The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Prankster Song Dog
By Ron Smith
McAllen Monitor


Many mythologies feature a trickster, a hero, god, goddess or spirit who creates mischief and breaks society's rules. At times, the prank is malicious, but it can also result in turning a bad situation into a positive one.

Prometheus was one such figure when he stole fire from the Greek gods. There is also Loki of the Norse myths, Puck in England, and on a less celestial plane, Jack Sparrow of "Pirates of the Carribean."

The Navajo have one: Ma'ii or Coyotl. Like all the others, this trickster can be foolish, wise or both, breaking the rules and disobeying the gods.

According to the legend, the Milky Way was created by Coyote's mischief. He was annoyed because the Holy People were placing the stars in the heavens contrary to his notions, so he put a red star in the southern sky, One Who Roams, his symbol. Then he threw high his whole bag of stars , strewing them across the heavens, and that, my children, became the Milky Way!

If you know the real animal, the cunning Canis latrans, or "barking dog," you know that it is everywhere from Alaska to Panama. Called the Prairie Wolf or poetically, the Song Dog of the Dawn, its wavering wail and yipping bark are unmistakable. We once heard it in the twilight while visiting the eerie and rugged Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the North Dakota Badlands, an appropriate setting for such a thrilling and primitive call. I appreciate it best in our Michigan woods. We used to hear them in Pharr until the housing developments boomed.

Beause of its widespread population and forays, the Coyote has been the target of man for centuries. Since 1891 alone, a half million have been trapped (their fur can be beautiful), poisoned or shot at a cost of $30 million. Sheepmen and cattlemen have taken many to protect their lambs and calves. And the result? The population has increased to the point where they are now living in cities and towns, traveling the parks and streets at night hunting for rodents and other goodies.

They are beneficial in this regard, but they sometimes lose the fear of humans enough to prey on small pets, and some children have been bitten while playing in yards. Coyote jumping ability makes building most fences useless, although areas like Santa Fe, New Mexico still build them.

Many of these crimes are perpetrated by Coydogs, a hybrid of the Coyote and the domestic canine. Coyotes may even interbreed with wolves.. This adds to their size...they can usually only reach 40 pounds, about half a wolf or less.

Our very nature-savvy friends in Austin, Gene and Gary Roberts, wonder about the stories of Coyote predation on pets. They once had a tom cat that would drive coyotes away from the barn to protect his very own supply of rodents! That's rather like David and Goliath.

They also knew of a pair living in a patch of woods near the house. In the dark of night, they would put out food scraps for them so that the neighbors did not know and wonder about people who actually feed Coyotes....hmmmmm.

Proof that this mammal interbreeds with domestic dogs came when the male was killed on the highway and the female mated with a Labrador Retriever! She gave birth to black puppies. It makes you wonder if they had the same knack for swimming and retrieving ducks.

Coyotes can react with humans on other levels as well. Shelley Collier of McAllen relates this story: A friend who owned a ranch would jog every day. One morning he noticed a Coyote running with him on a parallel path some yards away. Interesting, he thought. The next day the animal appeared again and from then on, the aerobic continued for quite a while. What would explain this? Was the animal keeping track of the human's behavior and perhaps protecting young or its territory.

The prankster song dog is indeed a hardy, fascinating and wily creature. It is no wonder it belongs in the pantheon of Native American beliefs and is also such a part of our nation's folklore.