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Monday, October 3, 2011

Wily, Wary and Worrisome: From the Archives…

Standing corn

After the previous post this next posting seems to be particularly appropriate. On the Lower Loop Road a couple weeks ago we startled a coyote in the northwest corner of John Deck’s pasture. What little I saw of it, the coyote looked to be a young one, a yearling, perhaps. It bolted up a slight incline in the field and disappeared before Gladys had a chance to “ting-a-ling”our presence. I never saw it again but noted its progress through the field by the cows’ reactions as they left off their grazing for a moment to watch the interloper pass among them.

One night a while back we opened the bedroom windows to capture the last of summer’s warmth. Sometime after midnight the High Rock hillside came to life with coyotes yakking it up, and for the next few nights they gave an encore. The idea that coyotes howl seems strange to me because they don’t howl at all. (Wolves howl.) Theirs is a concert of yips, yelps, and yaps, a sound of pain, as if they bite themselves and then bark about it.

Coyotes are hardly a threat to adult humans. One has a greater chance being accosted by the neighbors’ Valley dogs than being intimidated by a coyote. Small pets, poultry or livestock are much more susceptible to coyote nabbing. Coyotes are the thieves in the night that carry off your pets.Coyote pup

The North American coyote, Canis latrans, is hardly the Wile E. Coyote so lampooned by cartoon land as a hapless, scruffy critter buffooned by a sassy road runner. In fact Old Man Coyote figures prominently in Native American mythology and folklore because of his wisdom and cunning. This wild dog is the epitome of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest.”

I’m sure the coyote will be around long after Homo sapiens has gone the way of the dinosaurs. As urban life sprawled into the suburbs, coyotes have adapted quite well to a decreased habitat, making themselves equally at home in the 'burbs. In fact coyotes turn up in some of the strangest places considering those places are dense with human population. Not long ago I read about a coyote discovered napping in a convenience store. Last year three coyotes were spotted in Manhattan on the campus of Columbia University. Another was later seen traipsing across a frozen pond in Central Park. Wildlife authorities theorized the coyotes gained access to the Island via the George Washington Bridge. The canine emigrants apparently had had enough of New Jersey. Certainly no precedent there—even if you’re a coyote.

On my drive to work on Highway Two in the mornings it was not unusual to see a coyote foraging for mice in the adjoining fields. I’ve seen them often as well on rodent detail in the hayfield adjacent to the Lewis Street Bridge. Periodically on the Old Monroe/Snohomish highway one will dart across the road and disappear into the brush. With the expansion of the suburbs and the migration of humans beyond the peripheries of cities, it is inevitable that encounters with displaced wildlife occur. This past spring and summer bears have been a particular problem in Western Washington suburban neighborhoods. As these “wild” creatures become accustomed to their human neighbors, they become emboldened and then the troubles start.

Years ago we had coyote issues here in the Valley. When our daughter was three years old, I heard a report out of northern California that a coyote had nabbed a three-year old child from its backyard, dragged it off into the “green space” beyond the yard and by the time its mother came to the rescue, the child had died from its wounds. Coincidentally, one weekend that October, my wife was amazed to see a large coyote in our backyard. She immediately took a toy broom and went out on the deck to shoo the intruder away. The coyote took a defensive posture, looked at her as if to say: “What’s your problem, lady!” and sashayed through the fence next door and disappeared. I was elsewhere in the house, didn’t see the coyote and was a bit incredulous when my wife told me of the sighting, that the coyote was a large one and its behavior brazen. A coyote in our backyard, our daughter’s playground…I thought about the childnapping in California and hoped my wife had mistaken the animal for someone’s dog.

Mistaken she wasn’t. The next morning as I was standing by the coffeepot, I looked out at the garden and was astonished to see a large coyote chasing our pet rooster, Mr. Fred Rogers, up one row of vegetables and down another. I quickly went to the garage and collected the .410 shotgun I keep there as defense against moles. I crept around the side of the house, keeping the backyard maple tree between me and the marauder. By the time I reached the trunk, Wile E. had caught Mr. Rogers and had him pinned beneath its paws next to the hedge. Just before Fred bought the farm (the rogue rooster was apparently our backyard’s main attraction), I fired a volley of # six shot into the coyote’s shoulder. The shot reeled the critter into the hedge where it quickly recovered and sped away before I could reload. More firepower apparently was needed for a coyote that size. In a highly excited state—and minus his tail feathers-- Mr. R made a beeline for the backyard deck from which for several minutes he unleashed a volley of raucous indignation regarding the rape of his stately tailfeathers.

“Well, that’s that, then,” I thought, “Wile E. won’t return for a second helping of lead.” Two weeks later Fred’s hysterical crowing from our driveway proved me wrong. I ran out to find the coyote in the field fifty feet away with more than tail feathers on its mind this time. Upon my arrival the animal turned and nonchalantly loped off to the west. That was the last time I saw Fred’s nemesis up close and personal. However, from time to time I would see the animal cruising the field behind our property. It always marched the same trail, moved south across the field to the next fence line where it turned east along the fence, trotted across the highway and disappeared into the brush along the banks of Riley Slough.

Because of the coyote’s boldness—and Fred’s presence on the property—we were ever vigilant when our daughter was outside the house.

(That the coyote wasn’t able to kill the tough old bird is testimony to Mr. Rogers’ fowl pluck; in fact, that rogue rooster ruled the roost and terrorized us himself for two or three years; I could write an entire blog about Fred’s notoriety and derring-do; perhaps I will yet. Let me add, it was never a wonderful day in the neighborhood when Fred was on the prowl. Then our backyard became the ‘Hood.)

December thirty-first, the year of the Coyote, just before noon. I was talking to a friend in the backyard and happened to glance at the neighbor’s mobile home south of our fence line. There in a small orchard of gnarled apple trees I spotted the coyote feeding on windfall apples. Coyotes are creatures of habit, so I noted the time and made a point to be on watch the same time next day.

New Year’s Day. Eleven a.m. I load the twenty-two with a rimfire long rifle cartridge, go out on the back deck where I have full view of the orchard and wait. As I’d anticipated, the coyote sauntered out of the brush, wandered into the orchard and started nosing among the fallen apples. My flatbed truck was parked in the driveway. Using the cab to shield me from the coyote’s view, I quickly strode to the truck, and resting the rifle on the bed, I squinted through the little 2X scope at my target. It would not be an easy shot: the target was over a hundred yards away. I rested the crosshairs on the coyote’s shoulder, elevated the barrel slightly, and squeezed off the round. At the rifle’s crack the coyote bolted full tilt toward the west fence line. “Missed the shot!” I groaned, just in time to see the coyote clear the fence, flip head over heels, and collapse in a heap. I carried the large female back to the garden where I buried her and the problem deep beneath the corn rows.Fred's Justice

Now I love wildlife, but I loved my three-year-old more. If she had had the roadrunner’s wit, lightning speed, and lived in cartoon land instead of in the backyard with her swing set, I might have spared this splendid animal. I have seen coyotes periodically around the place. Just last year a large one trotted along our back fence line. Now that my daughter is grown and lives in Seattle in raccoon country, I am content to coexist peacefully with the Valley wildlife, observe and respect it. Do I have any remorse, you ask, for shooting the coyote? Well, perhaps a little: I just wish I wasn’t quite so quick on the trigger when Mr. Fred Rogers was in the coyote’s clutches.

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  1. What a great story! Has your daughter heard it before now?

  2. Yes, Ms. Bridget, she has...and far too many times, I'm sure.

  3. But, it was great to hear again!! Thanks for protecting me Dad. Now, when are you going to come take care of my raccoons?

  4. Oh, I think your killer Shih tzu attack dog can handle 'em.