Coyote

by Carrie Miner

Coyote was always happiest while spying and prying into someone else's business. One day he spotted some lizards playing a game unfamiliar to him, so he trotted over to see what was going on. The lizards were taking turns sliding down a steep rock on smooth, flat stones. Coyote wanted to play, but the lizards said “You are not a lizard. Go play your own games.”

But Coyote persisted. “It's very dangerous,” they warned him. “You'll get killed.” He didn't believe a word they said. He chose a large sliding rock and started down the runway, but halfway down, it caught on a smaller rock, flipped and smashed him flat. The lizards, irritated with the mess at the end of their runway, revived the foolish Coyote back to life and sent him on his way with a warning that he had his own games to play and shouldn't try to be what he wasn't.

As long as people have lived or hunted alongside the deer's habitats, there have been stories: some of kindly creatures who become the wives of mortals; or of lost children changed into deer for a time, reminding their kin to honor the relationship with the Deer People, their close neighbors. And there are darker tales, recalling strange journeys into the Otherworld, abductions, and dangerous transformations that don't end well at all. But all stories about the deer share some common ground by showing us that the line between our world and theirs is very thin indeed.

Coyote photo by Cy La Tour, 1940's

Coyote photo by Cy La Tour, 1940's

Like the incorrigible animal in this Hopi folktale, the coyote continues as the trickster of myth—trotting, howling and grinning through countless fables and out across the Western landscape. Most ranchers and trappers agree with some of the Indian stories and myths about coyotes: These leering mischief makers seem almost impossible to kill.

Certainly, anyone familiar with the old tales of the rascals would not be surprised to learn that coyotes have been known to follow hunters, dig up their traps, turn them over and urinate on them before retreating to the hills, probably to laugh at their own tomfoolery. Coyotes have used their wits and versatility to deflect predator control efforts by governmental agencies since 1825, when Missouri offered the first bounty. In 1915, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated an official 30-year campaign in the West to kill more then 3 million coyotes. Yet during that time, the animals increased both in their numbers and in their range, haunting urban fencelines and claiming wild country once occupied by the less-adaptable Mexican gray wolf.

Astute, versatile, shrewd, mischievous, fleet-footed, cunning and droll—coyotes have resourcefully outwitted humans, their only natural predator, for centuries.

Coyote's English name comes from the animal's Aztec name—coyotl. European settlers traveling to the West called the coyote by many names—cased wolf, prairie wolf, medicine dog and phantom wolf. The animal figures prominently in many Indian legends as a creator, a trickster and dupe known as “Brother Coyote” or “Old Man Coyote.” Some of the other many names given to this elemental shapeshifter include “First Scolder,” “First Warrior” and “Fine Young Chief Howling in the Dawn Beyond the East.” Scientists dubbed this member of this wild member of the canine family Canis latrans, which translates as “barking dog.” But anyone who has ever heard a pack scolding the stars on a clear night knows the coyote's mournful dirge hardly sounds like a domesticated dog. A coyote song reaches deep into the universe, a haunting, unearthly and derisive melody that seems part terrified child, part gleeful demon.

Once known primarily for prowling the plains and plateaus of the Western United States and Mexico, coyotes expanded their range with European settlement, even following prospectors' pack trains to Alaska during the Klondike gold rush of 1898. Now coyotes range up to Point Barrow, the northernmost tip of Alaska, along the eastern seaboard and down into Mexico, Costa Rica and the Tropics.

Always a survivor, coyotes first appeared in the Southwest 500,000 years ago during the Pleistocene epoch. The ever-flexible coyotes can survive almost anywhere. They run in packs or as loners, roam either day or night and eat nearly anything—fresh meat, carrion, insects, fruits and vegetables. Their keen senses make them well-adapted to hunting. According to one Indian saying, “a feather fell from the sky... the eagle saw it, the deer heard it, the bear smelled it, the coyote did all three.”

Coyotes have been known to pass over meat in favor of fresh fruits and berries. They have an insatiable sweet tooth, which will lead them to raid melon fields and orchards. Despite this diverse appetite, coyotes primarily feed on rabbits, birds, seeds, insects, fish and snakes. They may also stalk larger prey such as domestic sheep, deer and pronghorns.

Reddish-gray with a buff underside, coyotes resemble medium-sized dogs, but their yellow eyes, alert ears and bushy, black-tipped tails give away any hope for a domestic disguise. And, of course, those rich voices, which produce the dark, wild song of the tragedies of life, set them apart.

Coyotes exercise a diverse vocal repertoire filled with barks, wails and yips. Disembodied solos earned these animals yet another nickname, “prairie tenor,” and their short bursts of falsetto yips resulted in their title “Laughing Philosopher of the Plains.” IN the Southwest, coyotes are more often heard than seen, sometimes congregating in “choir lofts” to serenade the moon. Like ventriloquists, the animals can scatter, shatter, multiply and place their voices with surprising ease. Some tales say a true coyote's voice will not echo. Others say that at night, howling coyotes shift shape into ghosts that cannot be harmed by any of man's weapons—another story built on the animal's uncanny survival skills.

Coyote photo by Cy La Tour, 1940's

Coyote photo by Cy La Tour, 1940's

Adult coyotes weigh between 20 and 30 pounds and measure about 47 inches long—one-third of that comprising their thick tail. They cruise at an easy lope of 25 to 30 miles per hour—accelerating to 40 miles per hour for short bursts—and are able to leap as high as 14 feet to clear fences, gullies or other obstacles.

Like wolves, coyotes live up to 15 years. However, unlike wolves, they don't mate for life, although they do share parenting duties and remain monogamous while raising their offspring. Females bear five to seven pups in April or May, and they remain in the den for about two months. If the mother feels threatened, she will move her young to a different location. Once the pups grow old enough to hunt, the family bands together in a pack through the rest of the denning season. By December, juveniles disperse to seek their own territories and mates.

Coyotes thrive throughout the Southwest in a variety of habitats, from the low Sonoran Desert floor to the high-forested mountains. In Arizona alone, at least 53 natural features, including washes, hills and springs, are named after these canny critters. Coyotes show up on pre-Columbian pottery shards, in Aztec hieroglyphics and in modern fiction, poetry and music. A coyote fills the trickster's shoes in the popular Warner Brothers “Roadrunner” cartoons.

And like his human brothers, Coyote of myth still frequently attempts to be what he isn't, often with disastrous results. In several stories, he tries to fly with the blackbirds, only to fall from the sky. He tries to skim the water like a dragonfly and winds up drowned at the bottom of a pond.

In Mexico, coyotes are believed to have such diabolical power that one crossing your path invokes a jinx. Navajo war expeditions encountering coyotes would interpret their presence as a bad omen. The Hopis also view the creature's howls as a bad portent. The Hopi word for coyote is a name that means “sucker” or “dupe”. According to the Hopi calendar, Coyote's month is October, the “mixed up” month that is neither summer nor winter, but lies somewhere in between.

Many Indian cultures credit a mythological coyote with the way the world turned out—and for our place in it. Some stories say that Coyote stole fire for human beings, using his bushy tale as a makeshift torch, which accounts for its black tip today.

Like many native peoples, Hopis attribute the haphazard placement of the stars to Coyote's cosmic bungling. They say Coyote was given a big jar to carry and was told not to open it. But his unquenchable curiosity prompted him to lift the lid and peek inside, whereupon all of the stars rushed out, singeing his nose as they escaped into the sky. Coyote managed to catch a few and hang them in their proper places, but then he quickly grew impatient and allowed the others to stay where they were. Some of the stars, not securely fastened in place, still occasionally fall back to Earth. This is why there are only a few constellations, why there are shooting stars and why the coyote's nose is black.

Old Man Coyote reportedly brought corn to the Hopis, established the Navajo seasons and taught clever Apache warriors like Geronimo the trick of invisibility. But even though Coyote occasionally uses his craftiness and cunning for humankind, he more often proves disobedient, mischievous and foolish.

For it was Coyote who brought death into the world. When humans first walked this earth, Old Man Coyote stood at a river, gazing at its endless flow. As he contemplated human lives going on forever, he knew the time would come when there would not be enough corn to feed the multitudes. So he picked up a stone and said, “I will throw this stone into the water. If it floats, man will live forever; if it sinks, people must die.” He tossed the stone and watched it lightly skip over the water's surface before it sank forever out of sight. And that is why people die, while Coyote, the Laughing Philosopher of the Plains, dies only to live again, watching the antics of his human brothers with a mocking smile.

detail of coyote photo by Cy La Tour, howl

coyote photo by Cy La Tour, 1940's

Further Reading:

Nonfiction:
The Voice of the Coyote by Frank Dobie
Coyote Field Guide , (Special Report No. 15, Arizona Game and Fish Department)
by Norman Woolsey
“The Fine Young Chief: Native America's Coyote on the Colorado Plateau,” Plateau magazine of the Museum of Northern Arizona) by Ronald McCoy
Navajo Coyote Tales,by Father Bernard Haile, O.F.M.
Gullible Coyote/Una'ihu: A Bilingual Collection of Hopi Coyote Stories, by Ekkehart Malotki
Hopi Coyote Tales by Ekkehart Malotki and Michael Lomatuway'ma
Sacred Land, Sacred View by Robert S. McPherson
A Coyote Reader by William Bright
Hopi Animal Tales by Ekkehart Malotki
The Clever Coyote by Stanley Young and Hartley Jackson
Mammals of Arizona&
Mammals of the Southwest Deserts by George Olin
God's Dog by Hope Ryden

On the Web
Coyote Stories/Poems
Coyote Wildlife Information
Wile E. Coyote and Other Sly Trickster Tales by Terri Windling


About the Author:
Carrie Miner is a poet and fiction writer, and a journalist for Arizona Highways magazine. She lives with her two sons in northern Arizona.

Copyright © 2002 by Carrie Miner. This article appeared in Arizona Highways, September, 2002. It may not be reproduced in any form without the author's express written permission.