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Living With the Barriere Island Coyotes

Rik Pfaelzer

Rik spent three years living with and studying the coyotes on Padre Island.

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The first day after getting settled in camp on Padre Island, I decided to see how close I could come to the coyotes without spooking them. I slowly walked out onto the sandflats toward a pair of coyotes I saw meandering there. The coyotes did not seem to mind my presence until I was within about fifty feet of them. So, I spent the first day following them on their lengthy jaunt up the beach at that distance.

The only action I took that first day that seemed to get a marked reaction from them was bending down to dissect one of the coyote' scat. They left no doubt by the looks on their faces that they thought my actions were totally disgusting. So much for making a good first impression on the coyotes.

I spent about a year just following around behind this pair, and the other island coyotes, logging their various activities during each season and all weather conditions. After about a year, I had an incredible experience.

I was sitting on a grass-covered dune observing "White Butt's Group" who were sitting and lounging around on another dune the usual fifty feet away. (We all had come to accept this as the proper distance over the past year) While I was writing something down in my notebook, "Handsome," mate to the coyote I called "White Butt", got up and walked over to within two feet of me and sat down.

He then looked right at me with a look that challenged: "Well, what are you going to do?"

So, doing my best not to shout for joy and scare him off, I glanced at him, and went back to writing in my notebook as if this were an everyday occurrence.

He then lay down right where he was as if things were always this way.

The next thing I knew, the entire group of coyotes walked over, and reassembled themselves around me. Some sat; others lounged.

I sat there, casually taking notes and pretending that this was absolutely normal. I was in total ecstasy at being accepted by these wild coyotes.

From that day onward, I was able to walk with the coyotes anywhere they went, and to sit with them when they rested. I was with them through most of their daily and nightly journeys.

I learned how they survived on the barrier island: what they ate, how they found water, how they played, and the joys of pups, songs, and stealing things from my camp.

One of the most interesting things I learned was how the coyotes got their fresh water in an area where there appears to be none. I had observed the coyotes digging at the base of the island's dunes, and had assumed that they were looking for ghost crabs. Then, I watched one of the island's deer doing the same thing. As deer don't eat crabs, I investigated further.

I was surprised to learn that what I had thought to be a playful act of digging crabs was really the shared knowledge of how to dig pocket wells for fresh water. The fresh water floats on top of the saltwater just under the sand. As long as you dig just until you hit the fresh water, it tastes fine.

The coyotes seemed to eat almost anything. From observations and scat dissections, I learned that they eat: seaweed, fish, rabbits, ground squirrels, possums, kangaroo rats, lizards, dog food, cat food, scraps from human food, bird eggs, and a pepperoni pizza I brought them once as a treat. They were not in any way picky about their diet.

For shelter, the coyotes denned in the dunes. Even though they have been doing this successfully since coyotes started to live on the island, their chosen form of den worried me. I was accustomed to the way wolves den in sturdier, safer seeming ground.

Unstable though it seemed to me, pups are successfully raised in dune dens. The first time I went up to the opening of one of the dens, the mother coyote let me know she was not pleased by this event.

With the mother coyote softly "humming" at me, I thought it best to leave. I was accepted by the coyotes, but not that accepted. Later, I decided that it is better for the survival of the pups not to make friends with a human at that stage of their lives. They need to learn that they cannot trust all humans, and that humans can be dangerous. The mother coyote was doing the right thing for her pups in warning me to stay away.

Even though I could have, I never pet or hand fed any of the coyotes. I worried that they became accustomed to the car that I sometimes drove out to their area. Once, I observed a group of coyotes run out of cover to greet a car that looked like mine. As soon as they got close, they realized their mistake and took off back to the dunes. They were lucky. I never saw them do that again. There always is danger in making friends with wild animals. They might have a tendency to be less wary about other humans, thereby putting themselves in potentially dangerous situations.

Once, I tried an experiment on the coyotes. I obtained a quantity of wolf urine, and used it to mark one of the scent posts used by the coyotes to identify their territory. Although Red Wolves once lived on this island, none remained. These coyotes could not have encountered this scent before.

When the coyotes discovered the wolf scent on their marking post, they reacted by vocalizing and jumping around. After they went on their way, I went to investigate the post. One of the coyotes had dug his claws in the sand in a complete, almost perfect circle around the post at a distance of about two feet. He also marked his scent on nearby sea grass.

Even though I knew this was basically a territorial reaction by a male coyote, I had never observed such a level of excitement over an unknown scent. Nor had I ever seen a coyote make a circle of claw scratches around a scent marker. Someone suggested that the wolf scent may have struck a "genetic memory" with the coyotes, or that it was just the uniqueness of the new "canid" scent.

I had two major groups of coyotes, a North and a South group, with a lot of independents or outcasts. The North group was led by White Butt and Handsome. Toward the end of my stay, this group accepted me, and claimed my camp area as part of their territory. Independent coyotes would sneak in to check out my camp every once in a while, but would leave the instant the saw the North group approach.

Once, one of the independents got caught too close to my camp. If I had not stopped them, I believe the North group would have done serious harm to the outsider.

I did enjoy watching the two groups in their territorial "cavalry charges" each day, and the following jubilant songfest they both had afterwards (seemingly to announce their victory over each other).

The island was a beautiful place to live, and provided an easy setting for being with the coyotes. During each of the peak tourist times, the major groups of coyotes would migrate further up the island away from the humans. Once things returned to normal levels with the humans, the coyotes would return to their normal territories.

The three years I spent living with the coyotes on Padre Island always will be a wonderful memory (in spite of the mosquitoes, biting flies, heat, cold, rain, and horrible diet). There is nothing I would trade that experience for. I miss them all, and wish them well. They honored me by letting me be their friend and companion.




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