At the foot of my street there is a small patch of green wilderness. Very small. Probably doesn’t even deserve to be called a wilderness, right? It’s quite tiny.
But it looks vast and it has that feel. I enjoy this wild space that rounds out my declining road.
There are stately mature pines, tall grass, wildflowers and thick reeds. It only takes me 5 minutes to walk there. It’s on a bluff. An unattractive cement walkway cuts through the edge of it. A fence with gray aluminum bars keep bayfront walkers from tumbling over the edge and becoming enveloped in the reeds.
Sometimes, if I angle my view to block the streetlights and tune out the highway, it seems as though I am looking out into a deep forest.
Coyotes roam there. They hunt. They eat. They sometimes howl. I’ve heard them from my house only 3 blocks away.
My German Shepherd, Althea, slows down when we reach the walkway. Her trot turns into a stroll. She frequently stops. She sticks her nose through the metal bars and smells the air. She stares transfixed. She sniffs at poop that looks just like huge hairballs. She stands still and listens.
I see something like longing in her eyes. A controlled restlessness. She wants to meet the coyotes.
I rarely deny my dog anything. But how can this be arranged? The coyote pair are secretive. Awake and active only in the deep middle of the night when most humans are asleep.
I tell Althea that someday I will let her play with the yotes. But not today.
Weeks later Althea lets me know that it’s time. Tonight’s the night. It’s cold. A late autumn, almost winter evening. It’s a little blustery. Althea and her coyote friends have decided that a wind which blows their scents in the air will make for a safer night jaunt.
It’s dusk and darkness is coming quickly. I walk Althea to the edge of the bluff. I sense, and she knows, that the wild canines are just behind the closest reeds. They know Althea is joining their pack for the night and are waiting.
My dog sits patiently as I remove her collar and leash. I tell her to enjoy herself. I warn her not to cross the highway. I suspect that the coyotes have their den across this roadway.
I don’t know if Althea will heed this. Maybe not. But I figure that the coyotes have been safely avoiding the highway traffic for years. I trust my dog.
“Ok!” I say and she dashes off into that unmowed grass. In seconds she is out of my sight and I know her friends have already greeted her. I’ll see her again at dawn.
My alarm goes off way too early for a night owl like myself.
I’m still in pajamas when I park at the entrance to the walkway. At first light I see my German Shepherd happily loping up the bluff toward me. Althea!
It’s still not quite light and I want to get back into my warm bed for a few more hours of sleep. And of course I want to hear all about Althea’s adventures. I have so many questions.
I am quickly back under my covers. Althea lies on top of my blankets and I bury my head into her neck. Her fur is still cold from the night’s romp and I can smell the wind in her coat.
And now as I fall asleep I want to know all about the bluff coyotes. I take full advantage of that twilight between wakefulness and sleep. It’s one of the best times to tune in and hear animals speak.
Althea sends me pictures, almost like a slideshow. That great spiritual translator turns her communication into the human words that my mind can understand.
I finally get a more intimate glimpse into the life of the coyotes who live a wild existence only four blocks away from my home.
Althea’s “slides” come in quick short images. A joyful greeting, licking, sniffing, circling, tail wagging. Running through weeds. Tracking rabbits. Playing tug of war with a squirrel carcass. Dropping down low to the ground quickly at any hint of a human scent. Splashing in the creek.
Thea had to lighten her plodding trot to match the quieter stride of the coyotes.
The splashing water play confirms that they did indeed cross the highway. Of course I want to know if their den is somewhere along the creek.
Althea can’t tell me that because “You’re human and not allowed to know.” Subject closed. But other questions are ready to be answered.
I suppose I want to know if they have names. The female of the pair,if she must be assigned a name, is called Vessel. Interesting. Her mate is unnamed.
I have to ask about the fox I once saw in the Coyote Cove. I’m afraid they may have killed him. Althea sighs and reassures me that they did not. They did, however drive the fox and his family away from the green patch. But not far. I may (hopefully!) see the foxes again someday for they still roam the bayfront. They keep clear of the coyotes but often sneak back to hunt the cove. Thea and the coyotes know when the foxes have been back because, according to them , “They smell terrible!”
It is explained to me that the foxes were eating the coyotes’ food. “But the foxes were there first.” I said, “But they’re not there now.” was the response.
I am told that the coyotes don’t wander far from bluffs. There is ample brush coverage, hiding spaces and abundant prey. It makes me wonder about the time my neighbor saw Vessel galloping down our street early in the morning. An extremely rare sight of the wild canines that secretly exist right under our noses.
I’m told it was a mistake.There are coyotes that den along the railroad tracks a few blocks up my street. Some of Vessel’s adult offspring belong to the “track pack”. She had been visiting them. Playing too long with her grandpups and carelessly ignoring the budding daylight. The caw of a crow alerted her to her potentially fatal mistake.
More crows joined in the calling. An urban coyote in the daytime will be relentlessly chased by corvids. The noise drove even more attention to Vessel who knew she had to hightail it back to her den. Lucky for her the only human to spot her frantic flight to the bluff was my dog loving neighbor.
I learn that Vessel’s extended track family have a different father. Not her current mate.
Her mate now is a somewhat timid male. Healthy and big with a lustrous coat. Good stock. “But way too shy.” says Althea. He doesn’t wander much. He’s a good hunter but not as good as Vessel.
Her first mate disappeared. A somewhat smaller but bolder male. It’s believed he may have wandered up the street to check on his railroad pack. He never returned. Vessel knows he’s dead because he would always come back to her. I wonder if he was one of the dead coyotes I saw while walking the track.
One thing for sure is that he was not caught in a trap. A bayfront business, spooked by seeing coyotes dumpster diving on their surveillance cameras, hired a trapper.
Vessel knows traps. She was also aware of the traps set for her railroad kids.
Like all wise coyote mamas, she knows deep in her being the human desire to destroy her kind. It has been encoded into her DNA.
Both traps, the one up my street, and the one on the bayfront were unsuccessful at capturing Vessel and her family. The businesses found that the traps were too expensive to keep active without trapping any animals.
I recall that one of the trap setting bayfront businesses expressed concern that the coyotes would make a meal of their outdoor cat. There are a lot of stray cats in my neighborhood. I wonder if felines are on the coyote list of readily available prey.
Althea tells me that her wild friends have never eaten a cat. For that matter they have actually never even eaten another predator. So no cats. No fox.
I asked about the mink. Vessel never hunted a mink. “They bite and don’t let go.” Although they did cop to scavenging on a dead one along the walkway one time. But they didn’t kill it. The mink had been recently struck dead on the highway and the yotes availed themselves of an opportunistic fresh meal.
I can see that the coyotes at the end of my street are well nourished which makes me very curious about what they hunt and eat. I put the question to Althea.
What about the deer I see on the bluffs? Surely coyotes would dig into a herd of deer that share their territory?
“Never.” says Althea. “Too big. Too fast.”
“Chipmunks? Squirrels?” “Oh yeah.”
“Groundhogs?” “Faster than you’d think but tasty and filling.”
“Beaver?” “Never. But not for lack of trying. Adults too big. Babies too quick to swim into the deep middle of the creek.”
“Raccoons?” “We’re not that stupid.”
“Turkeys? Geese?” “Definitely. And their eggs too.”
“What else then?” “Seagulls. Lots and lots of seagulls. Wild berries. Grasshoppers.”
I have asked many questions. I drift further and further into sleep.
“When will you go back?” I ask Althea. Althea is falling asleep too so she takes some time to answer.
“Maybe when the pups come.” Vessel wants Althea and the spring pups to meet. Althea yawns and sighs. “If the pups come. They might not.”
Vessel is aware that her friendship with Althea could put my German Shepherd in peril. “You look too much like us when the air is full of shadows.” Vessel has told her. “And we are always marked for death when the humans see us.”
Althea’s experience of humans is nothing like her wild cousins. But she understands. There is wolf memory in her DNA too. Althea might never romp with the coyotes again.
In the meantime she and I have no plans to stop walking the bluff. She will stop and stare intently. Although I won’t see them, the coyotes will stare back. Stock still and silent while completely obscured by the reeds. Understanding and kinship will pass between the wild and domestic canines.
My German Shepherd and I will wish the coyotes well. Happy hunting, healthy pups and freedom from human interference for as long as possible.