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coyote america

Review of Coyote America by Dan Flores (2016)

Posted by Maddy Kangas -

Most of us who live or spend time in rural (and not so rural) areas have seen them, slender canines with long bushy tails usually casually loping away from us. Some of us are thrilled to spot east central Illinois' largest carnivore; others abhor them. Most of us are just surprised.

However you react to coyotes, you'll find Dan Flores' Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History a good read. Flores, a western historian and author of American Serengeti, weaves together both the cultural and natural history of what early histories of east central Illinois called "prairie wolves."

Flores traces the family tree of coyotes from the earliest canids, which evolved in North America, to gray wolves and coyotes, the only wild members of the dog family which still roam North America.He notes that, in the process, coyotes evolved a relatively rare adaptation. Unlike wolves, which operate primarily within packs, coyotes, like human beings, are a "fission-fusion" species. They can function well within a pack to bring down larger prey like deer, or as individuals can survive on smaller animals—mice, voles, rabbits, even insects. This adaption plus its innate ability to adjust the size of its litters from as few as 2 pups to as many as 19, depending on the number of coyotes in the area, has enabled the coyote to survive eradication campaigns which extirpated most other large predators from much of North America.
For most of time coyotes and human beings coexisted, these wily four-legged hunters were revered as deities, admired as clever tricksters, or held up as amusing examples of human foibles. Probably for many millennia, certainly among historic tribes, many different native cultures told stories about Coyote, some reverential, some ribald, all memorable. Flores shares a few of these entertaining tales.And then Europeans arrived in North America. Initially, these newcomers didn't know what to make of the bushy-tailed dog-like creatures. When members of the 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark expedition first encountered them, they assumed coyotes were foxes. But Flores recounts that later both William Clark and Meriwether Lewis would call them prairie wolves, a name that stuck until amateur naturalist Josiah Gregg discovered the Spanish version of the name by which the ancient Aztecs had called them—coyote.

Initially, Flores tells us, westerners thought of coyotes as a curiosity, but as cattle and sheep ranchers moved onto the plains, they began to demand state and federal sponsored predator control.When gray wolves disappeared from the landscape, the attention of government agents turned toward coyotes. However, despite being poisoned by the millions with strychnine, thallium sulfate,and compound 1080 for well over a century, coyotes not only persisted, but increased their range.Coyotes spread in all directions into regions which were safer than the lethal plains, and where their archenemy, the gray wolf, had been eliminated. While coyote eradication efforts continue today, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency alone accounting for 100,000 kills a year, Flores notes that the predator has many defenders including, apparently, Walt Disney.

Flores points out that the coyote's ultimate and most visible refuge is the outskirts and even downtowns of large cities, "chock-full of food and cover where, blessedly, no one ever [shoots] at you."Curiously, because cities leashed and fenced their dogs, they have become safer place for coyotes.How does one deal with these wild urban canids? Well, read the book. You'll discover far more about this fascinating and, yes, predatory animal. Flores weaves a well-researched, well-written,and down to earth tale of a fascinating creature right in our back yard, sometimes literally.


Roger Digges (2008)


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