A few months ago the family was in the living room watching a movie when we heard a piercing cry coming from the back of the apartment. My husband and I quickly went to the back bedroom window and there only a few feet away from us, clearly visible in the muted light from the apartment above, were two jackals. One was in the classic pose that defines wildness - its muzzle pointed up - howling. It stopped and the pair of them then glided away over the back wall. Perhaps it was the absolute silence of their gait that most distinguished them from dogs. We often hear jackals in this residential neighborhood of Haifa, I keep a log of when they call and approximately where they are, but this was the first time that we saw them up close in our garden.
Jackals are members of the genus Canis which also includes wolves, coyotes and dogs. There are seven or eight species in this genus: three species of jackal, two or three species of wolf (depending on whether the Ethiopian wolf is considered in the Canis genus or not) and one species of coyote. Some of these species are divided into subspecies with the domesticated dog now thought to be a subspecies of the grey wolf (Canis lupus). So dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) are actually wolves, a bit hard to fathom if you think of my neighbor’s Pekinese. The jackal species that lives in Israel is the golden jackal, Canis aureus, a widely dispersed canid species that is capable of living in close association with human populations. It is partly because of the golden jackal that we decided to make alyia (immigrate to Israel).
Both of the Jackal pictures were taken by Lior Almagor in the
We were staying at a guest house in the
One reason that jackals howl is to establish territories, in essence they are saying, “we live here, no trespassing!”. By broadcasting over long distances they avoid actual confrontations. Howling is prominent when a pair need to establish a good area in which to breed – in Israel during winter. After birth, while the pups are vulnerable, howling decreases so as not to give away the position of the den to possible predators. The problem though is that because the pair stop advertising their territory other strange jackals wander in and there is an increase in confrontations and fights. There is a flip side to everything.
The primary social unit of the golden jackal is the pair bond between the mated male and female. They both take care of the young but the male does even more, during the first week or two after birth the male feeds the female while she feeds the young. When the pups are older both the father and mother hunt and feed their pups by regurgitating partially digested food. Then in a pattern that is amazingly broad among widely different species of organisms, the young, even after they are sexually mature, stay with their parents and help to raise the next litter. So most of the time Golden Jackals live in small family groups sometimes just a pair, but often made up of the mated pair and their young adult offspring who are helping with the next litter.
Golden Jackals are considered monogamous for life based on observations showing that the same male and female individuals stay together over many seasons. However this ‘monogamy’ might be behavioral but not sexual. In a fascinating study on a related canid species the Ethiopian wolf, Claudio Sillero-Zubiri and others, found that while the males and females wolves would stay together and continue to care for the young (with their probably closely related pack members), 70% of the copulations were not between the bonded male and female pairs but with wolves from different packs. The authors thought that this system prevented inbreeding of this particularly isolated species. However, such decidedly non-monogamous behavior might be present in all the Canis species including Golden Jackals. It was assumed in other studies that a bonded pair were taking care of their own pups, but paternity was never tested. After the Sillero-Zubiri’s observations it is clear that such tests are necessary to find out what is really going on. It could be that the male is taking care of another jackal's offspring.
Jackals are adaptable. Prof. David Macdonald of Oxford University studied two groups of jackals living near the Dead Sea. One of the groups was the typical small size but the other group of jackals had at least 20 individuals, very different than the usual family group. He speculated that they lived in this different social system to take advantage of the feeding station that the Natural Park provided. Jackals are also flexible in their activity patterns. When they live near urban areas they are strictly nocturnal and their survival depends on having good cover where they hide during the day. However, in wilderness areas far from human habitation they are active during the day. Flexible behavior is a characteristic of all wild mammals that manage to thrive near humans.
Israel’s Golden Jackals were long considered vermin. In 1964 they were systematically poisoned until almost completely exterminated from Israel. Are they actually harmful? There is not a single report of jackals ever injuring people. However, they can be a problem for farmers. Prof. Yom Tov of Tel Aviv University and collaborators did a study on jackal predation against cattle grazing on the Golan Heights. With the help of timely information from the ranchers they were able to do a postmortem every time a calf was found dead. Jackals did occasionally prey on newly born calves resulting in a predation rate of about 1.5% of total births during the year of the study. However, this is not the whole story. Analysis of jackal feces showed that the Golan jackal’s main diet is not calves, but rodents. The rodents in the Golan Heights eat the same grains as the cattle do, therefore, when jackal populations are too low the rodents eat all the grain and the ranchers have to supplement the natural food of the cattle. The challenge is maintaining a population of jackals large enough to eat the rodents, but not so large that they hunt the calves. All things in moderation.
If you are out in the evening, listen for the cry of the jackals broadcasting far and wide, “this is my territory”!
Claudio Sillero-Zubiri, Dada Gottelli, David W. Macdonald. 1996. Male philopatry, extra-pack copulations and inbreeding avoidance in Ethiopian wolves (Canis simensis). Behav Ecol Sociobiol. 38 : 331–340
Yoram Yom-Tov, Shoshana Ashkenazi, and Omer Viner. 1994. Cattle predation by the Golden Jackal Canis aureus in the Golan Heights,
Macdonald DW. 1979. The flexible social system of the golden jackal, Canis aureus. Behavioural Ecology & Sociobiology 5:17-38.