The coyote.
July 18, 2012

“Look!  Charlotte, look!  Do you see the coyote?” I said excitedly as I scooped her into my arms and took her to the living room window.

The coyotes are having a rough year here.  In the autumn through early spring, we had an imbalance in the number of prey animals.  Twice during the winter, Charlotte and I woke up to find deer nibbling on plants in the yard.  They were large deer, young and healthy, skittish.

In over twenty years of living here, I never once saw a deer until this past winter.  Other neighbors found deer in their yards too and one woman took a picture of a buck sipping from the birdbath on her deck.

A large number of prey animals is always followed by a large number of predators.  So we watched.  We listened.  We waited.

The birds came first.  One night when we were walking home, Charlotte pointed out a silhouette to her grandfather.  We stood, transfixed, as the silhouette’s head swiveled.  Then the owl fell silently into the sky.  Later that week, we saw three Cooper’s Hawks sitting beside one another on a branch.  One morning, a raptor dove into our yard and pulled a rabbit, shrieking and squirming, into the air.  It was quick and effortless.

After the birds came the bobcats.  They were fatter this year, more docile, and the neighbor’s boy tracked them several miles up the creek.

So we knew that it was only a matter of time.  There are only two predators large enough to take down bobcats and deer: coyotes and mountain lions.

The coyotes came in large numbers, so the mountain lions stayed deeper in the hills.  They killed the skunks and the rats and the opossums and they stole the squash flowers from vegetable gardens.  One night, a man from across the creek came by passing out flyers about his missing husky.

The husky turned up dead and half-devoured a couple days later.  Coyotes prefer to hunt alone or in a pair, but as the prey became scarce they formed a pack.  Packs take down dogs by catching them in a pickle.  They encourage the dog to chase one coyote, then another, then another and as the dog tires they close in.  When the dog stops running, they pounce.

With the abundance of food came earlier litters.  The litters were large and frequent because coyotes have spent the last five or six years rebounding from a population threat: people were shooting them.  When a coyote population declines, female coyotes ovulate more frequently and produce larger litters.  It’s the number one reason not to kill coyotes, if you ask me.  Five coyotes are a pain in the ass.  Imagine fifty.  And then imagine all fifty starving because there’s only enough food for five.

Made bold by hunger, the coyotes have more recently begun to hunt during the day.  We are beginning to recognize them by sight.  One has black fur, an odd color on a coyote.  He’s one of the larger males and he’s fearless.  Sometimes we stand around with the neighbors in the afternoon and we talk about him, the way he uses the road as a thoroughfare, like he knows the ways of man.  He is powerful, too, with broad shoulders and large muscles.  He isn’t starving.

But this coyote was grey.  Her fur was matted down, her nipples dark and swollen.  Her belly was stretched like a barrel.  She was undernourished.

She stood for a moment and looked at us, then she loped effortlessly through the tall grass toward the house.  She paused in front of the orange trees, peered at us curiously, then trotted off with the confidence of the wild in her.  In the blink of an eye, she had disappeared into the bushes on the side of our garage.  Later, Donald chased her off our property; we aren’t ready to have an aggressive, hungry momma coyote with a litter on our hands.

“Did you see the coyote, Momma?” Charlotte asked me.  “Wasn’t she beautiful?”

She sure was, I told her.  She sure was.

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  1. By on July 18, 2012

    I watched a documentary on coyotes once. This post was better.

  2. By Heather on July 18, 2012

    I really enjoyed this post. We have a similar situation with prey and predators on our hands. Where we never used to see deer in our yard, it is now a regular occurrence to see them eating blackberries in our back yard. As for coyotes, we know it is only a matter of time before we see them in our yard. My in-laws have 100 acres and they have a pack of coyotes which we hear fighting on the regular and see once the sun goes down. They aren’t hungry, clearly. They hunt at night, there are plenty of deer and they are massive. It really is amazing to see the balance of nature and show it to your child. :)

  3. By Krista @ Not Mommy of the Year on July 18, 2012

    Sarah, this is so wonderfully written. My grandparents had a sheep farm so all I remember about coyotes were that they were dangerous to the animals. I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen one, but we used to hear them at night. To see one so close to your home, does it unnerve you at all?

  4. By on July 18, 2012

    We live in suburbs, but our neighborhood is surrounded by forests and farms. We wake up from coyote’s howling after a hunt every night. I’m pretty sure I’d pee my pants if I was outside and I heard that. My heart starts to race when I hear it and I’m inside.

    We’ve lived here for 6 years now and just this past year local elementary schools have gone into lockdown because coyotes were on the property—in broad daylight. It’s never been a problem before.

    This past year has been a bad year for house cats, many, many, many missing cat posters have plastered our mailboxes. I think the raccoons are being pushed into our neighborhood too, because of the coyotes closing in. Raccoons were using a spot in our backyard as a latrine and the garbages on our street are being torn open every week.

    The coyotes are making a comeback.

  5. By Amber on July 18, 2012

    Ugh. I love wild animals but I could never live somewhere where I would fear for the safety of my cats. My mother-in-law knows that if her cats get out of the house, they’re as good as eaten. I know you let your cats out of the house (right?) and I am not judging you, since it’s your choice, but I don’t understand the rationale behind letting cats out when there are so many coyotes in the area.

    The sound of coyotes howling makes my skin crawl. Scary stuff!

  6. By Sarah Christensen on July 18, 2012

    Amber - What we’ve found is that if you get a cat young enough and they grow up here, they don’t become coyote food.  They learn pretty quickly to come in at night (ours do) and they figure out a few safe places (ours pick the roof or tall trees with extra foliage) within their range, just in case.  Our coyotes mostly come out at night - they usually stay deeper in the ravine in the daytime.  The only time we see them in the community during the day is if one is sick or if they’re desperately hungry.  Coyotes that live in more wild places come out in the daytime much more frequently than coyotes that live near neighborhoods.

    Recently, the daytime coyote sightings here have become more frequent - and we’re also starting to see them in groups of three or four in the daytime, as compared to just a lone coyote.  The cats naturally are staying in more on their own - they still go outside, but they know when there’s a threat and they come back in if there is.  The good news is that a coyote will very rarely go after a cat in the daytime - it’s a fight they just can’t win.

    Krista - It depends.  It makes me nervous if Charlotte’s not immediately by my side; the odds of a coyote attacking her are very remote, but it does make me nervous if we’re outside and see one and she isn’t right there.  That’s about it, though.  They rarely mess with people unless they’re quite ill or they feel threatened, and there isn’t much of interest for them in our yard so they mostly steer clear.  Coyotes make me uneasy if I’m out with them and they’re close, but certainly not when I’m inside.

  7. By Catherine on July 18, 2012

    The coyotes are in my parents neighborhood in the Metroparks surrounding Cleveland, Ohio.  There are several warnings on all marked trails regarding how they’ve been taking out dogs.  I’m not sure how much of that is hype, but I do remember being nervous trail hiking with my 27 pound three year old and 35 pound 4 year old.  Hearing them hunt at night is freaky.  FREAKY.

  8. By Sarah Christensen on July 18, 2012

    Rin - Thank you, that’s very kind =)

    Catherine (and Cynthia, and everyone else who lives in the north) - Do you guys have wolves too?  I read somewhere once that as coyotes started to spread farther north and east, they met with wolf populations and bred and that as a result the coyote populations in those areas are much larger than they are here.  A coyote here is generally going to weigh 25-40 pounds, but my understanding was that in the north and east where there are wolf populations they are ten to fifteen pounds heavier on average and, accordingly, taller at the shoulder and longer.

    A thirty-pound animal here is admittedly probably a bit less threatening to me than a fifty-pound animal would be!

    I think the scariest animals here are mountain lions.  They’re really not much of a threat in that they rarely come into populated areas, their population has pretty significantly declined, etc.  But they still freak me out.  Every now and then on a hike I’ll come across fresh mountain lion scat and I know that I’m not the right size, shape, movement, etc., for a mountain lion but SHUDDER anyway!  There’s an old feeble female mountain lion in a zoo near here and even looking at her, half-blind and arthritic, I know she could take me down lol.

  9. By on July 18, 2012

    Thanks for this perspective! Coyotes have taken 2 of our chickens here in South Carolina, and a number of small dogs in the surrounding area. I’m a vegetarian and wouldn’t so much as squash a bug, but coyotes are the one animal I can imagine myself shooting and killing.  I’m afraid to let my girls (ages 1 1/2 and 3) outside to play alone, especially at the edge of the woods where the chickens were attacked, and I resent the coyotes for taking that freedom away. Your description of the momma coyote with swollen belly is the first time I’ve softened toward the animal…they’re just trying to provide for their babies, too! I wish there were a good solution that allowed us to live and let live. :\

  10. By on July 18, 2012

    I’m in LB and although I haven’t seen any in our neighborhood I have been reading about sightings all over the city this year. They can be dangerous but so beautiful.

  11. By on July 19, 2012

    definitely no coyotes around my hood ! and by mountain lions, you mean cougars ?? thats crazy !!
    this post was like reading the national geographic to me. so so different from the wild life around me. thank you !

  12. By Ashley on July 19, 2012

    This was the best read of my morning! Absolutely fascinating.

  13. By tara pollard pakosta on July 19, 2012

    wow! that’s AMAZING~
    sounds like my parents house on 40 acres way up in Upper Michigan, they see everything come into their yard, including bears!
    I would be scared to DEATH!
    funny as a kid, I used to roam in the woods all day long, climbing trees, making forts in them, playing in the ferns making mazes through them, picking sweet williams, playing in abandoned houses ( a particular one we would pretend was haunted) etc. but now I am a big ol’ scaredy cat!!! lol!!!
    great post!

  14. By on July 19, 2012

    YES! Big ol’ wolves out here! They’re pretty elusive, I’ve only seen 2. One was dead at the side of the road after being hit by a car and the other was joyously running through a huge farm field in the autumn. Majestic creatures, and so beautiful.

    I’ve only ever actually seen one coyote roaming around, and he was pretty small. I have heard about cross-breeding, but there hasn’t been much report of it here. Most of the newspaper photos I’ve seen of the coyotes in our town have been pretty large though, maybe we think that’s a normal looking coyote…?

    There are a number of missing animal horror stories from local farmer’s, but no one in the populated neighborhoods have had real run-ins. We’re a pretty smart town, no one goes out running after dusk and we greatly respect that we’re a HUGE part of the problem.

    There was a sheep farmer who hasn’t raised them in a few years, coyotes were picking them off one by one. About 100 yards away from our house, our best friend used to live on the edge of a green belt and he would always see glowing eyes in his backyard.

    We know they’re everywhere, but they haven’t become a real issue yet. People are scared, but there haven’t been any attacks.

  15. By Sarah Christensen on July 19, 2012

    Cynthia - You know what’s interesting?  There are alot of people here who keep livestock, but it’s pretty rare to hear about the coyotes picking them off.  I think it’s just too large an animal for them to comfortably take down in an area well-populated by humans.  Years and years ago a woman was out riding her horse and was surrounded by coyotes.  She got bucked off and the coyotes took down the horse, but didn’t touch her.  But the coyotes at that time were DESPERATE and a number of them had been turning up starving and sick, so a horse at dusk near their ravine and away from most other people or protection must have seemed like a gift-wrapped steak.

    Emilie - For our books this month, I have been looking EVERYWHERE trying to find a good book with mountain lions for Alice.  It’s been rough going on the mountain lions.  Nobody thinks they’re cute and cuddly enough, I guess! =P At any rate, I’ve only ever seen one wild mountain lion.  That’s one too many.  Usually you might see signs of them - and they certainly see you - but that’s it.  I know two people who actually track mountain lions FOR FUN, they’re naturalists who volunteer their time tracking animals to help determine local population density.  They both talk about mountain lions as being so majestic and challenging to track.  I think they’re nuts lol.

    Tara - Ooh, one of Charlotte’s favorite stories is from when I was a kid.  My sister was playing in the yard and walked into an abandoned barn that used to be on my parents’ property.  She came out and told my mom about the bad dog inside and how it wouldn’t listen to her.  My mom thought she was just making stuff up, but after she kept coming and going and pestering her about helping her with the bad dog, my mom went into the barn with her and…found a really, horribly sick coyote.

    She rounded us all up, called animal control, and we watched as they came with special equipment to pick her up.  I never really thought about it again until Charlotte was little - that story makes me squirm to think about her exploring alone.  I know she needs to, but EEP!





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