Coyote Music

 Do you want to hear a local band whose music will make your hair stand on end? 

You’ll probably have to stay up late.  Neither poster nor word of mouth is going to tip you off about their next venue.  And you are going to have to get out now and then to hear them.  But, trust me, their distinctive repertoire will stick in your memory long after the last note sounds.

   The name of the band? Canis latrans. 

   The first name they went by in these parts was prairie wolf.  You probably know them as coyotes.

   The last time I heard coyote music was when I left the house at 5 a.m. to take my daughter to an early departure at school.  The night was dark and starlit, with almost no traffic noise.  But soft in the air, high-pitched as a litter of mewing newborn kittens, we heard the yipping and crying of our neighborhood coyote rout. 

   The time prior to that I was walking home from school in the dead of winter and decided to walk part of the way along the dike heading east from the West Decorah Bridge.  The 6 p.m. siren sounded in the darkness and suddenly, from the woods around Dunning’s Spring just across the river, came a chorus of loud and defined howls.

   Part of the thrill of hearing coyotes howling in the dark is knowing that the vocalists are fifty to seventy-pound animals that live by killing and unsurpassed wit.

   Not that you have much personally to fear from coyotes; the only officially documented American coyote fatality was a California toddler. 

   Your pets, however, might be another story.  Coyotes, whose numbers before European settlement were mainly kept in check by wolves, are known to kill cats and small dogs. 

   The farmers who least like coyotes are those who keep sheep or free-range fowl.  I have several farming friends and relatives who have kept Great Pyrenees, because those massive dogs proved to be the only effective protection for their lambs against coyotes.

   Though sheep farmers and nervous pet owners might not agree, coyotes do the area a great service.  They mainly eat rodents such as mice, voles, and rabbits:  animals that do lots of damage if their population is left unchecked.   

   Though numerous on the prairies before settlement, coyotes were hunted nearly out of existence in Iowa as retribution for the toll they took on livestock.  Today 10,000 coyotes a year are hunted and trapped in Iowa, with up to 400,000 killed across the nation.  For all that, their numbers are probably greater now than they have ever been in the state, as well as in the whole country.

   In part, the rise in numbers is due to our eradication of wolves, the coyote’s one natural enemy.  In addition, however, the mix of open ground and woodland we create to suit ourselves also suits coyotes.  Like us, they evolved in open spaces, but crave the cover of trees when it comes to making a home.

   In Native American tales, coyote is the most colorful of characters.  He’s the uncensored ancestor of the Wile E. Coyote of “Road Runner” fame.  Wile E. is a mixture of ingenuity and blindness.  The Indian character on whom he is based was also long on ideas, short on success.  He could talk, however, and many of his exploits were sexual: mythology’s most aggressive and inept ladies’ man.

   Real coyotes are also resourceful.  With wolves out of the way, they have figured out ways to successfully populate everything from the Vermont woods, to the Canadian prairies, to Southern California suburbs.  They can hunt anything from a short-tailed vole to an elk, scavenge carrion, forage for fruit and berries, or rummage through garbage cans.  Again, like people, they have proved opportunistic generalists.

   They also are notoriously difficult to trap, and challenging to hunt.  More important, their numbers are usually stimulated rather than reduced by efforts to eradicate them.  Natural systems crave a top-order predator, and all across America, the natural predator of the day is Wile E. Coyote.

   Given their wiliness, you aren’t going to see them in the same way you see squirrels and deer.  Don’t let that invisibility fool you, however. They are keeping tabs on you.

   The last time I saw a coyote he was standing in the middle of the largest yard in west Decorah in the middle of the day, only six blocks from campus.

   The coyote encounter that stays most vividly in my mind was when I was helping clear out a barn one evening, less than a mile from the college.  The lights were on where we worked, but around us everything was dark.

   Suddenly a coyote chorus broke out to the south of the barn.  It didn’t stay in place, but headed our way.  The three of us who were working froze as we heard the singers—five or six of them--lope to the barn, directly past it, and then continue on to the fields to our north, a band of coyote braves, each voice distinct as they passed us singing on their evening hunt.

   It was spooky music.  I hope someday you’ll get the chance to hear it yourself.