Wildlife Classics: Coyotes

Accounts from the American Frontier

The coyote's howl is more tonic
than all theories about nature.
--J. Frank Dobie


An Allegory of Want
Mark Twain

The coyote is a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray wolf-skin stretched over it, a tolerably bushy tail that forever sags down with a despairing expression of forsakenness and misery, a furtive and evil eye, and a long, sharp face, with slightly lifted lip and exposed teeth. He has a general slinking expression all over. The coyote is a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry.

He is always poor, out of luck and friendless. The meanest creatures despise him, and even the fleas would desert him for a velocipede. He is so spiritless and cowardly that even while his exposed teeth are pretending a threat, the rest of his face is apologizing for it. And he is so homely!--so scrawny, and ribby, and coarse-haired, and pitiful. When he sees you he lifts his lip and lets a flash of his teeth out, and then turns a little out of the course he was pursuing, depresses his head a bit, and strikes a long, soft-footed trot through the sage-brush, glancing over his shoulder at you, from time to time, till he is about out of easy pistol range, and then he stops and takes a deliberate survey of you; he will trot fifty yards and stop again--another fifty and stop again; and finally the gray of his gliding body blends with the gray of the sage-brush, and he disappears. All this is when you make no demonstration against him; but if you do, he develops a livelier interest in his journey, and instantly electrifies his heels and puts such a deal of real estate between himself and your weapon, that by the time you have raised the hammer you see that you need a minie rifle, and by the time you have got him in line you need a rifled cannon, and by the time you have "drawn a bead" on him you see well enough that nothing but an unusually long-winded streak of lightning could reach him where he is now. But if you start a swift-footed dog after him, you will enjoy it ever so much--especially if it is a dog that has a good opinion of himself, and has been brought up to think he knows something about speed.

The coyote will go swinging gently off on that deceitful trot of his, and every little while he will smile a fraudful smile over his shoulder that will fill that dog entirely full of encouragement and worldly ambition, and make him lay his head still lower to the ground, and stretch his neck further to the front, and pant more fiercely, and stick his tail out straighter behind, and move his furious legs with a yet wilder frenzy, and leave a broader and broader, and higher and denser cloud of desert sand smoking behind, and marking his long wake across the level plain! And all this time the dog is only a short twenty feet behind the coyote, and to save the soul of him he cannot understand why it is that he cannot get perceptibly closer; and he begins to get aggravated, and it makes him madder and madder to see how gently the coyote glides along and never pants or sweats or ceases to smile; and he grows still more and more incensed to see how shamefully he has been taken in by an entire stranger, and what an ignoble swindle that long, calm, soft-footed trot is; and next he notices that he is getting fagged, and that the coyote actually has to slacken speed a little to keep from running away from him--and then that town-dog is mad in earnest, and he begins to strain and weep and swear, and paw the sand higher than ever, and reach for the coyote with concentrated and desperate energy. This "spurt" finds him six feet behind the gliding enemy, and two miles from his friends. And then, in the instant that a wild new hope is lighting up his face, the coyote turns and smiles blandly upon him once more, and with a something about it which seems to say: "Well, I shall have to tear myself away from you, bub--business is business, and it will not do for me to be fooling along this way all day"--and forthwith there is a rushing sound, and the sudden splitting of a long crack through the atmosphere, and behold that dog is solitary and alone in the midst of a vast solitude!

It makes his head swim. He stops, and looks all around; climbs the nearest sand-mound, and gazes into the distance; shakes his head reflectively, and then, without a word, he turns and jogs along back to his train, and takes up a humble position under the hindmost wagon, and feels unspeakably mean, and looks ashamed, and hangs his tail at half-mast for a week. And for as much as a year after that, whenever there is a great hue and cry after a coyote, that dog will merely glance in that direction without emotion, and apparently observe to himself, "I believe I do not wish any of the pie."

The coyote lives chiefly in the most desolate and forbidding desert, along with the lizard, the jackass-rabbit and the raven, and gets an uncertain and precarious living, and earns it. He seems to subsist almost wholly on the carcasses of oxen, mules and horses that have dropped out of emigrant trains and died, and upon windfalls of carrion, and occasional legacies of offal bequeathed to him by white men who have been opulent enough to have something better to butcher than condemned army bacon.

We soon learned to recognize the sharp, vicious bark of the coyote as it came across the murky plain at night to disturb our dreams among the mail-sacks; and remembering his forlorn aspect and his hard fortune, made shift to wish him the blessed novelty of a long day's good luck and a limitless larder the morrow.


He saw a male coyote drag its belly along the ground to distract the dogs, to give itself up while its mate ran to cover.
--William Least Heat-Moon


The Goods the Gods Gave
A. S. Barton

I was mowing hay in my coulee, when I noticed, some distance away, a Coyote carrying something in its mouth. He trotted down the hill and with some difficulty through the long grass, but presently stopped and began to bury his booty in a mole-heap, covering it with his nose, as a dog does. On my approach he decamped and watched my proceedings from the nearest hill and, curious to know what he had been burying, I unearthed his cache, and found, to my surprise, a fine turkey gobbler, still warm and uninjured, except that its neck was broken. I had no time and less inclination to advertise for an owner, but accepted "the goods the gods gave" and carried my prize home.


Fierce Rascals
Richard Henry Dana

Wooding excursions had always a mixture of something rather pleasant in them.  Roaming about in the woods with hatchet in hand, like a backwoodsman, followed by a troop of dogs; starting up of birds, snakes, hares and foxes, and examining the various kinds of trees, flowers, and birds' nests, was at least, a change from the monotonous drag and pull on shipboard.  Frequently, too, we had some amusement and adventure.  The coyote, fierce little animals, with bushy tails and large heads, and a quick, sharp bark, abound here, as in all other parts of California.  These, the dogs were very watchful for, and whenever they saw them, started off in full run after them.  We had many fine chases; yet, although our dogs ran finely, the rascals generally escaped. Pursuit by us was in vain, and in about half an hour a few of the dogs would come panting and straggling back.


The coyotes bark still in the woods, for they belong not to man, and are not touched by his changes.
--Richard Henry Dana


  1. Nice :> Coyotes may be "always poor" and "friendless", but I'm not so sure about the "out of luck" part. Just ask the wolf.

  2. Coyotes do seem to have pretty good luck, considering how well their populations are doing these days.

  3. A number of Indian tribes claimed that Coyote would be the last animal on earth, just as he was first at the beginning. They might just have been right!

    Mark Twain is right on the money--only the swiftest dogs, sighthounds of one variety or another (greyhounds, borzois, deerhounds etc.) can hope to catch a coyote and even then they need to be at the top of their form. Also, these dogs are not exactly the nuclear physicists of the canine world and a coyote merely had to duck under cover (tall grass will do it) and sighthounds, who have no noses to speak of and rely mainly on their vision, lose track of them.

    In "A Sporting Chance" Mannix talks about hunting coyotes with a trained cheetah.

    1. With a cheetah? Speak of unfair... although it may be that coyotes were hunted by the American "cheetah" thousands of years ago just like African cheetahs hunt jackals once in a while.

      Coyotes are said to live in the countryside around here, and camera traps from the nearby national park confirm it, but I have never seen one in the wild! I have, however, seen dogs that look incredibly similar to them and I wouldn´t be surprised if these were hybrids.

  4. The cheetah, as might be expected, did all right provided the coyotes were unable to try any tricks that confused him and led to his wasting energy. One of the coyotes made the mistake of trying to turn and fight, and the cheetah attacked with his front feet, erecting the dewclaws since the main claws are pretty useless as weapons, before going in for the kill with his teeth.

    1. Cheetahs may be the fragile speedsters of the cat world but they're still big cats... poor coyote U-U

  5. Interestingly, the cheetah apparently never bothered the Mannixes' dogs (terriers)or other pets well within his power to overcome and kill. I confess that my guilty fantasy of an unreasonable exotic pet has always been the cheetah--though be it said in defense of that, the cheetah, while known to take exception to being grabbed or manhandled, does not seem to see people as prey and has a long, long history of working with man.


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