Review: Coyote, by Wyman Meinzer

Wyman Meinzer.   Coyote.   Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1995.   128 pages.   Cloth: $19.95; ISBN 0-89672-353-4.

Coyote is classified as a €œpictorial work, € a coffee-table book.   Of its 128 pages, only the first 44 contain text; captioned,  gorgeous photos of coyotes that the author took himself during his many years of coyote research fill out the  book’s bulk.  

The  textual  material of Coyote contains just enough information about C. latrans to help me form more precise questions about the animal’s nature and habits.   On one hand, I felt  the book’s imparted insights rather  on the lightweight side.   I had hoped that it would reflect in greater depth and detail what Meinzer learned about this intriguing animal after over three decades of study.   Instead, he gives readers slightly more than the basics.    He remarks  for instance on how  coyotes have  about 11 categories of vocalizations, but he only lists  3 of them,  offering only slight elaboration on those.   The coyote’s vocal repetoire is one of the most fetching of this animal’s qualities.   Why not at least  touch upon  the other 8 categories?  

On the other hand, I learned enough from the book to gain a fair starting point for my investigation into this creature with whom I’ve begun crossing paths more frequently and intimately.   The book’s beautiful 70 plus pages of photos are instructional in a deeper way.   People able to read animal body language  will find them engaging and meaningful.

Some of Meinzer’s writing is bumpy, requiring the reader to  guess his  meaning.   For example, p. 34: €œIf excavation allows, I have observed dens with nursing quarters or enlarged rooms with side tunnels to accommodate the young whelps. €   Deciphering who or what excavation allows to do what takes a bit of work.   Does  Meinzer mean that  if conditions permit him to excavate a den (which he has done in his research), then he observes in the process these den structures?   Or does he mean that if excavation conditions  prove favorable  for the coyotes, then he’s seen them build dens having these characteristics?   Also, €œyoung € modifying €œwhelps € seems unnecessary.

Well,  like I said, Coyote is a coffee-table book, maybe a bit light on information but packed with eye-catching pictures, which in this case do more than simply  enchant the eye.   These pictures reveal  important information about coyote body postures and behavior.   However, if you want greater precision in expression or are looking to learn about the  possible range of coyote vocalizations and gain greater insight into marking practices (which I do), you have to look elsewhere.   Where?   I’m not sure yet.   If anybody has suggestions, please, do tell.

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19 thoughts on “Review: Coyote, by Wyman Meinzer”

  1. Patricia,
    I am going to pass on the “greater insight into marking practices”. But maybe Louis L’Amour covered that detail?
    I love to watch Professional Poker on TV. You see Human predators Vs victims at it’s highest level. Wise reading of the “nature and habits” of the other is key.
    Do you see # of “categories of vocalizations” as a marker of the wisdom of an animal?

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  2. I am going to pass on the €œgreater insight into marking practices €.

    Hm, you didn’t strike me as the squeamish type, Bob. But everyone has her/his limits. I guess that changing diapers for 19 years–during my two regular kids’ standard diaper days plus my special needs daughter’s every-day’s-a-diaper-day situation–have stripped away the “yuck” factor for me.

    But walking around here for what will be four springs now, I’ve become fairly clear on how coyotes mark to communicate with one another and probably with competing species. In the Field Notes I posted here, I record how a coyote left an intriguing response to my presence in one of my old footprints.

    Meinzer touches lightly on scent marking:

    Researchers suggest that these scent posts could be methods of conveying messages to other coyotes within home-range corridors … According to some research findings, scent locations could be a way for the animals to assess population densities within an area. In such cases, high frequencies of scent posts could result in some coyotes dispersing to find new home ranges (p.27).

    The most dedicated excretory grafitti artists, Meinzer says, are usually dominate males.

    In wolf country, coyotes behave a little differently:

    It was found that the coyote seemed to work overtime on scent post duty whenever he crossed the trail of a wolf (p. 28).

    But enough about marking. Don’t want to offend your delicate sensibilities. 😉

    I love to watch Professional Poker on TV. You see Human predators Vs victims at it’s highest level. Wise reading of the €œnature and habits € of the other is key.

    That’s intense. And brings back in that “I’m the nature” theme from your previous comment about your cats. Does the predator v. prey drama fascinate you?

    Do you see # of €œcategories of vocalizations € as a marker of the wisdom of an animal?

    Absolutely not, since humans produce an spectacular array of vocalizations, only a fraction of which potentially falls into the “wisdom” range of the spectrum. Also, wisdom sometimes manifests itself in the proverbial “wise silence.”

    However, I consider vocalizations strong evidence of language and communication. That might seem a BFO (blinding flash of the obvious), but where my special needs daughter has a wide range of vocalizations and tonal inflections, she is widely considered not to able to communicate because she can’t speak very much English. The fact she can get many of her needs and wishes across to me belies that belief, but I’ve had to learn her language rather than expect her to come across and learn mine. I should note she understands a lot more English than she speaks. Furthermore, learning her language has tuned my ear to a wider range of vocalizations and communcation in other species.

    So what I’m saying is that I want to learn to read coyote vocalizations (and marking behavior) so I can get a better idea of what’s going on when I’m out there with the coyotes. Why? Because they’re showing themselves to me more often and seem to be responding/reacting to my presence in their home range. Which is a somewhat unexpected development.

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  3. Patricia,
    ..”the squeamish type?”. No, but as a city guy, I have just walked too many dogs, having to stop at every tree or bush, as they smell and pee, to find the topic enjoyable or interesting.
    But I was not kidding on L’Amour. His books are weak, but not his “field notes”. He did a lot of researching. If he said there was a waterhole, ten miles from Dodge City, but dry in June and July, you could count on that being true. Wallace Stegner was once asked about the difference in their Western writings and he said: “About a few million dollars”.
    “Does the predator v. prey drama fascinate you?”. YOU BET! (You can put that in your field notes on Bob). I love movies like the ones on Jason Bourne, who is a master predator, who becomes a prey.
    I once knew a lion hunter. (He had a stuffed one in his office lobby that he had killed). He said the key was to let the lion know he was being hunted, and as a predator, the lion would circle around to become the predator again. He only needed to wait for the lion to come for him. Great stuff!
    I once had a chance to get an MBA based on human vocalizations and communication in southern Mexico, but passed on it. A long story and big mistake!

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  4. Bob,

    … as a city guy, I have just walked too many dogs, having to stop at every tree or bush, as they smell and pee, to find the topic enjoyable or interesting.

    So not squeamish, maybe just bored with it all. Beside that, you don’t perceive any of it as being directly addressed to you. More of a “Spike’s a cat lover” and “Fifi’s in heat” sort of bathroom wall scrawl. Who cares?

    The lion insisting to his doom on being the apex predator–that’s an interesting detail that you’ve collected there. I’ve already filed your love of predator v. prey drama in “Field notes: Bob,” in the “Reasons to Avoid LA” drawer of my filing cabinet. 😉

    I once had a chance to get an MBA based on human vocalizations and communication in southern Mexico, but passed on it. A long story and big mistake!

    You’ll have to tell us that story one day!

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go re-read “The Most Dangerous Game.” Maybe watch the Star Trek episode “The Squire of Gothos” and the Johnny Quest episode “Shadow of the Condor.”

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  5. Patricia,
    It should read MS or MA, not MBA. I am not the MBA type. (But I did spend 30 years on a job that mostly required a ‘tie and a lie’.
    ‘ €œThe Most Dangerous Game €. Now there’s Bob’s kind nature!

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  6. My southern Utahn upbringing means that whenever I read the word coyote, the first thing that comes to mind is “time to grab the .22 pistol and see if we can take the sucker out.” I’ve never actually shot and a wild animal (although I have been part of the slaughter of farm animals for use in the kitchen), but it’s interesting how one’s relationship to certain animals depends a lot on how much of a pest they are seen as.

    Some of the suburban folks I know seem to see coyotes as these shadowy, rare, almost mythical creatures that sometimes swoop out of nowhere and eat your pet dog.

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  7. My southern Utahn upbringing means that whenever I read the word coyote, the first thing that comes to mind is €œtime to grab the .22 pistol and see if we can take the sucker out. €

    it’s interesting how one’s relationship to certain animals depends a lot on how much of a pest they are seen as.

    Wm, you make me feel fortunate that my SU neighbors have allowed a pesky creature like me to live as long as they have. 😉

    Meinzer relates that locals in his region of Texas blamed coyotes for the spread of bothersome mesquite in the area because mesquite beans make up a large part of coyotes’ diets, when the crop is good. Darned, bean-eating coyotes!

    Then someone actually did some research and discovered that–I don’t remember the exact number–more than 70 percent of the seeds were rendered inviable in the coyotes’ digestive tracts. So the coyotes were actually helping with the control of mesquite, not making matters worse.

    Meinzer reports that, at times, local ranchers have called him to come take care of “problem” coyotes–usually single animals who have developed a bad habit, like chewing calf tails. He has obliged them. But overall, to hear him tell it, the Texas cattle ranchers get along pretty well with the coyotes, who benefit from the cattle industry in interesting ways.

    People in sheep country probably suffer more damage and loss. We have neighbors around here who raise sheep, but I haven’t heard of any particular problem with coyotes. There’s greater risk with chickens, and I’ve seen the trails of feathers testifying to coyotes’ fondness for barnyard ducks, especially when the winter has been hard and hunting rough business. Coyotes eat just about anything, but most reports indicate they prefer small mammals (rats, mice, squirrels, rabbits, prairie dogs, etc.).

    Meinzer reports that coyote populations are density dependent: coyotes themselves regulate the population of their home ranges. Female coyotes produce larger litters when factors require. One of the possibilities with this kind of reproductive dynamic is that the more coyotes humans kill for varmint control, the more of them they get for their trouble. In his book The Animal Dialogues, Craig Childs says that “The more coyotes one kills, [the then-named Bureau of Biological Survey, now called Wildlife Services] discovered, the more live coyotes one must contend with.”

    Furthermore, he says:

    Each western state throws several hundred thousand dollars annually into the coyote-killing pot. A typical year will see the federally mandated death of ninety-eight thousand coyotes in the United States. In return, coyote populations have risen off the charts. Coyote numbers, by nature of female biology, are designed for rebound … Start shooting coyotes, and they start having more pups.

    I’m thinking Meinzer’s approach of killing only “problem” animals is probably the wiser one. 😉

    Wm, you rabble rouser.

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  8. I am here to testify that Patricia is pesky in all the mature, dignified, generous, and especially good humored ways.
    We don’t get many coyotes in Pennsylvania. They are rumored to be here, and my husband said one morning early he saw something which might have been one, crossing the yard.
    Our native pest, according to the local commuters, is the deer. They fill the yard with that lovely scat, they are blamed for every tick on every dog, and they are very expensive when you hit one with the car. The last one cost us about $600.
    Come to think of it, cars are probably the biggest pest I know of.

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  9. Go coyotes! And thanks for the additional facts, Patricia. I think this really gets at why science is an important part of nature writing. It’s easy to get indignant or gauzy (soft-focus) or condescending about various human and non-human populations and their impact on the environment, but the real story, or the one based on observation and data is generally more interesting and telling than the workings of the imagination and the passing along of attitudes.

    Which isn’t to say that one avoids the poetic and the mythic and the local in nature writing. But the tempering influence of science can often be a good thing.

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  10. Yes, science has become more central to nature writing over the last 25 years. And thank goodness for that!

    But however you use the science, people come to the writing for the stories. They need those stories. So a good eye and, in my opinion, a certain amount of hands-on, or at any rate, close-up involvement is necessary as well. It’s possible, afterall, to leap to conclusions within or without a scientific framework. And so many writers make the story too much about themselves and too little about the nature.

    IMO, relation is the ticket.

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  11. I see coyotes through a jaundiced eye, I fear.

    Despite the refrain I was taught as a child that wild animals only kill for food, a couple of weeks each summer my status as indulged city-kid nephew of a Kanarraville sheep rancher put me on horseback and within range of stories of coyote and cougar sheep kills that made Nucla prairie dog shoots seem pacifist.

    Recently, coyotes decided to colonize my suburban Denver neighborhood. Like the Europeans coming to America, the first thing they did was kill off all the resident foxes. So the adjacent neighborhood of Fox Ridge still has the Ridge, but not the icon. At first, I thought the coyotes were kind of cool.

    Then they ate all the cats.

    Then they ate all the dogs smaller than they.

    Then they showed up on the elementary school’s grounds, looking curiously at the kindergartners at play.

    Now I don’t think they’re all that cool any more.

    I explore the tensions I feel through the lens of my commitment to ahimsa.

    All that said, however, the coyotes do sing well.

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  12. Recently, coyotes decided to colonize my suburban Denver neighborhood. Like the Europeans coming to America, the first thing they did was kill off all the resident foxes.

    Probably dispatched a few bobcats nobody knew were still around, too.

    My understanding is that in the old days, wolves kept the coyotes in their place. To a degree, I think they still do where wolf and coyote populations overlap. But where we eliminated wolves, coyotes dropped easily into the top predatory canid slot.

    Then they ate all the cats.

    I hear this very rumor about our own neighborhood: “Can’t keep a cat around here because of the coyotes.”

    We have five cats, two of whom stay outside all night. One or two of the inside cats sometimes camps out overnight as well. We wonder—at times, hopefully—when the coyotes are going to eat our cats, especially the two exiled to fulltime out-of-doors status. Hasn’t happened, though the smallest of the bunch, and in many ways our favorite, shows a definite powerful prejudice against buzzards, large raptors, and similar cat-eyeing birds. We think something happened there, maybe an owl?

    We did lose one cat—to either a speeding neighbor or a visitor to our dead-end street.

    This isn’t to say that coyote predation of this sort doesn’t or couldn’t happen. I’m sure it does, but under what conditions?

    A few years back a strange story started circulating about a Salt Lake neighborhood. People were finding dead cats strewn around their lawns and curbsides, disembowled and mutilated. Fears arose—not that coyotes had invaded the neighborhood, but that satanic rites were being performed and the residue of the evil scattered around as a message. Biologists finally went and took a look around. They found foxes to be the culprits.

    Then they showed up on the elementary school’s grounds, looking curiously at the kindergartners at play.

    I’ve heard of a few coyote attacks on children in California. I haven’t taken the time to check this out, but again, I imagine it could happen. What does it mean about conditions, though, as we’ve set them up for the coyotes?

    Now I don’t think they’re all that cool any more.

    I’ve experienced a similar shift in thinking about viruses. Not that I ever thought they were cool, although I can imagine that there are some really cool viruses out there, maybe some that are beneficial in outrageous ways. But I used to think they were by-and-large innocuous, you got sick, you got over it.

    Then I met one that ravaged my household, a common organism human behavior facilitates, as human behavior facilitates many viruses. For me, the word “virus” has become synonymous with the phrase “dangerous predator.”

    Now that I know about this virus, I’m fairly certain that the number of children—from the unborn to infants to at-risk toddlers and kindergarteners—that it has either devoured or disabled greatly exceeds the work of hardened coyote gangs. Yet we continue to act in ways that embolden viruses, allowing them what amounts to free range of our streets, yards, churches, schools, and houses.

    Viruses can’t even sing, like coyotes can. In fact, they’ll do their best to keep you from singing.

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  13. There is a kind of morality tale that we tell ourselves about inevitability and irreversibility of things. I find these stories frequently in nature writing– sometimes contending that some “invasive” species is unstoppable (kudzu, coyotes, viruses, pigeons, roaches), sometimes foretelling the inevitability of apocalypses of large or small varieties (polar bear extinction, desertification, viruses (also here, curiously), global warming).

    My sense of both kinds of stories is that we tell them sometimes when we see no path through the cactus thicket before us, and sometimes when we aren’t really all that perturbed by the “doom,” and don’t see a reason to invest much psychic effort to part the Red Sea, when Egypt is looking pretty tolerable.

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  14. Those that have ears to hear, let them hear.

    That would be those with ears that viruses haven’t damaged after they hit their health-shattering high C.

    [Edited 3/23 to reflect changes to thread resulting from a comment trapped in spam being added.]

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  15. My sense of both kinds of stories is that we tell them sometimes when we see no path through the cactus thicket before us, and sometimes when we aren’t really all that perturbed by the €œdoom, € and don’t see a reason to invest much psychic effort to part the Red Sea, when Egypt is looking pretty tolerable.

    I actually mused along very similar lines during my morning walk yesteday–actually, it would have been around the time you made this comment. I’m planning a post around the matter.

    My remarks about viruses aren’t meant to enhance the morality tales, which like you I believe we construct to reinforce those boundaries beyond which we are not willing to go, but rather to note how we select our demons, shooting the coyotes and prairie dogs because of the threats they pose (it is said) but allowing viruses the run of the ranch. So to speak.

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  16. …how we select our demons…

    That is excellent. It brings us back to archetypes and patterning and myth-telling and myth-believing. Shooting a gol-durned cay-ote to proteck the yung-uns has an entirely different feel to it than restructuring society to reduce the size of the agar-coated petri dish for virus breeding.

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  17. greenfrog, you made me laugh!

    Note to all: comments have been getting hung up in the spam filter (although I can see how the spam filter might have hesitated over that last one of g.f.’s). We think the problem’s fixed.

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