Monday, December 5, 2011

Coyotes to the Wind

Coyote running in its colorful winter coat
As summer progressed, the coyote pups were showing up less often on the wildlife cameras along The Coyote Brush Highway.  They were growing and probably roaming farther and joining the adult coyotes on hunting trips.  We had started a construction project on the lower end of the Dipper Ranch to remove an old road and repair landslides to improve the water quality of creeks in the Pescadero watershed.  This resulted in construction equipment and contractors driving onto the property several times a day, a big change from the usual traffic-less conditions, and I wondered if this affected the coyotes' behavior.  Furthermore, there had been several trespassing incidents, so I decided to move the wildlife cameras away from the gate.

Coyote dam at the west end of The Coyote Brush Highway
I headed westerly on The Coyote Brush Highway until I was stopped where the line of brush passed under a fence and down a slope to a large Douglas fir.  I could not get down the steep slope to examine the possible bedding area beneath the lower branches of the fir, but I did find another coyote latrine in the sunny area at the top of the slope.  I mounted a wildlife camera nearby where several animal trails converged at a rock.  The wildlife camera again captured photos of the coyote pups, the dam, and a night-visiting bobcat.  As the photos accumulated, I started recognizing distinct features that helped me identify the coyotes as individuals, and I was becoming increasingly confident that the pack consisted of one adult female, one adult male, and no more than three pups.

Colorful pup at night at the new location
Whitish pup during the day at the new location.
Compare these photos to those at original location to see similarities.
Coyotes are sometimes described as being organized into a social group with an alpha male and female, their pups, and several other adults.  Some coyotes are nomadic, roaming alone without a set territory.  Other coyote packs have been described as small family units consisting of the male and female breeding pair and their young of the year and perhaps siblings of the previous year.  The coyotes I was seeing on the Dipper Ranch seemed to be a small family unit.

Bobcat also following The Coyote Brush Highway near the large Douglas fir.
Once at dusk when I was returning from swapping out the memory cards on the wildlife cameras, I saw an adult coyote ahead.  I stood still and was able to watch it intently scan the ground to each side as it obliquely crossed the pasture towards me.  After about one minute, it recognized my figure as something that didn't belong there, stopped and looked me in the face.  It is strange to have a coyote look at you straight in the face because usually they will only look at you sideways.  They become shape shifters when they stare directly at you - their face somehow looks distorted.  I don't know if the coyote was willing to challenge me because the camera was up to my face and therefore it did not feel like it was looking directly into my eyes, but its message came through the lens clearly, "Do not mess with my family!" Then it turned around and trotted under a barbwire fence where it knew I would not follow.

Coyotes seem strange when they look directly at you
I decided to move the wildlife cameras again.  I put a new Moultrie camera in my backyard and the Cuddeback camera near a small, perennial spring which drains to the Newt Pond and where I often see tracks.

The backyard camera was surprisingly busy at night.  Water was sparse in the late summer dry season, and I discovered deer, raccoons and coyotes were visiting the ground-level birdbath outside our bedroom window to drink.  Later, they were coming to eat fruit from the persimmon tree. I was amused to read one study of items in the diet of 168 coyotes in Arkansas: 34% poultry, 23% persimmons, 11% insects, 9% rodents, 8% songbirds, 7% cattle, 7% rabbits, 5% deer, 4% woodchucks, 4% goats and 4% watermelon (Feldhamer, et al.).  Note that there is a native persimmon in Arkansas whereas the tree in my backyard is an Oriental persimmon planted by the former residents.  Coyotes are omnivores and I often see native and cultivated berries and fruit in their scat.

Coyotes drinking out of birdbath
Coyote dams enter estrus (in "heat") only one time of year for up to ten days (Feldhamer et al.).  In California, this occurs in February (Jameson and Peeters).  Courtship may begin with increased scent marking and howling 2 to 3 months earlier (which would be now, November and December).  The same pair may breed every year, but not always.  After a gestation period of 63 days (April), coyote pups are born blind and are usually sheltered in a den.  In 15 days, their eyes open, teeth start to erupt through their gums, and in about another week, they emerge from the den (May) to begin a summer of growing and learning within the pack.  The pups reach adult size at about 9 months (November) and the juveniles usually disperse during autumn and early winter.

Coyote checking out the Moultrie camera on the persimmon tree
Food supply is the prime factor in the number of female coyotes (including yearlings) that breed in any one year. Food availability the previous winter and lower population densities of coyotes generally increase litter size with the average being six.  Harsh winters with deep snow may favor coyote productivity by resulting in more carcasses of large ungulates (deer, elk, moose, bison) which the coyotes feed upon.  They even form larger packs during such winters.  We don't have large native ungulates left in the Santa Cruz Mountains and snow falls only one or two times a winter melting within a few days.  However, last January a steer died on the Dipper Ranch from causes we were never able to determine, and it may have influenced the local coyote population in a similar manner.  From my observations and wildlife cameras I set up, I guessed there were one or two large coyotes and at least 2 medium-sized individuals that were probably yearlings feeding off the steer carcass for 3 weeks.  Ordinarily, the yearlings would have dispersed to their own territories by winter.  The carcass in January in some way probably influenced the number and health of coyote pups we saw in June.

Summer sky under which the coyotes roam.
Milky Way on the left, Scorpius stretched out over the hills.
Occasionally on the long summer days, I saw a coyote or two on my hikes across the upper grasslands.  I usually couldn't tell whether I was seeing an adult or juvenile coyote anymore because the glimpses were so brief and the coyotes quickly blended into the tall, dry grass. As I was coming home after dark one night, I stopped at the gate to greet the stars in the spectacular summer sky. My new favorite constellation was Scorpius with his tail curled into the Milky Way and his red heart Antares beating low over the coastal ridges.  I turned the other direction to find Cassiopeia, and on a hillside beneath her was a coyote looking down at me. This night-venturer did not slink into the grass.  Instead, it sat watching me curiously as I opened and closed the gate.  It reminded me of the coyote pups when I first saw them in June who ran but then stopped to stare at the strange new sight.

Coyote juvenile hunting for trouble
In August, I saw a lone coyote pacing under the power line above the orchard.  When I came back in the afternoon, the coyote was still there, pawing the earth and sometimes looking up at the power lines in a peculiar way.  I climbed that hill the next day and found a bobcat carcass.  The bobcat looked immature and had not been fed upon, just smashed hard onto the ground.  I guessed the juvenile coyotes were wandering farther and eliminating smaller, competing predators.

Coyote blending into the summer grass
Suddenly in October, the coyotes looked different.  They had changed into their winter coat, fluffy and colorful.  At this point I couldn't tell whether I was seeing the alpha pair or the young of the year but their coats were brilliant.  One morning as I was closing the garage, I heard a coyote barking.  It's uncommon for me to hear coyotes calling at this time of day, so I turned off the car and ran for the backyard.  I could see a brightly colored coyote standing stiff-legged in the open pasture below the house, barking intently at the nearby forest.  Soon, the coyote started charging up the hill straight at me.  Eventually it realized there was a person standing next to the big pine tree and it veered off but continued helter-skelter.

Sporting a fluffy winter coat at the Newt Spring
The next day, I realize what the coyote might have been barking at. As I was checking the upper pastures, I found a bright white and recently cleaned deer carcass.  Then I walked down to pull the memory card from the wildlife camera at the spring above the Newt Pond.  Later that evening when I loaded the memory card from the wildlife camera onto my computer, I found a photo of two mountain lions.  Perhaps they had traveled from the deer carcass to the spring, and then were heading for a sleep in the forest - the same forest I saw the coyote barking at the previous day.

Mountain lions are usually solitary unless it is a female with kittens, or siblings dispersing from their mother's territory.
The contractors who had been working on the lower part of the property during the summer told me they would often see large mountain lion tracks in the morning in the soft ground graded by their heavy equipment the day before.  I had seen the tracks down there myself, they were definitely feline and whereas one set was quite large, sometimes I found smaller sets.  In summer, the coyotes ruled the upper part of the property, but in late fall, it seems that the juvenile predators - coyote, bobcat and mountain lion - are dispersing and redefining their respective territories.

Coyote watching at the gate at dusk
I don't expect to see much of the coyote pack in the winter, but now with the assistance of the wildlife cameras and some reading, I have a better sense of their population dynamics.  I am curious as to how much this pack may mix with other nearby packs I watch in Russian Ridge and Monte Bello Open Space Preserves and I am hoping to detect the start of a new den in spring 2012.  What are coyotes up to this time of year in your area?

This is the last of three parts in The Coyote Brush Highway series.  Part One is here. Part Two is here.

See also:  Check the Links page for references cited in this post.


  1. Fascinating -- thanks for this series! I'd love to set up a trail cam or two and see what's happening around the cabin late at night...

  2. Thank you, Cindy, I have thoroughly enjoyed following your written coyote trail. The combination of a naturalist's fieldcraft, the ecological insight and the art of the wordsmith makes for a heady brew.

  3. I've been looking forward to this post! I hesitated commenting on your previous "The Coyote Brush Highway" part (great title, btw!), because I didn't want to get into the chicken fray. I kept chickens as a kid (enclosed outside of our numerous fences), which were effectively killed by a pack of feral dogs, not coyotes.

    Out of the many bloggers I follow, I trust the information you present, since I know you know your stuff and do much research before posting.

    My dad had a decent, even respectful, attitude towards coyotes, despite the fact we had livestock.

    Thought these other bloggers' posts about coyotes might be interesting to you:

    bb on coyote research in urban Chicago:

    Joe, a cam trapper whom I generally like, yet holds the antiquated view of shoot any coyote you see:

    Thank you for an informative post series.

  4. Interesting. Just 2 mornings ago I was awakened by a chorus of coyotes, before dawn. I feel like I see them (and other carnivores) more in winter, but maybe the cold makes our chickens seem more appealing?

  5. I think it is interesting that in a three-part series about coyotes in which I don't once mention predation on domestic stock, chickens come up frequently in the comments. I actually think it is very relevant because that is probably the most common way humans relate to coyotes. What prey animal is or would have been the equivalent in the natural world? I keep looking at a photo of a coyote with a mallard in its grip in Twilight Hunters: Wolves, Coyotes and Foxes by Gary Turbak. It looks like a mouthful for the coyote. Coyotes are extremely adaptable which is why they are a pest to humans and explains their astonishing range expansion to the east coast of the continent.

  6. Coyotes in winter. I don't see them much in the winter but is probably more because of my habits. I leave for and return from work most days in the dark in the winter. Now that I have wildlife cameras set up, I might detect more winter coyote activity. Also, must of the studies I have read about coyotes have taken place in snowy places which is not the case out here on the mild coast, so I am struggling to interpret some of this info. Biobab: maybe the howling you are hearing right now is early courtship behavior. You could put a moose or elk carcass out and that could keep the coyotes distracted from your chickens for a few weeks (*snort*).

  7. A friend turned me onto the novel Prodigal Summer by one of my fav authors Barbara Kingsolver and she describes the coyote's expansion to the Appalachian Mountains and people's responses in a great fiction story.

  8. A delightful series! I am so glad I found it by accident!
    Diane in southern Oregon.


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