Song of the West

(Larry Lamsa - flickr)

(Larry Lamsa – flickr)

He launched out of the hedgerow into a small clearing, not 50 yards from my house. I grabbed my camera, which I keep in the truck, for just this kind of occasion. I stepped on the gas, knowing full well he was going to cross my path. He was much faster than I had figured so only a blurry image was all I got as he propelled his way up the sharp embankment. I figured he would hesitate and look back, but as I watched, he kept his hasty retreat and bound out of sight. A wandering dog, a wolf, a coyote? If this was a dog, he was surely being pursued. And it is said that wolves do inhabit the area on occasion, but since I have never seen one in the wild, it would be hard for me to be confident that the Canis lupus I was observing was one of the species. (I do await the day when I might experience such an exciting moment). It was most surely a coyote, a rather scruffy-looking, medium-size creature, in a flat-out dead run, his tail downwards behind him.

Native Americans told many tales of this savvy and clever beast, who could have major mystical powers. Like real coyotes, mythological coyotes are usually notable for their crafty intelligence, stealth, and voracious appetite. However, American Indian coyote characters vary widely from tribe to tribe. He was much a part of their culture and yet today he is still mentioned whenever tribal elders gather. The scientific name for Coyote means “Barking dog,” Canis latrans. In some Native American coyote myths, this creature is a revered culture hero who creates, teaches, and helps humans; in others, he is a sort of antihero who demonstrates the dangers of negative behaviors like greed, recklessness, and arrogance; in still others, he is a comical character, whose lack of wisdom gets him into trouble while his cleverness gets him back out. In some native coyote stories, he is even some sort of combination of all three at once.
Among the Pueblo tribes, the coyote was believed to have great hunting medicine. At onetime these dog-like creatures were associated mostly with the west.

Today’s coyotes are indeed clever and have learned to live in a world of changing landscapes. Their migration from the West started in the early 1900’s and they now inhabit almost the entire 48 states. These members of both the wolf and dog family are one of the few wild animals whose vocalizations are commonly heard. At night coyotes both howl (a high quavering cry) and emit a series of short, high-pitched yips. Sometimes, when it is first heard, the listener may find the sound eerie, but to the seasoned outdoors person, the howl of the coyote is reminder of a song of the west — something from a Zane Grey novel, “the night wind had not yet risen, the sheep quiet, no sound save the crackle of burning cedar sticks and the distant sound of the coyote, making himself known, singing a song which only he knew the words.”


Howling is a way to communicate with others, and also a call saying “I am here and this is my area…also an invitation to females to follow the sound of my voice.” (Ah, the male creature, the same the world over.)

Yelping is maybe a criticism within the group or a celebration in the troupe, maybe a group of young pups, much like our own kids enjoying the company of others.

The Bark is thought to be a threat display when protecting a den or a recent kill.

Huffing is a strange sound a very low husky breathy growl, used for calling pups without making a great deal of noise.


Wile E Coyote of Looney Tune fame is a character who repeatedly attempts to catch and eat the Road Runner, a fast-running ground bird, without success. But actually when the coyote hunts, it stalks its prey slowly and waits for the perfect moment to attack. (Should we follow the example of the coyote, we would learn to practice patience and move toward our goal only at the most ideal time).

This cartoon was based on the coyote in Mark Twain’s book “Roughing It,” in which Twain described the coyote as a “long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton” that is “a living breathing allegory of Want, and is always hungry.”

Coyotes have gotten a bad rap from deer hunters, and though it is true they do take down deer, this happens mostly during the winter. But only a small percentage, less than 10%, are killed conclusively by coyotes. The remainder are more likely scavenged after being killed or injured by vehicles, or sick or wounded. During the summer, Coyotes will eat berries and insects, frogs, snakes, rodents, fish, fruit, and have been seen eating grass. Small wandering dogs or cats are in danger and a close eye should be kept on them. But carrion or road kill is a favorite meal with little effort on the coyote’s part, to simply drag it off the highway.

As for the coyote of today, he is nothing like his cartoon icon. He is sleek, fast, healthy and apparently without an anvil or Acme product of any kind. (You will know this reference, only if you are a watcher of Wile E. cartoons.) The coyote of Mark Twain maybe a bit overstated, but these creatures have the gift of seldom being seen. As Native American author N. Scott Momaday, wrote “they keep to the edge of vision and beyond, loping in and out of cover and dashing out of sight. And at night, when the whole world belongs to them, they meet and greet, their higher sharper voices full of authority and rebuke. They are an old council of clowns, and they are listened to.”

The coyote is truly here to stay, and it has become clear, why he has been called “the most successful colonizing mammal in recent history. ” His range now larger than any other wild animal in North America.