Photo taken June 2018
My dog story book, Devoted to Dogs, published in March 2002, contains fourteen short stories of dogs, mostly mine. I am repeating a story here, entitled America’s Wild Dog, all about the Coyote. You’ll enjoy it. Remember, it is copyrighted. Its ISBN number is 0-9720585-0-8. Please write to me, Kathryn Braund,at my address below, if you want to use it or parts of it. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org Thanks.
Here we go.
In this wide, great country of ours, right in our own backyard, lives a fabulous wild dog more ingenious and intelligent and wily and crafty than any other dog in the world. He has to be to survive for his modern life is very tough. But although life’s a constant, difficult struggle for him, he appears to glory in this struggle. His will to endure is remarkable. And daily he sings a wonderfully strange, lonely, joyful song with which he heralds both the evening sky and the morning heaven.
His marvelous song, KI-YOO-00-00-00-00, is spine chilling and haunting. It is a never-to-be-forgotten wild sound, a soulful two-octave staccato howl punctuating the squalling prairie or hillside winds with special canine music. To the hundreds of cowboys who have stood lonely watch over cattle herds, this music of the coyote has been like the lulling poem of a love song from the throat and lips of some faraway dream girl.
Envision yourself stacking forest-gathered wood on a newly lit campfire in front of your tent at a wilderness site when out of the dusk, beyond the hillock, the cry of the coyote pierces the air – sharp, lusty yip yips rising and falling, a zigzag of extraordinary sound sending shivers running through your body (along with an immense loneliness for you know not what). Suddenly this animal song is answered by similar voices from distant scrubs or buttes; each note of the KI-YOU-OO-OO-OO-OO pitched separately and then “run after and bit into small pieces.”
And as you stand in the aura of the campfire, a burning twig snapping sparks into the night air, the eerie song fading into the blackness of the night, the OOO-OOO accenting the brilliance of the evening stars above, you reflect on all the legends and myths you have heard about this unique animal, this wild dog of America, and all the meanings he has had for the different peoples through the eternity of his life.
Back when the world was young and animals of all kinds lived in immense abundance on the great buffalo-grassed prairies of the Americas, the Indians and the little Medicine Wolf were friends.
Because this prairie wolf was an unusual form of wolf and indigenous only to a certain part of the world – the wide-open spaces of North America from Panama to Alaska and over the prairies of Canada – he was granted a special name by those who knew him best, the Indians of North America. Coyotl was the name the Nauatl Indians of Mexico chose for the Medicine Wolf. They named him after the Aztec god Coyotlinauatl. When the Spaniards infiltrated the Americas, names such as cdiote, coyote, college, kyoto, kayo and cayeute came into usage. The Spanish word coyote (pronounced ki-o’-te) gradually took hold and folklore about the curious and devious-minded creature spread all over the new world.
Indians knew him intimately. The Apaches believed the coyote gave both the gift of wit and gluttony to man, and those of the Apaches that were called Coyoteros were proud of their sub-name. It symbolized their wondrous ingenuity and cleverness. On the other hand, to a Pueblo Indian coyote meant coward.
The Blackfoot tribe gave the wild dog godlike powers and sang the ‘Coyote Prayer song’ when they despaired. The Flathead Indians called the coyote sinchlep (imitator) and regarded the dog as “most powerful and favorable to mankind.”
Whatever stories Indians spun about this animal when their campfires were blazing and when the moon was full, the coyote’s nightly song of distant greeting heralded the approach of friends or warned them when enemies crept near, sang with them to the rain, the moon, the sun, and lamented if death visited them.
Mexican Indian tales are often woven around the coyote’s friendship with the badger (a going-to-earth creature). As a matter of fact, the coyote’s head decorates a pre-Columbian piece of pottery found in the Cases Grandes region of Mexico. This piece is believed by archaeologists to date between 1250-1300 A.D., and it attests to the fact that the coyote-badger relationship is more than myth. On one side of the Casas Grandes pot is the head of the coyote shown in bas relief; spin the pot around, and on the other side his friend the badger appears. Support is given to the odd comradeship by western trappers and mountain men, many of whom wrote or spoke of their sighting the two animals together hunting, each pleased with the teamwork and friendship of the other.
Indians sometimes stole one of the coyote’s whelps from an unguarded den and tamed it, using it as a draught dog until it reached adulthood and became destructive and untrustworthy or ran off to follow the KI-YOO-OO-OO-OO of a kin. Other times, they crossed the small prairie wolf with larger types, and told white men they “always found that the resultant offspring were not only prolific, but also better and stronger beasts of burden.”
The first Spaniard to describe the coyote was Francisco Hernandez who, in 1651, wrote of the Coyote (or Indian Fox): “It is an animal unknown to the Old World, with a wolf-like head, lively large pale eyes, small sharp ears, a long dark muzzle and very thick tail. The coyote is midway between a fox and a wolf. It is a keen hunter. It may avenge an injury and exact a penalty from some troublesome man by finding its dwelling place with great perseverance and care and killing some of its domestic animals. But it is grateful to those who do well by it and commonly signifies its good will by sharing a bit of prey. Its food consists of weaker animals, maize and other kinds of corn and sugar-cane whenever it finds some. It is captured with traps and snares and killed with the arrow.”
As Spanish and American adventurers, explorers, trappers, mountain men, pioneers and wanderers encountered the coyote on their new world pathways, each told a different story about the wild dog, so adaptable were his ways.
John James Audubon, while on a Missouri River streamer voyage in 1843, wrote of the coyote in his Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. He said, “By its predatory and destructive habits this wolf is a great annoyance to the settlers in the new territories of the west. Travelers and hunters on the prairie dislike it for killing the deer, which supply these wanderers with their best meals and furnish them with part of their clothing.”
In the middle years of the 19th century, a Lt. J.W. Abert, on military reconnaissance across the plains, observed that the prairie wolves “congregate in large packs and hang on the heels of the buffalo to pick up the infirm and those the hunters have wounded, as well as to prey on what is left of the slaughtered.”
“There is now no way of computing what were the relative numbers of coyotes to numbers of rabbits, deer, antelopes, grouse and other accompanying species in North America before the advent of civilized man,” wrote the late J. Frank Dobie in The Voice of the Coyote. “We do know that where the coyote was most abundant, game animals he is now supposed to check were also most abundant.”
All who met the coyote agree he would eat almost anything – cowhide straps, watermelon, grasshoppers, snails, fish, dates, cactus fruit, berries, rabbits, mice, birds and their eggs, rattlesnakes and carrion (all kinds, even his own). His taste, they said, “was dammable catholic!” – particularly when times were lean. Everyone who met him discovered the coyote could hunt by himself, with a companion, a pack, with animals of other species; that he often followed the sky highways of buzzards or crows or magpies to carrion feasts; that he could sprint along plains at 45 miles per hour. Each human acquaintance lauded his intelligence in outwitting and ultimately gulping down the smallest morsel of live food; in his commonsense teamwork tactics in stalking game bigger than he; about his hatred of the big wolf and of the slinking bobcat.
Some men called the coyote a predatory thief, other men called him an opportunistic scavenger; all men called him crafty, wary, inexcusably curious, more cunning than the fox, and a wild animal infinitely wise and humorous.
Nature used the coyote as spawn in her law of balance. He unwittingly aided her with the law of the survival of the fittest by eating animals smaller than he and, in the case of the larger animals, dragging down the old, the sick, and at times the helpless young, making for the strong, healthy survivor.
Although Thomas Say, zoologist, labeled the prairie wolf with theme Canis latrans (barking dog) in 1823, the character and habits of this singing little wolf were not familiar to Easterners, except from the romanticized myth and lore that were rising about him.
In 1860, Worthington Hooker MD, a professor at Yale College, wrote of the wolf, presumably including the coyote in his description: “The wolf is a gaunt but strong animal with a skulking gait, and his aspect is marked by mingled ferocity, cunning and cowardice. There are several species of wolves, especially in America, but their habits and character are very much the same.”
The Canis latrans (barking dog) or prairie wolf or coyote stands about half the size of the wolf. He is as tall as a Shetland Sheepdog or a small Collie. He measures from 16 to 21 inches high and weighs from about 18 to 30 pounds (naturally there are variances). On the other hand, the smallest of the gray wolf forms (Sierra Madre) weighs between 60 and 90 pounds.
One of the most important physical differences between coyotes and wolves are skull proportions. Coyotes’ brain cases are large, their muzzles narrow and long, their teeth small, their expression foxy. Wolves (although bigger) have smaller brain cases but large jaws with bigger teeth and their expression is not foxy.
Colorwise, coyotes remain pretty much within the yellow-gray and yellow shades, variegated with black fur tips on their soft coats; underpants usually light or white and the tip of their tails dark or black tipped; when they live at higher elevations their color tends towards grey or black.Wolf color is wide-ranged and can be a mixture of basic white, brown, gray or black.
Psychophysical disposition is also different. The wolf is endowed with a much tenderer nervous system than is the coyote. Wolves cannot adapt to hiding out and surviving in contrived habitats as civilization encircles them. This is proven by the fact that wolves have been exterminated in most countries of the world as people have cut down the forests and refined the terrain. The wolf has been exterminated from England (1350), Scotland (1600), Ireland (1700), and remains only in certain unpopulated sections of Europe, Asia, Greenland and North America.
But Americans, although virtually eliminating the wolf, discovered they could not get rid of the adaptable, versatile coyote. Instead, he extended his territory. Once strictly a Western Plains dweller, the coyote now lines many mountain boundaries and is found in the eastern and northern United States and Canada, areas where once he was completely unknown.
The wild dog, centuries-old animal friend to the Indians, became more secretive and cunning with each advance of the white man. No longer was he seen standing in full daylight – sometimes alone, sometimes in packs of from four to twenty – standing on top of a ridge watching as Indians slew buffaloes and antelopes; then patiently waiting for their departure so that he could clean the bones of all meat.
As the white man moved across America, he shot and killed any creature he saw moving on the plains. “For the sport of it, five points for the man who shoots the most quail. Ten points for the man who shoots the most prairie dogs! Fifteen points for the man who shoots the most wolves! Twenty points for the man who shoots the most antelopes. And twenty-five points for the man who shoots the most buffaloes!” Thus, the coyote became more furtive, his song more plaintive, and his friends not so numerous.
He tasted cattle carrion for the first time when trail drivers in typical “get ’em to the cattle yards” zeal, daily killed the newborn calves that had been dropped during the night and left their remains lying on the camping grounds. He tasted infirm and dying sheep when they spread over his habitat and ate all the grasses and roots so that the ground became bare, and would not harbor his long-time favorite foods – rabbits, raccoons, skunks and other small field varmints.
As pioneers cut down the forests, cultivated fields and pastured livestock, the coyote adapted himself and became belly perceptive to the brand new kind of growing restaurant. He joined the farmer, and not always furtively. While man plucked weeds from the fields and harvested grain and vegetable crops, the coyote plucked up mice and rats from their furrowed farmland holes and harvested the destructive rabbits and gophers. Sometimes he nibbled vegetables and old-world fruit. He then voiced his appreciative thanks by drawing other yellow brethren away from distant dens and prairie sanctuaries into adjacent territories. When harvest was over and blizzards howled and his usual dinners lay under snow, he also ate barnyard fowl. So the once appreciative farmers decided to rid themselves of all varmints in civilized poisoning or coyote ’roundup’ extermination campaigns.
So the coyote left the farm. His KI-YOO-OO-OO-OO song was seldom heard echoed over ghostly hayfields or bottomland pastures. If alive, he was saddened but wiser and moved higher on the land into the mountains and out of the plains. He moved to the boundaries of the forests or wherever he could find food to sustain him.
Since 1825, when the first bounty was placed upon his head, the coyote has been slaughtered intensively. It is estimated that in one period alone, between 1860 and 1885, hundreds of thousands of coyotes were killed – poisoned, gunned, trapped. Then in 1915, the government began a systematic destruction of all predatory animals. While his bigger cousin, the wolf, never fully recovered from this grim onslaught of animal blood-letting and was truly extirpated, the coyote, more crafty than ever, continued living ever unmindful of the fact that his life usually ends tragically.
Until recently, the coyote was poisoned by eating poisoned meat or from feeding o is own dead brethren who have eaten of it. Strychnine was the first poison used, causing a horrible death, the animal burning, gasping, choking, until he died in a strangulating convulsion.
Cyanide came next, hidden in fur-covered scented bait in a device called the coyote ‘go-getter.’ This device, a cylindrical instrument that is hammered into the ground, explodes right into the scent-lured animal’s mouth, the poison pushing against all its insides and destroying the victim within minutes (other animals besides the coyote go for the ‘go-getter’). Now banned, is compound 1080 (sodium fluoroacetate) a workhorse poison which proved to be extremely deadly all the way down the food line.
Death also came to this predator in buried snapping steel jaws. And if the coyote is caught in a grim steel trap and does not die by club or butter when the trapper returns, or of starvation wile waiting for his executioner, and if he was lucky or frantic enough and the trap small enough, he chews his foot off or drags the trap with him and escapes. The coyote can live remarkably well on three feet or two, as the case may be. If he is shot and survives the wound, although unarmed crippled in some way – a jaw torn off, a lung struck, a limb dragging, eyes blinded – he lives, again remarkably, hobbling or crawling to the easiest gained meal. Then he gives no quarter.
Where stock is fenced out, some ranchers use capable cultured dogs such as Greyhounds, Scottish Deerhounds, Irish Wolfhounds,Borzois or their cross-bred progeny to run the coyote to his death.
These dogs can usually win this type of “run him down and kill him” hunt.
“One dog leads, and the other two follow, one on each flank of the coyote,” wrote Leon V. Aimirall, a coursing and coyote hunting enthusiast. “Thus, if this nimble son of the West ducks to either side, the move will do him no good, for there will be a dog there to meet him.”
“Our Greyhounds, left loose on the ranch, protect our stock and poultry in this manner,” stated one western rancher. “We are the only ranch in the whole area which has not lost stock and certainly the hounds are to have credit for that. The coyotes stay away.”
Regardless of the hunting of the coyote, every waning winter packs of from three to ten coyotes congregate for mating season. When paired off, the male becomes a fond, devoted mate and while not remaining monogamous all of his twelve to twenty year life span (if he survives civilization’s death traps), he often shares a den with one female for several years.
From three to ten pups are born in a litter (gestation period is like that of cultured dogs, from 60 to 65 days). When the pups have begun to be weaned at about three weeks, the male as well as the female hunts for and regurgitates the food for them. Both parents feed the pups until weaning is complete and the offsprings’ attempts at hunting small game become successful. It is at this time of year, claim the sheepmen, that depredations of the murdering coyotes are the worst.
I reflect on the coyote, the wild dog of America, and I wonder how it was back in the days when herds of buffalo and deer and antelope roamed the plains and when the Indian walked softly over the earth and every plant and animal had its own natural changing place in nature’s balance. Perhaps like the mother who sits in her rocking chair and gazes at the photographs of her sons and daughters who have left their childhood home and gone out into the world to make their own way – I sit and hope the coyote will always, somehow, make his own way, whatever some men have said his crimes against civilization have been.
For if he should vanish, ah! I shall miss his lilting song that heralds the bright morning sun and I shall miss his lonely wail that tells of the evening’s shadows. Even though this may seems like only a sentimental and foolish reason, we have to keep firmly in mind what our scientists and wildlife experts have proven over and over – that to eliminate any species of wild animal upsets the balance of nature and can bring disastrous results on the livelihood of mankind as well as the propagation of wildlife in general.
KI-YOO-OO-OO-OO is the song of the fabulous and ingenious and opportunistic wild dog of America – the little coyote.