In “Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History,” author and natural historian Dan Flores profiles the coyote, a resilient, intelligent animal that is well-equipped to coexist with humans.
‘Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History’
by Dan Flores
Basic Books, 271 pp., $27.50
Dan Flores, author of many books on natural history, lives in high desert country a few miles southeast of Santa Fe, N.M. His 10th book, “Coyote America,” might well have been inspired by the almost-nightly singing of local packs patrolling the nearby sagebrush, mesas and arroyos. But as Flores notes, coyotes are no longer limited to the stereotypical cactuses and cliffs so familiar from Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons. These resilient, intelligent animals have expanded their range across the entire country, making headlines when they turn up in small towns and big cities alike.
For most urban dwellers, seeing these wild predators is a surprise. And although Native American tribes of the Southwest had a long and rich association with them that features large in their mythology, the earliest white explorers had no idea what they were. A wolf? A fox? Maybe a jackal? Lewis and Clark called them “prairie wolves” and the name stuck until coyotl, the Aztec word, was adopted.
But why were they — who, unlike wolves, never grew tame — attracted to living near us? It’s our fault, Flores explains. Not only did early settlers offer them “herds of clumsy, dimwitted domesticated sheep and goats,” but also dumps and dead pack animals to scavenge. Our settlements attract rats and mice, a favored prey. As years passed, urban leash laws and animal control kept dogs indoors, providing freer access. Even in wilderness, eradication of wolves eliminated a primary competitor species.
Since coyotes were unknown for so long, understanding such clever animals is taking a long time. Indians admired these trickster rascals, but Mark Twain called them cowardly. Veneration gradually turned to hatred, and from the 1880s to 1930s, opinion held that the only good coyote was a dead one.
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These times also saw the great bison slaughter, when they were almost driven to extinction. Passenger pigeons were wiped out as were Carolina parakeets, America’s only endemic parrot. Black-footed ferrets barely survived. “Bad” animals, that is, predators like wolves, bears and cougars that killed “good” ones like elk and deer, which humans husbanded for hunting, were slain indiscriminately.
And coyotes? Bounties were placed on them. Hundreds of thousands of doses of poisons were set out. Pups were strangled and drowned. One state’s legislature required veterinarians to introduce sarcoptic mange to wild canine populations. Government employees shot them, allegedly to protect livestock. The public was encouraged to shoot them, too, and soon helicopters and planes made war from the air.
Coyotes simply refused to die out. Flores notes that most predators are solitary or social, not both. Coyotes, though, live singly or join up, adapting to the times. They have large litters and breed at younger ages when stressed, keeping their numbers up but not exceeding what local resources can support. They have long childhoods, are usually raised by both parents as well as some siblings, are omnivorous, wary and have both acute hearing and sense of smell.
Almost 2 million were slaughtered between 1915 and 1947. And where are coyotes today? In Los Angeles and New York, Miami and Seattle, and everywhere in between. City coyotes are smarter; since they and their pups live longer, we’re headed for more coyote-human conflict, Flores predicts, so we better learn to coexist. They’re not dumpster divers, he writes, but allies against rodents. They are America’s unique survivor.