The coyote (Canis latrans) is known by many names. Depending on time and place, he’s been called prairie wolf, little wolf, cased wolf, barking dog, yodel dog, and perhaps my favorite name for him—God’s dog.
Even his common name has plenty of variations. You can say it, “kai-OAT,” “KAI-oat,” “kai-OAT-ee,” or the Spanish version, “coy-OH-tay,” which, these days, also applies to folks who smuggle illegal aliens across the border.
The coyote also wears many faces. To sheepmen, ranchers, and some suburban homeowners, he’s a predator and a pest. To kids, and kids at heart, he’s the roadrunner’s nemesis. To wildlife biologists, he’s a survivor. To Native Americans he’s a legend. To western authors like me, he’s the world’s greatest sound effect.
There’s not much to a coyote. A coyote weighing 50 pounds is a rarity, the norm being between 20 and 25 pounds. A mature male may reach 2 feet high at the shoulder, and 3 feet long excluding his tail. Eastern coyotes tend to be smaller than their western kinfolk. The color, which can vary, is usually a yellowish gray with longer, darker guard hairs extending to the bushy, white-tipped tail.
Coyotes are devoted mates and good parents, rearing their young, usually about six, in a burrow or den in the ground. While the pups are little, the father brings food to his family. Once they’re big enough to fend for themselves, the male pups leave. The females stay until they find mates of their own. Potential life span is about ten years, maybe half that in the wild.
Coyotes are highly intelligent animals with keen senses. But the real key to their survival is adaptability. Coyotes were once grassland dwellers, following the buffalo herds and dining on the birds and rodents the huge creatures flushed out of the grass. They also ate carrion and preyed on weaker animals. With the settlement of the West, coyotes broadened their territory and their diets. These days some coyotes even live in cities, rustling garbage and preying on rats, squirrels, pigeons and a few unlucky pets. Surprisingly, coyotes eat more vegetation than most predators, especially liking fruit. While many wild creatures are declining, the coyote population in this country is actually on the increase. You may not like them much. But you have to give them points for survival skills.
In Native American lore, no animal is more powerful than Coyote. Hero, trickster, villain, seducer, clown, bringer of fire – tales of Coyote are legion. They are told with reverence, and only at appropriate times. Coyote himself might be listening, and the storyteller must take care not to offend him.
As a writer, when I want to create a feeling of loneliness and isolation, I often put a howling coyote in the background. In reality, coyotes don’t howl because they’re lonely or sad. It’s just their way of social networking. A howling coyote is saying, Hey, I’m here. Where are you? or maybe, This is my territory. Ladies welcome, but you gents stay away!
Love them or hate them, coyotes are here to stay. They remain one of the true icons of the American West.