I dropped down a gully, hopped into Donner Canyon and was skirting the creek’s northerly meander when I heard the voices. Ahead, maybe a quarter mile, rose a garble of high-pitched shrieks like the scattering of a flock of jays. But no, those weren’t bird voices; they were mammalian. But what mammals? I’d never heard anything remotely resembling that pitch and timbre out here. For all I knew, I had teleported to some jungle a hemisphere away and eavesdropped on a pack of baboons being ambushed by a leopard. I picked up the pace.
A couple minutes of light trot later, I saw them: a man and two women equipped with backpacks and walking sticks standing on the trail’s edge, staring down into the dry Donner Creek bed. There, 30 yards down the slope, scampering among the rocks and bramble, were two girls – between 8 and 10, I guessed – just goofing around.
I reached the adults and decided to speak up. “I hate to interfere –” and the man started chuckling; he had no idea how I was about to finish my thought “– but your girls have alerted every coyote within 2 miles to the chance for an afternoon snack.” The man stopped smiling.
“It’s how coyotes make a living,” I said, trying to take the tone of a naturalist and not a meddling surrogate parent. “Separate the little ones from the big ones and snatch.”
“Amanda, get up here!” the woman called out. The taller girl, still whooping and giggling, began climbing out of the creek bed.
“Coyotes are shy of humans – adult humans, that is.” Now I was heaping it on, but the pedant in me couldn’t resist. “They see your girls and don’t think, ‘Uh-oh … human child.’ They think, ‘Mmm … object size of lunch.’” I tipped the bill of my cap, wheeled on my heel and headed for the mountain.
The coyote is no stranger to East County. You’ve probably seen the “little wolf” roaming our regional wilderness – even our manicured ’burbs – between sunset and sunrise. It’s tempting to consider its presence an incursion into our territory. Truth is, it’s we who’ve muscled into coyote territory. Suburban sprawl has brought coyotes into proximity with humans, and the co-existence hasn’t always been peaceful. Organized efforts to control the coyote population in California have been around since 1891. Since then, around half a million coyotes are reported to have been killed.
You can’t blame folks for objecting to the spiriting away of their sheep, chickens and house pets. But the coyote’s diet consists mainly of small, wild things: rabbits, ground squirrels, mice, reptiles; even fruits and berries. A pack of coyotes can take down a deer, usually working as a tag team chasing the deer into exhaustion (I witnessed a breathtaking pursuit a few years ago on Diablo’s North Peak). But the coyote usually hunts alone, and wanders into our neighborhoods on its way to somewhere else – or to scavenge.
In its natural state, the coyote avoids human contact. When it loses that aversion, it becomes a danger to us – and itself. Want to keep coyotes roaming Los Vaqueros, Round Valley, Black Diamond Mines, and not your front yard? It’s not that hard. The secret? Don’t encourage them. Here’s a checklist:
• Keep the lid on your garbage bin shut nice and tight.
• Keep pets – and their food and water – indoors at night.
• Discourage the presence of rodents – prime coyote fare – by reducing their protective cover: brush, thick weeds, wood piles.
• When dusk falls, drag your little ones indoors. Don’t assume your front yard is a safe haven.
• Chase away coyotes that wander into your neighborhood. Yell, wave your arms, throw stuff at them. Trust me: 99 percent of them will take flight. If you draw that other 1 percent, get indoors and call the Department of Fish and Game’s 24-hour dispatch at 916-445-0045.
Wanderer, opportunist – yes, sometimes thief – the coyote is a vital member of the ecosystem, and one of the planet’s most adaptable creatures. As we East County folk hunker down for the season of rain and cold and economic uncertainty, we’d be wise to take the cue from our brother-in-adversity, the coyote. The ultimate survivor.