Coyote tree

fallen white oak

It was early spring. In the last light of evening, as the quacking calls of wood frogs were giving way to spring peepers, a coyote ghosted down off the ridge and followed the small creek that ran for a little way along the edge of the woods before disappearing into a sinkhole.

Something was different. He stopped and sniffed, trying to puzzle it out. He smelled fresh sawdust and gasoline, yes, but also the moist earthy spoor of rotten tree — a lot of that. As if some enormous coyote, its gut full of fur and seeds and scales and all manner of indigestible things, had stopped to leave a massive calling card.

fallen white oak trunk

The truth was almost as massive and hard to digest: the great white oak had toppled, splitting open near the ground. Many of its limbs were as big around as regular trees, and at its base it was half again as wide as a coyote is long. A small limb next to the humans’ trail had been cut — that’s where the sawdust smell had come from — but otherwise, for once, they seemed to be leaving it alone. One massive limb had jabbed into the earth at an angle and broken off, and now it made a very convenient — in fact, an irresistible — ramp up onto the fallen trunk.

fallen white oak crown

Quick as thought, Coyote was on top of the toppled giant. The smooth plates of its bark felt very agreeable, and as he nosed about, he saw and smelled not a tree but a maze of paths, all of them leading back to him. Mice, squirrels, weasels, chipmunks, fishers — nothing can resist the open highway of a log. If he waited here long enough, they would come to him.

coyote scat on white oak 1

But that’s cat thinking; Coyote doesn’t hunt like that. Any path that is too obvious can make him vulnerable to his ancient enemies the wolves, whose own lack of imagination had doomed them here in the East, and most other places besides. Coyote didn’t take over by being predictable. No, an obvious walkway like this is good for one thing and one thing only: saying hello to other coyotes. And so he did, and hopped down, trotting off without a backward glance.

coyote scat on white oak 2

A few weeks later, he happened by again, and remembered his missive. He climbed up onto the tree to take a look, and sure enough, there was a reply — a long one! He read it carefully. It said, I’m a nursing mother, I’m eating well, and I can kick your ass. He thought about it for half a minute, then left a short, neutral response — I’m still here — scurried down off the tree, and trotted rapidly back the way he came.

coyote scat on white oak 3

It was late autumn before he returned to that end of the valley again. The tree was still there, and though it had human odor all over it, at least three more coyotes had been there, too — the half-grown offspring of the mother who had left a message earlier, perhaps. There was a sort of uniform character to their odor, as if they’d all been dripped on by the same tree — which a family would be, of course. The oak itself had lost a great deal of its pungency, and his paws detected a bit more give in the bark. He squatted once again. Though in life this tree was what foresters call a wolf tree, with its huge spreading crown of crooked limbs keeping sun from getting to other, straighter, more marketable trees, in death it was definitely going to the coyotes.

For the April Fools edition of the Festival of the Trees, “humorous trees,” at Vanessa’s Trees and Shrubs Blog. See the complete details.

me with fallen oak

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

10 Comments


  1. A fascinating account. And the photos – I’ve made the observation before: sometimes only black-and-white will do. I can see these well cooked onto grade 5 paper, in old photo terms.

    Re trees, I came across this in Satish Kumar’s editorial to the latest ‘Resurgence’:

    ‘We should also be deriving increasing amounts of our food from the trees; much of our oils, fruits, nuts and medicines can and should come from perennial crops like trees. Thus we can reduce our impact on the land and at the same time increase carbon sequestration in the soil as well as in the trees. Trees are our latter-day angels. Food security, water security and climate security are guaranteed by trees. Trees are our only true food insurance policy’.

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  2. Hi all – Thanks for the kind words. This was in a little county park some five miles from me. My friend Stan is on the board, and told me he personally intervened to keep that white oak from being cut up into firewood. A lot of people haven’t gotten the message about the importance of downed timber and coarse woody debris in general for wildlife and forest soil.

    Dick – Kumar makes an excellent point. The original inhabitants of the Eastern woodlands, of California, and probably northern Europe as well, relied on acorns as a primary foot source, supplemented (here and in Europe) by chestnuts and beech nuts. We also have hickory, walnuts, pecans, etc. To say nothing of fruit, or the edible inner bark of some trees such as elm and tulip.

    Re: black and white, I’m glad you thought that worked. I thought of doing it just because coyotes don’t see in color.

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  3. I did enjoy this post & was pleased to read the fallen Oak (& it’s a mighty one) is to be left where it fell. Fallen trees are so important for the wildlife & humans keep cleaning them up for woodchip. I also didn’t know Coyotes left poo as their calling card. You must have been so still & quiet to have witnessed this. Very special.

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    1. Hi Jacqueline – Didn’t mean to create the impression that I witnessed any of this. I just read the evidence and spun what I thought was a likely story. Glad you liked it.

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  4. I love this post. We here in Manhattan have been thrilled to have resident coyotes for a couple of months this winter. I was fortunate to glimpse one a few times in Central Park. Definitely ghost-like/dream-like. I’m pretty new to trees, and hadn’t realized the importance of downed trees to animals. Thanks for a post that is both mysterious and practical. By the way, I am a fellow tree carnival writer, passing through.

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    1. Coyotes in Central Park! What a great sighting. I’ve not seem them too many times even here — they’re wary animals, and mostly nocturnal. Thanks for stopping by.

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