Love Them or Hate Them
by Jay W Sharp
Howls in the Night
I remember the first time that I ever heard the coyote howl. I was a little boy, maybe five years old, growing up in the dusty, wind-blown farm and ranch country of the Rolling Plains of Texas. I was spending the night with my grandparents, who lived in a small white frame house on a thousand acres of cultivated land and pasture 10 miles south of the nearest community. We had all gone to bed. I lay beneath the covers, peering into the night’s blackness and listening to my grandparents’ deep and even breathing. I heard the howling begin, full throated and soulful, the voice of a fearful demon of the darkness.
“What was that?” I blurted out, feeling a shiver. I heard my grandfather stir. I heard another howl, farther away this time. I felt my grandfather’s hand on my shoulder.
“Those are just coyotes,” he said.
“What are they doing?” I asked.
“They’re singing,” he said. In a little while, I felt his hand relax on my shoulder, and I heard him breathing deeply again.
I listened to the coyotes’ singing, which grew fainter and finally faded away. After a while, I went to sleep, too.
A Love/Hate Affair
Over time, I came to have a certain affection for the coyotefor me, the iconic and communicative voice of the wilderness. I learned that he howled to assert his claim to territory or to issue a plea for a mate, that he yipped in pursuit of prey, and that he barked and growled as a warning against intrusions or threats. I found that, given a chance, he would raid our hen house, but that was fine with me because I hated cleaning up after all those damn chickens in any event. While we may have had a barnyard cat or two disappear after all, he is related to the dog I don’t recall a coyote ever taking down a single one of our cattle or horses or pigs.
I understood, though, that a lot of people hated the coyote, which will, on occasion, kill valuable livestock and, on rare occasions, even attack people. I knew when bounty hunters came to thin out the coyote population in the Rolling Plains because they would hang the carcasses on pastureland fence posts. I remember once counting 35 coyote carcasses hanging like a row of furred and rotting trophies on the cedar posts of a barbed wire fence that separated pastures in the Pease River Breaks, near the southeast corner of the Texas Panhandle. The following spring, the rodents, freed from a key predator, proliferated. They would scatter before you, rustling the curly mesquite and buffalo grasses as you walked across the pastures.
Supremely adaptable, adventurous, bold and clever, the coyote has expanded its range and increased its population across much of the North American continent. Our Southwest desert coyote compares in size to a small German shepherd. Spindly legged but swift, the coyote wears a coat that runs silvery gray to brown down the back, creamy on the belly, and rusty on its spindly legs. It sports a tail that is black-tipped, much like that of the wolf. It seems to me that the coyote of the desert is lighter and smaller than the coyote of Texas’ Rolling Plains.
A true scavenger and opportunist, the coyote will, as William H. Burt and Richard P. Grossenheider say in A Field Guide to the Mammals of America North of Mexico, “eat almost anything animal or vegetable...” Our desert coyote preys predominantly on black-tailed jackrabbits, desert cottontails and small rodents, although he will also feed on reptiles, insects, carrion and even berries and garden melons. It may hunt in relays with a companion coyote, with the two yipping alternately during a chase. It follows hunting routes that may range well over 10 miles. It may cache uneaten food.
Our coyote usually digs its den in the desert soil, although it may choose any number of other sheltering locations. It mates in the wintertime. After a gestation period of about two months, a coyote mother produces a litter of perhaps a half dozen pups, typically with only one managing to survive into adulthood. The coyote and her mate both contribute to the support of the litter, although the father is not invited into the den or to the dinner table. When the puppies reach a couple of months old, the mother, probably having had enough of coyote babies, teaches her pups to hunt and prepares them for independence.
Perhaps more than any other of the larger predators, the opportunistic coyote has learned to capitalize on human intrusions, staking out an uneasy relationship with mostly unwilling partners. He often turns up an unexpected and unwelcome times, like the lovable slob of a cousin who always manages to pop in just before prospective in-laws or your new boss and his wife arrive for a formal dinner.
The coyote can be a little unnerving. In a letter to DesertUSA, Sarah of Phoenix said, “This morning,” during an early morning jog through suburban streets, two coyotes appeared. They “spotted my dog and me. They stopped, lowered their heads and started to trot toward us. It scared me. Being a native to Arizona, I have seen coyotes before and they were always scared of humans. Anyway, I ran the other way and down a different street. They followed us, with no more than 25 yards between us the whole time. I yelled in my deepest alpha-male voice at them to go away, which did not faze them (probably not a very good attempt on my part as I’m a woman and I was very scared). I finally saw someone pull into their driveway, so I ran to their car and waited with themfiguring we could get into the car if necessary. (Nice neighbor.) The coyotes kind of circled at the end of [the] driveway watching my dog. They very slowly ambled on after about three minutes.”
In the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in Chaco Canyon, in northwestern New Mexico, my wife and I have seen coyotes scavenging camp sites and raiding garbage cans. Once, we had one snuffle at the very doorway of our tent in the middle of the night. I sort of liked him, but my wife, Martha, would not have a thing to do with him.
At our home in suburban El Paso, Texas, we had coyotes come up from the desert arroyo behind our house, jump the fence of our backyard, and drink water from our swimming pool.
Camped beside the Mimbres River in the Gila Wilderness one summer night, we listened through the canvas walls of our tent as a pair of coyotes pursued some creature upstream, through the pines and willows, yipping like the fiends of hell. They grew louder and louder, finally crashing almost directly through our campsite. Pokey, our strawberry blond cocker spaniel, barked bravely at first, then she decided that discretion made more sense than valor, and she literally dove into my sleeping bag with me. A lot of protection that dog offers.
At our current patio home at the edge of Las Cruces, New Mexico, we can sometimes hear, in the still of the night, the coyote hunting the cottontails around the water trapped behind a retention dam in the nearby desert shrub. Pokey doesn’t pay much attention to that, but I always remember that night with my grandparents on the Rolling Plains of Texas.
An Icon of American Mythology and Folklore
For all its brashness or perhaps because of it Coyote has staked out a starring role in American mythology and folklore.
In campfire tales of Puebloan peoples of the Rio Grande basin, Coyote plays a buffoon who demonstrates, for the children, the risks of not holding true to community, family, tradition and self. In Pueblo Indian Folk-Stories, recorded by journalist and adventurer Charles F. Lummis, Coyote accidentally kills his own mother when he shanghais her, in a sack, for a dance with crows. Unable to accept his mother’s death, he asks her plaintively, “...why don’t you sit up as before...” Coyote suffers a brutal beating by Blackbirds when he tries to join them in a gambit to seek protection from a bogus violent hailstorm. “‘Ow!’ groaned Coyote, ‘I am nearly dead.’”
Coyote and his family nearly starve when he tries a cooperative farming and fishing venture with a scheming Bear. “...this is not fair,” Coyote whines when he forfeits a useful share of the crops. Coyote and his family suffer burns when they use live campfire coals to brighten their coats so they can compete with a colorful woodpecker family. “...Now, my children,” says the woodpecker father, “you see what the Coyotes have done. Never in your life try to appear what you are not. Be just what you really are, and put on no false colors.” Especially if they are live coals.
In tales of the Chiricahua Apaches, Coyote plays parts that demonstrate the consequences of foolish behavior, explain the origins of tribal beliefs and traditions, and mock the gullibility and greed of the white man. In Myths and Tales of the Chiricahua Apache Indians, a collection of parables and folk stories documented by Morris Edward Opler, Coyote pursues his own pleasure at his family’s risk; he plots marriage with his own daughter; he defiles nature despite warnings; he grasps a dead tree to prop up what he thinks is a falling sky; he chases shadows and reflections of prey; he behaves carelessly and allows the escape and loss of prey; he uses deception and pretension against his neighbors; he sticks his nose into other creature’s business, notably the bumblebee. As a natural consequence, he causes family exasperation; he violates tribal taboos; he experiences nature’s retributions; he wastes time and energy; he goes hungry; he finds humiliation and dishonor; and he suffers fatal bumblebee stings.
“Coyote, son of Coyote, has no sense,” he tells himself, to the great amusement of the Chiricahua. In other stories from Opler’s book, Coyote molds the mountain lion’s face into a feline shape, and the mountain lion, in revenge, molds Coyote’s face into a canine shape. Coyote, envious of the mink’s thin but graceful and swift legs, slices muscle tissue from his own legs, hoping to make them graceful and swift. Instead, he renders his limbs forever spindly. A heroic Coyote steals fire from the birds and gives it to the Apaches, scorching the tip of his tail and turning it forever black in the process. In another heroic act, he helps the Apache deity, Killer-of-Enemies, liberate cattle from the crows, granting the best meat to humans and leaving the carrion to the birds. In still other Opler stories, Coyote shows that even he Coyote, son of Coyote, who has no sense can still make a fool of the white man. In an old version of the fox-in-the-henhouse story, Coyote ingratiates himself with a white shepherd then helps himself to the man’s goats and two women. In another tale, he swaps a phony money tree to white men for their horses, pack animals, provisions, clothes and blankets. Bent on retribution, they come looking for him at a Coyotes’ camp, but no one can help identify the culprit. “All Coyotes look alike,” they tell the white men.
In the spiritual, human and animal universe of the Navajos, Coyote holds center stage as troublemaker, wise counselor, cultural hero and powerful deity. In tales and folklore documented by Guy H. Cooper in his paper “Coyote In Navajo Religion and Cosmology,” The Canadian Journal of Native Studies (VII, No. 2, 1987), Coyote co-stars with deities called First Man, First Woman and Holy People in the Creation and in the spirit world. He “causes the flood, originates death and interferes with the placing of the stars, as well as generally poking his nose into everyone’s business,” but he also “is accorded a knowledge above that of the other beings.”
From “Earth Center Water,” Coyote offers counsel, names deities, confers dreaming, and sanctifies the sun and the moon and plant crops. He is regarded, says Cooper, as “a rude, interfering and restless individual, who is nonetheless vital to the process of ordered creation...” In another role, as the Trickster, Coyote “serves to test the bounds of possibilities and order... Coyote challenges and thereby authenticates and legitimizes the order established in the Navajo universe.” As a more evil figure, Coyote visits sicknesses (perhaps in revenge for bounty hunting) on the Navajos, prompting the need for the traditional “Coyoteway Ceremony” healing ritual. He represents a fearful witchcraft, fostering omens, licentiousness, greediness, meanness and death. He even serves as a form a “werecoyote” for witches. “On the general level...” says Cooper, the “Coyote has a very negative reputation for Navajos.” Nevertheless, among the Navajos, “Coyote is an essential being in the world, who represents a vital force of restlessness and energy, which moves between the categories of human-gods-animals, good and evil, testing the forms and realities of the world.”
In a reflection of his universal animal charisma, Coyote swiftly established his persona in the folklore of the European descendants who settled in the deserts of the Southwest. “A beautiful coyote hide wraps up more deviltry than any other hide of equal dimension stretched over an animated form,” said one old-time writer, quoted in A Treasure of Western Folklore, a 1951 collection edited by B. A. Botkin. “His successful cunning and his relentless ways of getting a living cause him to be cursed by those whom he plunders. But he is always interesting and appears to enjoy life even in the midst of lean times.
“He is the Clown of the Prairie. He is cynical, wise, and a good actor. He has a liking for action and adventure. He really is a happy fellow, something of a philosopher and full of wit.” Another writer said, “He is the Ishmaelite of the desert; a consort of rattlesnakes and vultures; the tyrant of his inferiors; jackal to the puma; a bushwhacker upon the flanks of the buffalo ranges; the pariah of his own race, and despised of mankind. ...he outstrips animals fleeter than himself and foils those of far greater strength; and he excels all his rivals in cunning intelligence.” Still another writer reported “seeing one or more coyotes staying near a crippled coyote as though taking care of him...”
Coyotes will assist each other by hunting in relays. They have a system of intercommunication, including signal stations... Coyote uses his voice to ask for information, to call for help, and to give warning. A leader may search out food, scout the lay of the land, and look out for traps or poison. When assured that all is quiet and clear, he will signal others to come.” Famed folklorist of the Southwest, J. Frank Dobie, said, “I like to hear his lonely and eerie howl in the night. I like to ride along and know he is watching me from behind some prickly pear bush. Coyotes are good company.”
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