The Trail

At first I didn’t know what it was. Barely four inches at its widest, it was an odd path stretching from the bottom of the arroyo directly up the side and then onward just below the crest, uninterrupted by large rocks and old juniper limbs with seeming contempt for the contours of the land. I wondered if it was a course used by the most hardy mountain bikers but that made little sense as I looked at the large obstacles dotting it.

Then I saw two coyotes moving up the strange path perhaps two hundred feet below me. They were in coyote rhythm, loping, perhaps what we called diddy-bopping on the South Side, linked stutter-steps punctuated with syncopated glides performed in a constant tempo impervious to changing terrain and blockages. The coyote trail — a path more narrow than their bodies — was to suggest one of the secrets of their unique gait.

I soon learned that the arroyo’s crest adjacent to the hay-bale adobe I rent is the terminus of one coyote path as well as confluence of two others, including both “Y” and “T” intersections. These routes proved to guide regular patrols of the coyote family claiming the territory. I would watch the family’s growth, dramas, and rituals of dominance over the next years. And find solace during my periods of isolation in the pandemic.

Coyotes move like water, rarely altering their flow for barriers in their way. I determined to study the phenomenon more. What I believe I witness is a frequent coyote habit of trotting — loping — with pads landing under the center of their bodies. I remain unsure of this; perhaps it is one of many distinct coyote gaits, analogous to horses’ canters, gallops, etc. I wonder if center-body paw placement explains coyotes’ ease of movement, seamless directional changes and ability to maintain constant speed in rough terrain. It is impossible not to see coyote joy in improvised flourishes as they leap over rocks and around stumps in sync with an unheard metronome tapping its pulse. Two or more coyotes moving together suggest harmony and counterpoint.

Most people greatly overestimate the size and weight of coyotes and assume the creatures are one hundred to one hundred twenty-five pounds; a large coyote adult is usually in the thirty-five pound range. They tend to be svelte under their fur, nearly “all leg”, as tall as sled dogs or taller. It is often assumed that coyotes are pack animals like wolves, highly social and communal killers of large prey and livestock. Coyotes will hunt in groups if large prey is plentiful but spend most of their lives in mated pairs with periods of raising pups. Often one or two pups stay with their parents for an additional year to assist in the raising and protection of the next litter before parting to establish their own territories.

Semi-permanent coyote packs have been observed in protected environments like Yellowstone, but zoologists are not certain this behavior is a specific and recent response to the reintroduction of wolves there.

Wolves kill coyotes. Yet, when I arrived in New Mexico nearly two decades ago I was told that some astonishing percentage of American wolves had coyote DNA in their bodies but no coyotes had any wolf DNA in theirs; this could be apocryphal or a now-out-of-date hypothesis as coyotes continue to migrate and adapt to new circumstances. A new breed is spreading from the eastern parts of the the U.S. and Canada, the “coywolf” which some consider a new species.

According to geneticists, these canids stem from the pairings of coyotes and red wolves, whose ancestors remained in North America while those of the grey wolf migrated to Asia over land bridges eons ago and evolved genetically before returning. The coyote, like the red wolf, stayed in North America and became smaller, turning into omnivores in the process and subsisting most of the time on rodents not sought by the apex predators, functionally removing themselves as competitors for prey in the carnivore world. It is thought that the coyote brain became larger in the process.

There seems to be scientific disagreement regarding the primary coyote sense, smell. Perhaps this is due to different modes of calibration and descriptive language used... the most frequent method employed to measure a mammal’s sense of smell is the number of olfactory receptors in the nasal passages; this of course makes a certain logical sense. Some biologists inform us that the coyote sense of smell is forty-five times greater than our own while others report the coyotes’ sense as hundreds or even thousands of times greater. I assume olfactory receptors can be counted, but I don’t understand the difference in the tabulations. The greater the snout length, this analysis continues, the greater the number of receptors, thus bloodhounds’ remarkable abilities, it is reasoned. That said, there is more in the mix. Coyotes are equipped with independently-functioning nostrils, meaning they have an inborn ability to triangulate the location of what they smell as well as receptors that fully function while exhaling.

Barry Lopez in his wonderful work on wolves, reports that we may be approaching the notion of canid scent detection incorrectly from the start, that the type of olfactory receptors are of paramount importance... humans may sense a symphony of “forrest smells” in the woods, but wolves and coyotes may tune in and discriminate the myriad different and (to them) identifiable scents of various trees, ferns, wet earth, the presence of specific other animals, etc. Thus, understanding coyotes’ sense of smell should likely include qualitative as well as quantitative tabulation of olfactory receptors. I share Lopez’ delight in the realization that we don’t know a lot about these creatures, and perhaps these mysteries will forever remain.

A comment must be made about our preconceptions of coyotes and the Warner Brothers’ Cartoons. Chuck Jones, a personal hero of mine and the animator/creator of Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner (and a sage observer of The Human Condition: “Bugs Bunny is who we think we are, Daffy Duck is who we really are”) spent a good deal of time in New Mexico and observed many coyotes. He got a lot of coyote characteristics right (remember, Wile E. is both genius and buffoon). But although coyotes are not known to seek road runners, they can sprint at forty miles per hour and the fastest any road runner has been clocked is twenty-seven mph. If a duel really did exist between coyotes and road runners, perhaps it would be the bird who turns to the Acme Corporation for help. For additional perspective on coyote life, see Coyote v. Acme, by Ian Frazier published in the New Yorker magazine:  https://