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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Days-old coyote pups exposed in the sage

A litter of seven coyote pups, their eyes still not open, snuggle in a dirt hollow under sagebrush in Lincoln County on April 8, 2017. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)

Keep your eyes open this time of year for the wildly exciting chance to discover nature’s small fry.

Spring is not lacking for reasons to lure hikers outside. Wildflowers and morels are like outdoor magnets. Opening seasons for trout and the hunting seasons for sheds and gobblers get people moving.

More trails are free of snow and more minutes of daylight are available every week.

All of this makes my legs restless for mileage and my hopes keen for the season of renewal.

From March through June our wanderings are spiced with the chance to ogle over chicks and cheepers, poults, goslings, eaglets, owlets, ducklings, cygnets, pups, kits and kittens, cubs, porcupettes, lambs, kids, fawns, calves and other babes in the woods.

And as it were last weekend, babes in the sage.

With the help of my leashed-dog’s nose, I stumbled onto a litter of seven tiny coyote pups – their eyes still closed – while exploring sagebrush country in Lincoln County, Washington, this weekend.

Ranger, my Brittany, stood on point and I went on alert.

I have unwittingly walked into the lair of coyote pups several times in previous years and in each case I was confronted and shooed away by defensive and intimidating coyote parents. They can be particularly assertive when pet dogs are involved.

A coyote will fiercely defend its den from danger. Dogs have been attacked by coyotes denning in recent years along the South Hill bluffs in Spokane.

This time the parents apparently were willing to stay concealed in the sagebrush as I came and quickly went after snapping a few photos.

It was my first encounter with pups less than two weeks old that were not in an underground or covered den. Instead, their nursery was a dirt hollow dug out under large sagebrush. The pint-size babes, which looked more like guinea pigs than slender-snouted canines to be, were tightly huddled for warmth as the air temperature was just below 40 degrees.

As pups get old enough to spend time out of a den, they’ll have hiding places such as this to hang out in while mom is hunting. But these pups were still days old and helpless.

“It’s not something I’ve ever seen in all my wanderings in the sagebrush,” said Michael Atamian, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife wildlife biologist in Spokane. “Generally, they’re under ground, say, in a re-excavated abandoned badger hole.”

Candace Bennett, another department biologist and wildlife conflict specialist, said she’s seen that situation before. Indeed, coyotes were the subjects of her masters program.

The pups may have been exposed for several reasons, she said.

They may have been born in a more traditional den and just recently picked up one at a time in the mouth of the mother and moved. A litter might be moved because of some sort of disturbance, threat of predation or the parents trying to reduce the load of fleas and other parasites, she said.

It’s not uncommon for coyotes to move their families around to several dens.

“The depression appears to be well-used,” she said after looking at my photos. “It’s also possible that it is a new mom who didn’t find a better place. It’s very possible she had the pups there.”

“If there are a lot of badgers, that might actually be a safer spot than underground. I’ll guarantee that the mom was probably close and monitoring the situation.”

The coyote parents had mated in late January when the region was covered in snow. Roughly 63 days later, the litter was born.

According to the National Trappers Association, a female coyote will stay in her den with her pups until their eyes open. This can take 11 or 12 days. These pups appeared to be around 9 days old.

Coyote litters average 5 to 7 pups. Bennett said 19 pups were in the largest wild coyote litter documented by researchers. More than half of the seven pups I found, according to another set of averages, will likely perish in their first year.

Both of the coyote parents participate in taking care of the pups. The male will bring food to the female and the pups and help protect them from predators.

By fall, the surviving pups will be able to hunt for themselves.

The yodle-dog parents in the public land parcel I was exploring in Lincoln County seemed to have a good game plan for the family. As I walked out the remaining couple of miles to my vehicle, I noticed rodent paths and holes almost everywhere in the dead, dry grass around the sage bushes.

And with the help of Ranger, I detected many rodents using them.

The table is set.

By the way – coyotes, wolves, bears, and great horned owls are among the earliest critters out there to have their young of the year. Bear sows give birth to their cubs during winter denning.

Deer and elk generally have their fawns and calves at the end of May into early June.