The sagacity of the coyote

The sagacity of the coyote

By Robert A. Hedeen, Naturalist

Almost everyone has seen the animated cartoons featuring the trials and tribulations of “Wyle E. Coyote” as he repeatedly fails to capture the roadrunner to have for dinner. The roadrunner is the “good guy” as it is a bird loved by all in the Western United States because it supposedly has an affinity for devouring rattlesnakes. Wyle E., the “bad guy,” is depicted as an inept and dull-witted animal that learns nothing from his previous mistakes. Nothing could be further from the truth! The coyote is one of the smartest animals in our wild kingdom, and if he had been portrayed accurately, the roadrunner would have long since become a part of his daily ration.

No other animal has suffered the wrath of man more than the coyote. The early settlers in Illinois called him the prairie wolf, and ever since humans made contact with this member of the dog family, every effort has been made to exterminate him. He has been shot, sometimes from airplanes, trapped, and poisoned relentlessly by individuals, bounty hunters, and members of state and federal wildlife agencies. Many states still pay a bounty for his dead body.

Some years ago, the Fish and Wildlife Service authorized the use of the poison 1080 (sodium monofluroacetate) to control populations of coyotes. 1080 is a deadly poison that should only be used in emergencies, such as an outbreak of rodent-borne diseases, and then only under very strict control. It kills rapidly and has secondary, tertiary, and even longer actions. It is tasteless and odorless and will kill a coyote (or any other warm-blooded animal) in less than a minute. If a coyote is poisoned by 1080 and is eaten by some carrion feeder, that animal will also be killed. If that animal is eaten by another, it also will be lethally poisoned, and so on. The use of 1080 is no longer authorized for coyote control as many non-target species were decimated by its use while the coyote population remained stable.

When I lived in Texas, a common sight along rural roads was a dead coyote hanging on a barbed wire fence. The rancher or farmer who killed the animal thought by exhibiting the dead and moldering corpse, it would repel other predators from invading his property and killing his livestock and poultry.

In spite of all of this persecution, the coyote has managed to survive by outwitting his enemies, adapting to almost every sort of land environment, and by being able to use almost any type of food (animal or plant) for subsistence. A coyote will certainly kill a sheep, calf, or goat if driven by hunger to do so, but its main diet consists of rabbits, rodents, and the occasional bird it may be able to catch.

Dr. Donald F. Hoffmeister, a noted Illinois mammalogist, says there were more coyotes in Illinois in the 1980s than there were in pioneer times, and the same is probably true for the year 2002. He estimates, however, that about 18 percent of the coyote population in the state is made up of hybrids, crosses between coyotes and domestic dogs, so-called coydogs. It has long been known that coydogs were not sterile and could mate with themselves and produce fertile offspring, or back cross with either parent with the same result. It was believed, however, that coydogs suffered from what population biologists term “Hybrid Inferiority.” This means a hybrid between a coyote and a dog is physically inferior to either parental type due to a slight chromosomal incompatibility and cannot compete successfully with its parents for the necessities of life. This theory would seem to be invalid as Hoffmeister’s and others’ estimates of coydog numbers in various parts of the country seem to indicate the hybrids do quite well.

The definitive work on the life of this generally unpopular animal is The Voice of the Coyote,” by J. Frank Dobie, late Professor of English and noted folklorist of the southwest at the University of Texas. In his book, Dobie relates many tales concerning the slyness, trickery, sneakiness, and tenacity of the coyote. One such tale relates how after a coyote grabs a big fat sheep by the neck, he uses his tail as a whip to guide the helpless animal to a convenient place for killing and eating it. The coyote is seemingly not strong enough to move the carcass in the manner of a puma or wolf, so, if he moves it all, he must use his wits.

Dobie also describes how the coyote uses his superior brain to capture prairie dogs, one of his favorite dishes in the West. During the rainy season of the year, the coyote will construct a circular dam of sand and soil around the opening of a prairie dog burrow. When the rains come, water is funneled down into the burrow. The rodent is then forced to evacuate the safety of his home, and the coyote is waiting nearby to pounce upon him.

Many are familiar with the characteristic quavering yip-yip, that often ends in a prolonged howl, that identifies the coyote, but I have not heard that eerie call since I have lived in Illinois. Last year, however, I did see a pair of coyotes (they could have been coydogs) moving through the grass of a reconstituted prairie environment in Rock Cut State Park, but when I stopped the car to try and photograph them with a telescopic lens, they quickly sprinted to the cover of a nearby wood. Coyotes have been clocked loping along a prairie at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour.

The viciousness of some breeds of domestic dogs, it has been suggested, may be due to the introgression of coyote genes into their breeding populations., but this hypothesis seems unlikely

The coyote should be admired as a paragon of successful survival and adaptation in an always hostile environment. To be more accurate, the producers of the cartoons should have named Wyle E. Coyote, “Wily Coyote”.

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