Coyotes

The Abbott’s Dunes are like one of those old Disney nature movies where the stroke of a brush across the canvas would paint entire landscapes. The weather and seasons are the brush. The track patterns change in pulses. One month it’s all rodents and bobcats. Another month it’s all skunks and opossums.

It was all coyote last time, early on a chilly January morning. Damp sand showed great track detail. There was a virtual absence of any other animal tracks, but the coyotes were dancing all over the dunes, playing with each other in wild abandon. Their tracks, crisscrossing the clean rain-washed expanse in single trails, beautiful duets, and small groups, showed outright playfulness: pouncing, running, and very rapid gait changes, from walk to trot to lope and back to a walk in the space of a few yards. They were literally kicking up their heels. You could see it in the sand sprayed out in all directions around their tracks. Then they would sometimes circle around together and sit down, as if to admire their handiwork, leaving beautiful sit prints. It was like a textbook on how coyotes move.

Coyote courtship season begins in early winter here and that night it was in full swing. Three days later, the coyotes and their tracks were gone, and the smaller animals began to emerge again, leaving tentative scatterings of tracks, close to cover.

The coyote uses many different gaits. Their movements can be used as a foundation for studying animal gaits in general. Part of this variability is related to how they hunt. I flushed a jackrabbit out of its snug little shelter under a low bush in the lee of the wind one evening recently, and watched in admiration at how it escaped, its elusive, dodging bounds mixed with startling bursts of speed. The coyote, co-evolving with the rabbits for eons, has developed an ability to run in variable gaits that mimic the rabbit’s evasive tactics, with the ability to twist and turn, and rapidly accelerate.

This wide range of gaits also reveals the range of the coyote’s moods, thoughts and intentions. The normal, or baseline, gait of a coyote is a trot. It trots through its territory for hours at a time, following scents on the wind, moving from one hunting area to another, gobbling up great distances, while keeping an eye out for the sudden movement of a rabbit bolting. One of its traveling gaits, peculiar to canines, is called a “side trot,” where it angles its hind end out to one side so its back feet can more easily pass by the front feet as it trots. This leaves a very characteristic track pattern, where the front footprints are all on one side of the line of travel and the rear prints are on the other side. This pattern can occasionally be mistaken for the raccoon style of “2×2” walking, where a front and a back foot land alongside each other in each stride.

Just as you will find yourself shifting and adjusting your backpack as you hike along a trail, the coyote will shift back and forth from left side to right side, to a center trot and back again. In one quick ballet-like movement, it will shift sides, one or two slightly more tip-toed tracks being the only indication of the actual weight shift.

As you think about these things, you may notice yourself changing your gait as your mood or plan changes. Think about how you move when you’re in a hurry to make it to the grocery store before it closes. Then watch the difference in your stride when you leave a restaurant after a good meal.

When a coyote slows down to a walk, it is often be because it wants to check out a scent or inspect some signs of prey. The coyote slow walk or stalk usually shows an  “overstep” pattern, where the hind foot is placed well forward of where the front foot has just stepped. For the coyote, the gangly-legged runner, the overstep walk indicates that it feels at ease, especially in the heart of its territory.

This is in beautiful contrast to our bobcat, who crosses the dunes frequently to hunt around the edges of the lagoon. Her baseline gait is a walk. She is a stealth hunter. She stops and listens often. She stays behind cover, easily missed even in daylight. She commonly walks in an overstep too, a result of long legs and a short body.

You can follow her tracks and see the overstep pattern expand when she hurries. Perhaps it was late and she was a little worried about crossing the open area, or maybe she heard some coyotes in the distance. When she relaxes and slows down again, the overstep is smaller. When she really slows down, approaching a hunting area or intently listening to the surroundings, she drops into a “direct register” walk, where the back foot steps precisely, and silently, into the track the front foot just made.

Sometimes, when she wants to speed up and get across an exposed area she breaks into an undulating lope. I think we’ve all seen this at night when a neighborhood cat dashes across a road as we drive up. It starts out in a choppy little fast walk, looking like the cat has six or eight legs. Then halfway across the street, her speed has increased to the point where she shifts into the lope, which carries her to the safety of cover on the other side of the road.

The coyote, on the other hand, is not as secretive as the bobcat and regularly crosses open ground in its beautiful undulating rhythms, following the contours of the landscape and the scents on the wind, almost as if flying over the land like a hawk. In trails like this, you can truly see the land “playing the animal.” Clearly, they have little fear of being seen and caught, so confident are they in their speed and their ability to gobble up distances.

As the seasons shift, the patterns change again as the coyotes move into their denning and birthing cycles. Their trails are less exuberant and more secretive. We may begin to find the youthful tracks of the kids tagging along as the season progresses.  I find great comfort in these ancient patterns, something solid that can be anticipated and counted on when the human world gets too crazy. The very thought of those old webs of interrelatedness playing themselves out in timeless progression relaxes my heart and lets me breathe more deeply.

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