A Pair and a Spare - Done Once
The first time I heard the phrase, I had to chuckle and wonder why I hadn't heard it before.

I was hunting coyotes in eastern Montana, right in the middle of the denning season. I had parked my pickup in a slight saddle on top of a ridge that ran through some prime coyote denning areas. After a quick scan of the area with my binoculars, I blew my siren in my favorite sequence, which I'd used for several years. I was trying to get a vocal response to expose the location of any coyotes in the area, and possibly save me a lot of time and legwork.

It didn't take long for the response to come in, loud and clear. I knew the area well, because I had taken a den there the year before. When I got a good line on them, based on the direction and how loud their yips and howls were, I tried to visualize the draw they were in. I knew there were a few small, but deep, side draws leading into the main drainage, and that was where I suspected the den would be.

I leaned against the pickup to really steady the binoculars, dialing the focus as I settled in. I figured that at least one of the coyotes would show themselves, and if I could spot it I'd be able to plan my next move on them.

Like clockwork, a pair of coyotes appeared on the upper end of a draw about half a mile away. That might seem like a fair distance, but in my opinion at times it really is too close to successfully work coyotes. Sound carries well in the early morning calm, and even with the sun at your back and in your favor, they seem to know where you are easily.

I quietly got in the pickup and pushed the clutch in, so it would simply roll backwards into the saddle even more. I did this to avoid the noise of starting the engine, which I figured might still be heard at that distance. After gathering my rifle, shooting sticks, and other gear, I let the tailgate down and let my two dogs out.

I had already picked out a route that would keep me out of sight while approaching them, and I headed in that direction. My dogs seemed to know what I was up to, and stayed fairly close. A few quiet "Hey, stay here," commands from me kept them in line, even though they had heard the coyotes too, and they wanted to head in that direction, cover or not.

When I got to a vantage point I slowly peeked over it, binoculars ready, for a quick look. I didn't want to run the risk of having the coyotes coming in closer to me, and having them catch me off guard and possibly get downwind of me. I got dialed in again and could see that the coyotes had only moved a short distance, but were still basically moving in my direction.

About then I saw movement a little farther out, which turned out to be a third coyote slowly approaching.

This changed things a bit, as I knew there were several scenarios that could take place, and they were possibly about to happen, like it or not. The wind was still good, and I made my way to my pre-determined calling stand. There were some fairly high sagebrush bushes on a small rock pile, and I intended to use them as a backing to sit in. I hunkered down the last few yards, moved quick, and then sat down.

I urged the dogs to range out in front of me, and they were eager to do so. After maybe a minute, I started on the Crit'R Call. As planned, the coyotes responded to what they thought was a threat to their pups, and they showed up fairly fast. Two of the coyotes were in the lead by probably 50 yards, while the third one was off to the side.

My two dogs did their job, and decoyed the coyotes into rifle range several times, until I got them all taken care of. True to form, the third coyote, which had appeared last, was the toughest to get to stop long enough for a shot. It appeared to be very nervous, and its body language was different than the two aggressive coyotes. When I got to it, I identified it as a 'dry' young female coyote, probably a yearling by the teeth. I'd always referred to these dry females as 'babysitters', but I really can't remember the first time I'd heard or used the term.

The aggressive coyotes were a denned pair, both of which showed some age. It turned out to be a typical combination of coyotes that you encounter around dens fairly often.

I finished the job by locating the den, and, an hour later, I was back at the pickup looking for the water jug. I called a friend and co-worker on the radio, and told him how things had worked out so well. I told him about the three coyotes, and was about to call the extra coyote the babysitter when he said, "Oh, a pair and a spare."
I chuckled, and I sat there thinking about how well that identified the scenario I had just witnessed. It really did sum up the instances of multiple coyotes better than 'babysitter', since at times the extra coyote turned out to be a male, and they weren't often right at the den.

I've witnessed and dealt with probably every type of combination possible during the summer months: two males, two females, young and old, etc. One of the many things I've learned about coyotes is to not take anything for granted.

I'm going to mention a few things I've noticed that hold true a high percentage of the time, and seem to hold true year after year. Bear in mind that they are just generalized instances.

First, these 'spare' coyotes are usually younger, but we can only speculate if they are a holdover, or young of the paired coyotes, from the year before. I'm assuming that some coyotes, like people, have trouble 'spreading their wings' and venturing off on their own. It only stands to reason that staying in contact with the parents and loosely hanging around with them, is a route that some coyotes chose to take.

In the 'running season', when the majority of coyotes are paired, you still see some coyote tracks that are alone, but fairly close to areas where I think there will be a den later. I have to imagine that some of these are the ones that re-appear and unite with the pair after breeding. But I am only speculating.

On the other hand, I am positive that some coyotes are just loners, and spend most of their time on their own, seeming to avoid contact with other coyotes. I've spent a lot of my life hunting and studying coyotes, and I assure you that it does occur. One can only speculate why this happens, but I see it with mangy and healthy coyotes alike. When you think about this, it is again just like some people.

To touch back on females being in this multiple coyote equation, I remember hearing years ago that un-bred female coyotes have the potential to produce milk if the demand on them is high enough. That says a lot about the built-in survivor plan that Mother Nature has instilled in them.

Milk producing or not, there is no doubt that these females are valuable as extra hunters to help feed the mouths of a litter of pups that averages around six. Even during years of a good prey-base, there is no doubt that as time goes on, the available food source around dens gets thinned down a bit. It only stands to reason that three or four hunters heading out from the den stand a better chance of bringing home food than two.

From the aspect of trapping with footholds, I've never seen where these extra coyotes were any harder to catch than the main pair, and I usually pick them up in sets intended for them. On the calling side of things, they can be tough. Their aggression and defensive mode can dissipate fairly quickly, and I've watched them 'hang up' many times while the denned pair comes in to the call. It's in these cases that you might have to return and do some clean up with maybe another type of sound, or possibly catch them some other way.

That also brings up the variable of there being another male associated with the denned pair. I can't say that I've seen many large, older adult coyotes as this 'third wheel', but it does happen once in a while. I have had yearling type males come in to a call, right beside the dominant male. In a lot of cases, these younger coyotes are very aggressive too.

And, multiple coyotes can seem to appear out of thin air at times. There is no doubt in my mind that coyotes keep track of each other by vocalizing more than we give them credit for. I think that these denning areas create interest in other coyotes, and some will come to the aid of others just out of pure survival mode. Seeing that happen many times over the last 31 years of coyote hunting has made me come to the conclusion that 'dominant' means nothing when it comes to coyotes, in the overall big picture of the coyote world.

These are just some of the many different things I've witnessed and lived through while pursuing coyotes. There are no hard, fast rules. Coyotes will throw curve balls, and you can't second-guess them. I guess that's what keeps it interesting.