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Letter From Skunk Hollow: A sunny morning and coyote strolls into view

Survival skills and adaptability to human presence make this predator uniquely suited to living under our noses, just out of sight.

coyote photo
Holy bananas! Coyote!

Last Saturday morning: Sallie’s at the breakfast table, watching a pileated woodpecker finish off the season’s last suet log. I’m pouring my morning coffee, then sloshing it as she shouts.

Holy bananas! (or words to that effect). Coyote! Bring the binoculars!

For a long handful of minutes we watch him trot in a leisurely way along the deer trail in the woods behind the house, sniffing the air and the ground, pausing to do the thing that bears, too, do in the woods.

We get a good look at his luxurious golden coat, his healthy fat plume of a tail, his bright eyes and the long slim snout that establishes beyond doubt he is not the neighbor’s yellow Akita mix, nor any other tame dog.

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But we didn’t really need binocs for a positive ID. This coyote was maybe 50 yards from the back door.

If my aim was as good as my arm, I could have pegged him with a potato.

Where the wild things are

I have spoken here before about how the chance to be close to wildlife day in and day out, without driving anywhere, is probably the main reason we settled into this home in Skunk Hollow.

But we really had no idea of the surprises, delights and occasional deep weirdness that awaited us.

Turkeys banging on the windows. A yellow-bellied sapsucker drilling on our old-fashioned rooftop TV antenna in precisely the way to send a cascade of clangs and gongs rolling through the house. A bear crossing the deck at twilight, sniffing the boards and patio furniture in search of our relocated birdseed cache. A redtail hawk raising four young in a nest just off the driveway. Mice, tree frogs and acrobatic red squirrels everywhere.

Just about every day this winter the turkeys massed in groups of 8, 10, 16 and more to clean up seed spilled from the bird feeders. Most days there was a morning crew, a lunchtime crew, a teatime crew and a twilight crew, superintended by a tom that stalked around with chest feathers puffed and tailfeathers fanned in full display —huge, colorful, gorgeous.

Some mornings, and many evenings, the turkeys yielded to a half-dozen deer that also added our feeders to their rounds. Young deer, for the most part, with an occasional older animal in the mix, their skittishness fading week by week.

And so close that, if not for the window glass, I could have showered them with a bucket of popcorn.

Too close for comfort?

But coyotes are not cute, and they are not funny, and they might be worrisome so close to the house even if we didn’t have a couple of cats who spend a few hours outdoors each fair-weather day. Coyotes avoid people for the most part but sometimes attack them, too, and often kill cats and smaller dogs. (Turns out they also raid vegetable gardens, which was news to me.)

We have friends a few homes away whose cat disappeared a couple of years ago —taken, they reasonably assume, by one of the coyotes whose howls and yip-yip-yipping have been a periodic soundtrack for night hikes in our area. But you can’t really tell  from the sound (we can’t, anyway) how far away they might be.

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Occasionally we’d see coyote scats on the pavement, pellets of hair and feather bits, but these weren’t nearly as plentiful along our cul-de-sac as on the roads of a yet-to-be-built subdivision, two miles away, that we sometimes stroll.

So it was easy to think coyote was nearby, somewhere, but not really here ….

Exactly a week before Saturday’s sighting,  Sallie thought she saw him much farther back in the woods. He was too distant and moving too fast to identify for sure, and based on a couple of quick glimpses I was skeptical.

Now we know. But what do we do?

To shoot or not to shoot

Shooting would be one option, and as it happens I have just the tool for the job. It’s an heirloom, slide-action .22 Winchester, light and accurate, that I once saw described as the best behind-the-kitchen-door rifle ever made for dispatching coyotes, foxes and other pests from rural homesteads.

The lay of our land is such that downhill into the trees, where I saw coyote pause, would be a perfectly safe shot. Legal, too, as long as I held the Wisconsin small-game license I’ve thought of getting anyway.

But I’m just not going to do that. Killing an animal for going about its usual business, in its home territory, on the chance it might go after our cats someday … well, that’s not OK with me (or with Sallie).

And even if we liked the idea, it would be utterly ineffective. I have no way of knowing how many coyotes might be traipsing across our place but the number surely is not just one, and there will always be more.

A person could read the occasional police-blotter brief in the Strib about coyote sightings or coyotes killed by cars, or view a TV news feature about a coyote tranquilized in New York’s Central Park, and consider it an interesting oddity to find them in our midst.

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In fact coyotes are in cities and suburbs all over North America, not to mention settled rural places like Skunk Hollow, a 10-minute drive from downtown Stillwater and a half-hour from the Minnesota Capitol.

We’ve invited them by removing their prime competitor, the gray wolf, from so much of its former range. Coyotes’ hunting prowess, flexible diet, reproductive success and adaptability to human proximity suit them perhaps uniquely to living under our noses but just out of sight. (A fine and fairly recent piece from the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer is available here.)

Among city coyotes, the most intensively studied population is in Chicago, where the Cook County Coyote Project has been under way for a dozen years or so; its scientists figure there are 2,000 coyotes in that metro area, typically in packs of six.

I couldn’t find a population estimate for the Twin Cities area, but the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources says the “populations are establishing and increasing” in the metro. Two years ago, a Strib report about a coyote attack on a dog in St. Louis Park drew 155 comments, many from people reporting their own encounters.

The level of conflict with people and pets is rising in some places, but coexistence is more than possible.

There is plentiful peacekeeping advice online and it ranges from building a 6-foot fence to keep coyotes out of the yard (we won’t) to not leaving pet food outside (we don’t), to not deliberately feeding or trying to tame coyotes (which really should go without saying).

Especially in late winter and spring, when coyote prey is scarce and appetites large, it’s good practice to keep pets inside during the early morning hours and toward twilight (we do that anyway) and to watch over them more closely when they’re out (easy enough).

So the rifle stays in the closet, the cats stay in the yard, Sallie and I stay slightly more alert … and the binoculars stay on the breakfast table, just in case.

We may never see him again. But we’re hoping.