Sunday, November 27, 2011

Coyote Brush Highway

Hot day on the Coyote Brush Highway for a coyote pup.
The game was up.  With their keen noses and my sensitive skin, I didn't expect to get additional close-up glimpses of the coyote pups as I did in June.  To keep track of their progress, I decided to place wildlife cameras near the brushy thicket where I frequently saw them. Not only did I suspect the coyote brush sheltered their den, but soon I learned how important the brushy structure was to many other types of wildlife.

By her exposed row of teats, this appears to be the dam of the coyote pack
Furthermore, the grownups had discovered me sneaking about.  Originally, I didn't see any adult coyotes when I was spying on the pups.  I assumed the parents spent the day napping in the brush after a busy night foraging for their growing family, while the unsupervised pups played and stalked grasshoppers "outside" in the pasture.

Another photo of the dam coyote
As a heavier and larger animal, this is probably an adult male coyote.  Both parents provide food for the young, and sometimes siblings from the previous year also help care for the young.
One of the coyote pups at the same location as the adults shown above.  Notice the shorter height compared to the grass in the background.  The legs are shorter and the nose and ears are smaller in proportion to the rest of the body.  Since coyotes are born in California from March to May, this pup is possibly 2 to 4 months old.
I grew impatient as my bug-bitten skin recovered from my hiding-in-the-bushes/spying-on-the-pups adventure.  I was frequently checking the coyote side of the property with binoculars.  One afternoon I saw movement over there and from my backyard I could make out two sharp ears flicking on a low hilltop.  The long, sharp nose was pointed downhill, so I guessed it was an adult coyote watching pups play in the sunny bowl I knew was on the far side of the hill.

Sentry coyote adjusting its napping position
Since the coyote was reclined and facing away from me, I decided to see if I could get closer.  If I followed a cow path on the lower side of the grassy hill, maybe I could get a peek at what was happening on the hidden side of the hill.  To avoid alerting the resting sentry, I tried to move like a cow - walk slowly, amble, never focus intently on one point (which would be predator behavior), and think like a big, harmless herbivore.  With sideways glances, I could monitor the coyote's silhouetted position on top of the hill.  As I got closer, I could tell it was definitely an adult by its size.  Every few minutes or so, the coyote would rearrange its reclining position or yawn, but it always faced the other direction and didn't look back towards me.  I was being a good cow.

Just as I rounded the protruding slope of  the hill, I was stopped by a rusty and sagging barbwire fence.  How was I going to get over or under the fence without ripping anything and still pretend to be a cow?  As I was pondering, I heard a noise and looked up just in time to see a brushy tail slipping over the hilltop.  With my cover busted, I ran up to the top of the hill and could see a pup silently running ahead of the adult coyote towards the brush line.

I rarely saw or got photos of more than one coyote pup at a time, so I was not able to clearly distinguish them as individuals.  This pup has a colorful coat and fluffy dark-edged tail.
This pup has a whitish cast to its fuzzy coat.
Is this the same whitish-fuzzy pup as in the photo above but 3 weeks later?
Is this long-haired pup a third individual?
On the top of the hill were many big and small scats, so I was sure the coyotes spent a lot of time there.  Now that an adult coyote had seen me creeping around the sunny playground, I knew I had better not come back without risking the adults deciding to move the pups.  First thing the next day in the office, I demanded a wildlife camera from The Roper for "important predator research".  In his usual good humor, he provided his loopy boss with a Recon camera, a Cuddeback camera, plenty of batteries, memory cards and a card reader.  I was ready for a digital safari and set up the cameras along the line of coyote brush the next day.

Dense growth form and habitat of coyote brush
Coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) is a nondescript evergreen shrub up to five feet in height with dense branches that provides important wildlife habitat.  It is tough and adaptable and provides protective shelter for wildlife throughout all of California and just beyond its boundaries. Deer generally do not browse it, but its flowers and leaves are food for many types of insects.  As a pioneer plant, it readily seeds into any bare soil downwind of the female plants in early winter.  In this dioecious species, the male flowers are on separate plants than the female flowers.  Coyote brush plants with dusty yellow tips in August and September are pollinating males.  Coyote bush plants covered in white puffs in October and November are female, fertilized and ready to release their seeds to the world.  Throughout the Santa Cruz Mountains, you will see waving lines of coyote brush advancing and retreating as they respond to short-term phenomena like grazing, burns, land clearing and landslides.

The scurry zone
Have you ever noticed a bare patch of soil completely circling a stand of brush?  What causes that?  Various explanations I have heard are:  allelopathy, scurry zone, grazing, fire patterns, insect herbivory, soil permeability and surface crusting.  I've pretty much concluded that bare ground around brush in the Santa Cruz Mountains is probably a scurry zone - a clear patch caused by small rodents and rabbits that  continuously browse in the open a few short hops from the protective cover of brush - the retreat they scramble to whenever predators appear.  On grazed properties such as the Dipper Ranch, the cattle also regularly walk along the edge of the brush and keep the strip clear through trampling and grazing.

Brush rabbit - primary engineer of the scurry zone
It was on this waving line of bare soil next to the dense coyote brush thicket that I had frequently seen the coyote pups and found their tracks, scat and chewed branches and bones, so that is where I set up the two wildlife cameras.  Over the next few weeks, the cameras took photos of large and small coyotes traveling along the brush-grass corridor during the night and day.

California thrasher and spotted towhee in the scurry zone
I was surprised, however, to see photographs of other animals frequently utilizing the same area.  Brush rabbits emerged from the thicket to browse at almost the same locations I had seen or the cameras had taken photos of coyotes a few hours earlier.  If I was glassing the area at sunset, I almost always saw a doe emerge from the same general spot in the brush line and browse the same direction along the curved edge of the hill.

Scrub jay hunting in the scurry zone
The wildlife cameras took images of scrub jays, California towhees, spotted towhees and California thrashers scratching and running in the clear zone.  I have read about the huge diversity of insects that utilize coyote brush (and discovered their itchy presence while hiding in the brush myself).  From my observations and the camera evidence, it seems that late afternoon sun in the scurry zone may stimulate swarming of insects that attracts the birds.

Bobcat heading east in the scurry zone.
Dam coyote heading west in the scurry zone one hour before the bobcat above.
A few times, the cameras even caught photos of bobcats using the same travel way.  Coyotes do not always tolerate bobcats as competitive predators and will kill them, so I was surprised to see them in proximity to the coyote den.

Bobcat heading west in the scurry zone on a foggy night.
The humble native coyote brush was providing shelter for all sizes of mammals.  As an insectary, it was multiplying the local food supply, and providing food and shelter for birds.  Most interesting of all, the very animals which utilized it for cover were shaping the brushy habitat and its nearby landscape to create The Coyote Brush Highway simultaneously used by many types of animals.

Cuddeback wildlife camera set up on fence line in the brush.
Although I couldn't observe the coyote pack in person at close range, the wildlife cameras were teaching me about the daily habitats of the coyotes and their fellow brush associates.  As the pups grew and the fall weather approached, I was once again provided the opportunity to observe coyotes first hand.

To be continued - this is the second of three parts in The Coyote Brush Highway series.  Part One is here.  Part Three is coming up soon.

Just another critter caught traveling The Coyote Brush Highway.
See also:

All the photos above with date/time stamps and the Cuddeback symbol in the lower corner where taken by an automatic wildlife camera and I did not approach the coyotes that closely or that often in person.

Wild Mammals of North America:  Biology, Management, and Conservation.  George A. Feldhamer, Bruce C. Thompson, Joseph A. Chapman, editors.  2nd edition.  John Hopkins University Press.

California's Wildlife. Vol. I-III. D.C. Zeiner, W.F.Laudenslayer, Jr., K.E. Mayer, and M. White, eds. 1988-1990. California Department of Fish and Game, Sacramento, California.


  1. This is an excellent post all the way around... great photos and prose!

    Our chicken story: My brother built a covered pen for his doberman pinschers out of anchor fencing, large posts and with metal siding for the shelter. This pen which was built to keep the large dog in has become the chicken coop and pen and has kept bears, coyotes and raccoons out. I added small hole chicken wire around the bottom half of the anchor fence to keep the raccoons from reaching in, grabbing a chicken by the neck and pulling its head off. Not a fun sight to find in the morning.

    Bears have walked around on the coop roof and pushed on the anchor fence covering the pen, and pushed and pulled at the walls. I'm sure they could have broken in except for the fact that the coop and pen are very close to the house (two car lengths) and the dogs hear the noise and alert us, so we run out and scare them off.

    We also have put together 'noise traps' made with pieces of metal ducting and metal sheets so when predators try to climb on or near them and knock them down them they make loud crashing noises and scare the predators away. We don't trap or poison. If there are predators around, we keep the chickens locked up otherwise the chickens free range.

    We have had coyotes and fox take a chicken. I figure they were here first and just keep the chickens locked up until the predators move on.

    Our coop and pen has a dirt floor, so predators could dig in if they had enough time. In your situation, if it was me, I don't think you could let you chickens free range. Our chickens run for the house and our and the dogs protection. Maybe if you got a herding farm dog that would stay with the chickens that might work?

    We are always around to protect the chickens, but I'm sure if we left them out and alone during the day, predators would figure that out and if they were locked up dig in the pen. I don't leave our dog out when we are gone because I worry about her being taken by a bear or a pack of coyotes.

    We haven't seen any predators around for over a year and I think it is because there are poachers living in the forest trapping everything they can get their traps on... people live out there all year. The rangers have caught some of them.

    Our chickens are not bothered by hawks because they are under dense forest cover, oaks, pines, madrone and the birds don't seem to be able to do their diving and snatching moves.

    I used to live up above Scotts Valley, halfway to Summit, and we had chickens living with our dairy goats very close to the house. There were lots of neighbor dogs and our dogs and I think the goats too that kept the chickens safe. Predators got the ducks though... they were farther away from the house.

    Chickens really are pretty much an easy chicken dinner for predators. How do your 'neighbors' keep chickens?
    There are some neat photos here of dog run material turned into chicken coops that will keep most predators out. We are fortunate that we haven't had coyotes, snakes, etc., burrowing in through the dirt floor. I guess I would have to put down a small wire floor or concrete. I think you know your area and what you have to protect against.

    Chickens are a lot of fun and the eggs are great, but it is a hassle trying to keep them safe. There is a lot of information on the internet. If you have more questions, feel free to ask. Good luck! ...good grief I wrote a book!

  2. Callie: I see that you are aware of and adapting to your neighbors. A great example!

  3. Jings, Ladies, there's lots of omnivores in the queue for chicken! And you need more than elbows to get to the front.

    Here in the UK, we have no large wild mammal predators left, so chicken protection revolves around outsmarting foxes.

    A novel approach by TV chef and organic food guru, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, was to convince his chickens to mimic the behaviour of their wild cousins back in the jungles of er... South East Asia? He is an advocate of the ladder system. The hen house is raised on an old telegraph pole, or similar stout support, to a height of about two metres. Access to the hen house is via a ladder, made by nailing simple steps into a long, stout pole. The design of the ladder is deliberately crude and rickety: a chicken will be able to use it, but a fox will not. I recall watching the programme where he taught his chickens the lost art of climbing up a branch to safety.

    OK, I'll admit that this probably won't work for bears!

    Thanks for opening the window onto your ever so wild world.

  4. The thought of having no large wild mammalian predators left is jaw-dropping. I've discussed the shifting of mesopredator relationships, but I haven't thought too much about what it would be like to have no large toothy mammals terrorizing the local population.

  5. Oh My Gosh! Cindy you have opened a sore spot, for me anyway.

    I have found if a person raises cattle for a living, raises goats as a hobby, or like my wife and I, raises chickens for the eggs, you need to take responsibility for your livestock. PERIOD!

    The arguments and reasons for not taking on this financial and moral burden do not hold up.

    Animal husbandry is not to be taken lightly.

    We have lived in the Santa Cruz Mountains for most of our 55 years and have had chickens and geese for a large portion of that time. We have had many battles with predators and until we came to the realization that Coyote, Fox, Bobcat, Puma, Skunk, Raccoon… will only stop when they find it IMPOSSIBLE to get into the coop.

    I spent around $500 on the enclosure for my livestock. 2”x3” welded wire backed with 1” poultry netting, concrete at the base, ¾” plywood, with 2”x’6” framing and fully enclosed 20’x10’ run. When we are home they are allowed into a 20’x50’ fenced enclosure. Sometimes into the yard when we are actively working on our garden. WOW! No more midnight raids or murders.

    We also take responsibility for our cats by only allowing them out when we are around. In the past 25 years we have found the life expectancy for an outdoor cat is around three years. This is the realization of rural living.

    I am tired of hearing DFG issuing depredation permits without reviewing a site and making efforts to address the true husbandry-responsibility issue. Or hearing about ranchers or citizens using the 3s method, Shoot, shovel, shut up.

    I feel this is a response that is based on an unfounded fear, not truly understanding the predator-prey relationship, political pressure, taking personal responsibility, or hiding behind a hunting mentality… Bad predator…Kill, Kill, Kill and the problem will go away.
    Trophic cascades…. All of these predators play a role and provide eco system services that cannot be dismissed we need to think about our actions.

    Cindy, I will not apologize for my preaching on this subject. I hope you feel it has merit. DT

  6. Oh shoot. Your observations and stories are incredible. DT

  7. DT: bring it on. I appreciate both you and Callie sharing your experiences with coyotes. Isn't it amazing how much passion they generate?

  8. Fascinating post, Cindy. I've observed several coyote dens in the Cuesta La Honda watershed over the years. The dens were in grassy areas near, but not within, coyote brush.

  9. I remember how I got here. I was searching "coyote brush" because I was suddenly homesick for Half Moon Bay, CA. (The smell of it...mmm.) Fortunately, I came across your blog and you happen to be in a region I'm very familiar with. Your photos and writing are wonderful and I'll be back. Thanks for all you're doing!

    1. Diane: I'm glad this post continues to be helpful years later. And I'm glad it brought back the delicious smells of the central California coast for you.


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