The Urban Coyote and a Creation Storyby Jonathan DuHamel on Oct. 14, 2011, under Natural History
According the Arizona Game & Fish Department, the population density of coyotes in the urban area is twice that in the wild. Coyotes favor residential areas, parks, and golf courses and use natural areas and washes for dispersal. Coyotes can run at almost 40 mph and can jump a 6-foot wall. The coyote in the photo was lounging in my driveway.
AZG&F says: “Coyotes are curious, clever, and adaptable. They quickly learn to take advantage of any newly discovered food source, and are often attracted to yards with abundant fruit and wildlife to eat. Coyotes will eat pet food and knock over unsecured garbage cans, or may walk along the tops of walls around homes in search of unattended dogs and cats to eat. Coyotes may consider large or loud dogs to be a threat to their territory and become aggressive toward those dogs. Coyotes have lured free-roaming dogs away from their owners to attack, and bold coyotes may attack small dogs on retractable leashes.” Game & Fish has a short brochure about how to deal with urban coyotes here.
The coyote (Canis latrans) is a very adaptable omnivore that occurs in 49 of the 50 states. (Guess which state they don’t inhabit.) A coyote resembles a medium-sized dog with a long, bushy black-tipped tail, big ears, and a pointy face. The fur color varies from grayish to light brown, with a buff or white underbelly. You’ll never see a fat coyote in the wild. Mark Twain wrote: “The coyote is a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry.”
Wiry and with long, slender legs and small feet, a desert coyote usually weighs only 15 to 25 pounds. The tracks are much smaller than those of a domestic dog of the same size. Coyotes will eat anything from road-killed carrion to cactus fruit, mesquite beans, seeds, plants, and meat. They hunt small animals such as rodents, rabbits, birds, snakes, insects — especially grasshoppers and crickets — and any injured animal they can subdue according to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum staff.
Coyotes generally hunt singly or in pairs around a core area that contains their den. During the breeding season, coyotes will scent-mark their territory with urine and by scraping the ground to leave a visual mark. They will defend their territory during breeding season, February to March, with pups born in April and May.
Coyotes, which some call “sound dogs,” typically howl at dusk as they begin their hunt. They also howl to communicate with neighbors and family members. Within neighborhoods, coyotes howling usually sets off the neighborhood dogs.
Coyotes feature large in Native American folklore. One of the most interesting stories to me was told by professional storyteller and author Gerard Tsonakwa during a lecture at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Mr. Tsonakwa is a Native American from the Abenaki people who inhabited Quebec and northern New England. He now resides in Tucson.
Of the many stories he told us, I found his creation story a most interesting parable. The written word can’t convey the nuances of delivery nor gestures, so you will have to be satisfied with the plain narrative of what I remember of his story, and even this will be an abridged version.
The Lord of Creation was lonely, so he gathered all the energy of the universe into a small space so that, with much noise and fire, it exploded to create the world. On the world, the Lord of Creation made plants and animals and humans, and all the animals and humans could talk to each other. The Lord of Creation provided food for man and beast and some animals understood that they were to provide food for other animals, and for that, the animals and humans would give thanks to those they ate.
So it was on the first day. On that first day, there was the Sun to provide light and warmth and the whole world was beautiful. The first night was a different story. There was only darkness with no stars to punctuate the black sky. So on the second day, the Lord of Creation set out to do something about that. He collected certain bright flowers called Tundra Stars and put them in a big bag. On the second night, the Lord of Creation, using a long stick, carefully placed each Tundra Star in the sky. The Lord of Creation was very meticulous and placed the stars in patterns like a bead design. This was hard work and before the night was over, the Lord of Creation fell asleep.
As the Lord of Creation slept, Coyote happened upon him. Now, Coyote was a curious beast, and although he was well fed from the fruits of the world, he was always looking for something else, and he saw the bag of Tundra Stars. Coyote sniffed around the bag, then took it and ran off. But as he was running he tripped and dropped the bag which opened and spilled its contents all around the night sky. This commotion awoke the Lord of Creation who saw what Coyote had done. The Lord of Creation chastised Coyote for scattering his stars and obscuring his meticulous patterns with a random array of stars. Coyote began to cry, then howl. And from that day, Coyote and his kin howl at the night sky as penance.
So here, in a short narrative, we have an explanation of the big bang theory, of why constellations appear in a random star field and of why coyotes howl at the night sky.
For more stories of natural history see: