A Happy Obsession

Rich Higgins would put most furbearer biologists to shame. He’s not a wildlife technician or a college professor. Nor is he an animal researcher. Not officially, anyway. But the 62-year-old Scottsdale, Ariz., man has studied coyotes in ways few people ever have.

Sure, Higgins has devoured mountains of scientific journals and books. He has pored over hours of films. He has tapped the minds of legendary predator hunters — all in a thirst to understand.

And yes, he has called coyotes. Thousands of them. He’s coaxed them. Challenged them. Confused them, crawled at them, sicked dogs on them, growled at them and even been jumped on by them.
What Higgins rarely does is kill them.

PREDATOR HUNTING: When did you start predator calling?

RICH HIGGINS: I shot my first coyote in 1959. I joined the service a couple years after that and took a seven-year hiatus because I was stationed in the South and in Europe, and there were no coyotes there at the time.

I was discharged in 1969, and moved back to California, where predator calling was in full flower at the time.

I’ve been doing it steadily with passion since. It’s to the effect that I don’t do any other hunting. Every once in a while I might go out for doves or take a kid out for squirrels, but I don’t apply for big-game hunts anymore, because every time I’m out glassing for javelina or elk or deer, I’m thinking about coyotes and wishing I was calling. I call coyotes year-round.

PH: You said predator calling was in “full flower” in 1969. Not that I’m disputing you, but it seems to me like the boom time of predator calling is right now. What was the predator hunting landscape like back then?

HIGGINS: I’m talking about California. There were so many chapters of California varmint callers associations. By the early 1970s, there were 11 chapters in southern California. They would have big marathon contest hunts and competition hunts against Arizona predator callers.

You have to remember that in the January 1946 issue of Journal of Mammalogy, a wildlife services agent, J.R. Alcorn, wrote an article called, “On the Decoying of Coyotes,” which described the agency’s technique of using a modified duck call to imitate a jackrabbit-in-distress cry, and how they used their voices for howling. After that, the Burnhams began marketing commercial calls.

There was a lot of experience among callers by 1969. Varmint populations were extremely high in southern California, especially in Los Angeles County, because firearms were not permitted. It was a bow-hunter’s paradise. We could call and bow-hunt for coyotes, gray fox and bobcats right within city limits. And we did in Santa Monica, Glendale, Burbank.

PH: It had to be a challenge to call predators within bow-range.

HIGGINS: They would humble you. It took a long, long time to develop techniques to get a coyote or a fox in close enough and divert its attention elsewhere so you could generate the amount of movement necessary to draw and release an arrow. And back then, we used recurves and longbows. It wasn’t until the mid-70s that compound bows became popular. They were a little faster than our recurves and longbows. I shot a longbow at the time, and from the time I released the arrow until it hit, I could get in a smoke break.

PH: How did your calling evolve in the 1970s and beyond?

HIGGINS: It was mostly trial and error. We talked to some guys who were really successful. Jim Dougherty was just great. But basically, it was trial and error because we did not have the Internet. There were no books. You’d read an occasional article. Hard facts were difficult to come by.

So much more information is available today. And there are so many studies that have been conducted, often to the end of selected removal of problem coyotes. There are so many excellent callers today who are open and free with information.

Back then, nobody would divulge techniques, so it really didn’t become popular until the last 10 to 15 years. The same thing is true about certain aspects of stand selection as well as sounds that were being offered. A major help was Johnny Stewart recording all of the distressed sounds of smaller animals on cassette tapes.

PH: Despite not being a biologist, you’re known in predator calling circles as an expert on coyote behavior, particularly because you let coyotes do what they’re going to do, and you don’t shoot them at 200 yards or the first chance you have.

HIGGINS: I have an innate fondness for coyotes. I really like them. It got to a point where — I love calling — but there was always a little sadness and regret about shooting them. It got to the point where I just stopped shooting them. I’d call them in, and I’d put the cross hairs between their eyes, keeping them as close as possible for as long as possible, then I’d just move the cross hairs over to the center of one of those big ears and drill a perfectly round hole in them.

It was interesting because I ran into a number of callers who told me they took coyotes with little round holes in their ears. Then I went to paintball guns, until Arizona Fish and Game told me that was considered harassing wildlife. I went several years without killing a coyote, but still calling every weekend.

My objective was to call them as close as possible, keep them there as long as possible, see what sounds would make them change their minds, and what sounds would entice them back after I’d been busted, find out how to maneuver them.

I never learned anything about coyote behavior from a dead coyote. The more I learned about coyotes, the more fascinated I became with them. I have more than 40 books on coyotes. I track down and harass biologists until they will talk with me. I’ve made some great friends that way.

Dr. Mike Jaeger, associated with the National Wildlife Research Center, is stationed at Logan Research Center. He’s conducting some absolutely fascinating studies on coyote vocalizations, on coyotes’ reactions to human intrusion, on selective removal of depredating alpha males. He’s just conducted genetic tests regarding dispersal patterns in California. All of these studies are answering some questions, but they’re raising even more questions. No one is going to ever fully understand the nature of coyotes.

PH: I know you’re involved with Jaeger’s study. Why were you there?

HIGGINS: The study area is the Idaho National Lab, a nuclear facility out of Idaho Falls. It’s 600,000 acres of secure land. It took two weeks to get security clearance, and I had to wear a badge.

Graduate student Mike Ebbinger, under Jaeger, is conducting research there. They have nine coyotes’ territories identified and borders delineated. All nine alpha males and alpha females (18 coyotes) have been captured and fitted with radio collars that are both VHF and GPS. A total of 26 coyotes are collared — all nine alpha pairs, six betas and two nomads.

Batteries are good for six weeks. They interrogate the coyote every five minutes 24/7. At the end of the time, Mike will trigger a catch release, the collars drop off and they find them using VHF antenna. Computers analyze the data and produce animation of the coyote’s movements through that time.

They are nowhere near finished analyzing it all, but one thing Mike shared was that early in the six weeks, an alpha pair had a den within the territory. According to the animation, the male was at the den in the evening. The female was two miles north at a rest area.

At midnight, the male made a straight line for an irrigation ditch 20 miles away. He did not vary, and did not stop. He had his drink, didn’t dally, turned around and headed straight back to the nap area where the female was. In the meantime, the female had gone back to the den.

The male remained where the female had been until 5 p.m. the next afternoon, when the female made a straight line for the exact same place where the male had been, had her drink, then came straight back to the den, where they hooked up.

Now how do they communicate? And why would they travel 40 miles round trip without stopping?

PH: For a drink?

HIGGINS: For a drink. That was just the beginning of the animation studies.

I’ve been discussing coyote vocalizations. That’s my passion. I’m absolutely fascinated by coyote vocalizations.

Three researchers, including Dr. Jaeger, from University of California-Berkeley, have done several studies about coyote vocalizations. Over the course of my conversations with Dr. Jaeger, he invited me to come to Idaho to do some howling for them to see what kind of response I could elicit from coyotes.

It would possibly be beneficial to the two studies they were conducting simultaneously. One of them was how coyotes moved within their defended territories. The second one was how to selectively remove alpha males.

Here’s a kicker for you: They found through a year-long study and DNA testing that only the alpha male is involved in 100 percent of the livestock killings. He’s involved in every single livestock killing. The alpha female is involved in 40 percent. Four times out of 10, she would assist the male in killing the lamb. Betas were never involved in the killing, although they would share in the meal. If you removed the alphas, the killing would stop.

They were wondering what kind of vocalizations I could provide that would help them bring in the alpha male.

I went for four days. I took my video camera and got some wonderful video of an 8-to-10-year-old alpha male that ran right over my feet. I got to see a couple of alpha pairs up close.

I’m convinced we’re going to learn a great deal about coyote responses from these animations. We would note the time before I began calling, and then observe the coyotes’ movements immediately after I began calling, and then after I stopped and left.

We carried a big VHF antenna. We would locate the coyotes, then move in fairly close. I’d set up making sure my downwind was way, way open. I used my misting technique and used various distress and coyote vocalizations.

It was amazing to me the lengths that coyotes would go to to get downwind without exposing themselves.

These coyotes altered their behavior, because in all honesty, they’ve been exposed to alien abductions. This helicopter appears, they blast a net over them, they’re thrown into a canvas bag. Then, they’re thrown into the back of a truck, where they bounce and bang over to a processing site. They’re fitted with a collar and blood is taken. On some, they remove a tooth for aging. When they’re finished, they go back into the bag and are taken back to the capture site and released.

These coyotes are extremely wary. That was demonstrated time and time again. On one female, we moved within 200 yards of her den. We were in a bowl-shaped depression, and we moved in into the wind and set up cross wind to her location.

She had puppies, so I started with a puppies-in-distress sound, expecting her to explode over the hill in front of us. After a couple minutes, I went to prey-in-distress sound, then to coyote vocalizations — lost puppy howl — nothing threatening. I wound up with threat bark howls.

And still, no response. After 25 minutes, I called it off and went back to where Mike Jaeger was.

Mike told me that as soon as I started calling, the female ran at the highest speed from her position to hit our downwind — just as fast as she could on the other side of the hill.

Once she caught our wind, she continued on. This bowl was three-quarters of a mile across. She continued on until she was at our 6 o’clock position, where she remained until I finished the stand. After I got up, she continued all the way around the bowl — 360 degrees — at top speed.

She went 21/2 miles, and never once exposed herself. And there are no other callers, no other hunters out there. It’s a secure site.

PH: You mentioned misting. Can you explain the technique and why it works?

HIGGINS: Misting is something southern California club members have been using for many years.

Leonard Bosinski of Huntmasters BBS (Internet site) turned me onto it years ago. Subsequently, I call it “Leonard’s Magic Mist.” I believe his formula is 50 percent coyote urine, 25 percent rabbit urine and 25 percent water.

I have a different expectation than they do. They want to stop a coyote that makes it downwind for that extra second or two to get the cross hairs on him.

Generally, when a coyote gets a snootful of you, it’s like poking him with a cattle prod. He turns himself inside out and vacates the area.

I use equal parts of coyote urine, bobcat urine, gray fox urine and rabbit urine. And I don’t cut it.

I start that mist as soon as I get to a stand — sometimes while walking in. I use a lawn and garden sprayer and get a big white cloud going downwind. Mist covers everything — every leaf, every blade of grass, every rock, every twig.

It’s hotter scent than my scent from where the stand is. Whenever they get downwind, everything surrounding them is emanating these scents. It literally confuses them. I call it a sensory overload.

You cannot fool a coyote’s nose. There’s no such thing as a cover scent, I don’t believe. I can see exactly when they catch my scent. It’s an involuntary, instinctual reaction.

But, they’ve also got a snootful of mist, and I just don’t think they can process all of that information at the same time.

They’ll stand straight downwind with their nose in the air sniffing. I have lots of video of that.

I’ve had coyotes jump on me, and after I push them off, they’ll stand downwind with their nose in the air sniffing — totally confused.

PH: I had the pleasure of hunting with you for one day in 2001. After that hunt, I told other experienced callers how you brought a coyote we shot at on that stand back around. Most people don’t believe me. And if I hadn’t witnessed it, I’m not sure I’d believe it either. How did you do that?

HIGGINS: I have video of that. (laughs) I’m grateful and delighted that it worked out, because that doesn’t happen all of the time. But it happens often enough that I try it all of the time.

I brought him around twice after he’d been shot at and missed. We had the mist out there. And it was a combination of distress — both prey and canine — and the howling. I overloaded his senses by giving him so many sights, scents and sounds that he couldn’t process it all.

PH: He was barking at us.

HIGGINS: He was barking. When he first came in, he sat down just to watch. He was straight downwind where everything was covered with mist. Then, he got up and started walking. Someone shot, and he ran.

But he circled around. I started on a canine distress and then threat bark howls.

Remember, he was an alpha male. That was his territory. He heard a competitor.

You cannot convince any coyote that you are their lost mate, that you are their lost puppy, or that you are a member of their pack. The very best you can hope to do is convince him that you are a strange coyote, or that you are a strange competitor.

I don’t believe they think all howling is another coyote. They have a lot of competitors. I think they regard humans as competitors.

Anyway, he heard a threat bark howl from a competitor. He was within his comfort zone, and his security level was still fairly high. Both the comfort zone and security level have to be high to call in a pressured coyote.

PH: I know you’ve been filming coyotes for years, and I’ve heard you have several video projects in the works.

HIGGINS: Our first video is called “Up Close and Personal.” It’s not like other predator videos.

First of all, Tyler (his son and frequent calling partner) and I don’t appear in it. We’re not the stars.

There are no dead coyotes in it. We’re going to have to place three disclaimers on it. No. 1: There are no coyotes killed in this video. No. 2: This video is suitable for small children. Guys can watch it with their wife and kids. And No. 3: Much of it is filmed without the benefit of a tripod. There are a couple of times where we have a Blair Witch thing going, but that’s because I’m down on my hands and knees and I’m crawling toward a coyote that is standing its ground. You can’t do that with a tripod.

We have dancing coyotes, alpha males in my face, alpha females in my face. We have a segment with Mattie (his small dog). She’s not a decoy dog, but she’s a passionate caller. She’s never been bitten and she’s never bitten a coyote, but boy, she brings them right into our laps. And this year, she did some filming. We set her up with one of those helmet cams and sent her out. I was taping her chasing coyotes while she was taping the coyotes.

PH: Sounds fun. Will it be commercially available?

HIGGINS: Oh yeah. The editing is done, and we should have a final cut soon.

PH: I also heard you’ve been traveling to film other predator callers.

HIGGINS: I have two others going at the same time. One is called “Legends of the Call.

It’s the pioneers of the sport. So far, I’ve videotaped Gerry Blair, Lew Mossinger, Gerald Stewart and Murry Burnham. I have consent from Jim Dougherty and Doug Kittredge.

The other one is called “Masters of the Call.” I’m profiling well-known, successful predator callers from across the country.

I spend three days with them calling coyotes. I stay out of the way and let them demonstrate their techniques. I’ve filmed hunts with Tim Behle, Leonard Bosinski, Quinton Wagoner, Cal Taylor, Scott Huber, Brent Saxton, Tom Bechdal, Byron South, Gerald Stewart. Others have agreed to be filmed.

I’m meeting truly unforgettable characters and great friends. I’m learning as much as I can from inspirational and truly interesting people — both the biologists and the callers. I’m getting the practical and the theoretical experiences.

PH: Is it safe to say that predator calling — specifically coyotes — defines your life?

HIGGINS: Absolutely. My wife calls it an “obsession.” I call it a “happy obsession.”

It’s more than an enthusiasm, Paul. It really is. Why I focus on coyotes is strictly the coyotes’ fault.

I call in foxes and bobcats, but they’re all incidental. I never focus on them. My interest is only coyotes.

They are such a complex animal. They absolutely fascinate me.

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