Tom Mills

Tom Mills is a nature photographer based in Pasadena, California. A portfolio of Tom's photographs is available at

A close up of an animal

Non-Verbal Communication with Wildlife

In early November 2023, I had a nice encounter with a beautiful female coyote.

While walking slowly and quietly in the Eaton Canyon wash, I caught movement in my peripheral vision; some animal slipping behind a Laurel Sumac shrub. It was only the briefest of glimpses at first. Something small, perhaps a Cottontail? Maybe a Quail? Seconds later, the shape of a Coyote emerged from behind a rocky berm about twenty yards away.

At first, she was looking away from me. I raised my camera and took a few shots. While doing so, she looked directly at me with cautious interest. Surprising me, she continued to look at me rather than fleeing, allowing me to get several nice photographs of her.

In my working life as an investigator for a state agency, I had a bit of training in interview and interrogation techniques that involve the study of how humans use and instinctively interpret non-verbal communication (body language, eye contact, facial expressions, etc.). Whether we are aware of it or not, we (humans) are all expert in reading these communication clues as we deal with others.

It is believed that language – our words – only communicate thirty or forty percent of the information transmitted during our interaction with others. The remaining percentage is transmitted and received somewhat unconsciously via non-verbal cues.

Our mammalian cousins – especially predators like canines and felines – are also expert in communicating non-vocally. Body language, eye contact, the display of teeth, bristling fur, tail posture and movement, etc., are all extremely important communication devices for them. Unfortunately, our human non-verbal forms of communication don’t necessarily transmit the same information to animals and vice-versa.

For instance, when we meet another person, it’s polite to make eye-contact (just not too long) and to bare our teeth in a pleasant smile. For dogs and cats, especially their wild cousins, direct eye contact is threatening, as is a display of teeth. If you have a pet dog or cat you’re likely very well aware of the subtleties of their non-verbal communication and none of this will be news to you. If you’re not otherwise aware of this phenomenon and find it interesting, there are numerous studies and information to be found. Google “Non-verbal communication” and/or the term “kinesics” for some interesting reading.

Being interested in this subject, when engaged in wildlife photography or simply encountering mammals such as coyotes or bobcats (even domesticated dogs and cats), I try using body language and facial expressions to communicate that I am not a threat in the hope of prolonging the encounter. I do this by making brief eye contact with the animal, then blink my eyes slowly and at length before looking down and away. I understand this to be a signal of non-aggression – a sign of trust, if you will – that these animals seem to understand. As in: “I see you and I am not a threat to you and I’m not afraid of you.” This seems to put the animal at ease somewhat, allowing me better photo opportunities.

When trying to photograph prey animals such as birds, deer, rabbits, etc., we can also increase our chances of getting a better view or photographs, by not looking directly at them and sort of approaching in a side-long fashion as if we are unaware of their presence.

Prey animals are almost always cryptically colored and will often rely on their camouflage if they believe you haven’t seen them. The trick is not to behave like a predator. They already know you are there. Don’t try to sneak up on them. Behave as if you don’t see them and aren’t stalking them.

After taking several photos of this beautiful coyote, I lowered my camera and made eye contact with her. I then closed my eyes in a prolonged/slow blink, slowly turning my head slightly away. She almost immediately reciprocated, closing her eyes, at length. As she did so, I shouldered my camera once again and captured a sequence of images as she turned her head with eyes closed and slowly walked away.

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A bobcat that is standing in the grass

Bobcat Encounter

This is a short story of a wonderful encounter I had recently with a Bobcat in a quiet corner of Eaton Canyon.

I spend a good deal of time traipsing around natural areas observing and photographing plants and wildlife, armed with a long telephoto lens for capturing images of birds, butterflies, and mammals. I have taken to carrying a second camera body set up for taking super close-up shots (aka “macro-photography”) of small things such as insects, spiders, flowers, and fungi. Living close by, many of my photo adventures are in Eaton Canyon. When on the prowl, I generally move very slowly, observing my surroundings very closely. It’s incredible what you see when you stop and look. At times, I will simply sit quietly somewhere off the beaten path, trying to blend in and have the birds and other animals forget about my intrusion into their realm.

Earlier this month (January 17, 2023, to be exact), I was back in Coyote Canyon, photographing insects and spiders. The area is a fairly open grassy area with a smattering of Coast Live Oaks (Quercus agrifolia). Due to the recent rains, the grass was tall and lush (likely an introduced species). There were a number of dead/down Oak trees and large branches forming snags that were poking up here and there from the grass.

I’d set my rather cumbersome bird/wildlife camera setup on a log while I looked for insects and spiders in and around a couple of dead oak snags. I’d found and was photographing a Common Desert Centipede (Scolopendra polymorpha) and a very tiny Ribbon Jumping Spider (Metacyrba taeniola) when I suddenly heard an odd sound, kind of a low howl(ish) groaning sound. Looking in that direction, I saw what appeared to be a Bobcat (Lynx rufus) sitting up in the grass about 30 yards away from me. Without my binoculars or birding lens, I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t just another stump or piece of branch. Looking up, I saw that I’d wandered about 20′ from my camera with the long lens!

I moved slowly toward my camera, purposefully not looking in the direction of the suspected Bobcat (I’ve learned that birds and animals are more at ease if you don’t look directly at them). Sure enough, I once I reached my camera with my 600mm lens I confirmed that it was indeed a Bobcat. I began taking photos, fully expecting the cat to move off once he learned I’d discovered him. To my surprise, he didn’t!

Now, I’ve seen Bobcats before, and a few times in Eaton Canyon, but never have I had one be so calm and accepting of my presence. In hindsight, I realized that he certainly saw me well before I saw him, and as I was moving slowly and not paying the slightest attention to him at first, he likely determined that I was not a threat – perhaps he considered me a fellow forager in his world.

As I photographed him (nearly 300 shots in total), I observed him stalking some sort of rodents in the grass – very likely the ubiquitous Botta’s pocket gopher (Thomomys bottae). He crouched low to the ground, eyes focused forward on something or some movement invisible to me, moving imperceptibly forward, he suddenly pounced! But without luck. After this, he sat upright, alternately looking at me and away, into the tall grass, as he continued to hunt for breakfast.

This went on for quite a while. At one point, I moved closer to him in a sideways fashion, again averting my eyes as I moved. He in turn moved closer to me, once again stalking some unseen-by-me prey in the grass. At one point, he moved within ten yards of me, but after another failed stalk, turned and walked slowly away, taking time here and there to sit, undoubtedly still on the lookout for signs of rodents.

After about 20 minutes, this wonderful encounter ended much as it began as he calmly went his way and I went mine. I watched this beautiful animal stroll down into and across Coyote Canyon, and ultimately out of sight into the chaparral.

Photography © Tom Mills 2023

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