reading more about coyotes was entirely unappealing and I brushed off the suggestion. About a month ago, as the one-year anniversary of my Ph.D. defense was approaching and I was feeling nostalgic, I finally decided to pick up my copy of Coyote America and re-immerse myself in coyotes. Below, I focus on my impressions from the book, and I’ve tried to avoid discussing the aspects of coyote biology that I was already intimately familiar with from my research career.
How it stacked up:
My previous read, Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, examines the many species that have been driven to extinction as a direct or indirect result of human activity. Dan Flores’ Coyote America deals with the exact opposite phenomenon: the unyielding persistence of a species that humans have repeatedly tried to kill off.
It’s challenging to overstate how hard humans really did try to exterminate coyotes; Flores devotes roughly a third of the book to describing the predator control efforts implemented by men armed with guns, strychnine, and overly inflated egos following the “successful” near-extinction of wolves through similar methods. I found it somewhat challenging to follow all the exact details of the legal history, the precise timeline, and the various agencies involved, but the point was clear: over the past few centuries, humans wanted coyotes to die, and instead, the exact opposite happened. Coyote population sizes grew, and their range expanded in all directions.
As is the case with most scientific observations, the persistence of coyotes in the face of aggressive management efforts aren’t the result of a single ecological factor, and several reasonable and non-mutually exclusive explanations were described in the book. Simply put, coyotes have weaker social bonds than their wolf cousins, and killing one coyote is far less likely to lead to the dissolution of an entire pack. In that sense, successful wolf-killing methods wouldn’t be expected to work as well for coyotes. Further, coyotes are also known to have a highly variable number of offspring, and when population density is low, they repopulate pretty efficiently with increased litter size. Combine that with a largely wolf-free landscape, and you get resilient coyotes on the move, expanding eastward to their final frontier of Long Island, New York, which also happens to be my homeland.
Despite these brutal control efforts, it is essential to note that human hatred of coyotes is not a universal phenomenon. It is from the Aztec word coyotl from which we actually derive the word coyote, and coyotes hold spiritual significance in many Native American cultures. Throughout the book, Flores steps away from the scientific descriptions and retells the stories of “Old Man Coyote,” an anthropomorphized deity whose escapades reveal the human condition. It is with these stories that Flores drives home the central metaphor of the book; as animals resilient to sweeping changes in their environments, coyotes are a lot like humans.
One downside to books is that the publication process is so long that certain conventions and observations will inevitably be outdated, especially in the sciences. Accounting for the fact that the book was published in 2017, there were still a handful of studies I was surprised not to see mentioned. For example, while the topic was covered, some of the more recent studies on coyote, red wolf, and eastern wolf genomics concerning a possible hybrid origin of the latter two groups, were not mentioned. I don’t mean this to be a knock at Flores’ research; the book was comprehensive and distilled complex scientific and political controversy to highly accessible and well-written prose. This is a broader comment on the reality of the book publishing industry for popular science, which is perhaps more obvious to someone who has done extensive research on coyotes over the last half-decade. And it’s also what I tell myself to explain why none of my work was cited in the book.