I heard them again the other night. Yip-yip-yipping somewhere behind our property. It’s an almost nightly serenade, a pack of coyotes, celebrating their latest kill; maybe a gopher or a squirrel, but more likely a bunny rabbit or some careless neighbor’s unfortunate pet.
Whether you hear them or see them or pass your day blissfully unaware of them, coyotes are always nearby. According to Dan Flores, author of Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History (288 pages, published by Basic Books, 2016) if you live in the continental United States, you are never more than one mile away from a coyote. Yes, even in New York City, where they are seen in Queens and rumored to roam Central Park, as evidenced by this New York Daily News photo:
In California, I encountered a pair of them a few months ago on my morning walk. Brazen and brindle-coated, they regarded me absolutely without fear. They conveyed with a muscular clarity that it was I who intruded upon their morning rounds, not they upon mine. They did not move toward me, but neither did they back away, and I passed them uneasily, with many backward glances to be sure they did not follow. That’s when I decided to read up on them: Know thy enemy, and all that.
Everyone has an opinion about coyotes. My California neighbors are divided right down the middle on them. Half harbor a notion to flout the rules and impose some vigilante justice; the other half vociferously vow to protect them, their packs and their pups at all costs. I’d say the split roughly reflects those of us who have cats, small dogs and poultry, versus those who don’t. Author Flores is an admirer, nay, a veritable acolyte of the coyote and thus his book is a paean to the beast, which didn’t sit so well with me after my close encounter, but I must admit a grudging fascination with the creature.
The American coyote, then popularly regarded as a “prairie wolf” was depicted as early as 1819 by artist Titian Ramsay Peale but first scientifically catalogued by Thomas Say in 1823 as canis latrans.
John James Audubon documented the “prairie fox” in 1843:
My coyote-loving neighbors invariably sing the chorus of “they were here before we were”, and according to Flores, they’re right. The ancient coyote line began in the American Southwest 5.3 million years ago, he says. Los Angeles has long been a favorite urban mecca for them, where the coyote population is estimated to be 5,000, so it’s no surprise that so many of them have migrated up the coast to Santa Barbara. The proliferation of coyotes to urban U.S. settings is a testament to their adaptive genius. Perpetual outcast that the coyote may be, he has learned to shadow the human. For where people go, vermin go, and there goest the coyote.
If only the coyote diet was limited to vermin. Flores insists that their primary prey are mice and rats. “Pets compose only 1-2% of an average coyote’s diet”, he says, and he labors to convince the reader that most coyote attacks on dogs and cats are motivated not by the dinner bell but by territorial issues and competition for food. I remain unconvinced, as I am pretty sure neither of the sweet little kitties or any of the hens we’ve lost to coyotes were competing with them for land or food.
Flores rigorously defends against attempts to control the coyote population, asserting that despite repeated governmental programs to extirpate them via trapping and poison, the coyote population remains resiliently constant. Litter sizes correspond brilliantly to both available resources and attrition; the coyote is all about tenacity.
Flores glories in the predator’s elevation to god-like status by the Aztecs and Native Americans, but he rather glosses over the 1981 coyote killing of a toddler in a Glendale driveway. In 2011, nineteen-year-old aspiring musician Taylor Mitchell was killed by coyotes during a hike in Nova Scotia. According to Wikipedia, USDA and California State University researchers have confirmed at least thirty-five attacks on children in the state in which “the possibility of serious or fatal injury seems likely if the child had not been rescued”.
More recently, the conversation has turned to coywolves and coydogs, hybrids that pose an uptick in alarm. Combining the pack mentalities of wolves and the fearlessness of coyotes, these breed mutations are reputed to have spread throughout the Northeast and to possibly be the source of recent attacks in Toronto and New Jersey.
Conventional wisdom states that coyotes “almost never” attack humans, a mantra I repeated to myself as I made my way past the pair I encountered on my morning walk. But then a friend related her experience of having been stalked by a pair of coyotes in our neighborhood a few years back. She was walking with her dogs and noticed the coyotes tailing her. She changed her route, but they continued to follow. Unnerved, she finally entered a stranger’s driveway, knocked on their door and called for a ride home.
As fall approaches, what I call “coyote season” is soon to be upon us. I tend to see them on my street more frequently in fall and winter; January and February have been the unluckiest months for my hens. I’m still unsure just how worried I should be about wily coyote, but, conventional wisdom aside, I’m a little concerned that the wolf is at the door.
“The only thing smarter than a coyote is God” – Hispanic folk saying