Where the Wild Things Are

I quickly pulled down the binoculars from the peg on the wall in the hallway to be sure. I fumbled with the focus, knowing any animal might quickly disappear into the woods. There it is: coyote.

When I first notice the motion out the window above my desk, she (I’ll call this animal) was trotting down the middle of the pasture towards the house, about mid-way. Without my eyeglasses, all I could tell is that the creature was definitely not a deer, which is about the only larger wildlife we see during daylight hours. The time was just, about 7 o’clock, under broken gray clouds.

But what kind of dog is that, I wondered at first? My initial fear was that the far neighbors’ dogs were roaming again. They’ve killed our chickens and a neighbors pigs. Coyotes have enjoyed our free-range chickens as well, when I forgot to close the pen at night.

Gandy paid no attention to my scramble to pop the caps off the lenses of the binoculars. I stood at the window muttering to myself while I watched.

By the time I had her in view, she was no farther than our barn. I see the patch of grass clearly from where I sit to type.

We’ve had fleeting views of coyotes during the day, and hear them often–usually in the distance and usually in what seems like huge numbers, but probably a pack of just a few–at night. We stop what we’re doing and listen. We have little wildness left in our world. Sometimes, it’s comforting to hear it, if only briefly and far off.

This creature was not the scrawny, scarred and furtive specimens of her kind that we occasionally spot running for their lives across Floyd County roads. Her coat was full and multi-colored, dark gray-agouti, mostly, and tawny towards the feet, the tail as big around as a liter of pop.

She was hunting, just where the wide path meets the border of the field. She stopped at just that point with what appeared to be both intention and prior memories of food just there.

Watching her hunt rodents reminded me of Tsgua’s tactics. He and she both inherited their ways from a common wild ancestor so long ago. The technique serves them well. She had obviously perfected it, and eaten well, even here at mid-winter.

Of course I don’t know what these canines smell, see or hear that makes them cock their heads, left then right, and launch into the air, feet folded under them, to spike the front feet into their prey. Or where they think their prey might be, just under the surface.

She did this leap-dive-inspect action several times, gleefully to my mind, turning around the compass points but focusing more and more on a smaller and smaller space in the tall grass that the hay mowing missed. Until finally…

She found her mark: a fat, fat, swede-black mole. And here she channeled Tsuga: the mole toss! Fling! with the neck, release, watch it fly. Prey scampers, catch, fling, and twice catch it again before it hits the ground.

The difference is that Tsuga was never hungry enough to eat a mole. Not so, this coyote. Play is one thing, breakfast is another.

And upon finishing that course, instead of heading back up into the remote boulder fields of the gorge, she cut parallel to the road, not in a particular hurry, towards the new neighbor’s place.

As much as I’d enjoy watching the Animal Kingdom out my window from my office chair, this animal seems too comfortable near human habitation in daylight to be good for it. And I’d just as soon Gandy (at 60 pounds) not tangle with this creature, even one at at time, even though only half our dog’s weight.

So I took the .22 from the corner, carefully opened the front door, and expected even that slight disturbance to be detected and result in the coyote running full speed away from the sound of the rifle. Nope. No farther away now than she was beside the barn, I could have taken a shot. She just stood there.

But my purpose was to discourage her from becoming too familiar and too comfortable in proximity to people with guns. So I shot into the bank of the creek, and sure enough, the dark shaped moved at a reasonable clip—not a full out panicked run–back up the gorge where we hear them calling of an evening.

I know a lot of guys would have taken great pleasure in a kill. I take greater pleasure in knowing that, at least for now, we live in community with foxes and bears, deer and bobcats, fox squirrels and coyotes.

Extermination of any so-called nuisance in the living kingdom is ill-advised. We need to be careful here: nature may, in the end, decide that our species is the biggest, most harmful nuisance of all unless we learn to co-exist with a diverse kingdom of life we did not create but have the power to destroy.

CAPTION: quick sketch in Adobe Ideas for iPad by the blogger

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Beautiful writing, Fred, about a beautiful and helpful animal. You captured the coyote’s hunting tactics so well! Thank you for your enlightened appreciation of a creature that has been unfairly persecuted throughout the country. LOVE the sketch too!

  2. Is that a free hand sketch? Not a modified photo? You really got it right!! I love the story, too. What a great experience to see a predator do its thing. I have never had the privilege in all my years.

  3. Loved the story, Fred! You really drew me in and I could envision everything as you wrote about it. Thanks for getting my weekend off to a good start

  4. Wonderful to read, and I am so glad you didn’t kill her. It may come to that, but I hope she provides you with more stories in the future (good ones.)

  5. Wonderful description of their intelligent, yet playful scheme of hunting! Thanks for protecting and enjoying this special creature. Connie

  6. From my single days of living in the Hollywood Hills, I know Hollywood coyotes. I would spot them both up close and from afar and I always interpreted their look as saying “Nice try but I was here first.” Alf ate cats, fictionally, on “Alf.” Coyotes in the hills dined on them regularly. And on just about anything else near or under their size. The ones I saw early, early always appeared to be returning from some Hollywood party or another – always looked like they could use some sleep. Up there in the hills I saw owls, hawks, herons, raccoons, rabbits and a few snakes…

  7. Nicely said – I watched my own dog do the “mouse pounce” at a squirrel tunnel beneath the snow yesterday and thought how cool it is that domestic dogs still share this trait that their wild relatives use for survival. Here’s hoping more people learn to respect nature as it contributes more to our lives than most realize.

  8. I thought I was the only person alive who loved the song of the coyotes. We recently had a pair that lived on and around our property and I often saw them when walking our large dogs (they always quickly ran away). They “vanished”, however, around hunting season and the nights are quiet again. If the Maasai can live alongside lions and leopards, surely we can tolerate a few coyotes. Thanks for the story.

  9. I imagine that we cause God a tear or too when we, his most cherished creation (perhaps), choose to blot out an animal simply because it was being what God made it to be.

    I have a hard time believing that God made any “mistakes” in His creation…

  10. Good to connect, Joy, and to learn your coyote story, far more consequential than mine, had a happy ending for you and your dog.

    However, I’ll admit my bias against those wee creatures trying to make a living in my garden, even though your husband is right.


    Is there a HavAHeart for moles, anyone? (I’d need a hundred or so.)Because if it’s a choice between the mole’s good nutrition or my harvest of veggies, I am determined to have canned winter beans and tomatoes!