Coyote Studies

by Andrhea Massey

In the west, the sky was lit up like a bonfire in beautiful oranges, yellows, pinks and purples. In the east, the night was starting as stars and deep midnight blue took over, chasing the sun away. As the crickets serenaded and owls blinked their sleepy eyes, a girl crept through the trees. She was silent as she followed the game trail, her eyes scanning the brush for movement, her ears straining to hear every rustle, her hands fastened on a camera that hung around her neck as she tried to keep it from swinging.

She had set out just before sunset, hauling a tattered backpack of supplies with only a pocket knife and a can of pepper spray for protection. Even now, as she made her way through knee-high brush and thorny mesquite trees in the dwindling light, she was not afraid, although she knew she ought to be. She was too focused to be afraid. As she reached the edge of the trees, she felt the breeze brush past her and turned to face it. If she wanted to find what she was looking for, she knew she had to stay down-wind. One wrong move would blow a whole month’s worth of planning.

Hunting coyote

Coyote on the Hunt © Al Perry; Honorable Mention, Fauna 2011 Contest

As the sunset disappeared and the full moon lit her path, she heard it – although many would say it was a mournful noise, she thought it was beautiful and joyous. With a grin, she mimicked the coyote’s song. They paused, like they always did, while a single coyote sang a low note, a question: “Who are you?” She howled in answer and was delighted when the whole pack joined in again. After everyone was quiet again, she trudged on. She knew the coyotes would likely respond with what was known as an “approach response,” which was basically them trying to find out who she was. Tonight, she would see the coyotes she had studied from afar for almost a year. Frowning, she put her camera in her backpack – it would do no good at night. Moving silently, walking a few feet and then pausing to listen, she worked her way towards a fence line, where a good sized tree grew. She climbed it when she reached it, resting comfortably on a limb about fifteen feet off the ground like she had planned.

Time passed and she was about to give up and go home when she heard it – a rustle and then a squeak. Whipping her head to the side, she saw them – the alpha pair, a younger coyote tagging along behind. They were hunting, had just caught a cactus rat. She watched, awed, as they worked their way closer and closer. They moved from one cactus growth to the next without so much as a rustle, cocking their heads and pricking their ears to listen before springing into the air and landing on their target. It was amazing, the skill and cunning they possessed. As they finished hunting, they turned to go and the girl was crushed by disappointment – they hadn’t come close enough for her to see very well in the dim light. Thinking quickly, she cupped her hands around her mouth and howled – the coyotes froze and looked in her direction, startled…before she knew it, they were almost directly under her tree, sniffing around and placing a scent marker. They were beautiful, silent, graceful. Her favorite animal.

After they left, the fear the girl should have felt all along arrested her – she was too afraid to budge. In the dim light, with their stealth, she wasn’t sure they were gone. Coyotes could be dangerous, especially when startled and protecting their territory, and she had a long walk to get home. Somewhere nearby, a pair of owls hooted – without really even thinking about it, she mimicked them. When they answered, she did it again – and then, with a rustle of feathers, a pair of owls landed in her tree, on a branch not five feet away. She smiled – owls, apparently, had an approach response as well. Gripping her pepper spray in one hand and her pocket knife in the other, she started home, jumping even when the breeze whispered through the brush, wondering if it was really worth it. As she curled up in bed for the night, she smiled and decided it was definitely worth it, at least for her. She couldn’t wait for her next adventure.