Animal Communication: A Coyote Story

May 4, 2017
M. Amos Clifford

Animal Communication: A Coyote Story

This is a story of communication with an animal, a coyote that saved my life.

In the spring of 1972, when I was 17 years old, I lived near downtown Santa Barbara. On some weekends, I made solo journeys into the Santa Barbara backcountry to learn what I could about living on the plants and other resources there, and to test my knowledge. I did this without benefit of mentorship, just picking up tips as best I could from books, and relying on my prior experience with wandering around the foothills, up the canyons and along the network of trails through the chaparral that linked the canyons and the creeks that flowed inside them.

My routine was this: I had a short, recurved hunting bow, to which a bow quiver was attached. I loaded this quiver with six arrows, some of which were suitable for hunting large animals; others were rubber-tipped for shooting at birds and small game. I carried a small pouch that hung on a strap over my shoulder, in which I carried a bit of cheese, a roll or two of bread, and three matches. I also carried a small metal canteen.  Sometimes I took along a wooden flute.

Along the way, I harvested and ate edible plants. From time to time I shot an arrow at a rabbit or a quail, mostly without luck.  On these trips, I spent a lot of time feeling cold, hungry, and tired.

The night that Coyote saved my life was clear and cold.

Very cold.  Thick ground frost cold.

I knew in advance that a cold snap was coming, so for this trip I had brought along a small woolen blanket. Not long after the sun set, frost started forming on the ground in the open places along the canyon floor. There was a bright moon casting its glow over the landscape. I was tired and hungry. Instead of taking the time and energy to build a shelter, I crawled under a small juniper tree. There were several inches of duff under it, composed of years of fallen needles. I gathered enough to push it together into a deep nest, cleaning out the broken twigs. I knew that the cover of the tree would keep the frost off, for most of the night anyway. I crawled into my nest, wrapped my little blanket tightly around me, and scraped some of the duff on top of me. I adjusted my position to find every available scrap of insulation as the moon rose higher, and eventually fell shivering into a fitful sleep.

I was eventually wakened by a warm, wet snuffling sound near my ear.

I sat up and as I did a shape moved away from me, into a clearing in the moonlight. It was a coyote, standing about 30 feet away from me, looking at me. I could see an equal distance behind it there was another coyote. Instinctively I knew that the one that had awakened me was a male, and its companion was a female. She did not seem particularly interested in me; instead I had the distinct sense that she was patiently indulging her mate.

My response was bemused irritation. Somehow it did not seem strange to me that he would come sniffing around. But I was very cold, and I wanted to stay asleep, because when I was sleeping I was only aware of my suffering as it appeared in my dreams, which had been of being very cold.

I searched the ground nearby and found a pebble. I tossed it at the coyote. “Get out of here!” I said. “I’m trying to sleep.”

He looked at me for moment, then turned and wandered off. She followed.

I nestled back in and was soon asleep again.

But not for long.

Presently the snuffling again warmed my ear, bringing me awake.

I yelled at him and sat up. The coyote jumped away from me, again standing in the moonlight. His companion was still there, in about the same place as before.  I could see that the frost had thickened on the ground.

Both animal’s coats shone silver in the light, like the frost.

I tossed a couple of pebbles, but this time he didn’t move away. He just stood there and looked at me.

“OK,” I said. I picked up my bow, bent it and slipped the loop of the string into the notch. I selected one of my rubber-tipped arrows and fitted it on the string. Shifting my position, drew the arrow back, about 1/3 of the distance I would use if I was hunting. I didn’t want to harm the coyote. My plan was to just shoot its hindquarters, perhaps bruise it a bit, and thus chase it off.
The coyote calmly watched as I drew my bow. I aimed and held my bow steady, ready to release the arrow.

He sat down and looked at me.

Quite clearly, I felt him say, “Really? Are you sure you want to do this?”

Somehow this struck me as a bit hilarious. I lowered the arrow and released the tension on the string. The Coyote and I looked at each other. The female looked at us looking at each other. The moonlight and the frost held us together in an intimate midnight scene.

I realized that there was something he wanted to tell me.

“What?” I asked. He waited. To show that I was willing to listen, I bent my bow and took the string off while he watched. I put the arrow back in its quiver. He watched.

Again, I asked, “What?” He stood and walked away from me. I could see him clearly in the moonlight. His companion walked a bit in front of him. They came to a dry streambed no more than 100 feet from where I had made my nest. She disappeared down its bank. At the top of the bank, he paused.

He looked back at me, making eye contact. I felt him say, “Follow me.” Then he too disappeared over the bank.

I thought about it for a moment. I didn’t want to move away from my nest. I didn’t’ want to expose my cold body to that open frost and that cold bright moon.

But I also felt that it was important to follow the Coyote, that his was an invitation that had best not be ignored.

I gathered my blanket, my pouch and my bow, and made my way over the frozen ground to the stream bank. No sign of the coyotes. There was a faint trail down the bank, which was a drop of about 8 feet. I went down it. The moon revealed a litter of stones, mostly rounded by long tumbles in seasonal flood waters. Mixed in were bits of driftwood, small broken branches, many seasoned over several years into brittle dryness. But I still could not see what Coyote had called me to find.

I turned and looked back at the trail I had come down. Just downstream from the trail was a dark hollow carved into the bank by flood waters. I went closer. It had a shape that, if I were to lie down, was just about right to hold my body under a projecting roof of roots, stone, and dirt. I crawled into it. It was a good fit.

Still, I was cold. But I noticed that as I lay on my side in the little cave, in front of me there was a level shelf of dirt that extended a couple of feet before sloping down to the rocky stream bed.
I thought about the coyote. “Oh….that’s what you were showing me.” I crawled out of the cave. In about 10 minutes I had gathered a stack of small sticks. I placed this stack where I could easily reach it from within the cave, and I made my way back in.

I used the sticks to build a small pyramid, beginning with the tiniest twigs that I knew would catch fire most readily. Experience had taught me to take my time and to do this patiently and carefully. Over the smallest twigs I arranged slightly larger ones, aided in my efforts by the moonlight. I readied some larger sticks to feed into the flame. With a single match, I soon had a small fire going.

I tended my fire, burning more wood until it rested on a glowing bed of coals. My little fire was close to my belly as I lay on my side.

The cave warmed slightly. I fell asleep.

As the night progressed I catnapped (coyote napped?), waking from time to time when the fire burned down. Each time I built it back up. Its warmth continued to keep the worst edges of the frost away. Although I was never positively warm,  I was also never on the edge of hypothermia.

Eventually dawn came. I gathered my things and walked down the canyon, following the stream bed until I came to a broad meadow. I went to the West edge of the meadow. With deep gratitude for coyote’s compassion and teaching, and with a new appreciation of what is possible in human relationships with the more-than-human world, I welcomed the first warming rays of sun to come over the ridge.