When the nights finally turned colder, I hated to close my bedroom window for the season. I’ll miss waking in the night to the syncopated yowls of coyotes. On some primal level the sound alarms me—emergency! wake up!—but after a second or two, that tight tunnel of adrenaline swells into some mix of happiness and gratitude.
Not everyone loves coyotes, of course. To show up animal rights activists protesting a planned coyote-killing contest, Gunhawk Firearms in Los Lunas dug in its heels and held the event despite being told by officials from the New Mexico State Land Office, US Forest Service and US Bureau of Land Management that contestants wouldn’t be allowed on public lands. The shop’s manager, Rick Gross, wasn’t worried about limiting the contest to private lands, and he told an Associated Press reporter that ranchers regularly complain to him that coyotes “slaughter” their livestock.
Coverage of the contest lacked any subtlety. It was animal rights activists versus hunters. Period. But I know hunters who would never consider shooting a coyote, just as I’ve met self-professed animal lovers who despise the wild canines. (In the interest of full disclosure: I love my pets, seem to almost always date hunters, and I personally think the contest was not only cruel, but stupid. And when I read that it had taken more than 100 contestants to kill 39 coyotes, it reinforced my preconceptions of both species.)
Coyotes tangle people up sometimes. And I think that’s because they cross a line. They’re wild and yet they survive and thrive in suburbs and cities, where they sometimes nab domestic cats and small dogs and do their best to infiltrate chicken coops and livestock pens.
And honestly, that’s why I love coyotes. They defy modern American expectations of what’s appropriate behavior for wildlife. Of course, they’re not the only ones.
A few months ago, I overhead two older ladies marveling over the natural beauty of Corrales, an agricultural community that’s been overtaken in the past few decades by a lot of big and fancy homes. “And all the birds!” said one of the women, “Though I don’t really like roadrunners—they’ll eat baby birds!” The second agreed, adding that she doesn’t like to see hawks preying on doves.
I’m not sure if it’s Disney (animals should all hang out and sing together) or a dissociative disorder (a detachment from reality), but I don’t think the sentiment expressed by those two women is all that unusual.
I worry a lot about how disconnected humans have become from the natural world. But I have a plan. And it’s really simple. And fun: Pay attention.
Watch the sun set. Learn the names of the birds in your yard. Grab a map, find the river closest to your house and trace where it comes from and where it goes. Download a planet app on your iPhone, stay up late and learn some constellations. Walk around the neighborhood and track wildlife. Talk about what you see with your children or your parents. I used to think that to enjoy the natural world, I had to venture into wilderness, backpack for days into remote places. Now I know better. My neighborhood has overtaken nature, and it’s my job to pay homage to what’s left. And to appreciate every bit of wildness that has managed to survive.
Last week, my dog needed to go outside at three in the morning. Freezing cold and wrapped in a blanket, I stared out at the dark form of the Sandias while waiting for him. And there! Right there! A shooting star fired down from the zenith of the sky and flared out just above the mountains.
Later that same morning, a flock of 10 or 12 red-shafted northern flickers arrived to drink from our pond. They poke their beaks into the water, then tip their heads back. Flickers are animated, messy drinkers. Water drips off their beaks and they hop around incessantly—fluttering from the pond’s edge to a wall to the rain gutter back to another spot at the edge of the pond.
A few days earlier, my daughter and I were walking home with friends when we spotted a Cooper’s hawk on the side of the gravel road. He was standing on a flicker, ripping it apart with his beak. When the Cooper’s eventually flew off, we examined the feathers blowing down the road—some long and orange; others smaller, fluffy and spotted—and found the prey’s head.
The flicker’s head had been severed so cleanly that it was easy to envision the hawk’s tearing motion. We gathered feathers and brought the head home to bury outside the back door. In the summer, we’ll unearth it and add it to our collection of skulls. We’ll continue to listen for coyote calls and try to understand our place within this world. And just in time for Thanksgiving, we’ll be grateful.