Understanding Coyote Denning Behavior

Understanding Coyote Denning Behavior

Article and photos by Janet Kessler

Coyote pupping season lasts from approximately February through the fall, and during this time, protective coyote parents are very concerned about the safety of their family.

The main point to understand about coyote denning behavior is that it is protective territorial messaging behavior, not unprovoked aggression, although that is how it might appear. 

Coyotes have ONE thing that is precious to them: their pups

Coyotes’ whole social system and territoriality is geared for successful raising of their litters. There is just one coyote family in any territory, which, in San Francisco, measures about two square miles. Coyotes’ territorial behavior is geared to keep other coyotes out of their exclusive territory, which provides the food they need to sustain themselves and to raise their young successfully.

They are pretty successful at keeping other coyotes out, however wolves, mountain lions, and even dogs and their owners are constant problems for them. And it’s dog owners who often walk their dogs into coyote areas in the first place, knowingly or unknowingly. For the safety of your pets and the coyotes, we encourage you to learn what to expect and what to do if you encounter a protective denning coyote.

Dens and Den areas.

There are approximately 17-20 coyote territories in the city of San Francisco, each with one alpha male/female pair of coyotes who may or may not have produced a litter of pups in any particular year. See map here.

The actual den is used only temporarily for the actual birth of the pups and several months thereafter. Then — as with bird nests or our own bassinets —  the young pups outgrow the den, and the family will abandon it to sleep outside, usually in hidden and protected places. 

Dens might consist of openings under trees or rocks (which could be expansions of pre-existing burrows of other animals), they may be dug from scratch, or coyotes may even make a den under a porch or other human habitation.

Coyote pairs usually dig multiple dens in their territory — not just one — most of which may never be used. Pups may be moved between several dens several times in the first few months of life, usually for safety reasons or possibly due to a flea infestation. I’ve seen pups rotated between dens at one month after birth, at six weeks, and again at three months of age.

One of the coyote families I know gave birth within one of the water reservoirs, but within six weeks they moved those pups. Why? Apparently the holes under the fence which they used for access were being closed-off/plugged-up because of construction work and the parents must have feared eventual complete blockage of their escape routes.

After about four months of age, coyotes generally shuffle through wider and wider areas, and of course, the pups are roaming and exploring more and more as time moves on. By the time the pups are four months of age I’ve spotted some as far away as a mile from their birthplace.

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It’s important to understand that coyote den protecting behavior extends FAR beyond the immediate den itself — 1000 feet or more. The protected area is not just the immediate area around the den. It covers a large playing field within the territory where the pups will eventually be exploring and hunting — half a mile to a mile from an actual den is not an exaggeration.

WHO might the coyotes target with their protective den behavior?

 ANY dog may become a target for being messaged, no matter the dog’s size. A coyote may even approach a dog without provocation, “just as a precaution.”

 Coyotes approach to message their warning to “get away” and “be aware of me.” These animals are very concerned about potential and perceived threats to their pups, but they are smart and self-protective about it: they feel most comfortable approaching beings their size or smaller, and they may be more likely to approach a smaller or more mellow dog for this reason. 

Unfortunately, small children can also fall into this category—they are seen by coyotes as small, unthreatening and mellow, so the coyote feels safe approaching. Small children should be supervised closely in coyote areas.  Also be aware that small pets — primarily cats — may be grabbed by coyotes. Coyote nutritional needs skyrocket during pupping season, so they may grab any potential prey that opportunistically appears in their path. This is one of the reasons WildCare encourages keeping cats indoors.

What protective den behavior entails.

Below is a video and photo gallery of a mother coyote dealing with a dog who came into her immediate denning area.

Remember that coyotes just want to be left alone, but they’ll be extremely protective of their pupping areas. You’ll notice in the video that, not only is this mother jumping around angrily with hackles up and a snarly face, images of which you’ll also see in the gallery below, but she is also screaming piercingly and angrily.

The screaming doesn’t occur as often as the posturing behavior seen in the still images, but growling can occur, and ultimately, if the message is not heeded, short charges towards and a nip to the dog’s back legs or haunches may result, cattle-dog-fashion, to get the dog to leave.

The behavior, of necessity, is intense, persistent and insistent because that is what gets a response. We humans are actually scared into action by this behavior, whereas we might not respond to anything less. The behavior can occur at very close range to the dog, which of course intensifies the message and its scariness. Dogs tend to lunge at and bark at coyotes when they see one, and unleashed dogs will usually go chasing after the coyote, often returning with a nip to their haunches.

 I want to emphasize that the intensity, persistence and insistence are SCARY to us humans. I’ve been watching this behavior in multiple den areas every single year for the last 17 years: it is absolutely normal denning behavior, even when it involves children, and has nothing to do with a particular coyote “having become aggressive due to feeding”. Feeding coyotes causes them to hang around and lose their natural concern and wariness of us, which leads to myriad problems, but it is not the cause of their very natural protective den behavior.

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Along with this posturing seen in the video, beware that during the denning season, coyotes can sneak up from behind a dog to deliver their scary message, often with short bursts of darting-in and retreating towards the pet they are worried about, and they’ll even make a running charge towards dogs from some distance away — even from 100 feet — without provocation from the dog — to warn the dog and drive it away. If this happens, just keep walking away from the coyote.

The coyote in this video from Nextdoor may look as though he is “attacking” the dog he approaches, but if you watch carefully you will see the coyote lunge in the direction of the dog and then immediately veer off, even before the dog’s owner responds. This is typical messaging behavior from a coyote during denning season.

What can you do?

If you know of a denning area, or have encountered some of this behavior from a coyote, simply avoid that area for the next several months. You’ll be maintaining peace of mind for yourself, your dog, and a coyote family. 

 Remember that coyote pupping season lasts a good part of the year: February through the fall. To avoid conflicts, first, know WHERE denning areas are and try to keep away from them. If you find yourself within a denning area, stay vigilant, especially if you have a child or dog with you.

Be prepared for a coyote suddenly appearing and making a beeline towards your dog or child. The minute you see a coyote, please pick up the small child or small dog and walk away from the coyote. Larger dogs or children should always be led away or be taught to walk away from the coyote and keep walking away from it, even if the coyote follows.

Although coyotes may follow a dog out of simple curiosity, during pupping season, the following could be “escorting” behavior, i.e., making sure your dog leaves the area. It’s easy to walk away, so just do it: most importantly, GET AWAY from the coyote. And please understand that the coyote is protecting something it cherishes and considers very precious.

What needs to be done by our city authorities?

It is really important for authorities to educate themselves and the public about what is going on and what to expect. The City of San Francisco in 2021 killed a coyote for its very normal denning “messaging” behavior. If there had been signage or flyers explaining what to expect, or if there had been a docent on hand, it might have helped. The people I spoke to about this incident didn’t fault the coyote at all, they faulted the city for not getting out proper, useful and timely information. People need to know what to expect, what to watch for, and what to do during the denning season. Good signage and handouts can go a long way in fulfilling these needs, as can sharing the information in this article. Click for the "This Is a Coyote Den Site" handout that can be posted near a known den site.

Conflict-free coexistence with coyotes is entirely possible, and the more we are able to read and understand each other, the better human/coyote coexistence will be.


Special thanks to Janet Kessler for sharing her expertise and coyote imagery for this article! Learn more about San Francisco's coyotes at Janet's website, coyoteyipps.com.