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Coyote Tales: Getting the Facts on the West's Clever, Controversial Canine

photograph by Christopher Bruno. Coyotes have been admired, and loathed. They're one of the world's smartest canines, and their intelligence and adaptability have allowed them to flourish not only in the Southwest, but across the U.S.

Predators arouse powerful emotions. You may hold it to be self-evident that every creature is endowed with an inalienable right to exist, or understand scientifically that predators are essential to ecosystems. But when valuable livestock, or a beloved household pet, becomes prey, tolerance for a predator can turn to hatred. 

So it is with coyotes. Some appreciate the “defiant songdog of the West,” as the writer Francois Leydet called the coyote – others fear or loathe it. It is wily indeed – while humans successfully eliminated wolves from much of their range, coyotes are flourishing in the world we've created. It's surrounded by lore – from cartoon images to Native American tales of Old Man Coyote, who is trickster, troublemaker and teacher. 

Yet how much do we truly know of this crafty canine?

James Cornett has written more than 20 books on desert subjects, but coyotes are his favorite topic to speak on. 

“There are very few subjects that people can relate to and have such strong feelings about,” he said, “and that's why it makes for a fun and, I like to think, informative presentation. I've had people shake their fists at me before, but once they start learning a little more, they start reevaluating their perspective.”

He said there's one fact in particular that tends to change opinions. People often refer to “packs” of coyotes. But coyotes have never been recorded traveling in packs – bands of unrelated animals. Coyotes hunt alone – or in family groups. 

If you see a half dozen coyotes hunting together, you're observing a mated pair, and their young.

“That's what you're talking about,” Cornett said. “You're not talking about eight horrible male coyotes that have banded together to kill animals wantonly across the Southwest. That piece of information alone changes the dynamic – a pack is dangerous, a family group is wonderful. We like family groups – we're human.”

Indeed, family bonds are tight for coyotes. 

“All the studies that have been done so far indicate that coyotes, when they find a mate, stick with that mate until the mate dies,” Cornett said. “In that sense, they're better than we are.”

The cacophony of yips, yaps and howls rising up after a summer sunset sounds impressive, intimidating. It's commonly believed to be a “pack” of coyotes, celebrating a kill. That's certainly not the case. 

Typically, it's just two coyotes making all that ruckus – a mated pair, asserting their claim to territory. 

However highly you may esteem the intelligence of your pet, no domestic dog can compete with a coyote for smarts. Coyote pairs are known to collaborate in the hunt – one coyote may give chase to a jackrabbit, leading the prey toward its mate – concealed in the brush, and ready to pounce. Coyotes are powerful diggers – and one animal will set to excavating a ground squirrel burrow, while its mate waits at the burrow's entrance, to capture the fleeing prey.  

Cornett has witnessed coyote intelligence firsthand – in ways both amusing, and gruesome. 

On one of the busiest highways in Death Valley National Park, Cornett observed a coyote repeatedly crossing the road – limping. Park visitors would stop to photograph the animal, and, moved by its apparent injury, offer food. 

But when the cars were gone, so was the limp.

“Sometimes if I got too close with my camera, he would run 50 yards away,” Cornett said, “at a full gallop – no limp at all. So this coyote had learned somehow that limping in front of tourists would invoke sympathy, and result in being fed. So coyotes are really smart.” 

From a distance, Cornett once watched a remarkable, if brutal drama unfold between a coyote pair and a German shepherd, which had been allowed to roam free in the desert. 

The two coyotes approached the domestic dog with all the familiar signs of canine play – hunkering down, running about, wagging their tails. The shepherd joined in the fun. But the domestic animal wasn't in the physical shape of the wild canines – and it quickly tired. Little by little, the coyotes drew the exhausted shepherd further into the desert. 

The dog – which weighed almost three times as much as either coyote – was later found in an arroyo bottom, half-eaten.

This intelligence has certainly contributed to the coyote's success as a species. Natives of the arid West, coyotes have expanded their range across the U.S., filling niches once occupied by wolves. They've interbred with wolves. Perhaps because of better food resources in lusher areas, they've grown in size – 35 lbs was once the record coyote weight; now, there are coyotes on the East Coast that weigh 50 lbs. And coyotes are thriving in major metropolitan areas. 

“If you wanted to consider a species that you don't have to worry about becoming extinct, think of the coyote,” Cornett said. “When they're breeding in downtown Chicago and downtown Los Angeles, that's obviously a very adaptable animal. So coyotes are here to stay no matter what we do.”

They dine on roadkill and pick through trash. In desert areas, 40 percent of their diet is plant material – and insects and lizards are as important as rodents. But they do attack livestock – sheep are especially vulnerable, and, more rarely, calves are prey. And in suburbs and towns, they can, and do, take household pets.

The surest way to safeguard a pet cat, Cornett said, is not to declaw it – a healthy cat, with the ability to climb, can escape a coyote. It takes a fence at least 7 feet high to reliably exclude coyotes from a yard.

There have been a handful of incidences in which toddlers, left alone without adult supervision, have been killed by coyotes. And there's at least one case of a rabid coyote biting an adult, in a Los Angeles park. But the chances of being attacked by a coyote are vanishingly small.

Cornett said he can understand why a rancher – especially one raising sheep – would be hostile to coyotes. He said he'd rather see the government reimburse livestock producers for losses than large-scale predator control. And he said techniques like traps and poison kill wildlife willy-nilly – with animals less savvy than coyotes often being the chief victims. 

Ultimately, Cornett said, he hopes we can appreciate this clever, family-oriented creature – a native Westerner, that's taken its desert-honed skills continent-wide.

“Coyotes aren't the horrible animals that are going to steal your pet dog or – God forbid – your child in the night never to be seen again,” he said. “They're fascinating animals, with a lot of intelligence, that have learned to live in harmony, most of the time, with people. We should applaud their ability to do that, not persecute them for it.”

Drew Stuart is the producer for the Marfa Public Radio series Nature Notes.