"Wildest of all beasts is the wolf,
and wildest of all wolves is the coyote."
Coyote, Canis latrans
Play a "song dog" serenade.
It was on August 12, 1804, northwest of today's Onawa, Iowa, that Lewis and Clark first recognized the "Prarie1 wolf which was barking at us as we passed" like a large "fest,"2 and set out together to shoot a specimen for its scientific interest, but failed to even get a shot at it. A little over a month later, on September 17, one of the hunters brought in "a Small wolf with a large bushey tail," and on the following day Clark himself scored "a Prarie Wollf, about the Size of a gray fox bushey tail head & ear like a wolf." Lewis wrote his description of what proved to be a new species on May 5, 1805, in northeastern Montana.
the small woolf or burrowing dog of the praries are the inhabitants almost invariably of the open plains; they usually ascociate in bands of ten or twelve sometimes more and burrow near some pass or place much frequented by game; not being able alone to take deer or goat they are rarely ever found alone but hunt in bands; they frequently watch and seize their prey near their burrows; in these burrows they raise their young and to them they also resort when pursued; when a person approaches them they frequently bark, their note being precisely that of the small dog. they are of an intermediate size between that of the fox and dog, very active fleet and delicately formed; the ears large erect and pointed the head long and pointed more like that of the fox; tale long; . . . the hair and fur also resembles the fox tho' is much coarser and inferior. they are of a pale redish brown colour. the eye of a deep sea green colour small and piercing. their tallons [claws] are reather longer than those of the ordinary wolf or that common to the atlantic states, none of which are to be found in this quarter, nor I believe above the river Plat.—
The call of the coyote frequently embellished the Corps of Discovery's nighttime soundscape. At St. Michael's Prairie near present St. Joseph, Missouri, On September 11, 1806 Lewis wrote:
Wolves were howling in different directions this evening after we had encamped, and the barking of the little prarie wolves resembled those of our Common Small Dogs that 3/4 of the party believed them to be the dogs of Some boat assending which was yet below us. the barking of those little wolves I have frequently taken notice of on this as also the other Side of the Rocky mountains, and their Bark so much resembles or Sounds to me like our Common Small Cur dogs that I have frequently mistaken them for that Speces of dog.
At the time, Lewis's "burrowing dog of the praries" seemed the most explicitly descriptive name for the species, but "prarie wolf" and "brush wolf" seemed appropriate also. No one in the Corps had yet heard of a "coyote." An English-language version of the native (Nahuatl) Mexican word coyotl first appeared in print in 1824, proceeding from "coyjotte"3 to "collates" to "cayeute" until it reached its orthographic terminus in the 1880s as "coyote," now pronounced either ki-yoh-tee or ki-yote, depending on local preference or personal habit.
European traders in on the upper Missouri had known of the prairie wolf for many decades, and Lewis's added few details that were new. In fact, Nicholas Biddle, in his 1814 paraphrase of Lewis and Clark's journals, condensed Lewis's remarks to three sentences: "The large and small wolves of the plains principally inhabit the open country and the woodlands on their borders. They resemble, both in appearance and habit, those of the Missouri plains. They are by no means abundant in the plains of the Columbia, as they meet there but very little game for their subsistence."4 The first academic description for scientific purposes was published in 1823 by Thomas Say, who classified it in the genus Canis (kay-nis; Latin for "dog"), and designated it as the species latrans (lay-tranz, "barking").
Lewis's estimate of the geographic distribution of the "prairie wolf" was significant, insofar as it provides a baseline for comparisons that show how its range has expanded during the past 200 years, and why. Coyotes learned during more than 20 million years of conditioning to stay out of wolf territory, but as the human population increased, wolves were virtually wiped out, and the coyotes naturally moved in to fill the void. They are somewhat less particular when it comes to daily sustenance, and the rodents that have multiplied around human settlements, farms and ranches, provide plenty of their favorite food. Today, although wolves have been re-introduced into parts of the American West, coyotes remain the dominant terrestrial predators from coast to coast, and from Central America to central Alaska. They have practically no competition from the lower mammals, and they continue to thrive despite the numerous and often unbelievably cruel ways that two-legged predators have devised to extirpate them.5
Among the nine North American species in the genus Canis, the coyote occupies a "medium-siz" slot. The coyote the Corps, plus Sacagawea, Old Toby, and his son, ate for supper one night in late September of 1805 wouldn't have done much to fill 35 empty stomachs by itself, since a full-grown coyote in its best days tips the scale at somewhere between 25 and 35 pounds—head, tail, bones, innards and all.
In real life the coyote's name has come to stand for much of the worst behavior of which humans are capable, and there is a long list of uncomplimentary adjectives to prove it, although many have lost their sting now that most of us have been separated so far from wildness. On the other hand, the coyote is a prominent figure in North American Indian mythology; Nez Perce mythology is especially rich in that lore.
Coyote myths are not about coyotes in general, or as a species, but about "coyote" in the third-person singular—not "them" but "him." He is prehistoric. He is ageless. He is as self-centered and frail as any human, but as liberal and omnipotent as any cosmical fantasy-fiction hero. He is a mentor, moralist, and master, yet he is not a god. He is the supreme trickster-transformer, though he is never malicious. He is at once "hot," and "cool." The ultimate tale about coyote is the one that relates how he re-created all the people from the bones and blood of the monster that had eaten them, saving the heart for the Nimi'ipuu—the real people,—and ending with the oracular announcement: "Only a short time away is the coming of the human race."6
- 1. In his first dictionary, which he published in 1806, Noah Webster spelled the word prairy. His self-imposed mission was to establish a distinctive style of spelling that would be simpler than British or French practice, and phonetically closer to common pronunciations among educated Americans. Sometimes he succeeded, as with the word neighborhood, which Lewis as well as the orthographically challenged Clark invariably spelled Britanically—neighbourhood. In the case of prairy, however, Webster's compromise failed to stick, and the French spelling remains intact today.
- 2. Properly "feist," a Southern term for a small, snappy, nervous, belligerent little mongrel dog. The coyote is also known as a "song-dog" among many Indian peoples.
- 3. William Bullock (flourished 1808-1828), the author of Six Months' Residence and Travels in Mexico (London, 1824), wrote that the coyjotte "seems to connect the wolf, fox and dog."
- 4. History of the Expedition of Captains Lewis and Clark, 1804-5-6 . . . . (2 vols., 1814), Chapter VII, "A general description of the beasts, birds, plants, etc., found by the party in this expedition," xxx.
- 5. A summary of the principal aspects of the species Canis latrans will be found in the Animal Diversity Web of the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Canis_la.... For a treatment of its place in 21st-century life, see John Trout Jr., Solving Coyote Problems: How to Outsmart North Ameica's Most Persistent Predator (Guilford, Conecticut: the Lyons Press, 2000).
- 6. Deward E. Walker, Jr, and Daniel N. Matthews, Nez Perce Coyote Tales: The Myth Cycle (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994), 3-11. The "heart of the monster" is part of the Nez Perce National Historical Park; it is pictured at http://www.nps.gov/nepe/site15.htm, and an abbreviated version of the legend is related by Nez Perce historian Allen Slickpoo at http://www.ilhawaii.net/~stony/lore47.html.