Denizens Of The Desert:
Desert Bighorn And Near Relatives
Battle Of The Reptiles
Latrodectus, The Poisonous
Le Conte Thrasher
Gnatcatchers And Verdins
Desert White–crowned Sparrow
Read More Articles About: Denizens Of The Desert
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
(Canis ochropus estor)
WHETHER out of curiosity or contempt every-body seems to be interested in the ways and doings of the clever coyote. His ability to raid hen-roosts successfully without being caught, and his cunning in combination with his seeming cowardice, have brought him into disrepute among all people. Perhaps no Western animal has had so many cursings breathed upon him.
And if he is held in contempt among men, what must his social standing among animals be! Surely none of them love him. I have watched too many merry waltzings of the kangaroo rats on the moonlit sands broken up by his approach, seen where too many mouse homes have been dug out and destroyed, witnessed rabbits escape capture too often to have any doubts as to just what they must think of him. Even the dog, his nearest cousin, ordinarily disavows any relation to him and snarls and barks savagely at him when he comes near him on the hunt. It is not strange that in the Southwestern Indian folk-tales, wherein the coyote figures so largely, the smaller animals make him the butt of so many jokes and that they give him so little sympathy in all his troubles.
Like an outlaw the coyote is a wanderer ever on the move and swift of foot. He makes his miserable home among the rocks of the shrubby hills or seeks shelter in holes made in the steep banks of barrancas or washes leading down from the mountains. In these retreats he spends his days, but when the first stars are beginning to show themselves he comes out of his hole, shakes his dusty coat, and, after giving a few short, ringing, yapping barks to announce him-self to his comrades, sets forth on the long hunting excursions of the night. These journeys are often of remarkable length, it being not uncommon for him to travel ten or twenty miles out across the desert and back again before sunrise and breakfast.
It is both interesting and amusing to follow the tracks of this shiftless, seemingly homeless fellow over the sandy dunes, watching where he goes, now in a straight course, now running out of his way to smell down some rat hole, then again going with an aimless gait on and on over the sands until again arrested by some silly curiosity. The position of the track-marks made on these unhurried excursions often shows that he runs somewhat sidewise, as is common with little dogs, to prevent his feet from hitting. When you see where he has been on the swift chase, signs of this peculiar gait are not apparent.
Sometimes when hunger drives him to it the coyote is out and on the hunt during the day, and occasionally then you will get a good look at him and see him chasing his game. The larger animals like the rabbits he obtains by running them down in the open where there is little chance for them to elude him. What mice and wood rats are not obtainable on the chase are dug from their holes and gobbled up before they have time to escape. The coyote's meddle-some nose leads him to many a clutch of quail's eggs, and he leaves nothing to tell of his visit but broken shells and a yolk-stained nest.
Beetles and grasshoppers, horned lizards, and even the bitter-skinned toads are used for food. In spite of his bad odor, the skunk is preyed upon. The coyote's strong appetite for young pigs, chickens, and sheep is an impulse which leads him to the rashest butchery, so that not without cause is he almost universally declared by "cowmen" to be the "worst varmint that infests the earth." Once having tasted blood, he seems to lose all sense of prudence and of fear, and he comes about the ranch yards in the broad light of day and walks boldly among the cattle pens awaiting his chance to seize any unsuspecting fowl or young pig which in search of food may have wandered too far away from the barns.
During years of terrible drought, when the springs dry up in early April and scarcely a blade of grass comes up to provide food for the hungry, lean cattle that wander over the hills, the coyotes become very aggressive, take advantage of the weakness of the mother cows, and snatch the young calves when scarcely born. If a calf is attacked when near other cattle, the whole herd, hearing the bellowing of the mother, will likely come to the rescue and charge upon the murderer. This, the coyotes seemingly know, and so they prefer to find some miserable cow and her calf out alone on the range. Even full-grown cattle may be attacked when through weakness and thirst they get down and are unable to resist the onslaughts of voracious enemies. On such occasions the coyotes approach them from behind, and, while the poor animals are yet alive, they will tear out their entrails.
A prospector by the name of Gus Lederer, who lives at Corn Springs in the Chuckawalla Mountains of California, complains bitterly to me about the way the coyotes kill all his cats. A coyote scalp with a bunch of chicken feathers and a piece of cat's hide were here nailed upon a palm tree as a proclamation and warning of what may happen to any other coyote that may become too familiar about his place in the future.
At certain seasons of the year, when other food is scarce, coyotes eke out a scanty living by feeding on dry manzanita berries, gourds (hence often called coyote melons), dates from the Washingtonia palms, and other dried fruits. Lean bones tell the tale of hunger and under-nourishment, but no one cares. That is what one gets for being a coyote. If driven to it, this ever-hungry animal vagabond will even eat carrion and not be ashamed. I have often wondered if he rolls on the carcass, as dogs do, before eating it.
The coyote possesses a special fondness for watermelons, and always seems to delight in plugging the ripest and best ones in the patch. He is never satisfied with a single melon's flavor, but insists on taking a sample bite or two out of every good melon on the place. Here again he lets his foolish eating habits run at cross-purposes with the desires of man and invokes retribution upon himself in the form of poisoned fruits, traps, and rifle balls. In the Colorado Desert the date-growers tell me that the coyotes are so fond of dates that they climb up into the young trees to rob the fruit.
Now it must ever be remembered that the coyote in spite of his sins plays a valuable part in preserving the balance in nature. Were it not for his keeping the rabbits and ground squirrels in check, the country would long ago have been overrun with these troublesome rodents. Few of the ranchers who rail at the coyote for his raids on their chicken coops and vineyards realize what value he is to them. The few hens and grapes he takes are small pay for the number of destructive, grain-eating rodents he annually destroys. Last autumn, when I journeyed one very early morning through a little mountain village where the settlers were clearing land and raising their first crops, and counted the jack rabbits in some of the fields, I found sixty-two, in one instance, on an acre plot of corn. It did not surprise me that there was little worry expressed in the neighborhood over the toils attending the coming harvest season. The rabbits had taken everything. These same settlers had carried on for some time a consistent and continuous campaign of coyote trapping and this plague of rabbits was the result. They must now assume the burden of controlling the rabbits by themselves at cost of time, labor, and money, to say nothing of the loss of crops in the meantime. " Civilized man has [often] proceeded so far," writes Lankester,1 "in his interference with extra-human nature, has produced for himself and the living organisms associated with him such a special state of things by his rebellion against natural selection and his defiance of Nature's pre-human dispositions, that he must either go on and acquire firmer control of the conditions or perish miserably by the vengeance certain to fall on the half-hearted meddler in great affairs. We may, indeed, compare civilized man to a successful rebel against Nature, who by every step for-ward renders himself liable to greater and greater penalties, and so cannot afford to pause or fail in one single step."
All who intimately know the coyote concede that he has a good sense of humor and that there lurks behind those cold, crafty, green eyes a passion for trickery. It is a great sport of his to tantalize and play jokes on the ranch dogs by keeping them up and in a state of growling ill-humor half the night, robbing them and the ranch people who own them of half their sleep. He will bark beguilingly for hours, using his ventriloquistic powers to lead the dogs off in the wrong direction, while his mates, who aid him on the hunt, sally into the sheep corrals and carry off the fattest of the flock. Finding the sheep disappearing at the hands of this murderous rogue, the rancher puts out his traps, but too often finds the cunning shrewdness of the coyote outwitting his best efforts to catch him. Unless the lure of bait is extraordinarily attractive and free from human taint, or the traps unusually well placed, the "educated" freebooter will never be caught. He recognizes that man is his worst and most insidious enemy, and he looks suspiciously and contemptuously upon all human inventions to work his ruin. To show his scorn and let the farmer know how near he has been to the cruel trap without being caught, he often defiles the trap with his excreta, leaving his enemy to curse the wily and elusive creature who again has outwitted him and rendered nugatory all his best efforts to protect his sheep.
The female coyote is a conscientious mother, and it is a profound moment in her life when the little grayish-brown puppies are born into the world of light. The old roving nature now gives way to the maternal instinct to stay as much as possible about the den and guard, suckle, and train the young. The number of puppies in a litter is about five, born during the first days of April. They are as awkward and clumsy as can be, with big heads and ears out of all pro-portion to the size of their bodies. I occasion-ally meet some desert man who entertains the curious idea that coyote mothers feed their young by regurgitation; that is, by first eating and half digesting the food themselves and then throwing it up into the young coyotes' mouths. One old fellow regarded me with somewhat of a look of mingled scorn and pity when I showed hesitancy in believing his statement to that effect. The truth is, of course, that, like all baby canines, the young subsist entirely upon the mother's milk until they cut their teeth. But even before they have learned to eat solid food, you may see them almost any day playing about the hole making pretense of chewing on old bones or playing at tearing the carcass of some animal the mother has brought in for their delight and to encourage the strengthening of the baby jaws. They are a rollicking lot and are quite as ready to chew at one another's feet and ears as upon other objects. They tumble and roll, growl, scramble and scrap in sham fight, their green, close-set, slanting eyes expressing the happiness they enjoy. Play is now the fundamental, uppermost, and dominating business of their lives. The instincts of youth urge them on to the expenditure of their overflowing energy in the matching of strength, and in this competitive play they acquire the elasticity of mind and muscle so essential in after life. The mortality among young coyotes is not great; for their natural enemies, with the exception of man, are few. In a remarkably short time after birth these puppies are ready to shift for themselves and meet the hard struggle before them.
Coyote puppies early learn that their greatest safety lies in flight when danger confronts them. Curiosity seldom leads them to sit still or stand and look when they are approached. Brand this trait with the ill-sounding name of coward-ice if you will. It is this so-called cowardice that means to the coyote triumph in the arena of efficiency and the attainment of that which is dearest to the heart of all living creatures - the continuance of life. The law of self-preservation is written deep upon the mind. Its biological significance is great. What animal has been able, like the coyote, to baffle hunters and trappers and preserve its kind under conditions so wretched? Except in the most civilized parts of his old range he still seems almost as plentiful as ever, and his dismal barking serenades may still be heard at night in the foothills and plains as of old. During a series of seasons when high prices for pelts prevail, he is much reduced in numbers (during one winter recently when skins brought as high as ten and twenty dollars apiece, over four hundred skins were taken out of the Searles Lake region on the Mohave Desert alone), but as soon as prices drop again and trapping ceases, the loss is quickly replenished.
The most serious disease to which coyotes are subject is hydrophobia. When once they get it, the consequences are always serious, especially to man. In their mad wanderings over wide districts they bite skunks, dogs, cattle, and other animals, and these in turn attack and communicate the disease to human beings. Serious outbreaks of rabies are thus experienced from time to time, especially in the more remote regions where the coyote is still abundant.? The little spotted skunk generally gets the blame.
"During the year the State authorities of Nevada treated more than sixty persons who were bitten by either wild or domesticated animals. So great was the dread inspired by the presence of these maddened wild animals that children were accompanied to school by armed guards. Driven by their rabid blindness, coyotes entered the yards of dwellings, attacking dogs, cats, human occupants, or any object they might encounter; they entered feed lots and snapped and infected cattle, sheep, and other domesticated animals; and also at-tacked pedestrians, horsemen, and automobiles on the public highways. The destruction of live stock was enormous. In a feed lot at Winnemuca, Nevada, a single rabid coyote caused the loss of twenty-seven steers. The State of Nevada promptly appropriated $30,000 to cooperate with the United States Biological Survey in waging a campaign against the pests in that State.
"The movements of live stock between their summer and winter pasture ranges, with accompanying movements of dogs and predatory animals, made possible an extension of the disease into the contiguous territory of eastern Oregon, southern Idaho, northern California, the western half of Utah, and even into eastern Washington. Cattle and sheep were destroyed in large numbers through the extension of the disease, and at least 1500 persons were bitten by rabid animals." (Yearbook of the Department of Agriculture, 1920.)
Dogs and coyotes readily interbreed, with the result that you will find in country places, especially among the Indians, who seemingly care little about the breeds of their dogs, mongrels of every gradation. The domestic dog is naturally jealous, pugnacious, and brave, but when he has the least bit of coyote blood in him he is almost always worthless to the needs of man. He is then shy and distrustful, and on the least occasion sneaks off and runs. His form is lean and his coat lacks the luster, smoothness, and fineness of the domestic stock.
The ordinary coyote's color is a brownish gray, but those of the desert regions are nearly always of a lighter color in harmony with their surroundings. Once in a while an albino coyote is found, an animal whose hair is pure white. Lumholtz, in his delightful travel book, en-titled "New Trails in Mexico," tells of several observed along the shores of the Laguna Prieta and at Carborca. I have never heard of a pure black coyote, melanism evidently not being as much exhibited among them as among foxes and some other animals.
Normal coyotes need seldom be feared by man. Only once have I heard of them attacking a human being. One of the ranchmen at the Whitewater Ranch on the Colorado Desert was irrigating one evening and was approached by a small pack of lean, hungry-looking coyotes. They dogged his steps and menacingly tried to snap at him. He was able to keep them off and finally to drive them away only by throwing water from the ditch upon them with his shovel.
Though coyotes are more or less sociable animals among themselves, there are seldom more than two or three together, though their rollicking, yelping barks would lead one to think two dozen were coming near. Their voices often have a peculiar human sound about them, so that one might easily imagine their cries to be those coming from a group of playful, yelling youngsters. I well remember an old lady, who had spent all her life in Chicago, exclaiming when she first heard the coyotes barking, "Where are all those noisy bad boys?"