Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

January 3, 2010

Dogged Determination

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 1:40 pm

This has not been a snowy winter so far in S.E. Michigan.  Although it has been cold, little of the white stuff has covered the ground in my neighborhood here in the extreme S.E. portion of the state. The rest of the peninsula has seen plenty and I’m more than a bit jealous. I happen to like snow. No, I don’t love shoveling it or driving on it, but the stuff more than makes up for these negatives by creating some of the prettiest landscapes you’ll ever see.  Snow can make a junk car look poetic or turn a windblown roadside ditch into a sculpture gallery. As a naturalist, I also appreciate it as a track medium. A fresh layer of snow, like a new sheet of paper, is a clean palette ripe for natural story-telling.

The last dusting revealed the wanderings of a coyote through the pre-dawn landscape along the Erie shore (see above). These wild dogs have expanded into nearly every human and wild neighborhood in the country. They have made it a habit to stay out of sight, however, so you rarely see them in the light of day. Especially in the east, they tend to restrict their activities to the dusk and dawn hours when human folk aren’t as likely to shoot them – or at least hit them when they do.

The alert naturalist will note their fresh tracks along nearly every backwoods or field trail after a snowfall. These wild dogs are on the move throughout the year, but only a good snow cover can record the true extent of these wanderings. Typically, an individual animal maintains a regular route which covers their sizable home range – an area that can extend 30 square miles or more (Coyotes living in prime habitat can afford to maintain a much smaller home range). They are looking for food such as rabbits, carrion, and mice, and stopping to mark the borders by scent marking. Like mall security guards, they walk the beat and check the perimeter doors and food vendors. Unlike Mall cops, they fit neatly into their uniforms and can run for great distances.

If you chose to follow one of these coyote tracks, be prepared to go a long way. Make sure you are tracking the right beast before attempting this. The tracks are very dog-like but can be distinguished from our familiar house mates by their proportions and pattern. Dog tracks tend to be round in outline whereas the coyote footprint tends to be oval in outline. Red Fox tracks are also similar but they show little in the way of a heel or toe pad and are generally much smaller. An individual coyote track is usually in the 2 ¼ in. – 2 ½ in. range. I say “usually” because these animals vary in size and large individuals can top the scales at 40 pounds or more. A bigger critter will leave a bigger track. Regardless the actual size, the front foot impression is always larger than the hind foot mark. The track -shown below- measures about 2 ½ in. from the back of the heel pad to the tip of the center toe pad. I assume it’s a front foot mark. Coyotes habitually use and drop Papermate pens along their routes, so this was another valuable identity clue (a 6 inch pen also helps to provide a scale for the photo).

When on the move, a coyote will lay down tracks in a straight line. Dogs tend to veer all over the place and cluster around human foot prints or in back yards! For the most part, you will encounter mile after mile of determination when trailing a coyote. They rarely veer from their course unless alerted to a point of interest.

The only path deviation I encountered during my recent attempt at coyote tracking was a situation (see below) where the animal took a right turn to look at a disturbance on the ice. Apparently a clump of snow from an overhead tree, or a snowball, made an impact mark on the virgin surface. The coyote turned, probably with nose to the surface, to investigate but quickly dismissed the mark as being unproductive. It didn’t even break stride as it turned back to its original direction.

Another individual, walking the same location as above, slipped a bit on a slick section of the ice (see here). A sideways smear clearly indicates the place where the short incidence of imbalance occurred. The open toed pattern of the other prints shows where the critter “dug in” in order to regain balance and dignity. I enjoy seeing animals slip because I do it so often – it makes them more human (did I actually say that?)

Unfortunately, during my short attempt at long-term tracking, amounting to less than ½ mile of ground and ice, I didn’t uncover any dramatic signs of predation or even locations where the coyote sprinkled down some scent marking urine. My reward was the opportunity to replicate a small part in the life of a coyote that I never met. I’m confident that someday our paths will cross again – and soon.


  1. Is the straight line considered to be a direct register? I thought only cats and foxes did that. Interesting!

    Comment by Monica the Garden Faerie — January 3, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

  2. Very cool. Don’t cha just love tracking!?!? I’ve discovered a regular trail our neighborhood fox uses…one I’ve suspected for a while. Now if only I could bar the 4-wheelers and dirt bikes from the area, I’d have a great place to sit and watch for the critter!

    Comment by Ellen — January 4, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

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