Ideas

Wily Coyotes: the clever, communicative 'song dogs' trotting down your street

Coyotes are everywhere, from the deepest woods to urban backyards. Who is this “song dog” and why do they fascinate and unnerve humans? IDEAS explores some answers in a 2001 documentary that looks at coyotes, in reality and story.

For decades now, coyotes have lived more visibly among us, in both the countryside and in cities

Coyotes don’t hibernate and can still be seen looking for food and shelter in urban areas in the winter months too. They are sometimes called the 'song dog’ for their varied vocalizations. (Shutterstock / karl umbriaco)

Once they were a distant howl in the wilderness. But coyotes seem to be just about everywhere in North America these days, including urban parks and city streets. 

Pandemic-era lockdowns have sent more people out into nature, more often. Coyotes, likewise, seem to be heading more frequently into human-populated areas. 

That's led to an increase in coyote sightings and encounters, from Vancouver to Ottawa to New York. Coyotes have also entered news headlines recently, for preying on urban pets, and for occasional aggression toward humans. 

Experts say the latter behaviour is atypical, and are divided about its causes: human baiting and feeding of the carnivores is one possible reason.

For more than a century, coyotes have been thriving, moving far beyond their original home in the great plains.

In 2001, producer Dave Redel made an IDEAS documentary about the intrepid animal, called Coyotyl's Song. (Coyote is the Spanish version of their Aztec name: coyotl.)

Redel found that despite animosity from humans, and eradication campaigns, the clever wild canine honoured in Indigenous cultures as the Trickster figure, remains a survivor.

Some coyote insights heard in the documentary:

Coyotes are true omnivores, says biologist Marc Bekoff:

"As medium-sized carnivores, coyotes [eat] mostly small rodents, medium-size rodents. Occasionally they'll band together and hunt deer. But I've seen them eat lettuce. I know that the urban coyotes will raid dumpsters and eat salad. They've been reported to fish. They've also been reported to eat boots.

"When I was doing a species report on coyotes about 25 years ago, to say that they have a Catholic diet is sort of an understatement: I think there was at least 70 food items. So all the mammals, all the birds, reptiles, amphibians, boots, scarves, socks, pinecones, the whole works. They'll eat anything." 

Coyotes communicate in a variety of ways, says researcher Eric Gese:

"There is a 'wow, wow' kind of vocalization. And it's also seen in the context of individual coyotes coming back together. If they've been hunting individually and they come back into the group and they greet each other, there'll be a lot of nuzzling and licking.

"Then there's the long howl, where an individual howls by itself. That's a long distance vocalization in which individuals apparently communicate back and forth, and they recognize each other's long howls, and they're able to determine where other members of the group, or other individuals, not part of the group, are, spatially."

Coyotes' reputation as wily and funny is based in fact, says Marc Bekoff:

"I bent down once to look in a den and got nipped on the butt by a female coyote. I was so intent on looking in the den to see if there were pups there. She came up and she nipped me in the butt, and I turned around and she had gone off about 20 metres and was bark-howling as a warning to me.

"I mean, she could have really, really hurt me. She could have attacked me. She could have killed me, maybe. They're well known as being tricksters and being sort of fun-loving animals." 

Guests in this 2001 episode:

  • Eric Gese is a researcher and professor in the Department of Wildland Resources at Utah State University.
  • Marc Bekoff is professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology, University of Colorado. 
  • Philip Lehner is a retired professor of biology at Colorado State University, specialist in coyote vocalizations.
  • Kristine (Lampa) Webber was, in 2001, executive director of Stanley Park Ecology Society.
  • William Bright was a linguistic anthropologist at UCLA and author of A Coyote ReaderHe died in 2006.

*This original episode was produced by Dave Redel, and updated for rebroadcast by Lisa Godfrey.

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