Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

Grinning Coyote by Jim Conrad

from the April 21, 2002 Newsletter issued from the woods just south of Natchez, Mississippi, USA

Wednesday morning as I worked at the computer I glanced out my screen door and spotted a coyote working through the dense Sweetgum saplings beyond my outdoor kitchen. It was a young adult, full sized, stopping to sniff at this and that. He seemed to be so at ease that his face muscles let his lips sag into what seemed a self-assured grin. I wasn't surprised to see a coyote for often I hear their calls, and after every rain I see their prints (plus an enormous amount of rooting done along roads by wild pigs).

At first I thought he was a neighbor's dog so I stepped outside to shoo him away, for these loose dogs terrify the deer and other wildlife here. But then I saw him more clearly and I was amazed that he hadn't heard my door as it scraped open, and never even looked in my direction where he could have plainly seen me and the camp. He passed within twenty feet of me and never noticed my camp.

When I saw how oblivious the coyote was to my presence I felt a pang of sympathy. He was letting his guard down and if he keeps that up someone will shoot him. On the other hand, his mental laziness also made me feel as if he were some kind of brother to my own sometimes-lazy and-vulnerable self.

from the July 22, 2001Newsletter issued from the woods just south of Natchez, Mississippi, USA

Early Friday morning I was biking to the plantation center to put in 2 hours of fig picking and as I rounded a certain bend in the road I surprised two half-grown Coyotes. At first I didn't know what I was seeing. They were so long-legged and scrawny looking that I thought that they might be very hungry jackrabbits, but then I remembered that we don't have jackrabbits here (just lower-hung Eastern Cottontails and Swamp Rabbits), and then I realized that they were young Coyotes. I often spot Coyote tracks and at certain seasons Coyotes put on hysterical serenades at night, so really it's surprising they don't reveal themselves more often.

A map in my old, out of date mammal field guide shows the Coyote preset in all of the western US, nearly all of the central states, but not in the US Southeast -- except for extreme western portions of Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky. They're described as "feeding mostly on animals: cottontails, mice, deer, raccoons, various birds, crayfish, grasshoppers."

It can be hard to tell the difference between a Coyote's paw print and the print of certain dog races. Basically, a Coyote's print shows more empty space between the back pad and the four front toes than domestic dogs, plus, the Coyote's back pad is proportionally smaller. The Coyote's print suggests an animal walking on tip-toe, while the domestic dog's print is flatter, sloppier looking. If you happen to find prints on firm mud or light snow, the back pad of the Coyote's rear foot is also much more slender than a dog's. I compare the two different prints at http://www.backyardnature.net/tracks.htm.

from the September 7, 2006 Newsletter issued from Polly's Bend, Garrard County, Kentucky, USA

Ever since I've been at Polly's Bend I've heard Coyotes howling. Coyotes were common at my Mississippi camps but I don't recall ever seeing one when I was a kid in western Kentucky. In fact, the distribution map in my 1964-copyright mammal field guide shows Coyotes completely absent from all of the US Southeast, except for a small area where they'd just crossed the Ohio River into northern Kentucky. At that time Coyotes were found from Alaska south through the western US through Mexico. They hadn't even come close to crossing the lower Mississippi River into the state of Mississippi.

Distribution maps now show Coyotes from Nicaragua to northernmost Alaska, in all the 48 contiguous states and all but northeastern Canada but, for some reason, they are absent in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula {this is updated below}. In other words, just in my lifetime coyotes have gone from nonexistent in the US Southeast to present, sometimes abundant.

An interesting point made at the above link is that when Coyotes get established they drive out foxes, but Coyotes are absent where wolves survive.

from the February 1, 2004 Newsletter issued from the woods outside Natchez, Mississippi, USA

As with owls, throughout the year I hear Coyotes but nowadays their calls are more noticeable than usual. I'm not hearing the classic, long-drawn-out howls we associate with cowboy movies, but rather brief outbursts of uninhibited, undignified yelping.

The classic, long-drawn-out howl is known as a "location howl." It's used by lone coyotes trying to locate other members of the pack. I've seen reference to about 33 distinct "coyote vocalizations." The best I can figure out, the yelping I'm hearing now fits into the catch-all category known as "pack communications," described as "A kind of yip/howl 'talk' among members." Most vocalizations are better defined. For example, the "greeting call" is described as a "yip/howl happy vocalization that welcomes others back to the pack." The "alarm call" is a "shrieking repetitive bark."

Though I often hear coyotes not long after dusk or right before dawn, I seldom see them. I do find a lot of their scat, which is about the size and shape of a regular dog turd, but it's composed largely of hair and bones. Occasionally as I'm jogging in dawn's twilight I spot a coyote trotting across the field beside me, moving in a broad arc to keep a respectable distance. This way I've discovered his secret hole where he squeezes beneath a fence. You wouldn't notice the hole if you weren't looking, but once you know it's there, then you can see that a well-worn path leads to it.

from the December 29, 2002 Newsletter issued from the woods just south of Natchez, Mississippi, USA

This week subscriber Larry Butts near Vicksburg wrote this to me:

"I was coming home from work this morning around 7:30 and about 1/4 mile from my mailbox a very large and healthy looking canine sprinted across the road in front of my car. It was black and gray and approximately 75 pounds in weight with a bushy tail. Years ago I ran over and killed a similar animal and a friend of mine took it to Jackson to a wildlife biologist and he identified it as a 'coydog.' We see the occasional mangy solid gray coyote on the place. This was something different."

NOTE FROM 2015: This entry was made back when it was harder to find information. Now it's known that coydogs do exist and you can see the proof on their Wikipedia page.

A coydog is a cross between a coyote and a dog, and there's a world of controversy about them. Some specialists claim that they don't and can't exist, others say that they do but are extremely rare, and others will identify a coydog at the drop of a hat. A while back someone at the "Homesteading Today" forum on the Internet asked the question "Is there really such a thing as a coydog?" and a flood of responses resulted, taking every position.

from the January 4, 2015 Newsletter issued from Río Lagartos, on the north-central coast of Yucatán, MÉXICO

On a bumpy, one-lane dirt road during a birding trip through the savanna southeast of Río Lagartos Diego slammed on the brakes and exclaimed "¡Coyote!" By the time I'd spotted it with binoculars, Diego already had his long-lensed camera pointing through the windshield and snapped a picture that was blurry, but was good enough to show that it was a Coyote, CANIS LATRANS, as seen below:


The Coyote has his tail curiously stuck out and his back hunched because he'd been taking a crap and I guess that that's the reason he let us see him, just wanting to finish his toilet.

Diego had seen a Coyote only once before, and that was recently, so this was a good spotting. I'd read that Coyotes were expanding their distribution area southward from northern Mexico, but until these sightings we hadn't thought they'd arrived this far.

However, when I looked into the matter I was surprised to find that not only were Coyotes already on the list of mammals known to be present in the Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve, but that they've been here for a very long time. My main source of information is a 2004 paper by Mircea G. Hidalgo-Mihart appearing in Volume 31 of the Journal of Biogeography, freely downloadable on the Internet in PDF format at http://www.bio-nica.info/Biblioteca/Hidalgo%26Cantu2004.pdf.

That paper suggests that not only were Coyotes present on the Yucatan Peninsula's northern coast when the first Europeans arrived, but they were even here at the end of the Ice Age, or Late Pleistocene/early Holocene. Archaeological remains presumed to be of Coyote have been excavated in the Loltún Cave system about 60kms south of Mérida in west-central Yucatán. I say "presumed" because it's hard to tell the difference between bones of a Coyote and a domesticated dog. However, also found in the Loltún Cave System were remains of Wolf and Dire Wolf, plus there's other evidence that during Pre-Columbian times Coyotes were present as far south as Costa Rica.

The 1982 paper detailing these and other finds of mammal remains in the Loltún Cave System is one by Ticul Álvarez entitled "Restos de moluscos y mamíferos cuaternarios procedentes de Las Grutas de Loltún, Yucatán" freely available in PDF format at http://www.mastozoologiamexicana.org/books/arque-mam-loltum.pdf.

So, our spotting a Coyote in northern Yucatan wasn't as special as we'd thought it was. However, it's thrilling to think that all along the Coyote has been here, yet all these years -- and centuries -- it's managed to keep such a low profile that even many experts have doubted its presence here.