Postcard from The Matthews Ranch: Coyotes
By JIM MATTHEWS
I’ve been spending a lot of time on a relatively postage stamp-sized piece of ground that is remnant native habitat inside the vast flood plain that is urban Southern California. The whole region used to look like this little stretch of land. It has all of the native plant life that has been paved over and turned into golf courses, shopping malls, and housing most everyplace else. Except for grizzly bears, it still has populations all the native wildlife that once lived here, and if the sun is right and I squint just so, I can still see grizzlies.
Call the place The Matthews Ranch.
I take walks here at sunrise to kick-start my day or apply a balm with a walk at dusk at the end of a long one. It is not wilderness by any stretch of the imagination. While walking I can hear trains, cars on a freeway, airplanes, and helicopters. There is a sand and gravel plant close enough that I can see the conveyor contraptions and feel the rumble of the big trucks in my gut. It has a dull background noise all the time. The nearest suburban neighborhood is close enough I can hear dogs barking and chickens crowing. On the downhill slope I can look across a valley filled with several million people unaware of the phainopepla calling from inside my binoculars. I marvel at his red eye and crest.
I started calling it The Matthews Ranch when people started asking where I’d taken a photo of a quail or dove or coyote they see on my Facebook page or with a story I’ve written for a magazine. Rather than launch into directions, street names, and well-known landmarks, it was easier to say, “my backyard,” or “out in the wash near the house.” That evolved into “The Matthews Ranch.”
It has become more than a location. It is a piece of our ancient outdoor heritage and connection to the land, the natural environment. It is a connection that is slowly disappearing.
Over the years I’ve gotten to know some of the residents on the ranch, and they have become accustomed to me and my routines. I have learned and continue to learn the names and habits of the birds, mammals, and reptiles that live here. I find new plants – at least new to me – blooming each year. The coyotes are some of my favorite inhabitants.
It was more than 20 years ago when I first starting coming here, and one evening I was tinkering with a predator call at dusk. I tucked up under one of the native walnut trees and was sitting against the trunk. I had a pretty good view of the wash under and through the canopy of branches and leaves. Almost immediately, I saw a big, dark coyote trotting up the wash right toward my spot. He stopped, hiked his leg on a bush, and stood listening. He was a couple of hundred yards away, so I squealed the call again, and I could see him focus on my spot and drop into a lope. He ran right up to the tree, and then ducked under the first limb, putting him inches from my outstretched boots. I thought for a split second I might have to have to fend him off with my feet, but then our eyes locked. His eyes bugged as he clearly saw – and probably smelled – me for the first time. It seems as though he turned inside out and went into high gear the other direction. I can still see the startled, dismayed expression on his face to this day.
A week or so later, I was out in the wash again with the predator call. I’d set up in a spot probably a half-mile from where he’d come practically into my lap. After blowing two series of calls, I saw a glimpse of a coyote off to one side and watched him slip around behind me downwind. It was the big, dark male. As soon as he hit my scent, he lifted his nose into the sky and howled. From then on, if he could hear me call, he would howl at me from wherever he was in the wash complex. I could never call him in again. I changed calls, parked the truck further away and tried to sneak into a spot and call. It never mattered, he would just howl as if to say, “You’re not fooling me. I know it’s you.”
The only times I’d see him was just walking a wash corridor or driving into the area on a dirt road. He’d always stop and look at me or the truck and then go on about his business. If I called, he’d howl.
A few years later, I got to know some of his offspring (I assume) pretty well. I had found a couple of 50-gallon plastic drums that had been carried down the wash by runoff. I repurposed them, burying them at a 45-degree angle in the sand, and filling them with water and rocks so the critters could get drinks. One summer day while filling one of the tanks, I had that feeling that something was nearby and looked around. There was a female coyote pup looking at me through the brush. She was only 30 feet away. I saw a movement to the right, and there was another pup, and then another, and another. Over the course of that summer and fall, I watched this little family group of coyotes grow up. I never found the den, and never really looked too hard for it because I didn’t want the adult pair to abandon the spot, but I knew about where it was located. It got to the point the pups would all come to investigate if they heard my truck.
The four had very different personalities. The two males would come in at a run when I drove up or if I blew a call, and then they would get bored quickly, disappear, and go back to doing what young male coyotes do. The two females were more cautious. They would creep in and watch. One would keep her distance and run off if I stared at her, disappearing until next time. The other was very curious and she would hang around and slip in closer and closer to watch what I was doing. I got so I would quietly talk to her while I was filling the tank. By late fall, I’d only see the young female on occasion and the others didn’t bother with me any longer. Except for the one female. As she got older, I’m sure there were times where I simply didn’t see her, but I’d spot her occasionally peering at me. That went on all through the winter and spring, but by the following summer, all of the pups had dispersed and disappeared.
Over the years, I have learned there are usually two or three family groups of coyotes where I walk, each group anchored by a dominate pair. In dry years, it seems like one pair gets run out, but in wet years when there is plenty of prey, another pair moves in and sets up shop. Pups are also tolerated in the area longer in those good years.
I will be out there a lot this month looking for this year’s crop of pups and to watch their antics.
[Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 909-887-3444.]