Documented evidence nationwide shows that wild critters can and do live in heavily developed areas, even species with furtive reputations such as coyotes and foxes, so back in mid-July an odd sighting surprised me little. Seeing the behavior firsthand, though, did impress me.

Early one morning, I was walking West Road on the outskirts of Belgrade Lakes village and had hiked less than the length of a football field from my driveway when a wild canine showed itself within 10 feet of the highway.

The animal was skulking stealthily through groundcover beneath a canopy of mature, mixed-growth trees, heading toward the road. The rising sun had backlit it, creating a silhouette, so at first the coyote looked all black with a straight, bushy tail angled downward.

As it crossed the pavement 30 yards away, though, I noted the multicolored coat and its body size — about half again larger than a very big fox.

When the coyote spotted me, it scooted down the length of a gravel driveway by a trailer, running toward heavily developed Long Pond.

The coyote left tracks in dust on top of the gravel, which showed a definitive trait of this canine.

The toes and pads on coyotes, foxes and wolves do not splay outward as with a typical domestic dog track, and the muscular paw print showed the toes and pads held tightly together — even though the animal was running. One particular print perfectly illustrated this characteristic.

The best way to learn the difference between wild and domestic canines begins with checking out Fido’s paw print in a tracking medium such as snow, mud or dust. It’s easy to see the splay in a house pet and then distinguish between domestic and wild canines.

On the morning the coyote crossed the road, Jolie, my intrepid companion, was drinking coffee back home and waiting for the 15th stage of the Tour de France to start. At my prodding, though, she followed me back to the gravel driveway to look at the one print with the tight impression in the dust. She was less impressed by the display than I was, but at least she took the time to peruse it.

This coyote must have picked its way across the magnificent golf course on the high hill beside West Road and was heading into the wind toward the pond and the heavy, shoreside development.

I had suspected coyotes were hanging around this village, too. A few years ago, a bunch of neighborhood cats were hitting my window-box bird feeder. Suddenly, in a very short time, the cats disappeared, making me think coyotes were eating them — even the more wily, feral cats that I would think could evade this predator.

Not to belabor the point about wild canine tracks, but a few years ago, Jolie and I were walking along the Sheepscot River in Somerville when a perfectly shaped track in clay caught my attention.

The print showed a tightly muscled paw without the splaying, so Jolie received her first tracking lesson. “Here’s Allen’s theory of distinguishing coyote from dog tracks,” I began.

As I talked, we suddenly noticed a coyote 30 yards away on the bank next to the river, completely unaware of us. The sound of rushing water had drowned out our approach and my mini-lecture.

Careful observations can tell us plenty about nature, reminding me of an incident 25 years ago. Randy Wilson, a reporter for the now-defunct Maine Times, was interviewing me about Maine deer-hunting tradition while we strolled through the woods.

Wilson spotted a pile of canine droppings along a game trail and asked if they were from a coyote.

A quick glance at the brick-red, cylindrical stool told me it was domestic dog and a rather large one at that. Wilson was curious as to how anyone could be so sure, and I succinctly said, “Red dye.”

The dog’s owner had been feeding the pet a product with red food coloring to make the chow look more meaty, I suppose, to the owner.

One last point about the distasteful subject of canine droppings, complete with a tip of how to distinguish between coyote and dog at least part of the time: Coyote stool close to civilization often has domestic cat hair in it, so these canines must kill quite a few beloved pets.

Even after all these years of noticing this point, it still surprises me that in developed areas such as the Belgrade Lakes, I often notice cat hair. Naturally, I’d like to think most dogs do not eat house cats.

If I owned a cat, I’d have it use a litter box and I’d keep the pet inside, for sure. Coyotes have proven themselves skilled at catching domestic cats, an easier target than wild critters that possess better evasive talents.

 

Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes is a writer, editor and photographer. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]