Coyote America Summary

Dan Flores

Coyote America

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Coyote America Summary

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Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History by Dan Flores tells the long history of the coyote, and how the iconic American predator became prevalent on all corners of the continent. Flores, a natural historian and the author of more than ten books, was curious how these predators became increasingly more urbanized, and how their behavior relates to stories native tribes in the Southwestern United States told about the animals thousands of years ago. The book is essentially a history and biography of the coyote, with a focus on how they have impacted and inspired people across the North American continent.
The story of the coyote begins with native stories of the animal, which featured prominently in folklore and myth in tribes across the Southwest. Natives both honored and were wary of the coyote because of his intelligent but mischevous nature, but as western settlers moved into North America the coyote’s reputation became more and more sinister.
Lewis and Clark, upon traveling west and discovering the coyote for the first time, called the animal a “prairie wolf,” which stuck until biologists opted for the Aztec word “coyotl” and renamed the canine after its Southwestern roots. Coyotes were troublesome for farmers and ranchers, because they ate cattle, sheep, and goats, and were drawn to the easy prey. Mark Twain called the coyote cowardly because of its sneaky attacks, which was the beginning of the end of the coyote’s reputation as a venerated animal. From then on, it was considered a pest, and in many rural parts of the country there are still few or no restrictions on coyote hunting.
The thesis of Flores book, however, is not that we have been mistreated by the coyote. Instead, Flores blames human settlers for changing the coyote’s behavior, and turning an animal of the desert plains into a city-dwelling pest. Rats and mice are a staple of the coyotes’ diet, and human development attracts these kinds of pests, drawing coyotes closer to the city. With ease of access to food, coyotes stuck around, becoming less afraid of humans and more accustomed to scavenging. The eradication of wolves in the wild knocked out the coyotes primary predator, and the species was free to reproduce indiscriminately, with no one to stop them but humans seeking revenge for their lost livestock.
And seek revenge they did. Around the time of mass bison hunting, the extinction of the passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet, and many other animals native to North America, coyote hunting became a favorite pastime. In farm and ranching country, poisons were set for the animals, pups were drowned, animals were shot and trapped, and some parts of the country even used helicopters and other aerial methods for tracking and killing the beasts. The Department of Fish and Wildlife encouraged this kind of killing because coyotes attacked and killed livestock, and were also the primary predators for “good” wild game, like elk, deer, and rabbits. As a result of this initiative, nearly two million coyotes were killed in the years between 1915 and 1950.
But as in the native myths, the coyote is a clever animal. Unlike wolves, buffalo, and other prairie animals, coyotes refused to die out despite the best efforts of hunters and trappers. Unlike most predators, coyotes are highly socially adaptable; they are able to hunt alone and in packs, depending on the circumstances and their environment. Coyotes breed young, particularly in times of stress, and have large litters and long childhoods. Young coyotes are raised by both parents and sometimes siblings in a pack-like setting, which protects them from predators and allows the older, wiser coyotes to teach each pup the intricacies of its home environment. Like all dogs, coyotes have a strong sense of smell and excellent eye sight, making them difficult to startle. They are also omnivorous, making them highly adaptable in situations where there is not much to eat.
In essence, Flores argues that the coyote symbolizes the spirit of America – their adaptability and resourcefulness are traits that we too have adopted and grown to respect. Though many are startled to find coyotes in Los Angeles and New York, picking through dumpsters, there behavior is logical as cities begin to sprawl further and further into the wilderness. Flores urges readers to respect and appreciate the coyote’s unique ability to survive centuries of dramatic environmental change.
Dan Flores is the author of ten books, primarily natural histories of the American Southwest. He was the historian professor emeritus at the University of Montana from 1992 until his retirement in 2014. Coyote America won the 2017 Sigfurd S. Olson Nature Writing Award, and was a finalist for the PEN 2017 EO Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. Historian Elliot West calls Flores “one of the most respected environmental historians of his generation.”