Nature Notes

Ashford, Washington

Vol. II August-September 1984 No. 5

Nature Notes is issued bimonthly by the Naturalist Staff of Mount Rainier National Park. Material contained herein may be used freely in any manner, provided credit is given to this pamphlet and the author.
William Dengler
Chief Naturalist
Neal G. Guse


Many and sorrowful are the tales of animals such as the grizzly bear and the ivory-billed woodpecker, who cannot bring themselves to co-exist with mankind. Their habitats, their peace and quiet -- something they need -- is crushed by the sheer weight of civilization.


And then there's the coyote. Peace and quiet? Who needs it? There are, it is estimated, ten thousand coyotes inside the Los Angeles city limits -- not your basic bucolic surroundings. Habitat? Coyotes prowl deserts, plains, woodlands and forest margins, farms and suburbia from sea level to treeline. A map of North America showing coyote habitat is almost completely crosshatched, and that's a big bunch of habitat indeed.

Not content to merely co-exist, the coyote thumbs his pointy nose at mankind. In some areas, we paltry people have done our level best to eradicate him. In the process we have nearly wiped out the innocuous little Kit Fox, who kept taking the poisoned bait and gas bombs meant for coyotes. We've fired tons of ammunition and set a million traps. In insolent response, the coyote has not only kept his population intact, he has broadened his range into eastern North America. Coyotes are now common in Maine, for example, where twenty years ago they were unknown.

The versatile dog can fend for himself in barren wastes, but he's equally good at turning a trick in a crowded campground. A ranger at Cottonwood Campground in Joshua Tree National Monument, some years ago, watched a coyote work the south loop on a Sunday morning. As the various camping parties moved around getting breakfast, packing up and lounging, the coyote wove in and out among vehicles and boulders. He was there -- he enjoyed an ample repast at the campers' expense -- and not a single camper noticed him. Residents at Tahoma Woods, who rarely see the critters, hear them yelp and howl regularly.

That famous yelping and howling (which gives the coyote part of its scientific name, Canis meaning dog and Latrans meaning barking) is apparently a social occasion as well as a means of communication among pack members. "Pack" is a misnomer, too, for coyote packs are usually simply extended families. When next you hear a yelping binge, try to pick out the smooth, strong adult voices and the querulous voices of the little guys. Like peach-fuzz choir boys, adolescent coyotes sometimes lose it in the middle; their voices crack.

Both parents take part in raising their annual litters of six or seven choir members. The pups, born in spring, are out and on their own by the time snow flies. The nubile young lady coyotes reach maturity at about age two.


Another factor in the coyote's ability to make do anywhere is its appetite, and its predators'. The coyote will eat just about anything; but very few animals will eat a coyote. Hawks and eagles may pick off an occasional pup, and poor judgment or accident befall a few, but El Coyote enjoys relative freedom from enemies. Perhaps, like Charlie the tuna, coyotes don't have much good taste. They eat carrion eagerly, small mammals, rarely large mammals (a healthy deer will successfully resist a family of hunting coyotes, convincing them to find dinner else where), fruits and berries, even melon -- whatever is handy.

Do they really eat roadrunners? The great Coyote/Roadrunner confrontation is documented only in the cartoons. But the cartoonists named the old dog aptly: Wyle E. Coyote. Wily indeed, the thirty-pound canine is smarter than most domestic dogs. Cases in point: a coyote deliberately appeared out of the brush a hundred feet in front of a hefty, seventy-five pound housepet. The dog gave chase, of course, and failed to notice the two companion coyotes closing in behind him. He was being decoyed, and planned as the luncheon entree; only timely intervention by his owner saved him. Had he been smaller, perhaps no kind of intervention would have saved him, for the same coyotes snatched a ten-pound miniature poodle even as the owner stood less than thirty feet away.

At the end, then, it seems to be the coyote's sheer versatility that carries him so exuberantly through life -- live anywhere, eat anything, and stay sharp. Here at Mount Rainier the coyotes keep a low profile. Incidentally, they are harmless, even if their sunset serenades sound as though Dracula is about to step out from behind a tree. Here they are protected. In Los Angeles, where aberrant coyotes were blamed for a child's death, police have orders to shoot coyotes on sight. And yet, neither here nor there does the coyote population seem to be changing.

In the Bible, the prophet Isaiah described the once-wealthy, wordly, sin-laden city of Babylon after her destruction. He told of wild animals prowling her empty streets, her ruined courts; of jackals (Old World coyote equivalents) howling from the deserted rooftops. Do you suppose that after the last Angeleno is gone, and Century City and Universal Studios have begun to crumble, that the coyotes will still be there?

Sandy Dengler

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