Yip – yip – yip – woooooooo. Tonight the coyote exclamations last ten minutes. Sometimes they keep us awake for hours. Our rural, residential valley in the Santa Cruz Mountains is very active coyote habitat. The confluence of creeks with grassy south-facing hillsides, oak woods and north-facing redwood slopes provide abundant food and shelter. From sightings, signs and sounds, it is fascinating to put together the story of our local wild dogs.
Sightings are common on the road while driving up the valley – greenish-gold eyeshine reflects in the headlights. The coyote’s brown and gray mottled fur blends in well with dry grass where we often sight them traversing the hillside. Jay and songbird alarm calls bring attention to these predators’ presence along the creek. One early morning an adult with two pups were hanging out in the upper parking lot at the kid’s school.
Signs of coyotes give information about their food and movement. Scat reveals an omnivorous diet: fur and bones, fruit and seeds, grasshopper exoskeletons. Tracks in the mud show paw prints and gait patterns. Deep holes in the yard tell that a coyote has been digging for a gopher. Our border collie and her sniffing nose help define invisible olfactory signs – a urine boundary the coyotes mark.
Coyote live up to their scientific name Canis latrans, Latin for “barking dog”. Their eerie yips, howls and barks echo through the valley. An auditory illusion referred to as the “beau geste effect” can make a few dogs’ vocalizations distort through the landscape and sound like a larger group.
Different from their wolf cousins, coyotes live in small family groups – not packs. A male and female nurture their offspring – up to 8 pups born in the spring. Occasionally, parents will let the previous liter hang around to help babysit and gather food before being driven off.
Coyotes are highly territorial. Yips and howls create an auditory fence of the family space – a range that could be as large as 15 square miles – or as small as ¼ square mile. A howl and bark combination is a response to disturbance – a human, domestic dog, bobcat, or a mountain lion in its territory. More howls communicate more agitation.
Howls can distinguish separate individuals – similar to human voices. Howls differ in their “warble frequencies”, how quickly they rise and fall, pitch, and duration. The wild dogs may be able to determine how far away another animal is by listening to the bark and the proportion of high and low frequency sounds.
Listen for the singing coyotes – an eerie acoustic apt for Halloween!