In a winter cantonment near Council Bluff, on the west bank of the Missouri in the fall of 1819, scientist and explorer Thomas Say tried to collect specimens of the species of ”prairie wolves” that he would name Canis latrans, Latin for “The Barking Dog.” He and Mr. Peale, his assistant, tried many kinds of traps, with many kinds of baiting, but failed over and over. They said that this animal had “wonderful intelligence.”
The coyote is clever and cunning.
To get to know him, go to Oklahoma.
Lie on the ground along those red banks
that the Cimarron cut in days
when it was an energetic youth
of a river, then make a sound
like a dying rabbit.
It is best on a cold October night
when Orion’s belt is pointing his path
through the sky and his hunting dogs
frolic and course around him
and the dog star, Sirius, binary eye
of the Hunter’s big hound,
glows and glitters.
Live traps and cage traps and steel traps were no good. In the end Say caught his specimen in a log trap baited with the body of a wild cat. The coyote was three feet and nine and a half inches long, and a foot of that was tail. The dead animal’s pelt was “Cinerous or gray,varied with black above, and dull fulvous, or cinnamon” in color.
I remember climbing down
into a cut bank cave above a bend
of the river and finding the perfect skull
of a coyote pup, so long on the dry ground
that it was as white and clean
as a dead, dry cottonwood branch.
The moon was rising out of the gully
and a family of coyotes had just begun
yipping and howling
and I felt as if I had disturbed
a shrine to missing coyote children.
Say’s dead coyote had hair that was at its “base dusky plumbeous, in the middle of its length dull cinnamon, and at the tip gray or black.” Its ears were four inches long and “…erect, rounded at tip, cinnamon behind…inside lined with gray hair; eyelids edged with black, superior eyelashes black…iris yellow; pupil black-blue…”
I once watched a coyote mother look up
from a meadowlark nest,
ears and stance all at attention,
yolk dripping from her muzzle,
her fur ruffling in the morning wind,
her yellow eyes unblinking, as if she was
Canis major come to earth,
bright eyes reinvented to flavescence.
“The prairie wolves roam over the plains in considerable numbers, and during the night, the principal season of their hunts, they venture very near to the encampment of the traveler.”
One night I came suddenly
awake in my tent to the midnight
chortling chorus of coyotes.
I pulled my sleeping bag up
around me, as their plangent call
and response set the hairs on my neck
to bristling. My dog was sitting at attention,
staring into the black night,
and I reached out my hand
to stroked his quivering neck.
Together we listened
to the prairie wolves declare
their ownership of the night,
their principal season,
while overhead Orion quietly
climbed into the sky,
stalking the moon across
the high heavens of Oklahoma.
Quotes are taken from Early Western Travels 1748-1846. Volume XIV: Part 1 of James’s Account of S. H. Long’s Expedition, 1819-1820, by Rueben Gold Thwaites, The Arthur H. Clark Company, Cleveland, Ohio, 1905, and are directly from the Long Expedition Journals and Thomas Say’s Notes.