There is probably no animal more closely associated with the image and folklore of the southwest desert states than the coyote. From Wile E. Coyote chasing the roadrunner through a never-ending cartoon desert, to their importance in the stories and culture of many indigenous North Americans, coyotes are tied to the desert by both ancient history and modern pop-culture.
Although coyotes can now be found in almost every part of North America, they mostly lived in the deserts and plains in the western part of the continent before European settlers arrived. Because they are so adaptable to new conditions, coyotes are one of the few animals that have seen their range increase alongside growing human population and urban development. This is partly because they’re such excellent scavengers, and also with the declining wolf populations that has allowed coyotes to occupy larger territories.
Speaking of wolves, despite some people confusing them with coyotes, there are some key physical differences between the two. The face of a coyote is narrow and pointed compared to the blockier face of a wolf, and the coyote’s lanky frame reaches a maximum size of about 50 pounds (much less in many desert subspecies), where an adult wolf can weigh more than twice as much.
What coyotes lack in size, they definitely make up for in tenacity, and they feed on just about anything imaginable. In Nevada, rabbits, rodents and carrion make up a good portion of the coyote’s diet, but they’ll also eat deer and antelope fawns, insects, grasses, and seeds. Unfortunate farmers and pet owners have learned the hard way just how wily these canines can be, and urban coyotes are also skilled at hunting for food in landfills and garbage cans.
With their ability to thrive despite changes in their environment, conservation efforts aren’t necessary for coyotes, and they’re more likely to be targeted for having their numbers decreased. Attempts to reduce coyote populations or to kill “problem coyotes” that pose a problem for livestock and pets have generally proven unsuccessful, and removing coyote attractants like garbage and pet food are better long-term solutions for keeping coyote encounters to a minimum.
Coyote As Trickster
Many indigenous North American mythologies feature the coyote as a trickster figure, using his quick wit to deceive other characters in stories. Knowing what we know about the coyote’s ability to thrive in almost any situation, it’s not hard to see the connection between mythology and the modern day animals. Of the many indigenous groups where coyote holds an important figure are the Chemehuevi people of the Mojave desert, who have spent centuries interacting with these tenacious canines.
Despite their place as important animals in North American history and ecosystems, coyotes have suffered from a poor public opinion for decades. Although these remarkable animals can cause problems for owners of livestock and domestic pets, coyotes are here to stay, and the best way to deal with these intelligent, adaptable animals is in learning to live alongside them.