Copyright © 2007
Frank Turkowski


EXCERPTS FROM

COYOTES, TRAPPERS, SHEEPHERDERS AND URBANITES

MEMOIRS OF A GOVERNMENT TRAPPER



THE ARIZONA DESERT

In The Beginning. . .

The first time I met a wild coyote face to face was in the 1960s when I became a mammal control agent otherwise known as a government trapper. This period of my career is one of the most interesting and enjoyable times of my life. I vividly remember my thoughts on the day I trapped my first elusive sheep-killing coyote in the Arizona desert. I will share the details of this episode and other experiences with you soon....

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Getting The Paw On The Trap Pan

Think about what is required to get a coyote to step on a trap, or as it is said, put the paw on the pan, trip the device, and be held by it. This feat could be called a miracle (or work of the devil, depending on your view of trapping). The coyote is an intelligent and wary predator and is very mobile with a home range that includes many square miles. The government trapper often must get the coyote to come to a location where it will put its foot on a circular piece of metal about two and a half inches in diameter. Even if the trap is set properly, there is no guarantee that everything will happen so that the jaws will close on the coyote's foot. Wind, rain, snow, mud, lure efficacy, tampering by rodents and other animals, and many other factors affect the effectiveness of trap sets. Even a bit of luck can be involved in some captures as an animal may miss stepping on the trap with its front foot and be caught by the hind leg. In such cases, most government trappers would not brag about such a capture.

I have thoughts that plague writers. Who will consider all the details of the considerations in these verbal ramblings important? Not everyone will, perhaps. However, government trappers sometimes have difficulty catching wary livestock-killing coyotes and may spend weeks or months attempting to do so. In the meantime, predation may continue with ranchers counting losses day after day. To a trapper in such a predicament, details relating to setting a trap are as important as they are to the heart surgeon replacing a cardiac valve. Therefore, even though I do not know all the answers, if I continue, I am sure that someone somewhere will be interested and may even find the information useful.

According to my observations, most successful government trappers and others who trap coyotes use techniques and equipment similar to those in the discussion that follows. . .

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Nature Is My Work Place

A government trapper spends a great deal of time in nature. In addition to the earth, sky, clouds, wind and other wonders of the natural world, many plants and animals are his companions. If a person is curious and observant, a lot of knowledge about the environment can be acquired. I enjoyed having the Lower Sonoran Desert as my work place. Since I was a boy, the desert had stimulated all my senses and bestowed a kaleidoscope of memories upon me. One can see the beauty of the desert after a spring rain when yellow poppies, blue lupines and other flowers are in bloom. This image is sometimes enhanced by snow-capped mountains in the distance. You can hear the songs of coyotes, toads, cicadas, and other desert singing virtuosos like the canyon wren who has a drawn-out musical call. The feel of the rays of the hot desert sun, the bumpy smooth green bark of the palo verde tree and the sensation of the rough texture of granite rocks are unforgettable to me. The taste of fruits or tunas of the prickly pear cactus, the coffee flavored nuts of the jojoba bush, and the saline flavor of the segmented needle-like leaves of the salt cedar provide other memories. You can smell the odors of creosote bushes after a rain, the sweet scent of blooming palo verde trees, and the stench of devil's claw vines that add to the sensual personality of the desert. Some of these and many other desert plants were used by the early and later Native Americans for food, medicine, clothing, shelter, and fuel. During many days of my desert life, no matter whether I was working or playing, I stopped everything I was doing at dusk to enjoy desert sunsets of pink, scarlet, rust, gold and other colors. Sunsets were especially beautiful during hot and dry times as the colorful dust in the atmosphere adds vibrancy depending how it is muted or illuminated. Add a few clouds and a little breeze to add swirls and other designs to them and you have a work of art painted by nature.

Some people imagine that the Southwest desert is a desolate environment. How can anything grow or live in sandy or rocky soil where sometimes as little as five inches of rain or less falls annually? True, the desert environment can be harsh, but it is the home of many interesting plants and animals. The total biomass or weight of living things is abundant and the species that occupy this ecosystem are unique and varied.

Many desert dwellers are not prominently evident, especially during daylight hours, because of the methods they use to survive. Nevertheless, you can find a variety of desert wildlife if you know how to observe. If you are patient, you will meet most creatures eventually, because in the desert, every living thing has its time and place. A special event like a rainstorm or sunset may make the time right for some species. To find the place, you might have to search somewhere such as beneath a rock or fallen cactus, under the bark of a dead tree or other protected places.

I was happy to learn about desert plants and animals by first-hand experience but was also grateful for my academic training, especially for courses like Poisonous Animals of Arizona and other biology field courses. The knowledge I acquired at the university whet my appetite and made me desire to know more. I had learned to identify many of the desert denizens and find out more information about them by observation, use of guidebooks and other learning sources. Therefore, as time passed, I learned more about the lives of the mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, invertebrates and plants that shared my work place.

There are many species of mammals in the desert. Animals in this group are characterized by having true hair and the ability to nourish their young with milk. In Arizona and nearby states, this classification includes many rodents such as round-tailed ground squirrels, antelope ground squirrels, rock squirrels, several deer mice species, pack rats, kangaroo rats, pocket mouse species, and pocket gophers. Other mammals include cottontail rabbits, jackrabbits, beavers and muskrats (the latter two occurring in some rivers and canals). Among Carnivora are bobcats, gray and kit foxes; striped, spotted, hooded, and hog-nosed skunks; badgers, ringtail cats (cacomistles) and coatis. Occasionally, in remote areas I would see tracks made by a mountain lion or Mexican wolf. Among the hoofed animals are javelina or peccaries, and desert bighorn sheep. Other mammals are there that one might not expect to see such as desert mule deer and porcupines and very rarely, a jaguar. Of course, the ubiquitous coyote lives there too.

In addition, to haired creatures, other desert animals include birds of all kinds, which outnumber the species of mammals. Some birds are permanent residents, like cactus wrens, Gambel's quail, mocking birds, and the arch cartoon enemy of the coyote, the roadrunner, otherwise known as the chaparral cock. Like the domestic sheep and yours truly, many migratory birds came to the area to spend the winter. They cause the avian population to swell to include hundreds of species, many of which add music, color and interest. Descriptions of the appearance, behavior and other aspects of the life histories of the avian residents and visitors could fill many books. In addition to the species mentioned, many others are especially interesting to me. These include various hawks and owls (including elf owls), cardinals, jays, shrikes and the crested phainopepla that dines on mistletoe berries.

The warm desert climate and terrain is a paradise for the so-called cold-blooded vertebrates. The roster of such animals is long and includes many species of snakes, lizards, tortoises, toads, frogs, salamanders and fish. I had to wait until spring to see many of these interesting creatures because most of them hibernate....

Sometimes in the morning air, you hear sounds indicating that a predator has been successful as indicated by a bird distress call or a rabbit squeal. A coyote, snake or a hawk has found its prey, sometimes before your eyes. At the sound, as if on cue, the birds stop their singing and chattering, and there is silence for a while. Nevertheless, life must go on and the desert morning symphony starts again.

The Hawk

It soared out of the heavens

with broad wings whistling

The rabbit screamed as her kind have for eons

then struggled and seemed resigned to it all

The hawk eye stared as the talons worked

to puncture the delicate fur and flesh

But its prey had already fought back

raising her litter of five in an earthen den

Still I felt a tinge of hate and fear

until I realized that nature's way

is the rabbit's fate          ft

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Being a Social Animal

The female of my species was also on my mind. I was usually stationed in each work area for only a few months. If I lived in a small town, it usually had a population of less than 250 persons. I had to move fast if I wanted to have female friends who were not professionals. As soon as I arrived in town. . .

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