“Every picture tells a story, don’t it.”

-Rod Stewart

It was a lovely winter morning, five below zero and sunny. Leaning forward in my little rocker, I eased another piece of oak into the kitchen stove. The dance of flames and my cup of coffee was a vision of tranquility.

I glanced out the pantry window and spotted the coyote. Mottled gray, it was moving steadily north just inside our woods. It was in no hurryWhile it made for a nice setting I suspect the wild canid was not feeling anything like tranquility. I suspect it was motivated on this morning by hunger and an urge to find coyote company.

I watched the solitary animal pause, tip its nose into the snow, smell a message and then move on. I wondered if this animal was part of a group of coyotes we had heard yapping and howling a few nights earlier.

In that sighting my morning plan for a cross country ski was hijacked. I took another drink of coffee, set it down on the stovetop to keep warm for my return and booted and bundled myself for a stroll. There was a hot story to unravel.

The coyote, whose track, and life chapter, I followed, has only two layers to wrap itself in every winter. The dense, soft, tawny-colored  underfur could be considered its base layer. Like the down feathers of a bird, this thick layer of fur efficiently traps air and helps hold body heat closed to its core. 

The outer layer of hairs, the overcoat so to speak, are called guard hairs. These longer, glossy, black-tipped hairs are mostly what I saw when the animal passed into my morning.

The spoor I followed seemed purposeful. There was no playful or careless story found in this trail of tracks. A dog, living the comfortable life of domesticity, often loops and seems to celebrate just being outdoors by the cursive trail it leaves behind. Of course, it knows where its next meal is coming from and it rarely feels the pang of almost continual hunger.

In these parts, wild canids, like foxes, coyotes and wolves generally leave a more purposeful set of tracks. They are mostly looking for calories..

Over twenty years ago I was snowshoeing across the unbroken canvas of a frozen lake. Up ahead of me, I could see a convergence of tracks. Like spokes on a wheel, the quartet of coyote tracks all zeroed in on a running fox track. The hub of tracks was an explosion in the snow with blood and bits of fur scattered about. But it was the slender, dismembered black-as-coal foreleg of the red fox laying in the snow that shouted out the story of tough times.

When predators compete for a limited prey resource, encounters such as the frozen lake carnage I happened upon are not abnormal.

Far too many folks still paste the label “varmint” on a coyote. More than once I have heard humans describe these wild canids in their own growling tones: “Killers!  They wipe out pheasants, rabbits, deer, turkeys, sheep and even cats and dogs!” 

The irony is that there has been considerable predator-prey research, particularly with coyotes and wolves. Killing these predators does not usually decrease their populations. Instead there is a resulting increase in the litter size of the targeted wild canids and in short order,  populations actually increase.

Coyotes and foxes are quite adaptable to human environments. There have been some interesting studies on these predators in the city of Chicago. Yes, Chicago; a major city of slightly more than two and a half million people there are approximately four thousand coyotes.

The trail I followed varied very little from northbound, with a slight bend to the northeast. I approached a red oak seedling sticking up through the snow. The tracks paused here, disrupting its single file gait with a scramble of prints.  The snow at the base of a clump of prairie grass was sprinkled with a dribble of yellow-orange drops.

The coyote had paused to leave a scent mark, an odoriferous Hallmark card of sorts. I leaned down and scooped up the snow beneath the piddled snow and scooped the urine dappled snowcone in my mitt and brought it up to my nose. It wasn’t foul. Instead it was pungent and musky. By the way sniffing urine soaked snow is always a hit when out with kids. They never forget it.

I can deduce that this animal is a male just by the habit of the wild dog lifting its leg to pee. And I can also deduce that the alchemy of this sprinkling is more than waste. It includes a particular blend of volatile chemicals that might tell of breeding readiness, social status, and more.  There is a message in the pungent smell. This lone coyote is marking his breeding grounds and, or, his availability to any passing female who is approaching her estrus cycle when she can be bred.

Now, in the first two months of the year, there is a hormonal shift in coyotes, foxes and wolves. This is the one time of the year in which they seek company and breed. After a gestation period of a couple of months, the pups will usually be born in April or May.

I followed the tracks a little further but then came to another property line. Coyotes, like all wildlife, consider their home anywhere they can roam. Land ownership is a complicated legality practiced only by humans.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources report that most male coyotes roam an area of thirty six square miles. Females stick to a smaller piece of ground, usually no larger than six square miles. But on a given day they rarely move more than three miles. 

I was tempted to hike past human boundaries to see what other mysteries I might uncover about this lone male coyote. But in my rush to get on the trail I had intentionally left my snowshoes behind and now my post holing tracks in the snow could be interpreted as a slogging, tiring human. 

Besides, there was a half cup of warm coffee on the stove to finish and a full fridge to pilfer for a mid-morning prize of abundant calories. Tranquility regained.