Mark Twain’s Description of a Coyote

One of the most famous descriptions of a coyote — which was also known as a “prairie dog” by Lewis and Clark — was written by Mark Twain in his 1872 book, Roughing it. For those who have not read it yet, here it is. Twain goes to the extreme to wake up the reader, using over-the-top satire for effect, to depict a standard negative view of coyotes held by Americans at the time. The brilliant irony is exquisite: Clemens sullies and defiles a coyote’s “sorry looking aspect”, but in the end he shows his admiration for the coyote who gets the last laugh when put up against any dog, and wishes him the best. The so called “miserable looking creature” is actually an intelligent, brilliant survivor.  

Along about an hour after breakfast we saw the first prairie dog villages, the first antelope, and the first wolf. If I remember rightly, this latter was the regular coyote (pronounced ky-o-te) of the farther deserts. And if it was, he was not a pretty creature or respectable either, for I got well acquanited with his race afterward, and can speak with confidence.

The coyote is a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray wolfskin stretched over it, a tolerably bushy tail that forever sags down with a despairing expression of forsakenness and misery, a furtive and evil eye, and a long, sharp face, with slightly lifted lip and exposed teeth. He has a general slinking expression all over. The coyote is a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry. He is always poor, out of luck, and friendless. The meanest creatures despise him, and even the fleas would desert him for a velocipede. He is so spirtless and cowardly that even while his exposed teeth are pretending a threat, the rest of his face is apologizing for it. And he is so homely! -so scrawny, and ribby, and coarse-haired, and pitiful.

When he sees you he lifts his lip and lets a flash of his teeth out, and then turns a little out of the course he was pursuing, depresses his head a bit, and strikes a long, soft- footed trot through the sagebrush, glancing over his shoulder at you, from time to time, till he is about out of easy pistol range, and then he stops and takes a deliberate survey of you; he will trot fifty yards and stop again- another fifty and stop again; and finally the gray of his gliding body blends with the gray of the sagebrush, and he disappears. All this is when you make no demonstration against him; but if you do, he develops a livelier interest in his journey, and instantly electrifies his heels and puts such a deal of real estate between himself and your weapon that by the time you have raised the hammer you see that you need a Minie rifle, and by the time you have got him in line you need a rifled cannon, and by the time you have “drawn a bead” on him you see well enough that nothing but an unusually long-winded streak of lightning could reach him where he is now.

But if you start a swift-footed dog after him, you will enjoy it ever so much- especially if it is a dog that has a good opinion of himself, and has been brought up to think he knows something about speed. The coyote will go swinging gently off on that deceitful trot of his, and every little while he will smile a fraudful smile over his shoulder that will fill that dog entirely full of encouragement and worldly ambition, and make him lay his head still lower to the ground, and stretch his neck further to the front, and pant more fiercely, and stick his tail out straighter behind, and move his furious legs with a yet wilder frenzy, and leave a broader and broader, and higher and denser cloud of desert sand smoking behind him, and marking his long wake across the level plain!

And all this time the dog is only a short twenty feet behind the coyote, and to save the soul of him he cannot understand why it is that he cannot get perceptibly closer; and he begins to get aggravated, and it makes him madder and madder to see how gently the coyote glides along and never pants or sweats or ceases to smile; and he grows still more and more incensed to see how shamefully he has been taken in by an entire stranger, and what an ignoble swindle that long, calm, soft-footed trot is; and next he notices that he is getting fagged, and that the coyote actually has to slacken speed a little to keep from running away from him- and then that town dog is mad in earnest, and he begins to strain and weep and swear, and paw the sand higher than ever, and reach for the coyote with concentrated and desperate energy. This “spurt” finds him six feet behind the gliding enemy, and two miles from his friends. And then, in the instant that a wild new hope is lighting up his face, the coyote turns and smiles blandly upon him once more, and with a something about it which seems to say: “Well, I shall have to tear myself away from you, bub- business is business, and it will not do for me to be fooling along this way all day”- and forthwith there is a rushing sound, and the sudden splitting of a long crack through the atmosphere, and behold that dog is solitary and alone in the midst of a vast solitude!

It makes his head swim. He stops, and looks all around; climbs the nearest sand mound, and gazes into the distance; shakes his head reflectively, and then, without a word, he turns and jogs along back to his train, and takes up a humble position under the hindmost wagon, and feels unspeakably mean, and looks ashamed, and hangs his tail at half-mast for a week. And for as much as a year after that, whenever there is a great hue and cry after a coyote, that dog will merely glance in that direction without emotion, and apparently observe to himself, “I believe I do not wish any of that pie.”

The coyote lives chiefly in the most desolate and forbidding deserts, along with the lizard, the jackass rabbit, and the raven, and gets an uncertain and precarious living, and earns it. He seems to subsist almost wholly on the carcasses of oxen, mules, and horses that have dropped out of emigrant trains and died, and upon windfalls of carrion, and occasional legacies of offal bequeathed to him by white men who have been opulent enough to have something better to butcher than condemned Army bacon…. He does not mind going a hundred miles to breakfast, and a hundred and fifty to dinner, because he is sure to have three or four days between meals, and he can just as well be traveling and looking at the scenery as lying around doing nothing and adding to the burdens of his parents.

We soon learned to recognize the sharp, vicious bark of the coyote as it came across the murky plain at night to disturb our dreams among the mail sacks; and remembering his forlorn aspect and his hard fortune, made shift to wish him the blessed novelty of a long day’s good luck and a limitless larder the morrow.

Images by J. C. Amberlyn

Hello Stranger!

Today, who should appear across a chain-link fence but this fella I knew well from a place miles away, but hadn’t seen in many months. Although most coyote families I document are long-time residents of their territories, a few leave their homes for greener pastures. What an amazing surprise! He saw me from the distance and came up to investigate, recognized me, and lay down in the grass facing me but on the other side of a chain-link fence. He remained there, watching me with soft eyes: closing his eyes repeatedly ever so slowly in recognition and acceptance, and I, of course, beamed inwardly and blinked back!

I stayed only long enough to snap a few record shots because I know this is denning time and coyotes don’t want their hideouts discovered. When I began walking away, he knew the visit was over: he got up and stretched and watched me go, and then he turned around and went in the other direction as I looked over my shoulder. He had come over specifically for a little visit with someone he recognized from his past life!

I suppose that I had been somewhat of a fixture in his life as he had been in mine: he had watched me frequently call out to folks to please leash their dogs when he was around, and I’m sure this coyote knew exactly what was going on: that I was watching out for him. I meticulously respected him and his space, and over time he came to know this: the trust and respect were mutual, which was confirmed by his coming over to see and acknowledge me with a, “hello there!” from way across the fence.

Re-Wilding: The Presence of Wolves, by Walkaboutlou

Hi Lou! I love reading what you write: there’s always so much in-depth understanding and wisdom to what you say. This wisdom about the wolves serving to re-wild the deer herd and the cattle — and the guard dogs and coyotes — is a good paradigm for what I’ve been seeing in a slice of the coyote world: Life became too easy for one coyote: to see her frolicking on a hill totally carefree, every day, within mere feet of people and dogs made me feel that she’d been robbed of her essence — she seemed more pet than wild animal. I did my best to keep people from being friendly or feeding her, but her wary/wildness seemed to be something she no longer had: there was no need for it. And then one day another coyote came into the area with a territorial agenda of her own, driving our coyote out. Because of this, our displaced coyote appears to have been re-wilded in the sense you speak about, having to look over her shoulder for danger and use her wits to survive. She is more careful, more wary, less out-in-the-open, more, as you say, wild and natural. It’s a good way of looking at the situation here, based on what you’ve said about the presence of wolves and their effect on “re-wilding”. Thank you for your insights!


Timber wolf hunting in mountain (Reprinted with permission; Credit: Byrdyak)

Hi Janet!
This is Lou. We’ve had some interesting times on some of the ranches bordering BLM lands and the canine dynamics are in change I think. Our area has been verified by locals and biologists as having a [new] resident pack of wolves. They have not bothered livestock to anyone’s knowledge with predation, but there are definite changes noted. Elk which used to gather rather lazily out in open are now very alert and quick moving.

Fuzz the ranch dog has given up roaming at night. He stays closer, and has ceased long distance ranging as well. This is most unusual for him. Also, the LGD are much more vocal at night and at times seem quite agitated as the evenings come. The biggest change we’ve seen is among the coyote on the coyote friendly ranch. They too, have seemed to change. They are very vocal and act unsettled though no hunting or skirmishes with dogs has happened. Both LGD dogs and coyotes seem to avoid one area of ranch which connects to Cascade forests.

One thing for sure-no one seems to pay much attention to coyote when wolves are known to be in area. The old gentleman on the ranch is touching. He’s worried about his sheep, his dogs, “and the local coyote.” He says “I hope they keep far from that pack” I assured him his coyote would be pretty careful around wolves. Packs of territorial wolves are known not to tolerate coyote or dogs in their woods. All the same-the canine conversation and dynamics will continue. I feel dogs, coyotes and wolves can exist-with caution-and coexist well.


Hi Janet! In essence, once wolves become established as a pack, they are the “top dog” in woods, with exception of a pack of experienced LGD. Yes, I’ve seen films of wolves on coyote. No mercy there from the wolves. I don’t know what the effects ultimately will be but I know [the coyotes] will survive.

The rancher who enjoys them is pretty upset with wolves being here. He says he doesn’t expect wolves to wipe out his cattle. But he feels “coyotes are easy to live with, are smarter and adapt to living with people.” Regarding wolves he says “They are hard to live with. They are harder on the land. They scatter the elk and make them skittish. They cost cattlemen money not because of lots of predation but because of lost weight. Cattle get spooked by wolves in area and move alot more. Eat less and are much more alert. They don’t gain as much weight for summer, which means herd wise thousands of pounds less for Fall sales, and that’s financial disaster.

Coyotes eat mice and grasshoppers literally sometimes under cattle. A wolf moving through cattle, or a pack, will cause fear. And finally the guard dogs are respected and feared by coyote. A wolf pack only respects another pack and then only if its very powerful”. He seemed without anger or prejudice with these words. But felt very strongly Coyotes are good neighbors and small ranged, whereas wolves are alot harder to predict and gave huge ranges. I do feel he’s quite upset by the great change he feels have taken place with “his” coyote. He says numbers have dropped, and that denning areas have been abandoned on the wooded side of his ranches and that the pack that lived there has disappeared. He also feels his dog Fuzz is terrified of the wolves and this is why he’s staying close to home.

I think the coyote are going to be viewed as almost harmless by ranchers compared to wolves. So the coyote may well recieve less attention from human hunters, as he gets new attention from the new canine neighbors. Or old predator returned.


Hi Janet! The cattle weight loss is very revealing, because it hits the truth about the situation. Rightfully so, ranchers are concerned about financial affects. A herd of fat, relaxed cattle vs a herd of leaner, fit cattle means alot of money lost.

Also, with hunters, I know what upsets them. Elk here haven’t seen wolves almost 100 years. They tend to be relaxed and congregate in large groups that move and feed slowly. Hunters like this. The elk are predictable, easy to find and hunt to a degree. When wolves arrive, they do not wipe elk out. But the effect on elk is electric. They become skittish and scatter into the landscape. They become alert and elusive and move often. The wolves take many young, old, unfit or those who make mistakes. Literally, wolves make deer and elk very wild. They cause game animals to reconnect to instincts of evasive living. Hunters don’t like that. A morning hunt can no longer be so easily scheduled, and may turn into days of effort that some may not have time for.

So wolves cause an effect in the land and animals. And some do not want that. Wolves make wild things wild, instead of an extension of farming. I know some wolves will be poached. But they are colonizing all over and really can’t be stopped now. The wise and wary wolves will stay in wilderness and stick to deer and elk. The too bold or inexperienced may visit ranches or unsuitable places-and may pay for it. But I feel wolves are here to stay. Plus for now they are federally protected.

In all this I’m just going to keep sharing and talking with my neighbors. I feel with a large influence of LGD dogs, canine conversation among guard dogs, wolves and coyote need to be allowed to happen. 2 in the morning among the pastures and hills and land, humans are non functioning. We can’t communicate with wolves. But LGD can. They can literally be everywhere by scent, sound and sight. A pack of LGD dogs is canine battle lines-wolves want food not fighting. So I feel most wolves can learn like coyote. It’s exciting yet turbulent too. But I know some wolves will make it. Funny thing is, my pack has learned to cope with coyote and LGD-wolves are just another canine neighbor we hope is shy and fleeting. But besides my own pack, the coyote remain my favorite. I’ll watch them and follow their lessons. ❤🐾

Two grey wolves showing affection (Reprinted with permission; Credit: RamiroMarquezPhotos)

Adversity Continues

Wired coyote has returned

After brutally driving off our 3-year resident coyote and hanging around the area for about two months, the Wired intruder headed off to an area several miles away where I serendipitously encountered her a number of times. She appears to be roaming the entirety of San Francisco, from corner to corner. I wondered if she had permanently moved on. I wondered what her plans were. But she was gone less than a week and is now back patrolling the turf she battled for and won.

Ragged: tattered and torn in body, but not in spirit

During those two months, our previous resident coyote had been staying away and hanging low as she recovered from her severe wounds and infections. Then, during the last week she, of course, became acutely aware of her rival’s absence and was making daily forays to her old turf, bravely sticking her toe in the door — so to speak — moving to reclaim her domain. We of course no longer ever saw her romping joyously at the top of hilltops, Queen of her domain and ever so happy, but rather slithering by quickly and surreptitiously through inconspicuous places. Her tentative forays were not being met with resistance from her arch-rival and things appeared to be going well for her. That was during the week the Wired coyote was away. But now that she’s back, we’ll have to wait and see what kind of a truce, if any, is worked out between them. Let’s hope there’s not another fight.

It’s been an amazing drama, and a scary one, if you care. One has to wonder at the stress and tension being sustained by this brave little creature willing to risk her life to defend her turf. Coyotes are known to kill each other over their territories: it goes to show just how important their exclusive land-claims are for their survival. Again, I want to point out how intense coyote lives are, with ups and downs to match anything going on in the human world.

See: Detrimental Effects of Radio-collars

Not Sharing: Her Selfish Side

This coyote warmly and enthusiastically welcomed a newcomer into her territory a while back: the territory would now be “theirs”, and not hers alone. Since that new inclusion, she and he could be seen teasing and bantering with each other constantly, including where food was involved, such as with a mouse. Who ultimately won the mouse was less important than the good-willed bantering over it — the interaction. They became best friends and, although they would go off in their own directions to hunt, they would “check-in” with each other at regular and frequent intervals, with joyous shows of affection, playfulness, and camaraderie.

SO, it was a bit of a surprise to discover that she had found a dead raccoon and kept it all to herself as far as I have ever saw.  Although coyotes are able to take down juvenile raccoons, more than likely she found it as road-kill. I say this because this coyote actually flees from cats which are about the size of raccoons and much less ferocious.

It was when her new companion was way across the park that I found her in this spot, alone, eating her fill from the carcass. I went back to check on the other coyote: he was still hunting on the other side of the park. By the time I returned half-an hour later, this crafty trickster was hiding/burying her carcass by covering it up so no one would find it. I only saw her return there when he’s not with her, and I never saw him there.

Burying the carcass by covering it with leaves, using her snout, and looking around to make sure no one sees her [photos above, video below].

When I have observed other coyotes share the meat of a raccoon, they usually do it sequentially, with the dominant coyote driving off the other until that coyote has had its fill, while the second coyote respectfully sits and waits some non-intrusive distance away, pretending disinterest, until the first coyote departs. After the second coyote has his fill, the remains of the carcass are often dragged into a better hiding place by the second coyote (the first coyote having departed).

It is common for coyotes to find what another coyote has buried, unearth it, and drag it to a new hiding place where only they can find it. Of course, this could then again, happen in reverse.

When parents travel with their youngsters, you would think they might make sure the youngsters get their fair share of any found food. Nope. I’ve seen parent coyotes glutinously and selfishly devour an entire cache of food — too bad for the youngster who sat back and watched.

The Gypsy Coyotes Continue Their Peregrinations

Some coyote individuals compromise their reclusiveness and wariness when food is around: they are opportunists after all, and what comes easy they’ll latch onto. However, pups are not something they are willing to compromise for: pups are coyotes’ biggest kept secret.

Two years ago, this coyote pair raised pups here in one of SF’s smaller parks. The coyotes had been tamed by feeders who not only fed them, but befriended them to the degree that the coyotes would wait around at the park entrance for handouts, as close as 5 feet or even less from people and their mostly leashed dogs. But unleashed dogs went chasing after the coyotes on a regular basis, making the coyotes very uncomfortable. The pups of course were kept totally secret, but I suppose dogs and people came close enough, often enough, to the secret den so that Mom decided she didn’t want to repeat the stressful experience.

The pair played like youngsters at dusk, while the youngsters remained secretly hidden from dogs and people — this was in 2017, when few folks saw or knew about any pups in the area. Notwithstanding, the adults were pursued by dogs regularly.

So last year these parents left that park for the duration of the pupping season, in spite of the plentiful supply of food there. They ended up raising their family at another, even smaller, but much more secluded location, where there were fewer dogs and fewer intrusive people. The problem with the new location was that it began being hugely developed and cleared for building purposes, and its diminished natural area became too small to accommodate the family.

So at about the age of six months, the youngsters began navigating back and forth, at night, between this smaller location and the “feeding/dog” park, making it obvious that this family claimed both areas — about a mile apart. Theirs was what is known as a “fragmented” territory.

But there at the old park, the number of incidents of unleashed dogs chasing and attacking coyotes grew, to the point of leaving coyote adults and pups with leg injuries. Some people felt entitled to not leash their dogs and went so far as to claim that the coyotes were playing with their dogs — that the coyotes “liked” being chased by dogs. In addition to the menacing dogs, other coyotes began appearing at that park in the middle of the night, so by the end of the year, we suddenly began to hear territorial fights between the resident coyotes and interloper coyotes at night. The territory would obviously not do as a pupping area for next year’s litter.

Last year’s litter were kept secret at first

This was the situation when, again, the coyotes picked up and left in January of this year.

Their exit, as in the previous year, was orchestrated by Mom. For months before their departure, she was the one who went out each evening, traveling far and wide, mostly alone, but sometimes with her mate, surveying for a more suitable location for her next litter. When she found the right spot, she returned to gather her mate, and with one yearling in tow, off the trio went, traveling through some of the same open spaces they had been through the year before — spending about two weeks at several of these — before packing off to the next temporary 2-week place.

The one yearling they brought with them.

Finally, they settled down, a full 5 miles from their previous two pupping haunts, but still within the City of San Francisco. This is where it appears they will stay to have their pups this year, due in only a few weeks. Human fast-food toss-offs can be found even in this new location, but best of all: dogs are not an issue here since there aren’t any, and humans give them the respected space they need to live more natural lives. It’s not as easy as you might have imagined being an urban coyote.

The expectant parents, Dad grooms Mom

A Mated Pair’s Routine Evening


Not all coyotes are experiencing the intense drama you’ve been reading in some of my recent postings. Some have been leading calm and routine existences, without notable incidents except for dogs, and here’s such an example I observed last month.

I find the female snoozing in a large field. Eventually, slowly, she gets up and stretches and wanders off, foraging as she goes. The evening looks to be a very routine one, which is what I want to post here. Soon a siren sounds. She sits down and begins her yipping in response, and then her mate joins in, even as he is hidden from view in the close-by thicket edging the field.

He emerges from the thicket as their chorus ends and looks around until he spots her. Ahhh, there she is! He does a lot of marking and looking around, and both coyotes continue foraging, maintaining a substantial distance between themselves. He keeps glancing over at her, more than usual because it’s mating season — his protective and possessive instincts are in overdrive.

Here she is looking back adoringly at him

Dogs are always around in this park, and today is no exception. During mating and then pupping seasons, coyotes are particularly protective of themselves and their mates or families, so it’s important to keep dogs away from them. This is easy to do: the minute you see a coyote, shorten your leash and walk the other way.

A small unleashed dog appears in the not-far distance coming in the direction of the male who, therefore, kicks dirt. Kicking dirt shows he doesn’t like the situation, that he’s angry. Nevertheless, he moves off and out of the dog and walker’s way. But when the dog, who had been oblivious to the coyote finally sees the coyote, he runs several feet towards the coyote and starts barking. This all takes place at a distance of about 100 feet. The coyote turns around to face the barking dog and begins walking in their direction: the coyote is responding to the dog’s challenge. I ask the owner to leash, and they head the other way. Note that it would have been a much calmer situation had the owner leashed the minute she saw the coyotes and simply walked on. The coyotes continue on their way with the male sniffing and marking the ground continually.

Kicking dirt shows he doesn’t like the situation with the dog approaching, nevertheless, he moves away  and out of the dog and walker’s way.

Soon, the female stops foraging and heads off on a path and the male follows not far behind, continually marking. They walk more parallel than together.

When they reached a larger field within the park, the female somehow captures a bird within the blink of an eye. I’ve seen coyotes catch birds a number of times, and its almost always an injured bird on the ground. This seems to have been what happened here because she expended no effort in the process. She begins devouring it right away. The male, forever curious about everything the female does, comes towards her to investigate. Ahhh, she knows about his tricks (he has taken things she dropped) and so she walks away from him as she finishes off the bird.

As the duo continue foraging in the grass, another dog — a leashed one this time — approaches closer and closer, so, of course, the coyote messages the dog to keep away. I explain the behavior to the dog owner, and that it’s best not to ever approach them. The dog owner is understanding and goes the other way. These messages always look scary and aggressive: it’s meant to be in order to be effective. Note that coyotes really don’t want to tangle with dogs, but if a dog comes after them, they’ll defend themselves. However if you walk away, they become assured that you aren’t after them. So you need to heed their message and go the other way. Actually, you should not walk in their direction to begin with. Here is a photo sequence of this messaging:

The coyotes keep moving along. They have a direction in mind — it’s one of several paths they routinely take as they head out trekking for the evening. But soon they stop: half a dozen people and dogs are lingering on their intended pathway, so now the two coyotes find a place to hunker down and wait-it-out until the path is clear. The coyotes are in no hurry and they know from experience that, as dusk thickens, dogs and people disperse. When it is clear, they move on.

Everyone who sees them this evening appreciates them sitting and waiting so patiently on the hill above the path. One set of dogs barks and lunges at them ferociously, but they are leashed and far enough away so that the coyotes don’t react. One set of runners goes by without even seeing them. When it is dark and the path is clear, they slowly get up and descend into the forest and then out into the ‘hood.

There’s always drama in coyote lives, but sometimes it’s in routine packets and not life-altering as in some of my other recent posts. The everyday life of a coyote is a pageant full of activity, emotion, tension, suspense: i.e., a true melodrama.

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