A flash of yellow and silver-gray fur came out of the trees off the wooded path. At first, I had to look hard. My initial impression was of a single, full-grown adult coyote, foraging near a thick shrub between two Douglas-fir trees. Could it be she, I wondered. Could it be the coyote whom my dog and I had regularly seen on our neighborhood walks, that is, before the COVID-19 pandemic gripped life and she seemingly disappeared?
That sighting was this December, three days before Winter Solstice. After two encounters earlier this year—one in February on a forest hike and another in March on a neighborhood stroll—we had encountered Coyote only once since, and that was in June.
When we saw Coyote in June, she was putting on her summer garments and looking a little scruffy. It was the final month of the seasonal spring shed, when coyotes drop their entire coat of thick, long fur in exchange for a thin, short coat. With such a thin fur coat, she looked puppyish then—small and lanky, the contours of her ribs and hips visible under her skin.
A closer look revealed the magnificent adult she was. The fur on her upper back was sparse and patchy. Where her hind feet could reach to scratch, the fur was mostly scraped off. Her lower body, however, where her hind feet could not reach, still had clumps of long fur. If she had given birth in April, she would have lost a fair amount of her thick fur the following two months from denning with her pups (Portland Audubon). On this outing in June, she had some self-grooming to do, and she was focused on that task when we sighted her.
To rid her lower body of the dead, probably itchy fur, Coyote cleverly assisted the natural shedding process. Daisy and I stood quietly and watched as, with ingenuity, she worked to get the rest of the dead fur out. For her own comfort and well-being, she needed to put some effort into scraping off what would not serve her in the hot, dry summer ahead.
It was fascinating to witness. In the hard, dry underbrush of the woods, she poked her snout under the stiff twigs, coarse vines, and dead branches, and walked under them so that they would scrape her entire back. Handfuls of fur came out; I watched some of it fly off and some of it stick to the brush.
She soon took notice of Daisy and me, blinked her amber eyes at us, and gave a nod of her head, as if to say, “I see you. It’s you two again. Hello.” The experience now transformed from a sighting to an encounter. Then she turned, lowered her head, and poked her nose in a clump of fur on the ground.
Aware of our continued presence, she lifted her head, turned her face towards us, and added, “I’m busy here.” Not wishing to disturb her any longer, we left her to her grooming and continued on our walk.
Daisy neither tugged on her leash in resistance nor pulled to hurry us along. She understood it was time to go. As she had done in merry greeting, she raised her front paw to Coyote in merry parting, and pranced along the path, ahead of me, leading us home. Pausing, she looked back and up at me with eyes of satisfied wonder. I looked at her and exclaimed, “That was fun! Good girl, Daisy.”
Several times a day, every day of the year, I leave the house for a walk with neither the intention of looking for nor the expectation of seeing coyotes. I am not a hunter, except of the rock and gemstone kind. Happening upon a coyote is always a surprise and about as much fun as Daisy and I can have here in our small community of trees we call the Summerplace Woods. An encounter with Coyote, however brief, is always wondrous.
As the weeks and months passed after that day in June, and as the pandemic surged through autumn, I did not see Coyote. Nor did I observe any signs of her, including prints and her long, tapered, rope-like, blue scat. Coyote scat is easy to distinguish from dog scat, especially because it is filled with hairs, seeds, and bones.
I missed her. In the summer months, I understood. When coyotes are caring for their pups, they stay closer to their dens than other seasons. But in my three years of living in this condominium community on the east side of Portland, I had grown accustomed to seeing coyotes at least occasionally on early summer mornings and on autumn evenings when they are out looking for food and water. I worried that something had happened to her.
In urban environments, like where I live, coyotes are street smart, and their territory covers many busy, multi-lane roads, along with quiet neighborhood streets, residential backyards, parks, golf courses, and green spaces. Coming home late at night after visiting friends several blocks away (pre-pandemic visits), I would see Coyote looking a bit skittish and tentative at the side of the road, then cautiously crossing, obviously hesitant to move quickly. By far, the most common cause of death for urban coyotes has been collisions with vehicles (Urban Coyote Research Project). To coexist with coyotes, it is important to be aware of their habits and drive defensively.
And so, late last week, three days before Winter Solstice, when I saw that flash of yellow and silver-gray fur in the woods, I felt my spirit lift at the possibility that Coyote had returned, safe and well. Daisy was happy also. I could feel her quivers of excitement travel up the leash.
Then all at once, I saw another flash of fur—this one being red-orange and tan. It was a second coyote—larger and darker in color. So, there were two! Two! I had never seen more than a solitary coyote on my neighborhood walks. The pairs and packs of coyotes I had seen were in other places—in the prairie grass of South Dakota, in the desert scrub of Arizona, and in the fields of Southern Oregon—but never in the woods and green spaces of Summerplace here in Portland.
Wearing their signature winter coats with lots and lots of fur, both looked exquisitely healthy. With markings that varied slightly in size, intensity of colors, and color combinations, it was easy to tell them apart. The smaller—with yellow and silver-gray fur—was probably a female. The larger—with red-orange and tan fur—was probably a male.
Each wore a crescent of black and white hairs—like a shawl or ruff—over their upper back, below their shoulders. On their foreheads and around their ears was fur that looked like velvet—hers, a bright tan-orange; his, a deep red-orange. Their amazingly thick and long winter coats included very bushy, drooping tails with black tips.
Although I could not see it, I knew that beneath their longer outer coat was a thick, dense undercoat—a cottony layer that insulates the coyote during winter months. The undercoat is protected by the outer coat of long hairs. The coyote’s fur reaches its peak when the furry undercoat is at its thickest and the hairy outer coat is at its longest, which is usually around Winter Solstice (Furbearer Conservation Project).
Their lush and beautiful winter coat—reaching perhaps four to five inches—is a longer, more protective, and more weather-resistant coat than their short, lighter-colored undercoat of summer that helps them blend into the landscape of dry months. Autumn begins the process to bury the undercoat with longer fur and darker markings that will insulate and protect them against the elements and predators.
All animals who spend any time outside do this—rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, foxes, barn cats. Even hibernating animals grow lush coats to protect them from the cold. The spring shed allows birds and ground-nesting animals to get bundles of wonderful fur to line their nests and keep their babies warm and protected.
I have noticed that the squirrels and rabbits around here are wearing thicker winter coats this season than a year ago. They also have huge, fluffy tails. Perhaps we are in for a doozy of a winter, or at least one not as mild as last year.
In her winter coat, the female coyote looked twice her size in diameter from when we saw her in June. She and her mate looked so fluffy and warm, all ready for winter.
If not mates, they were surely friends. Standing side-by-side, looking at each other, they obviously trusted each other and were happy being together. Touching noses, muzzling and nudging each other, giving each other little play bites, they were affectionate and wholeheartedly playful. They rubbed heads and rubbed their bodies against each other over and over. Perhaps they were out for a late afternoon rendezvous. It was thrilling and delightful to witness.
Daisy, wearing her winter coat also (a red and gray, knitted turtleneck sweater), became excited and yipped sweetly and enthusiastically at them. It was the first time she had ever vocalized to coyotes. I am certain she felt their warmth and joy and wanted to play with them.
Daisy can be quite feisty with other dogs until she establishes trust and friendship. One factor is her breed mix—Miniature Pinscher and Chihuahua. Another factor is that she was found on the street in Madera, California, looking stressed and having no identification. It would be several weeks before she and I found each other at the Oregon Humane Society here in Portland. Daisy was part of the Second Chance Program; so was I, after my beloved Pasu died, a Shetland Sheepdog of 14 years.
Only the most patient people and pups here in our community have earned Daisy’s trust and affection. And it has taken more than a year with each of them for her to be at ease, well-behaved, and playful with them. My little rescue pup had a rough start in life, but life is good now and she is happy and healthy.
The two coyotes stopped their play and stared at us. We greeted each other in our usual way—Daisy becoming still and quiet with her paw raised in respect, the coyotes staring and blinking their eyes at us, and me saying hello and telling them how beautiful they are, all the while maintaining eye contact.
Without any show of tension or alarm, they remained at ease, looked around, sniffed the ground, and yawned. Amazingly, Daisy yawned back to them, responding in kind, her legs quivering with excitement.
Taking a step forward towards them, she pulled on her leash. I was cautious and held the leash taut, not moving my feet. Basically, I made like a tree to let Daisy know we were not going anywhere. Letting Daisy move any closer would not have ended well. Coyotes are wild animals. They were very aware of both of us. I kept a respectful distance, even though Daisy felt such a pull to be with them.
The coyotes stepped into the taller grasses and kicked their legs, sending bits of grass and mud flying around. They nipped at each other’s necks and made a series of excited little wiggly movements. Each taking a long stretch, they scratched themselves and then touched paw to paw—like giving each other a high-five. Suddenly, they turned their faces towards us again and looked at us intensely.
Feeling somewhat shy and awkward in the moment, like I had intruded on their privacy, I said to them, “Well, we should probably be going. It’s time to turn in for the evening. Thank you, coyotes. It was wonderful to see you.”
I then felt a warmth and ease move through me. Expressing gratitude does that. I checked on Daisy, whose gaze shifted from the coyotes to me. I think she understood what I had said. It was time to go.
The two coyotes still stared at us, as if waiting for something. Hesitant to hurry off, I smiled and blinked my eyes at them, feeling emotional and grateful. They opened their mouths in a slight grin (but not baring their teeth), blinked back at me, yipped softly, and then trotted off together.
Daisy perked up on all fours and watched them until they were out of sight. We did not follow them. After they disappeared on the long path, Daisy lifted her head and looked up at me with sweet satisfaction, her tail wagging widely and vigorously. I said to her, “Let’s go home.” She liked the idea, turned around, and led us home, prancing along confidently, marking her territory along the way. My special buddy. She is magnificent also.
Coyote, Daisy, and I do have a few things in common. Like Coyote, Daisy and I vocalize calls to each other and to other animals, Daisy practices scent control and communicates with her urination habits, and I practice basic human predator control. For Coyote, in addition to all of those characteristics, add camouflage and other complex predator controls.
I am sure Coyote and Daisy detect each other—and Coyote detects me—long before I detect Coyote. I do nothing to avoid detection. Although I am naturally quiet on our walks, I neither sneak about nor concern myself with my scent and the direction of the wind.
Whether in the urban environment of home, in the wild environment of the forest, or on the open prairie of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, coyotes have never been aggressive towards me or my dogs. I respect their wildness. I do not approach them, feed them, disturb their dens, or interfere with the care and feeding of their young. We have always encountered each other without incident.
I really like our coexistence with Coyote. My community is a nice habitat for them. There is a wooded area of mature trees with undergrowth, thick shrubs with dark cubby holes in which to hide, open green spaces for hunting gophers and rabbits, thick ivy for sniffing out rodents, a lot of snails for snacking, and a large, quiet community for foraging. Food, water, and shelter are abundant here. Coyote provides free rodent control.
Since encountering the two coyotes at play late last week, Daisy and I have had two sightings of the pair on our walks—the following day and again on Winter Solstice. And we have found two separate piles of scat—one in a large green space and another just off the wooded path. Encountering the two coyotes and witnessing their playfulness, connection, and togetherness lifted my spirits. It has been a hard and exhausting year.
I am finishing this personal piece of writing on Christmas Eve Day. The holidays are different this year. But then, different is all we have had this year—and perhaps will have for most of next year also.
The horrific COVID-19 pandemic has brought so much separation, isolation, pain, suffering, and death. The world is stressful. Too many sad times. Too many bad times. I am sure by now, every one of our lives has been changed in a major way. As the situation unfolds near and far, sad news keeps coming. The losses hurt crazy awful. I feel lonesome sometimes, without someone present and close, but I am taking good care of myself.
This time of year, the forces around and inside me tell me to rest and go deep inside the cave. I am inclined to be like a quiet pool of water nestled in the mountains, protected from the cold wind. I want to sink into a soft chair and snuggle up with Daisy. I feel drawn toward downward motion. I do not want to talk much or spend much energy. I am inclined to sigh and groan, from deep inside my bones, like a tree when a cold wind blows.
As winter turns towards a new year, the days slowly grow longer. The night grows quiet, and the light slowly returns. I reflect on Coyote and me. We actually have more than a few things in common; we have much in common.
Just as I have stockpiled my pantry with jam and honey, dried huckleberries and blueberries, canned pears and peaches, scone and pancake mixes, and corn relish and pickled beets, coyotes have fueled up on their fall harvest. Their body cellars are stocked with sugar from fruits, protein from prey, fat from seeds and nuts, and other nourishment from varied food sources. Their autumn diet has prepared their flesh, muscle, and fur for the cold, hard winter. Their scruffy, ragged summer coats have fallen away, and they have put on their thicker, longer winter coats.
Indeed, Coyote and I have much in common. We are curious, smart, and adaptable creatures. We eat what we can, when we can. We live large off the local farms during the spring and fall harvest seasons. We pack on weight ahead of winter and assume a heftier appearance. We thicken our coats to endure the cold. We dress in layers—to insulate us, keep us warm and dry, and protect us from the elements. We look after ourselves, our mates, and our pack. We protect each other from predators, share our food, and create ways to be social, playful, and supportive in these hard times. And sometimes, to take care of ourselves, we leave the pack and go off on a solitary adventure.
In these encounters, Coyote reminds me that life is not just about survival and protection. We also decorate time with beauty and comfort, which for me are in simple things. Encountering Coyote is an extraordinary wonder of my day and reminds me to be present for and mindful of other simple pleasures and wonders of a single day—beautiful moments that sorrow, stress, and weariness may conceal. Beauty can decorate time. Permanency isn’t the goal. Moments are the goal. Moments keep me inside life—inside reality, inside dreams, and inside memories.
I wish Coyote and everyone a safe, healthy, and beautiful winter season. I hope winter will not be hard on us. In the new year, let us continue to fight the big fights to end suffering for all human beings and for all animals. Put on your winter coats and stay warm.
Glossary (Humane Society):
Coexistence: Humans and coyotes exist together. Humans take an active role in helping coyotes in their community stay wild by removing attractants, taking responsibility for pet safety, hazing coyotes in their neighborhood, and learning about coyote ecology and behavior.
Observation: The act of noticing signs of a coyote, such as tracks, scat, or vocalizations, but without visual observation (sighting) of the coyote.
Sighting: A visual observation of a coyote. A sighting may occur at any time of the day or night.
Encounter: A direct meeting that is between human and coyote with no physical contact and that is without incident.
Incident: A conflict between a human and a coyote where the coyote exhibits any of the following behaviors: growling, baring teeth, lunging or making physical contact with the person. A human is not bitten.
Composed on December 18–24, 2020—in that time between the anticipation of the return of the light, the longest night of the year, the return of the light, and the arrival of the new year.