Coyote Song

Sometimes you don’t see wildlife. You can hear a coyote howl from here though. Imagine the yipping, yowling, wild sound sprinkled through the night to the inside of your tent here.

I remember someone telling me about shooting a coyote in the desert.  The shooter didn’t have any livestock to speak of, any real grudge against the coyote.  The first shot only injured the animal and the coyote drug itself on injured, unmoving back legs over a hill.  There was no second shot, the shooter himself was using a scope on a rifle and was too far away to be bothered with tracking an injured coyote down.  The coyote probably took days to die.  Who can say whether blood loss, starvation from not being able to hunt, infection from the injury or attack from another predator ended the coyote’s life?  It’s not really important what in the end stopped the coyote’s heart beating.  What’s important is the cruelty and ignorance of the act.  I’ve found over time that such heartless disregard for non-human life is indigenous to the western United States.

Since I heard the grisly story, I’ve camped far out on the South Dakota prairie on a seemingly endless sea of grass and red dirt buttes; where the only sign of humans to be seen is a herd of cows and stretches of barb wire fence.  On the prairie the sun sets almost as it does over the sea, except without the reflection.  There is nothing to block your view of the sunset from even the lowest hilltop and the sky burns with the magic flames of days end.  Not long after the sunset, you can hear to yipping, yowling, singing of coyotes.  Coyotes don’t sound majestic and eerie like wolves, they sound more disorganized, more spontaneous.  Early in the morning you’ll hear the coyotes again before sunrise, each voice an individual cadence of yips, howls and yelps with all the voice forming a strange, singular song.  If you’re lucky you can hear one pack and another or two others answering it in turn, telling you that the whole prairie is filled with coyotes.

Erin and I were walking in the hills near the Catskills in New York.  It was autumn and the ground was a patchwork quilt of colored leaves, the trees themselves still clung to a few little rags of color.  The forest was cool and dim; I don’t remember if it was cloudy or if the trees just shaded the forest but it wasn’t bright beneath the trees.  The two of us were walking a path leading from a pond with a floating dock up a hill through the forest.  Suddenly there was a crunching, rustling crackle of leaves and we saw two fleeing creatures.  Two coyotes and what coyotes they were!  These eastern coyotes had longer legs, were bigger than their smaller western counterparts.  The coyotes were gone in a swirl of leaves, so quickly we could almost doubt seeing them.  If the leaves hadn’t been on the ground, the animals would’ve been silent and we’d never have seen them.

Another time Erin and I were sitting quietly beside a stock pond on another South Dakota prairie, near Badlands National Park.  The two of us were watching birds and giggling at turtles sticking their tiny faces to the surface of the pond from below.  One of us, I think it was Erin noticed an animal moving down a hill in front of us through the tall grass.  A small, grey coyote, alone but with a healthy gloss of bushy hair was moving across the prairie with ease.  Erin and I silently watched the animal, training our binoculars on it.  The coyote was half way down the hill; half way to the pond where we sat when it froze, sensing our presence.  Quietly, surely, not speeding up but also not slowing down, the coyote reversed its direction and disappeared over the hill behind it.

The amazing thing about coyotes, like the Native American trickster they embody is that they’re hard to truly best.  It’s not a hard thing to kill an individual coyote; armed with the right gun it would’ve been easy to shoot the coyote from the stock pond where we sat.  Poisoning coyotes is pretty straight forward as well, ask the U.S. government.  The point isn’t that individual coyotes are invincible, they’re not.  The point is that in a landscape scoured of its wolves, with its grizzly bears hunted out, coyotes persist as a species.  Craig Childs makes the point wonderfully in his beautiful book The Animal Dialogues while speaking of Wildlife Services

“The more coyotes one kills, they discovered, the more coyotes one must contend with…Each western state throws several hundred thousand dollars annually into the coyote-killing pot…In return, coyote populations have risen off the charts…Female coyotes living in areas under light predator control have three to four uterine swellings a year…Where the killing of coyotes is more popular, females have around nine uterine swellings.”[1]

While I was out on the prairie digging up a Triceratops skull a paleontologist mentioned to me his hypothesis of why coyotes sing.  He said when he was in Africa he noticed animals making a lot of noise in early morning and just after sunrise, just like coyotes.  Birds similarly make a lot of vocalizations at those times, the Laughing Kookaburra in Australia being an eerie sounding example.  The paleontologist told me he thought all those animals were vocalizing just to celebrate the damned joy of being alive.  Imagine coyotes singing in cool rays of the morning, welcoming a day and singing again at sunset, happy for the beginning of a dusky night.  It’s not a very scientific hypothesis to think of coyotes singing for the pure joy of being alive and it’s almost certain that their howls establish territories.  It doesn’t mean that coyotes don’t find joy in their voices that the songs can’t be a rich mix of different meanings, just like life. Imagine coyotes singing because despite humans best efforts, they are still here.  Perhaps if we listen to the coyote song carefully we can learn something.


[1] Craig Childs; The Animal Dialogues, ©1997, 2007, Pg.  37-38

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