The Coyote Way
Alpha female and mother
Do not flail against the world, use it. Flexibility is the operative principle in the art of war.
-- Sun Tzu
Passive-aggression is not zen.
-- Jon Redturtle
The way of the coyote is astonishing, remarkable for its enduring success. An Indigenous saying goes: At the end of the world there will be two things — God and coyotes.
Nature is very good making things that flex and bend; Nature is not so good making things that are rigid, as they tend to break and shatter.
Coyotes are forever adapting, flexing, bending, always reinventing themselves. Geneticists tell us of their evolutionary response to prehistoric wolves and other giant predators — coyotes got smaller and removed themselves as competitors, mostly hunting prey akin to staples of their diet today: voles, mice and insects, “Nature’s fast burgers and candy bars”, universal nutrition for many other species as well.
As the species expanded in numbers so did its territories, from Yucatan to Alaska, the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic. Coyotes moved into Aztec cities just as they do now in Chicago and New York. Coyotes have homes in mountains, deserts, forests and backstreet alleys and city parks. Coyotes are omnivorous, to put it mildly, consuming carrion, mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, our garbage, and raid low-growing crops and melon fields. Here in the Ortiz Mountains of New Mexico a seasonal staple is juniper berries from the squat trees throughout the landscape (which with pinons form the Northern New Mexican “polka-dot terrain”, as a friend sees it). The juniper berries also have the effect of preventing worms in coyote digestive tracks (or perhaps they have a sophisticated pallet for the flavor of gin).
Coyotes tend to live singly or in small family groups, forming temporary hunting packs when in the presence of larger prey, disbanding after the prey moves off. Coyotes will team with badgers to hunt burrowing creatures and have a mutually collaborative relationship with ravens: coyotes follow ravens to carrion, ravens follow coyotes to their kills, ravens have been documented actively leading coyotes to carcasses too large for them to tear apart.
Despite nearly two centuries of attempted government-sponsored genocide waged against coyotes with firearms, traps and poisons, the species has constantly expanded. This process is complex and not fully understood at this point; when the population suffers decline, birth rates rise. A State Park Ranger in Colorado explains Coyote Arithmetic: “Two minus One equals Two”, or, when one coyote is killed its mate will find a new partner and persist in its established territory. When coyotes reached the Eastern United States the new breed “coywolf”, a coyote/red wolf hybrid began its own expansion towards the West. Not long ago, a coyote calmly boarded a bus on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, took a seat and rode into downtown, where he disembarked. Several weeks ago I saw a coyote loping along a sidewalk near one of Santa Fe’s busiest intersections at two in the afternoon, drawing no attention from human passers-by.
During my stay in the Ortiz Mountains I have become acquainted with a family group of three, a mated pair and their adolescent daughter who grew into adulthood before my eyes. A month ago, more pups revealed themselves and are now adolescents themselves. Adult interlopers appear unexpectedly and mostly vanish just as quickly. Observing these creatures on a nearly-daily basis it is obvious to see that they are each individuals with different characters.
The resident ravens see this also, maintaining different distances from the individual animals and perversely pecking the tail of the alpha male in from-behind ambushes. Visiting coyotes are universally given wide berth by the birds, who sound distinct calls in their presence.
Coyotes and ravens both recognize individual humans. Two of the local coyotes now sometimes permit me to photograph them outside of concealment, although this is rare. Coyotes posture in dances of dominance but seldom seem to cause serious physical damage to each other, although I have seen wounds on three animals after the appearance of a new male I named Merlin, who was around for three weeks in the summer.
I miss Merlin; he has a lazy left eye slightly out of synch with his right and this gives his stare a weird quality and odd beauty. Unlike all other coyotes I have encountered, Merlin regularly let me slowly approach him with the camera to a distance of roughly fifteen feet, fixating on me like a madman — that is, as if I was the madman. Towards the end of his stay I noted some facial wounds on him, a large swollen “knot” was evident on his left ankle and he visibly limped for several days. There must have been physical drama with the establish couple; Merlin moved away shortly thereafter.
Another summer visitor was an aggressive young male with a missing canine tooth. I witnessed and photographed a snarling confrontation between him and the established male; there may have been nips exchanged but the event resulted in no serious injury. However, whenever I saw the new male again he wrenched his face in furious grimaces, lowered his head, pinned back his ears, arched his back and generally looked spooky with mouth agape and his missing tooth. I gave him the name Chupie, for Chupacabra, the crypto-vampire “goat sucker” from Latin America (I did Student Teaching in an East Los Angeles Middle School where the athletic teams were The Chupacabras and “Go Chupies” posters festooned the hallways). I have not seen Chupie the coyote for nearly one month. It appears that coyotes resolve disputes without fatalities.
In his Roughing It, Mark Twain describes the coyote as a lurking presence and always hungry, prompting later writers to claim coyotes are driven only by the quest for food. But there is far more. Coyote emotions are observable and undeniable. The more I photograph them the more facial expressions I see that reveal an emotional spectrum from vulnerability, to affection, to confusion, to annoyance. Perhaps the most unexpected revelation photographing coyotes for me is their penetrating eyes, usually only momentarily glimpsed but recorded in photographs. When the resident female was in full pregnancy I witnessed her mate gently lick her nose and nuzzle her face and then stand by while she consumed a mouse killed by my cat. I have seen both parents goof with their daughter in frisky bumps and paw slaps. I cannot describe it, but for a moment the big male seemed to act like a graceless doofus for his daughter’s amusement. And then there are the astonishing songs and yodels drifting through the nights, sounds that resonate in me in a manner similar to those of whale melodies.
In his marvelous NY Times Best-Selling book Coyote America Dan Flores captures Coyote Nature and the probable reason for the ubiquity of the coyote’s importance in hundreds of Indigenous religions of North America: Coyote Nature mirrors Human Nature, with all of its contradictions and complexities, intelligence, promise of great cooperative achievement, solo quests, good, bad, inborn dignity — perhaps nobility — and interludes of utter buffoonery. Throughout it all, coyote persists, adapts, evolves, bends and constantly reinvents her or himself.
Today’s dominant European-rooted cultures of North America seem inexperienced with the Coyote Way or perhaps never recognized it. How different from The Human Condition is The Coyote Condition?
Humanity faces what from all best indications looks to be a noir future, a daunting challenge, environmentally and ecologically. Coyotes have already experienced at least two similarly epic climate swings, one the demise of deep cold and wet, the other a peak of hot and dry. Many, many other creatures did not survive those. Coyotes did, and they originally attracted our attention because of it. They have also survived our own attempt to wipe them off the planet, and we were pretty damned dedicated to that. As our future unreels, I for one am going to be watching coyotes very, very closely to see just what they do.
— Dan Flores, Coyote America
Used with permission