Coyote Mums May Be Very Scrawny Right Now

A hollow, indented abdomen

This is a particularly hard time for coyote mothers whose nutritional needs have skyrocketed. This mother, photographed here, is one who has not been able to keep up with her nutritional needs. She has to find enough food to sustain herself and to provide the milk for the five 2-month-old pups she is still suckling. The pups have begun eating regurgitated semi-solid food brought by Dad and their yearling sister, but they are still suckling from Mom who is stunningly gaunt, emaciated and skeletal looking.

The suckling period of a growing litter of pups coincides with the season for shedding fur, so many coyotes look much thinner right now (and scraggly because of fur loss), even though they in fact may not be, and even though they are not lactating. But Mums indeed ARE thinner, and some are much more so than others, and you can see it, including in their faces and jaws where the skull bones are revealed right through the skin and fur. Moms I’ve known have always gained their weight back over time once the demands of providing milk end, but until then, it’s a strain on the body.

This mum still has her winter fur on her neck which helps hide her scrawniness

You can see the round shape of the femur bone through the skin in her leg and an indented thigh (taken at dusk which makes her look even wispier)

 

Pups

I literally stumbled upon a family greeting/meeting during my evening walk a couple of days ago. I had been photographing a 1 to 2 year old female who was mozeying along a trail, minding her own business, pouncing for gophers of which she caught several which she wolfed down, and then she diverted into a pathless forested area.

I remained on the path but peeked over a hedge in her direction, only to find an adult who may have been Mom (or possibly a babysitter yearling), and a pup — pups here in San Francisco are about 6 weeks old now — who had emerged to greet the approaching yearling female. The female approaching did so in a crouched position, which messaged a non-threatening subordinate status. I took a couple of quick photos (which revealed the pup to be a male), and immediately began retracing my steps out of the area. These coyotes withdrew into the bushes due to my presence in order not to reveal any of their additional *secrets*.

As I was distancing myself, Dad appeared, and he wasn’t too happy about what he knew to be the discovery of his family’s hiding place. Dads spend much of their time protecting their den areas and scaring off trespassers. They hope that their mere presence will serve as a deterrent, and indeed, that should be enough. I continued distancing myself, keeping my eye on Dad. Dad messaged me his concern with a few grunts, in addition to his presence, as he watched me leave.

The gophers caught by the yearling might have been for the pup. Yearlings are older siblings to the new pups — they are from the previous, and even previous to that, year’s litter, so they are either one or two years old. They are the “aunties” and help provide for the new litter. Only one or two yearlings, if any, normally stick around like this, the rest of the youngsters from those previous litters “disperse” out of the area to make their own way in the world. A number of San Francisco’s dispersed youngsters last year were tracked as far south as Los Gatos — that’s 60 miles south — all of these were eventually killed by cars. Cars are the primary killers of dispersing coyotes: these coyotes are young and have had very little experience with the extreme dangers of automobiles.


Now might be a good time to review etiquette for coyote encounters, especially during pupping season:

The Golden Standard, and the safest and most effective option, especially when walking your dog, is simple and complete avoidance. Whether you see a coyote in the distance, at mid-distance, approaching you, or if you are surprised by the sudden appearance of one at close-range, shorten your leash and walk away from it to minimize any potential dog/coyote confrontation or engagement — and continue walking away. IF you make a personal decision to shoo it away, please follow the guidelines in the video, How to Shoo Off A Coyote”, but know that this is engagement. What’s safest is simple and complete avoidance.

Coyotes are territorial. Coyotes are possessive. This is no different from you in your home: you don’t allow outsiders to come wandering through, and if you see someone suspicious in the neighborhood you may follow that someone to make sure he/she leaves. This is what coyotes do in the only effective way they can: they repulse with their scary “Halloween cat like stance”, they may follow an intruder out of their area, or or they may nip the haunches of the dog they want to move on and away. They want you to leave, so why not do it?! For more information, see How To Handle A Coyote Encounter: A Primer.

This is how pint-size coyote pups look right now, mid-May, at 4 to 6 weeks of age.

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.

Coyote Sibling Discord

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

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

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

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.

Hi Dad, Wanna Play?

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

Pups are Four-Months Old Now and Beginning to Venture Out More

Pups in the San Francisco Bay Area are now about four-months old and they are venturing out into the world more, so you might be lucky enough to see one! To a human who doesn’t know them well, a pup from a distance may be indistinguishable from an adult. A couple of weeks ago I posted photos of a young mother who had been regularly mistaken for a pup. But they really are different, beginning with their size which is just about 80% of an adult’s right now. But since coyotes vary in size, you may not be able to use this to tell if what you are seeing is actually a pup, especially if it is alone or far away. At this time of year, most coyotes look smaller than usual because they have shed their very thick, fluffy, 3″ coats for the summer.

Pups are distinguished from adults more by their behavior than anything else. Pups are flighty, quick, very wary, erratic and sometimes not well coordinated. They will show subservience when they greet any of the adults by crouching low. They’ll be the first to flee when they see you, at the same time as they peek around bushes to watch you, always from a very safe distance: they are extremely curious. Some are braver than others and they’ll most likely carry their bravery (or lack thereof) with them into adulthood. Each coyote has it’s own personality, not unlike us humans, and as far as I’ve seen, some of it is innate and some is acquired.

I love watching their bouts of *twisting-and-bowing-or-springing* — there must be a name for this but I don’t know what it is — where they seem not quite able to direct themselves, or they become conflicted about what to do, and instead get tied up in knots for a few seconds as uncontrolled energy mixed with indecision courses through their bodies!

In the photo below you’ll see a four-month old pup born this year to the right, and a yearling — born last year — to the left. The yearlings are protective of their younger siblings and actually help raise them. In this case, these are sisters from different litters from different years and each has one litter-mate.

Please keep your distance from all coyotes. What we should be loving about them is their *wildness*. By not feeding or befriending them, you will be preventing irreversible behaviors from taking hold and helping coexistence to work!