Last Sunday Zoe, a student here at Windflower, went with me on a trail ride in Great Brook State Park, Carlisle, Massachusetts. The photo above is of Firefly just after she got glammed up for the adventure. However, my last blog entry promised Part II of "When Coyotes Choose Fight Over Flight," so I start with the most unsettling wildlife encounter of my life.
When Coyotes Choose Fight Over Flight, Part II
I introduced you to this magnificent fellow in my last entry. I took this while he was having a leisurely, self-guided tour about my farm. Handsome, isn't he? And big! He had to weigh at least forty pounds. He'd seen me standing at a respectful distance with my camera and trotted off seconds later. As described in Part 1, this encounter was little different from others I've had. Some coyotes disappear into the undergrowth in a flash, while others walk or trot slowly away. However, two weeks ago I had a different sort of encounter and, for the first time, it involved not one but two of these extraordinary creatures.
We are fortunate that our farm abuts several hundred acres of conservation trails, as well as private land whose owner welcomes selected horses, cross-country skiers, cyclists, and hikers. Unfortunately, the conservation trails, over years of use and erosion, have become increasingly rocky and gnarled with hard tree roots, allowing for little more than a walk in most sections. However, if I travel a bit further afield I get to the private land with unmarked trails suitable for trotting and a good gallop. One trail runs up a large hill and is great for conditioning, as well just having some plain old fun. I was trotting up that hill on Elementa, along with our dog Clem and our neighbor's dog Lucky, when Elementa screeched to a halt. There up ahead on the trail was a coyote and it was, with the exception of one pup, the smallest I'd ever seen.
Elementa Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2014
Clem Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2014
Lucky Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2014
How fortunate, I thought, to catch yet another glimpse of this animal I found so fascinating! However, within a few seconds it became apparent that this was not going to be a fleeting glimpse but rather a confrontation driven by this smaller female together with a large male who appeared immediately on the scene when she emitted a series of high-pitched barks.
The small one began arching her back, gaping her mouth (something I'd not seen before), scuffing the ground with her forelegs, and continuing to bark. The male dashed into the woods and began what I can only describe as the beginning of an encircling maneuver. Meanwhile, Clem thought these oddly-behaving dogs deserved a closer look. Thankfully, between my yelling for him to come back and the coyote's non-inviting posturing accompanied with rapid-fire barks and howls, he backed off. Lucky, the older and more sensible dog, kept his distance. Meanwhile, Elementa, having thought her human had gone nuts, wanted nothing more than to go backwards, forwards or sideways, anything other than to be kept at a halt.
For this reason, as well as believing that I might have to go after the coyotes if they attacked the dogs, I dismounted. I didn't turn away because I feared my retreat might trigger a predator response. I picked up a thick, six-foot long branch and waved it at them while yelling, "Get back, get out, go away!" Meanwhile Elementa, thinking I had picked up a new and terrifying kind of dressage whip, continued to dance and whirl around me. This was taken last winter but this is where she was headed, minus the snow, if I hadn't gotten off:
The coyotes seemed increasingly upset. The female was now within ten feet of Clem and only fifteen feet from me and closing. My acting more aggressively seemed to confirm to them that I was a clear and present danger. It was May, so I was pretty sure the security of a den was at issue. Hmm, maybe acting like prey was the ticket. I turned and started to walk down the hill. The female trotted after us while the male stayed parallel to my shoulder about ten yards into the woods. I began to run a bit. No dice, she continued trotting. This was not good.
Behaving like a predator hadn't worked, neither had behaving like prey. Maybe a little bit of both would work. I decided to walk backwards down the hill. I kept one hand on Elementa's shoulder for balance while I continued to wave the stick in my right. This predator-prey behavior on my part seemed to help. The female continued to follow but moved a bit more into the woods. The male also put himself deeper into the woods but continued to remain on a point parallel to my shoulder.
After about a quarter of a mile, the female was nowhere to be seen but the male still accompanied us. At certain points I thought he might be gone but every so often Elementa would freeze, and when I followed her gaze, there he was, camouflaged in brush but definitely there and staring straight at us. Of course, I didn't want to linger, but Elementa did, at least until she'd evaluated the danger. I tapped her on the flanks with a branch to encourage her to move forward. The time for evaluating this threat had passed.
It was a half mile from the point I first sighted the female that I thought the coyote might truly have decided to call it a day. I phoned my friend Dave, Lucky's owner, and relayed what had happened. I continued to walk. When Elementa relaxed enough to grab a few leaves, I got back on her and booked until I saw my good friend and neighbor coming up the path.
In the midst of the threat perhaps I didn't have time to feel afraid, or fear was being overridden by adrenaline, or it was a little of both. However, by the time I phoned Dave I felt a wave of relief while my heart simultaneously pounded against my rib cage.
Though very few people transit that area, there were houses nearby so I decided to call the Acton police. They determined an interview was warranted. Once I told the arriving patrolman that I was neither hurt nor did the coyotes appear sick, he informed me that the landowner allowed his uncle to hunt on the property and his house was full of pelts. I was horrified! I told him I thought they were protecting a den, and that their response to me was totally understandable. After all, maybe these were first time parents. How much did I overreact in his first months of my son Alec's life. Fortunately, he promised to keep the information in official channels.
I found myself in a bit of a dilemma. I didn't want any human or any coyote to get hurt. Should I put signs up at both ends of the trail stating that there were aggressive coyotes in that area? No one would want to walk that way if they knew. Or would they? What if some gung-ho hunter or group of foolish children saw the signs as an invitation rather than a warning?
In the end, I decided against the signs, but I did call the daughter of the landowner who lived near the trail. I'm glad I did. She told me that her children often cut through the woods to visit their grandfather, and that she would go to the houses in that area to warn them about what had happened.
Did this incident change my feelings about coyotes? Aside from increasing my respect for the extent that they will go to protect their little ones, not a bit. As you know from my last entry, I don't like that they are hunted. Many people around here whine about the exploding deer population. I dislike the idea of deer being killed, but coyotes taking out sick deer or precious newborn fawns (sob!) is Mother Nature's way of controlling the deer population.
I should mention that I do not believe the smaller coyote was the mother of pups. Pups are born in May and their mother will not leave the den for five to seven weeks. It was late May at the time of this incident. Rather, I think she was a helper auntie. As I wrote
in the last entry, a member of a previous litter will often stay, hunt for food for the mother and babies, and protect. That's who I think that female likely was. The large male, I believe, was papa.
That night I did more research on my computer. Several articles confirmed that coyotes bark for two reasons, to protect a kill, or to protect a den. Here is a YouTube I found of a coyote barking. The barking exhibited towards me was much more animated and frequent, with short interspersed howls. But this will give you some idea of what I heard. Just ramp it up by a factor of ten:
I do think that if I hadn't been with a horse, it is likely that the dogs and I would have been attacked and seriously bitten, maybe worse. The Division of Fish and Game then would want to have known where the encounter had taken place but I would not have told them. They might possibly shoot the pair and send their brains off to a lab to determine if they were rabid. (I don't think they were at all.) However, my ever-cautious and loving husband would have encouraged me to take that series of rabies shots to make sure I was okay. For his peace of mind, I would have. Anyway, the series of five shots is no longer a large needle inserted into the stomach but a smaller one into the arm or thigh, causing no more discomfort than a tetanus shot.
I won't ride on that trail for at least a month and a half. By then the pups will be out of the den and, along with the other members of their family, be more inclined (I hope) to choose flight over fight. I'm sorry that I caused this family distress, and I am so glad they threatened but in the end didn't attack. I hope that from now on they can raise their pups in peace.
MSPCA Horses Helping Horses
Here is Elementa cavorting after an invigorating bath while Zoe was combing out Firefly's luxurious and time-consuming mane. (Like a lot of horse people, I spend much more time on my horses' coifs than I do on my own.) In one of their many efforts to raise money for animals in need, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) holds a trail ride, "Horses Helping Horses," dedicated to raising money specifically for horses that are turned in or seized by the MSPCA. Comprising one thousand acres with over twenty miles of trails, Great Brook State Park couldn't be a better place to host this event. These woods held sacred sites for Native Americans, and a number of settlers called it home in the 1600s.
I've been on numerous organized trail rides but this was eleven-year-old Zoe's first and her mount was Firefly, our very forward thinking, hot-blooded Haflinger. Zoe, however, is a positive, talented rider and matching Firefly in her boldness and determination. I was on Elementa. We had both recovered from our trip to what I now refer to as "Coyote Hill." However, just one week after that, I was riding Elementa in that same woods. We were crossing a wooden bridge when one of the planks broke under the weight of her right foreleg. She managed to regain her footing. And, miraculously, I managed not to fall off. I dismounted and examined Elementa, who was holding her foreleg off the ground. I was so afraid that it was broken, but it had just been stung. I hand-walked her for about a half-mile, then got back on and rode the last couple of miles home.
Back to "Horses Helping Horses." We started our ride at a walk, Elementa leading. We were to be the babysitters to inhibit Firefly's ever-present desire to increase the pace. That arrangement changed almost immediately at our first wooden bridge. No way was Elementa going to risk crossing one of those horse-eating contraptions again!
So I asked Zoe and Firefly to take the lead. Success! Elementa thought the more prodigious Firefly was a fine guinea pig, and after Firefly crossed Elementa went, too. Hardly elegant enough for a judged trail ride, but after what she and I had experienced a few days earlier, it was a blue-ribbon crossing.
Now in front, Firefly continued to comport herself like an experienced trail horse. Zoe's confidence and command kept her literally on the straight and narrow. After a few more bridges that failed to collapse, Elementa was now truly enjoying herself. She'd been to Great Brook previously but never with so many horses. Because we were now out of second gear we needed to pass quite a few. There were a number of inexperienced horses and riders so we took care not to cause any disruptions when passing. Also, there have recently in the area been a few cases of equine strangles--a highly contagious respiratory infection--so we gave other horses a wider berth than usual.
Great Brook trails are well-maintained, so if the way was clear of other horses, we were able to trot and canter for long stretches. The ride had been advertised at over seven miles but had to be cut down to five owing to some busy little beavers who'd recently built a few new dams that flooded two miles of trails.
By the time we got to the finish the sun was high in the sky and the horses sweaty. Zoe and I had worn protective vests so our shirts were wet through. (And, of course, helmets--always helmets!) We hand-walked the horses before washing them and offering them water. After hand-grazing Firefly and Elementa, we loaded them onto the trailer.
We then reported our return, where we learned that one the raffle tickets we'd been given entitled us to a three-pound bag of horse treats. There was also a wonderful lunch of pasta, salad, desserts, and beverages. However, because we were afraid the horses would soon get uncomfortable in their hot trailer, Zoe and I opted to drive to nearby Kimball's Ice Cream Stand. There we were able to park the trailer in the shade and enjoy a large sundae (Zoe) and and milkshake (me).
We had a great time. The event was wonderfully managed by helpful, friendly MSPCA employees and volunteers, cheerful and helpful, giving their time, not only that Sunday but also the many advance hours needed to organize such an event. Over five thousand dollars was raised, and I want to thank everyone at Nevins Farm for a great day. I hope to get some photos that I can post in my next blog entry.
Glass Light Box Update
I've been having quite a bit of success selling selling my glass light boxes. My two best customers to date have been veterinary clinics and hair salons who place them in their restrooms as a sort of welcoming night light. Not surprisingly the animal hospitals are drawn to the ones with horses, dogs, and cats, while the hair salons go for flowers, garden scenes, and cats. Here are a few of my latest designs:
These will be available within the week at my online shop Windflower Glass Blocks at Etsy. Here's the link: https://www.etsy.com/shop/WindflowerGlassBlock?ref=search_shop_redirect Those glass boxes listed in my last blog entry (http://windflowerfarmweekly.blogspot.com/2014/05/the-kindness-of-stranger-white-horses.html) may also be found there.
Next entry will be about the Cutter Farm Two-Phase Event--dressage and stadium jumping--as well introducing you two new Windflower residents. Vincent and Aki are eclectus parrots and are the most enchanting parrots I've ever met. Here's a sneak peak:
Thanks for reading The Windflower Weekly, and I'll see you soon-- Ainslie
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