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That reminds me of when I was surrounded by coyotes

These sensational news headlines got me thinking…

  • Campers rescued after coyotes surround campsite
  • Animal Control Looking For Coyotes That Surrounded Woman, Dogs
  • I Shouldn’t Be Alive – Trapped and Surrounded by Coyotes

I thought… what the? I’ve been surrounded by coyotes, more than once. Really surrounded. I thought it was cool. Maybe I’m the one who’s nuts? Being surrounded by a herd of javelina and being face-to-face with a young mountain lion – those situations were a little more dicey. But my personal worst scare was when I came head to head with two very large Brahman bulls on open rangeland in Mexico. I gave them a wide berth, slowly. They were waaaay bigger than me.

Regardless, I was reminded of when I was surrounded by coyotes. I was surrounded on one occasion for the same reason many people are “surrounded”, because I had food. I was in college, and was working on a biological survey of wild rodent populations in the deserts of southern Arizona.  I normally worked with with a biology graduate student, but I was alone this dark night. Almost 200 traps were set out (the mice were caught alive, we recorded their vital statistics, then let them go). Unfortunately for the mice, the weather was unseasonably cool.  I began to check the traps at 11pm, and many of the trapped mice were in a state of torpor (a hibernation-like state to conserve energy). What to do?

Not to worry. This has happened before. When I came upon a torpid mouse, I put him or her in one of my pockets until he or she warmed up and started to wiggle around. Quite amusing. I wonder if it was the mouse equivalent of waking up and having a “Where am I? I don’t remember drinking that much” feeling. When the mice were re-animated enough, I took them back near where I picked them up and let them go.

Enter the coyotes. I heard coyotes barking earlier in the night; quite common and I thought nothing of it. But after about a half hour into my two plus hour check, I noticed that I keep hearing noises just beyond the range of my headlamp. I became a bit more vigilant. There were creatures out there that could do me in quite easily. Eventually, I began to catch glimpses of coyotes flashing by in the darkness; one, two, or was that three? They were running circles around me. I was literally surrounded!

coyotes at night
Coyotes at night, Michael Liebhaber, Digital drawing, 6.25 x 3.5″, 2012

Coyotes, not a mountain lion, I was okay, I said to myself. I’m not sure what happened, but all of a sudden it dawned on me why I was so popular with the coyotes on this night. Seeing coyotes was not a big deal, but having them stick aournd was a bit unusual. The reason they followed me – I was setting down mice that were fairly easy targets in their less-than-alert states. I was potentially serving dinner to the coyotes. Duh.

So I started keeping the mice in my pockets a little longer to make sure they were fully awake. Some became quite fiesty, epecially when there was more than one mouse in a pocket! Then I placed them near a hole or under thick brush. I felt sorry for them, but I also did not want to lose any future data. Desert mice can live quite long lives, in mouse years. I didn’t want to lose one to a coyote. My “two hour” check lasted almost until dawn. The coyotes stayed with me until the first hint of sunlight. It was quite an interesting experience; a big dog-and-mouse game.

So I was surrounded by coyotes, but I didn’t make the headlines. Sigh.





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Surrounded by coyotes

I have spent lots of days and nights (easily 200+) in the desert around this mountain when I worked as an undergraduate field assistant at the University of Arizona Mammal Museum. It is Ragged Top, at the northern end of the Silverbell Mountains, northwest of Tucson, Arizona. The desert here is very lush, with just about every plant and animal species in the Sonoran Desert ecosystem.

I assisted graduate students with live-trapping and measuring and then releasing wild desert mice to study their populations. On cold nights the mice would get torpid if they spent too much time above ground in a trap (torpid: a state of suspended/sluggish physical activity, like hibernation). We would carry them in our pockets until they warmed up, then put them back near where they came from. I could tell they were coming back to life when I felt them moving around in my shirt and pants pockets!

200+ traps were spread out in the square shape, which made about a 5 mile walk. I remember checking the traps one very dark night, alone. At one point I heard noises around me. My heart started beating a bit faster.  Then I heard a hushed “yip”, a sharp, high pitched bark. I was surrounded by coyotes. An unsettling, but not frightening situation once I realized they were coyotes; mountain lions live here, too. They became quiet. The “yip” probably came from an inexperienced youngster. I could hear them running around on both sides of me. They moved when I walked, and stopped when I stopped. I could only catch an occasional glimpse. They stayed just beyond the reach of my headlamp. How many? I didn’t know. At least 3 or 4 for sure. They were with me for a good distance. I think they were hoping that I would drop a mouse. Just in case, I carefully put each mouse near a hole. Oh, and then there were snakes …