Thursday, January 18

The Wily Ones

For quite some time, I've been carrying around in the back of my mind the notion that I should write a blog post about coyotes. Today, I decided to finally write it, spurred on by a certain post I read this morning. In preparation, I started looking around for info on coyotes. Well, I can sum up all the reference material in one word: Boring!

Coyotes--for those who have had no contact at all with them and might not know this--are one of the most fascinating creatures in all creation, and a collection of coyote facts just doesn't do them justice.* So, I've decided it's phfft! to all the reference material, but forward ho! without it. That's why the subtitle to this post is Everything I Know About Coyotes Without Looking Anything Up.

First, let's talk about what we call these wild dogs. Did you know that they have them in northern Minnesota, where I grew up, but they don't call them coyotes? They call them brush wolves, and old farmers there may even tell you that they don't have coyotes, only timber wolves and brush wolves. But a coyote by any other name, even if it's a little bigger than the coyotes here in the Yukon, is still a coyote. And even when we agree on the word coyote as their proper name, we still may pronounce that name differently. My dad, the Kansas farm kid turned eastern Colorado cowboy calls them ky-oats (first syllable rhymes with sky, second syllable with porridge, accent on first syllable), while in the Yukon and almost everywhere else, they're called ky-oat-tees (sky, porridge, type of shirt, accent on second syllable). Growing up, my dad told me that only silly sissified city folk called them ky-oat-tees, but I've since learned that is not completely accurate.

In the Yukon, this is the time of year when we are most likely to have coyotes right around our homes. Food is scarcer in the bush during the dead of winter, and they come to town to wander the streets looking for tasty garbage or even an available small pet. Several years ago, on a lovely forty below zero day, I walked over to my local elementary school to do some reading with students. As I approached the school, I noticed a coyote digging through the garbage can right up next to the main entrance of the school. He saw me, quickly grabbed a full lunch bag in his mouth and trotted off. Lately we've been seeing a coyote walking the street in front of our house, and I suspect when the garbage can beside the house was overturned and the remains our yummy food garbage spread down the driveway, across the street and on into the bush, it was coyote work.

The small pet thing is the reason we don't let our cat Leroy outside except by mistake. Sure he's sixteen pound of pure muscle and afraid of nothing--some of the local big dogs have lost fights with him--but he's no roadrunner. Neither was our previous dog, an old, friendly, deaf and lame Samoyed, who had his own won't-you-be-my-dinner run-in with coyotes.

Here's the story, but I'll give you fair warning: The dog doesn't die in the end, so this one won't win a Newbery Medal for children's literature. On a January morning several years ago I left the gate open while fetching something from the garage. The dog wandered out, as he often did, and I thought nothing much of it. He would usually walk down the street a bit, greet anyone out and about, and make his way home again. No worry, right? But that day something bothered me about the whole scenario and I went out to fetch him, just in time to see him loping off into the bush after a coyote. Then I saw the second coyote fold in behind from out of nowhere and I knew our old dog was a goner. He was deaf, remember, so calling him back to me was useless. But he turned, glanced back and saw me, and I motioned for him to come. For once in his life, he obeyed on command, and it saved his live.

Part of what makes coyotes so interesting is that they're not particularly frightened of us. That's partly why they've adapted so well--perhaps too well--to the spread of civilization. Every few years, someone here in Whitehorse has a run-in with a coyote. I don't think anyone's actually been bitten, but if I remember right, a woman carrying a bag of groceries had one tug on her clothing with his teeth. I suspect he was more interested in eating her groceries than in eating her, but I'm not volunteering to be the guinea pig to test out my hypothesis.

Not only are coyotes not scared of us, but they can be interested in what we're doing. A few days ago, oldest son was whistling a tune in the house while the friendly neighbourhood coyote was traipsing by. The coyote stopped in front of the house, looked toward the window, cocked his head and listened for 15 seconds or so before he went on his way. I wonder what he was thinking.

Sometimes, if you howl outside at night, the coyotes will howl back to you. Don't be fooled into thinking that you've tricked them and they think you're just another coyote. They know who you are, and we know that because coyote howls responding to humans are less complex than howls responding to other coyotes. They know who you are and they are dumbing things down for you.

One other thing I've noticed about coyotes--and I promise this will be the last--is that, for the most part, they are wild dogs on a mission. When you take your family dog for a walk unleashed, she probably darts here and there, sniffing this and that. Not so with the coyote. Coyotes do not stop to smell the roses, and only pause briefly to hear the whistling. Once or twice, I've seen a pair of coyotes romping around, but most often, they are traveling in a bee-line to wherever it is they are going. They are business travelers only, and workaholics. Do you think that's the key to their success?

Oh, and the post that prompted me to finally post something on coyotes? This one, from Charlie, in which we learn at least one more thing about coyotes. You can probably believe what Charlie tells you, because he consulted coyote researchers.

Serendipitous morsel: Today's final jeopardy answer was, "The middle initial for this 1949 movie critter stands for Ethelbert." Know the question?

And what about you? Do you have a coyote story or tidbit? No reference material allowed!

Update: Don't miss all the additional coyote stories in the comments, and there's yet another one at Seasonings of the Heart.

*Yes, I know. If you have livestock, you may think doing justice to coyotes involves a 30-06.

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