Two, a toy, hunting: Coyote behavior

I always feel lucky whenever I come across a coyote in any of our parks — no matter how much “luck” I’ve already had. But I feel ecstatically lucky whenever I see more than one coyote at a time — this is really unusual. Yet, I have had this experience a handful of times now, and in three different places. These two coyotes here in these photos stayed fairly hidden behind trees and twigs. They stayed close together — venturing away from each other for only short hunting forays or explorations. They followed one another a lot, and one played with a toy while the other watched. The toy only became apparent later on when I zoomed-in the photos.

I also caught two together out hunting as they hit upon the same gopher hole. They were not there long, but ONE got the prize. After this there was a very short “I want it” competition and a short chase in circles. The winner ran off, out of reach of the other, and lay down to enjoy a meal while the other remained back and watched. After the meal, the two were again together searching for more goodies at the same locations.

At the end of the year, litter mates born in the spring are still together. I have not seen last year’s pups around since November — have they dispersed? People in the parks have seldom been seeing coyotes lately — possibly just because it is winter.

A Hunting Episode

This coyote was lolling around — it didn’t seem particularly directed in its activities. I found it standing on a path. Upon seeing me, it lay down — it was obviously not pressed for time. After a while, it trotted up on a sidewalk and then to an area under some trees. Here, from this hidden position, sitting with ears and eyes ahead, it watched a couple of dogs who could not see it. I was in a position where I could see that, only 10 feet away from the coyote, there was a slight, but obvious movement of a few blades of grass. Since nothing else around the area moved, I knew there was a gopher underground fixing up its home. Since the coyote didn’t seem to see it, I ignored it too.

The coyote finally yawned and stretched — I have seen them do this when they have decided to move on. As it did so, its head  swiveled right over the gopher’s area — and its attention was snagged. For ten minutes this coyote “triangulated”, cocking its head from side to side and watching the ground. It was very patient. Finally, I could see the coyote’s limbs tighten and UP it went and then down it came, head first into the gopher hole. I believe, but I don’t know for sure, that coyotes deliver a stunning bite to their prey with this initial attack. The coyote did not end up with a gopher initially. But it dug this way and that way, very quickly, and then stuck its snout in the hole several times. It finally had the gopher.

The gopher was tossed to the ground and “bitten” several times. It was carried off a few feet and this tossing and biting was repeated. Finally it picked up the very large gopher, now limp, in its mouth. It walked a few paces, stood there a moment, and then ran down the hill in the direction of its den. Yes, it had pups — but these were about eight months old now. Still, this mother coyote must have decided that she wanted to make life easier for them — I don’t know if this prolonged feeding is normal or not.  As she ran along her path, a man appeared, but he did not see her. The coyote quickly changed directions to avoid him and was off into the distance.

Playfulness & Performing: Coyote Behavior

Today I spotted a young coyote which I have named Silver. I name some of the coyotes to be able to distinguish them. This one seemed at loose ends when I saw it, and it continued to be at loose ends the entire time I watched it! All of its activities seem to emanate from boredom! Besides entertaining itself, this coyote appeared to be doing so for my benefit. I say this, because, just like a young puppy, it would engage in playful activities, and then look up to make sure I was watching!!

I was able to watch this for about half an hour, at a considerable distance, so the photos are not great. It seemed to be hanging out in the area with nothing to do when it became aware of me. It wandered around for short periods, and then stopped to look at me, very casually. At one point it looked down over a steep ledge — it appeared to have heard something, but did not pursue this. Then it meandered casually over to a rock, looked at me, and then tugged at something in the soil, stopping to look at me sometimes as it did so. Finally it had something in its mouth — one of the photos shows a white thing, almost the shape of a rice-cake. But a rice cake would not have been found here. It was not an animal. Anyway, the coyote chewed on this, then stood up, and then chewed some more at the back of its mouth before swallowing it. Then it meandered on.

A few minutes later it curled up on another rock where I noticed it had pick up some kind of human made wrapper. The coyote held this wrapper for a while before dropping it and getting up again.

Then it wandered over again to the rock where it had eaten the “rice cake”. Here it poked its nose into the ground and then moved the dirt over with a paw, and then it looked at me. Then it began tugging hard on something — it might have been a rooted twig. The coyote put considerable effort into pulling — it looked like a puppy playing tug of war. The item did not give way, so the coyote gave up.

Then the coyote meandered around some more and disappeared. I packed up to go and was walking off, when the coyote again appeared on the hill again, sitting. It was studying my actions. Finally it must have been time for it to go, because with a little more direction in its actions it went off to a steep incline where it bounded down, seemingly joyfully, pouncing and leaping high over the growth there as it went. It was gone for the day.

What Does a Coyote Think About During a Day?

A method of instruction used in art history involves comparing two slides. When there are two things to compare, more actually becomes visible to the viewer: differences and similarities become blatant. So, for comparative and contrasting reasons, I thought I would initially string up a list of what domestic dogs seem to concentrate on during their day, then list what a coyote might think about, and what their awareness might be.

A domestic dog is always under the leadership of a human — a pet dog is a follower, even though there are a few instances when this might not be so. Under human care, a dog does not need to think of the bigger picture. The same as a child, he thinks of more immediate things, such as hunger, play, chasing a ball, ego issues with other dogs, obedience. Some dogs are trained very finely beyond this to be working dogs: they can herd cattle, they can sense human temperature changes, they can get an owner up at a precise time, they can serve as eyes, they can do assigned tasks for a person who is unable to do these things for himself.

A coyote’s thoughts would also include playing, eating, sleeping, family life. But coyotes have a larger view of things in that they need to concentrate on survival issues. They need to concentrate on real life and death issues from day-to-day, and from season to season. Their minds are in a different place from that of dog’s: a dog may think of food, but he seldom has to worry or wonder where it will come from or how to get it. He has an owner to protect him, so seldom does he have to think of real self-defense or escape routes. His territory usually involves only his own home and yard, which are completely off-limits to others. A coyote has to deal with a territory where there are constant intrusions from humans and dogs — there is always a perceived threat here. A dog may feel loyal and protective towards its owner — a coyote would feel this towards its family members.

Further up the scale for a coyote, there would be nurturing and care for the young, teaching the young, protecting the den areas. There would be monitoring of the other coyotes if it is part of a group: knowing where the others are, defending them, monitoring their activity. There would be searching for hunting areas, actual hunting and eating, feeding others, making sure all are taken care of. There would be self-defense: running from dogs, defending themselves from dogs — these are on the level of survival, not the same “play” that dogs engage in. Escape routes would all have been planned out beforehand and kept in mind. There would be assessing potential rivals: assessing dogs, following dogs, testing dogs to see how they might respond. Coyotes have to take care of their own health: lying low when healing, moving between areas to avoid flees, batting flies and mosquitoes away, giving birth, dealing with injuries, dealing with infections and other parasites. And coyotes have to deal with whatever stresses confront them: not enough food, too many dog interactions, difficulties imposed by the weather, family dynamics, dispersing when the time comes. These are some of the things I have thought of. I’m sure there is a lot more, but I wanted to delineate how intricate and full a coyote’s thinking would have to be to survive.

Things that I have seen coyotes do, which required forethought: rolling on a dead lizard to pick up its odor — why, I’m not sure. Dogs do this to disguise their odors — maybe for the fun of it, as if wearing a Halloween costume!  After having captured and killing a gopher, one coyote buried it with its muzzle. I’ve seen a coyote pick up a dead vole in its mouth — carrion — then disgustedly spit it out and then urinate on it — possibly as a warning to other coyotes? Coyotes, the same as dogs, eat grass and then heave it up to clear out their stomachs. I’ve seen coyotes chew on sticks and pick sticks up to play with. They snap at flies buzzing in their faces, they concentrate on birds flying in the sky. There is a lot. These a just a few interesting things here.

Coyote Awareness. How keenly aware of its surroundings is a coyote? We know that their senses are indeed very keen. However, I’ve seen one coyote be surprised by a dog it had not heard come up close. The coyote bolted forward into a “prepared” state from a resting position when it suddenly became aware of the dog close by. The dog apparently had not seen the coyote and therefore did not react to it, so everything calmed down pretty quickly. Yet I’ve seen this same coyote very aware of a dog that approached from far away in the distance. This coyote hurried to higher ground and began a barking session, possibly as a warning to prevent the dog from coming closer, or to announce its presence. Another coyote has walked right by a person with their little dog on a bench — obviously it was a chance encounter, but one wonders why the coyote allowed itself to get this close to someone. This happened again as a coyote trotted along a path where it passed right next to a fellow reading on the path! That was a total surprise for both of them!

I once noticed a coyote, on its regular path, stop dead still, stunned, when it noticed a change. The change was that some boards on a retaining wall had been replaced by a rope netting. The coyote just stopped cold and stared at the retaining wall, obviously cautious and apprehensive about it (might it be a trap?). The coyote could obviously see a change, even though it might not have been able to tell what the change was — then again, maybe it could tell exactly what the change was!

At times I’ve noticed that fascination for coyotes from certain of us humans has engendered the same response from the coyotes — a fascination with us — it seems to be mutual sometimes, with the coyotes staring back as intently as we looked at them!! One coyote seemed to curiously scrutinize the camera I was holding, trying to figure it out, as I clicked away! In a reverse sort of way, another coyote has looked at me, but then turned its head to ignore me — almost as if to let me know it was really not interested, thank you very much!

Coyotes seem to be very discriminating in that they can tell each dog and human apart from the others; and the coyotes treat each of these accordingly. I’ve seen several coyotes allow certain dogs, with their owners, to get much closer to to themselves than it would allow most.

Meanings and Communications: My dog liked me to hug his muzzle under my chin when he was old — he would push his chin there and purr. I think it gave him a puppy-like security to do so, allowing both my dominance and his submission which included a great deal of affection. Could this same type of thing be going on with the coyotes when a senior coyote hugs a young one’s muzzle under its own?

I’m beginning to look at coyote ears. Coyote ears are used to communicate to each other. We humans can distinguish some of the basics: when both ears are forwards and up, the coyote will be listening intently  for one thing, but when the ears are more out to the sides, the coyote will be trying to locate something. When the ears are swiveling, the coyote will be scoping for sounds all around itself. As the coyote looks into a gopher hole its ears will be forwards as it cocks its head in different positions: the coyote is triangulating to hunt. When its ears are level and out to the sides, my observations tell me that it is either in pain or contentedly and neutrally looking around.

A New Mural in San Francisco: Urban Wildlife

This mural is located at Market and 6th Streets in downtown San Francisco. It is called Find Yourself In Natural History. It consists of charming animal “cutout” figures juxtaposed on a setting of urban architecture. The artists are Leanne C. Miller and Helen Bayly. I think it is fabulous, not only for its conception, design and execution, but because it brings wonderful awareness to our urban wild animals. Please let’s respect and take care of these wild critters in our midst!!