter

Coyote youngster with thick fur for the winter

Winter’s darkest day is today — it’s the shortest day of the year and the beginning of Winter!

In case you’ve forgotten, solstice means “stationary sun.”  The sun stands still at 5:11 pm on December 21, which is today. The winter solstice north of the equator always occurs on or around December 21st, give or take 24 hours. The US will get only 9 and 1/2 hours of light this day! Up until the winter solstice, the sun moves southward a little each day, and the days become shorter. As the sun approaches the solstice, this southward march slows down, and at the solstice the sun stops its movement south and pauses, motionless: that will occur at 5:11pm for us! Then after the solstice, it will reverse itself and move a little more northward in the sky each day, and the days will become incrementally longer again.

How does this affect coyotes?

Food chains all begin with plant growth. Plants require plenty of daylight to thrive. Fewer daylight hours mean plants cease or slow down their growth at this time of year. So there are fewer growing plants to feed the voles and gophers, and therefore fewer voles and gophers to feed the coyotes — these are their favorite foods in San Francisco. Animals cope with winter in a number of ways: by migrating, hibernating or adapting. Coyotes adapt.

One of the things they adapt is their diets, by eating other foods which are available at this time of year: foods such as pine seeds, and bark or insects in the bark as shown in the two photos below, which I thought was pretty interesting! They are known as “opportunistic” eaters, which means they can eat just about anything. Coyotes will still eat voles and gophers — but because there are fewer of them, they must supplement their diets at this time of year.

It may be because gophers and voles are not so plentiful in the fields that coyote youngsters are out more alone or in pairs now, rather than foraging all together with the entire family, as they did earlier in the year. Coyote youngsters may also be out alone more because they are feeling much more self-reliant and independent at this time of their lives, after all, the next step in their development will be dispersal.

Note that coyote coats are at their fullest at this time of year. Coyote fur can be over 4 inches in length and can make them look much bigger than they look during the summer when their fur is at its shortest and sparsest.

Punishment Again

This is the second time in the same day that I observed this behavior between this particular seven-month old female pup and her mother. Please see the previous posting.

I had two thoughts that might be related to this:  the first about Great Horned Owl dispersal, and the second about canine intuition regarding the alpha quality in another canine.

I’ve seen Great Horned Owls lovingly raise their owlets for almost a full year, from the time they are born in late March, through the fledging stage when they leave their birth nest, and through months of teaching hunting and other survival skills. Then one day, towards the end of the Fall season, both parents — these are parents who have mated for life and have raised their owlets together for the last 15 years — turn viciously against their offspring forcing them to leave the area. There is room for only one mated Great Horned Owl pair in any territory due to limited resources. As time approaches for the new reproductive cycle to begin, at the end of the calendar year, any offspring born that year are driven away by their parents. I’ve always wondered what it must feel like to be so totally loved and cared for, and then have those who loved you suddenly attack you. This is what goes on. The young owls fly off to areas as close as the next park over, if there is room there, or as far away as across the US.

My second thought stems from how my 2-year-old female dog reacted when we brought home a new 4-month-old puppy — a male. We found the puppy — abandoned — and we couldn’t just leave him. She must have intuitively known that he would be growing much bigger than her, and that, based on his behavior and activity level and disregard for her, that he would assume the dominant status eventually. It’s only with hindsight that we came to know that this was going on right from the start. Over an extended period of time we noticed that the alpha status had segued to him, and she just accepted the inevitable. An alpha coyote in the wild, it seems, would do its best to prevent this from ever happening, especially from one of its own pups who began showing signs of any kind of dominance.

So, we’ll soon see how this situation pans out: if it settles down, or if it leads to something.

Punishment

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When “disciplining”, the alpha of a family pack gently puts her/his mouth around the snout of a coyote who is out-of-line, and maybe turns the “underdog” on its back for a few moments. This discipline could be reinforced by the alpha placing its paws on the back of the fellow who is out-of-line. The subordinate quickly shows deference and everything is back to normal within a few seconds:  the alpha status is reconfirmed and everyone knows their role in the family hierarchy. This is not what I saw today, twice.

What I saw today I’m going to call “punishment” — it is much more severe. I’ve thought about what might have lead to this kind of punishment:

The most probable reasons involve defiance of the alpha figure, in this case the mother, or possibly disobeying commands that are meant to protect the family pack and help with its survival. Hierarchy has to be rigidly maintained in a healthy coyote family.

Or, maybe the alpha needed to bring down the highest-ranking pup? Maybe it was becoming too powerful among its siblings?

Then again, this harsh discipline might just be the first steps in forcing dispersal. But then, why would the mother be targeting just the one pup, a female?

I suppose there are all sorts of possibilities. I don’t know enough at this stage to state with certainty what is going on, but I tend to think the punishment was for the youngsters own good, and not self-aggrandizement by a mean mother.  But I was totally taken aback as I observed it.

The youngster in this observation is almost seven-months old, a female. She approached her mother, belly scraping the ground, showing deference, submission and caution. This did not include the wiggly squealing happy meeting that I usually see. The pup approached and quickly turned on her back, with the aid of the mother’s legs. The mother then stood, crouched low, over the youngster for a long period of time, snarling now and then at the slightest hint of movement or protesting from the pup. At one point, as the pup lay there quietly, the mother licked the female pup’s private parts. and then the pup’s inner leg. The pup remained quiet at first. Then the pup seemed to protest and tried getting up, and even almost got up at one point. The mother snarled viciously and was able to quickly put the pup down again.  Then the pup did break away for a moment, but the mother quickly used her entire body to hold the pup down. There were then a series of hard punch-bites from the alpha-Mom.  This was all carried out in silence except for one high pitched whimper from the pup near the end of the “session”.  The pup then was able to get up and dash off for cover into some bushes about 50 feet away.

Mom then sat up and looked ahead and around, without a second glance towards the pup in the bushes. Within a few minutes she headed down the hill. The pup came out of the bushes and watched — watched longingly and sadly as the mother headed off. Were they not reconciled? Would this continue? At the bottom of the hill the mom looked back, seemingly disapprovingly, at the pup, and then continued on. The pup stayed at her spot by the bushes and looked very sad, watching the mother disappear into the distance. Many minutes later, the pup, too, headed down the hill, but in another direction.

Nursing Coyote Mothers

a lactating mother coyote

a lactating mother coyote

I had been told that nursing mother coyotes stay in the dens, or fairly close to them, during the 5 weeks following birth when they are being nursed. Guess what? They don’t!

A nursing mom’s need for nourishment skyrockets during this timeframe in order to keep up with the growing nutritional needs of her pups for which she is the sole supplier through nursing. Nevertheless, moms appear to keep themselves pretty secluded and out of sight. New moms are even more secretive and evasive than normal because the lives of pups now depend on them — it’s a safety measure.

This new mom was in a field only a moment or so. The rest of the time she moved slowly under bushes and next to “edges” of taller growth, where she could easily slip away from view. When she saw anyone coming, she slowly stepped behind something, be it a tree, tall grasses, bushes or a stump, where she would not be noticed, and she wasn’t.  She headed “in” for the day when a man and his dog came around a bend and saw her. He stopped and observed. She calmly slithered out of sight. The dog was leashed and well behaved. It all happened so quick and smoothly!

It’s much too early for pups to be out and about. Pups are kept secluded in their dens until about the fifth week of birth, and even after that, their introduction into the bigger world will be a gradual one, and as secret as possible to begin with!

Mom’s Transformation, by Charles Wood

When I first met Mom she appeared to be a timid coyote. The first two pictures, from May and June 2010, show a reserved Mom. In the May 2010 picture she was peering out at my dog and me. She didn’t want us there and perhaps in just showing herself she said she wanted us to leave.

In the June 2010 picture, she barred my dog’s and my way into the den area. She was lactating and her puppies were about fifty yards behind her. Yet still, with puppies to protect, her eyes didn’t even dare to meet ours.

By August 2010 she had transformed. No longer reserved, the picture from August shows the first time Mom came up to my dog and me to scrape dirt. She seemed exhilarated and free.

The picture in December 2010 shows Mom giving us the look I still see today. Compare her December look to the look she gave in the May and June 2010 pictures. Quite a difference.

The video opens with Dad waiting for his pack to arrive after having run up to me and my two dogs. In fact, Mom was around the corner and up on a ridge, out of Dad’s sight. Neither seemed aware that the other was nearby as they waited for each other. Not shown in the clip, Mom came up just below Dad. He didn’t rise to greet her and his body language wasn’t typical of a happy greeting. Instead Dad looked startled. Maybe Mom had caught Dad unawares, but I think there was more to his atypical gesturing. I think that Dad wasn’t at all surprised to see Mom. Instead, I think Dad was surprised by Mom’s mood.

Upon meeting, typically Mom and Dad are pleased and happy to be in each other’s presence again. They expect joy from each other when greeting, exude joy upon first sighting each other. Yet that day Dad acted startled when he first saw her. To me, Dad’s reaction was a surprised “What’s this? You’re upset? About what? Oh yes, I see. Of course I’m with you on this, of course, of course.” It teemed with domestic intimacy.

Dad had previously approached me and my dogs, messaging us. He was done with that, relaxed, situation under control. When Mom arrived, she wasn’t done, wasn’t relaxed, and the situation wasn’t under control. The man was still there with his camera. Lynne, with two dogs, had been watching Mom as Mom watched Lynne watching her. Then Lynne had started to walk in the wrong direction, toward the den, not away from it. Mom came off the ridge and headed toward Lynne. Coming down, Mom then saw Dad. He was lying with his back to the dogs and the two people, doing nothing. Situation under control? Hardly. Upset? You bet she was upset. With everything!

To Mom it was all messed up. Compared to Mom as she was two years ago, Mom is today a completely different coyote. If my dogs and I are in part responsible for her transformation, I can’t help feeling a little sorry for Dad. Then again, maybe there was no transformation, perhaps I just hadn’t yet seen that side of her. Maybe I wrongly thought she was the “nice” coyote when all the while Dad knew her better.

Fierce protector, a master of the bluff, Mom in the clip studied the field as Dad stretched, he preparing to follow Mom’s lead. To camera left, Mom looked toward Lynne as she walked toward me with our two leashed dogs. Mom didn’t even wait for Dad to finish his stretch. She took off at Lynne and the dogs a fraction of a second before Dad was fully ready. Mom looked totally into it, with an exaggerated bounce in her gait. In contrast, Dad’s body language said that he was just along for the ride, accommodating his spouse. I left the camera, ran at the coyotes and they broke off their mock charge.

Posting written by Charles Wood. Visit Charles Wood’s website for more coyote photos: Charles Wood. His work is copyrighted and may only be used with his explicit permission.

Aging In The Wild

What happens to our urban wildlife neighbors as they age? I took some photos of an older coyote today. I could see that, as the years go by, the body becomes worn and feels the effects of the accumulated wear and tear, and the effects of time. There is a slightly slower gait and it takes longer to get going. You are a little stiffer and some of your joints hurt — bending to scratch takes a little more effort and does not look as easy as it used to.  You seem to crumple into a blob when you sit sometimes, hanging from your bones instead of sitting up straight and strong.

More time is spent napping during the day and you forget that you’ve already stretched before you take off — or maybe it just takes more stretches to get all the kinks out? Your coat is a little more ragged, tattered and torn and the many scars underneath show through. Not only might your eyes be more swollen, you have to squint often to see past your weaker eyesight — and the animal world doesn’t have the privilege of glasses. Unless a gopher is an easy catch you won’t go for it.

But, to me, it is because of these changes that this coyotes is more adorable than ever. He’s worked hard and earned every one of these badges of his accumulated years. Also, young pups have come and gone, and so have a couple of mates. Life never has been particularly easy, and I can see that it is less so with time.

What really matters is that this coyote is still the alpha of his pack, that this is his own territory, that he protects and hunts every day for his family and his yearly offspring. San Francisco in one of the best habitats around: there is water nearby, there still are trees and thickets which provide protection and cover, and there are fields for hunting! Life is still pretty good!

The Natural Progression of Life, by Charles Wood

Dad message

My dog Holtz and I are about the same physical age, his having caught up with me, both of us with some gray and stiffness.  Dad seems to have passed us both in four months.  I’m told that there may be an underlying physical condition for why of late he is showing prominent hip bones, a sparse coat, white fur and what resemble age spots, though he may have mange.  I’m told that without a physical exam, there is no way to tell what is going on with him.  Christine Barton of the Fund for Animals Wildlife Center continues:  “As long as he appears uninjured and able to move and function normally, there would be no reason to interfere with the natural progression of his life.”  He may look like a beat up old coyote, but he isn’t acting like one.

Dad following up

Sunday before sunset, in the nature preserve, Dad placed himself in front of me and did some scraping.  I took some pictures and Dad walked away from us.  I began to walk away from him, towards the exit.  Seeing me leave, Dad turned and trotted towards Holtz and me.  I lobbed a golf ball towards him and he cut into the brush.  At the exit he re-emerged at a trot, making sure we had got the message.  Seeing us so close to the exit, he trotted off into the woods and disappeared.  I would say that Dad continues to function normally.

Posting written by Charles Wood. Visit Charles Wood’s website for these and more coyote photos: Charles Wood. His work is copyrighted and may only be used with his explicit permission.

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