Coyote Valentine

Coyote Valentine

Do coyotes celebrate Valentine’s Day?

Damn straight! For about the past two weeks, while some of us humans have been contemplating, courting, or even copulating to celebrate, it’s also been coyote mating season. Isn’t it cute that their roughly two-week love-fest culminates around Valentine’s Day?

How do I know? Well, not necessarily because they’re more vocal during mating. Coyotes get vocal—or quiet—for a variety of reasons. But this time of year is when the female is in estrus, and so they mate.  It’s in their DNA. They don’t know that it leads up to Valentine’s Day. But I knew, and since I also teach a course in Human Sexuality at a community college, I figured that when the coyotes be doin’ it was an interesting time to study them.  Here’s the first part of the story and some photos.

Years ago, my school approved me for a sabbatical leave to study a subject of interest. As a Public Health professor in a Biology department, I felt my biological sciences knowledge was woefully lacking. I received the windfall of a year off with 80% pay. Half the year I studied nutraceuticals (food as medicine), which directly related to the other course I teach, Contemporary Health Issues. The other half year I studied ecosystems, which indirectly related to the same course (a unit on Environmental Health), and made me a more informed member of my department. Population, climate change, habitat loss, and the many threats to the “web of life” were and are of paramount concern to my colleagues. Coyotes interested me because they are such a successful species. My study of ecosystems included a trip to a coyote research station associated with a university.

At the time this sabbatical leave came through, I was going through a divorce and feeling emotionally very downtrodden. I had applied for the leave when I was still in a couple, and my husband and I had planned to make this trip together. Now I was alone, something I hadn’t been in a long time. I found that taking care of a property and many pets, not to mention myself and my job, the bills, court, our angry emails, etc. etc. quite daunting.  Plus, I am a nervous traveler, so going to this unknown place created both fright and excitement side by side in my jittering heart.

I flew into the nearest city in the western United States, rented a car, and drove a couple hours up into the mountains. There were walls of snow plowed to the sides of the highway, and it was already snowing again as I headed north. 

Winter habitat is starkly beautiful.

The university was in a small town, but the research station was out in the country. I had trouble figuring out which of the roads was the right one because it had grown dark and everybody was inside for Super Bowl Sunday. Eventually I found the nondescript back lane, and a security guard met me at the gate and took me to the house trailer where I would stay. Before it got too late, or the snow too deep, I headed back down the curvy lane to find a grocery store in town. I stocked up on some staples and went back to unpack and set about making the place a home. It was nothing fancy, and I had been warned that other “Visiting Scholars” (ooh, I liked my new title) might need to share the space. I didn’t like the idea that some strange man might come to stay in the bedroom next to mine. But for now, I was alone, and I was happy to be in charge of the thermostat that controlled the heat.

The Visiting Scholars’ house trailer was old and plain, but comfortable enough.

And then it happened. A coyote’s mournful howl. So close it sounded like it was in the trailer! And another and another, then many others, with accompanying yips and yowls and hoots and wails, until I thought there must be hundreds coming for me! I would learn the next day that there were about a hundred coyotes on the many-acre property. One of the interesting things about their vocalizations, though, is that they can make themselves sound like lots more—so that two or three coyotes can telegraph “Stay away!  We’re a large pack!” to frighten away rivals and larger predators. It’s one of many reasons why coyotes are so successful.

When they “went off” that first night, it was nerve-wracking. But since they did it about once an hour, it became the comforting song to which I worked and ate and fell asleep—and fell in love with coyotes.

My work would involve two parts: I’d meet at the university with some of the top coyote experts in the world to learn whatever they could teach me, and I’d get to observe the coyotes themselves. To prepare for the meetings, I read some of the scientists’ published journal articles so as to not feel quite so dumb in their presence. For the observations I’d be given free rein—I could go out anytime to the ‘blinds,’ little huts that were within the coyotes’ fenced territories, where researchers could watch the coyotes’ mating and other behaviors, and sometimes perform procedures such as chipping (identification tagging) a new pup or drawing blood to measure health status. I, of course, would just be observing and photographing, and I really appreciated the trust that had been placed in me to go about my business. I also appreciated the down coat that had been given me by a friend; did I mention that the temperature sometimes reached 30 below zero?

Anyway, the morning after I arrived, I was having my coffee when Knock, knock, knock! Who could that be, I wondered. When I opened the door, there stood … an extremely handsome man! I was still in my flannel PJs but grateful that I had at least brushed my teeth and combed my hair. It turned out he was the Director, there to welcome me. It also turned out that he was married, so he would be little more than eye candy. But who doesn’t need a little candy leading up to Valentine’s Day? 😉 

He would be my guide for the next two weeks. He would also tell me a story that shocked and frightened me to my core. We’ll get to that in Part 2.  And yes, we’ll get to the coyotes doin’ it, too.

In the meantime, here are a few more photos to set the scene.

The guard made me feel safe, until he didn’t.  See Part 2.
Mountain coyotes are furrier than desert coyotes. They live and breed in monogamous pairs.  Some look decidedly more masculine…
…and some more feminine!
They play together…

…and alone.
A big part of their work is to patrol their territory.
And they’re ever vigilant, even when they appear to be resting.
The male is dominant.  (“Woman I tole you!”)
But a female can call ‘time out.’  (“You lay one more paw on me, muthafucka…”)

So there I was—a scaredy cat surrounded by 100 predators, alone in a trailer in 30 below weather, and about to find out something terrifying. But Happy Valentine’s Day, right? ❤

Read Part 2 (coming soon) to find out what happened next!

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