One hour after sunrise
They crept through the long grass, low to the ground, single file. I braced my field glasses by resting one elbow on my knee and slowly adjusted the focus knob.
Five of them.
The same pack I saw yesterday. The same fascinating behavior. The Alpha was leading the pack across an open field. They strung out like beads on a necklace, spacing themselves thirty feet apart. They are lean and strong with long snouts, alert ears, and bushy tails.
A coyote pack.
Now I’ve lived in the southwest most of my childhood and all of my adult life. Coyotes are part of the territory. I, myself, have rather fond feelings for them. But I’m not a rancher. While I enjoy the beauty of their design and the sense of wild freedom they represent, my neighbors reach for a gun with a string of expletives.
But for me, this was a new experience. Coyotes aren’t generally considered pack critters. They run solo. Very unusual to see even two together. Much less three. Or four. Or five.
And I thought I knew a thing or two about coyotes.
About 200 years ago, when I was still in my late teens, I was a Colorado Licensed Fur Trapper for Ft. Lewis College. I was part of an animal behavior project. The idea was to catch a coyote, put a radio collar on him, or her, and track the critter’s movements for the summer. The goal was to determine movement patterns, size of home range, night vs. day movement and all that kind of thing. It took us all summer to catch one of the damn things. It’s apparently quite easy to kill a coyote, quite another thing to catch a live one. By the end of the summer, having been outwitted by the wily beasts for weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks I became convinced that in the real world, the damn Road Runner would not have stood a chance.
We finally got one two days before the end of the project. It slept off the tranquilizer the entire two days. We never recorded even one foot of movement.
As to why I’m now observing coyotes again, it’s my Mom’s fault. She and Dad were avid “birders,” people who learn to recognize various species and sub species of birds, and then keep track of what they’ve seen. The first time you see a given bird it goes on your “life list.” Serious birders will travel hundreds or even thousands of miles to spot rare birds to add to their life lists. There are whole web sites dedicated to this stuff (I guess that’s true of any subject under the sun). My eldest sister also took up birding. Every year she and Mom compete to see who gets the most birds in the year. Most years my sister blows the doors off my Mom. This year it’s a dead heat.
Like the sports gene, I did NOT get the birding gene. Sports just don’t interest me. I don’t even watch the super bowl. I only knew the Rockies made it to the World Series ‘cause my Mom lives in Denver and its all she talks about. Must be something in the water up there.
So what I know about birds, before today, can be summed up right here: if it can stop in mid air with no horizontal movement it is a humming bird. You can find a bald eagle on most American currency, but Ben Franklin advocated for the wild turkey as a national symbol instead. It was native, smart, and wiley. He thought a bird of prey sent the wrong message. Seems like, right now anyway, it’s a pretty accurate symbol of our international policy. Some birds have color: blue, yellow, red. Vultures fly in circles above anything in the desert that is dead or nearly dead. That’s about all I know about birds. Oh yeah, and when Robbins show up it’s spring and don’t let your cats out at night: great horned owls find them a tasty snack and cats are under the mistaken impression that they are at the top of the food chain. (Don’t panic, Khaki is fine.)
Anyway, back to the dead heat. Mom is down at our place to deliver a carload full of glass. She has her mother’s collection of antique glass and has been paying to store it for many years. She’s decided to sell it off, but most of the glass shops in her area have been victims of an economy that leaves most citizen precious little in the way of disposable income after paying bills. I suggested EBay might reach a wider audience and as you might expect, I’m now going to be listing all the glass for her….
Anyway, we live about half an hour from one of the nation’s premier national wildlife refuges. Like most locals, I confess to giving it very little thought in general. Mom hits it a couple of times on each visit. As Rio has to be to school before sunup I offered to drive Mom through the refuge after we drop him off.
I now know a lot more about birds and birding. Each equipped with stainless steel coffee mugs of home-brewed Starbucks, field glasses, and warm jackets; we slowly cruised the empty two lane road windows down, seat belts off looking for, God help me, birds. Every fifty feet or so we’d spot something, stop the car, kill the engine and bring the glasses to bear on some flying mass of feathers.
The first day I was just being a good sport. But once my brain got tuned in, I found my eye was sharp at spotting birds. On the second day I got into it.
Now I can tell the difference between a golden eagle and a hawk. And I can tell you that anyone who thinks they can tell one type of hawk from another is probably kidding themselves. The differences are subtle and individual animals vary in appearance as much as humans do. Even with a bird ID book in my lap it was hopeless.
On our second outing we spotted and IDed 30 different species of birds. Mountain blue birds twittered around our car. A Merlin buzzed over us. A great blue heron, as improbable a flying machine as a bumble bee, flapped his giant wings to escape us. I sat in the window of our CRV, feet on the driver’s seat, with my elbows resting on the roof, staring at distant ducks to figure out if they were pin tails or what the hell. A raven flew so low over us we could hear the wind swhooshing through his feathers with each powerful stroke of his wings.
We saw a bald eagle perched majestically in a dead tree. I got so close to a juvenile hawk, that didn’t yet have the sense to be scared of me, that his face filled my field glasses. I stared into his yellow eyes and detected an intelligence quite different from ours. Smart but cold. I saw a mole, digging a new tunnel, throwing dirt out with this body shovel-like. He was a cute little sausage of fur with no visible ears or tail.
Being out with nature. Highly recommended.
But back to the pack. I first saw them on day one. One was just off the road. He froze when we approached. It was then that the Alpha, far across the field, caught my eye. He made a dash. Then, to my shock, I realized there were three more coyotes between the first I saw and the runner. Number two also bolted. The three close ones stayed frozen, totally motionless. I was blown away by the group strategy. The most distant and hard to catch were distracting attention from the closer, easier targets. Hmmmmmmmm…. Smart little bastards. And smart as a group too, not just as individuals.
On our second day we were walking a loop trail in hopes of spotting some sort of rare owl. Far to the east I heard the iconic lonesome howl of a coyote. Then something different happened. A chorus of voices joined in. Howls. Yelps. Laughing hyena-like noises that chill the blood. Then to the west and south a second chorus came in reply. Two packs. Gossiping or challenging? No way to know.
It was the group to the south and west of my location I was able to spot with my Mom’s field glasses (having left mine in the car in favor of carrying my go-bag with insulin and all that other crap that keeps me alive and well). The pack was in about the same location as they had been at the day before, but they were running ahead of schedule.
They were far distant, I was having trouble getting an accurate count. I knelt down, one knee on the cool morning earth.
I braced my field glasses by resting one elbow on my knee and slowly adjusted the focus knob. The coyotes crept through the long grass, low to the ground, single file….
And I began to count….