I finally saw one of our local coyotes. I was beginning to think I was the only person in Chicago who hadn’t spotted one. These crafty canids have been reported in forest preserves all over the metropolitan area, even around such unlikely locations as the Lawson YMCA and Lincoln Park. My colleague Bill Valentine has sighted one three different times at Somme Woods Forest Preserve, where we have been working on surveys of nesting birds.
My coyote appeared about noon last Saturday at a place called Middle Fork Savanna in Lake County. I had been surveying nesting birds on the savanna all morning and was on my way back to my car. Middle Fork Savanna is split by train tracks running north to south through the preserve (A Railroad Runs Through It would make a good title for a book about nature in the Chicago area). I was walking north on the tracks when the animal crossed slowly from one side of the tracks to the other about 200 yards ahead of me.
I was too far away to ask why it was crossing the tracks, but with the aid of binoculars I could plainly see the large ears, the slender, pointed muzzle, and the distinctive black tip on the tail. Coyote acquired that black tip when he traveled to Fire Mountain to steal fire for the First People. Coyote has always been the kind of guy who did no work he could avoid, so when the nights began to grow cold here in the Fifth World, his first response was to persuade some other animals to go to Fire Mountain to steal fire from Fire Man. When Badger, Skunk, and Gopher turned him down, he went to the birds. Many of them did not want fire to warm their houses, because their houses were made of grass, twigs, and moss that would burn very easily.
But at last Flicker agreed to try. He flew to Fire Mountain carrying braided reeds in his beak, but Fire Man’s guards saw him coming and fanned the flames in the mountain. The undersides of Flicker’s wings were burned by the fire, and to this day the flickers of western North America have red wing linings.
Next Coyote played upon the vanity of Hawk, the finest of flyers, and Hawk tried his luck, only to have his tail burned red, as it remains to this day.
All else having failed, Coyote tied a bundle of reeds to his tail and climbed Fire Mountain. With his natural guile he tricked the guards into letting him get near enough to the flames to ignite the reeds, and then ran back to the First People dragging the flaming bundle behind him. Unfortunately, he was not quite fast enough, and before he could be cut loose from the burning bundle the flames scorched the tip of his tail. It remains black to this day.
This story about Coyote comes from the Navaho. You may think it fanciful, but then how do you account for red-shafted flickers, red-tailed hawks, and coyotes whose tails are tipped with black?
Coyote is a major figure in the stories of Native American cultures. Our name for him comes from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, but tales of Coyote occur wherever the animal lived, which was roughly from here to the Pacific, north to Alaska, and south to Central America.
Coyote is a complex character. Sometimes he does good, as he did when he brought fire to the First People. Sometimes he is outright evil. Most often he is an ambiguous figure, the trickster who uses his wiles to get what he’s after. He always wants to be involved in whatever is going on, and sometimes his desperate need to be in on the action gets him in as much trouble as the protagonist of the ancient fable “The Ten-Peckered Goat Who Outsmarted Himself.”
Certainly he is resilient. Another Navaho story tells of the time he married a human. She told him he had to kill a monster to gain her hand. He did that, and then she told him he could not have her unless he was killed four times and four times came back to life.
Hey, no problem, said Coyote. So she broke every bone in his body and beat him into the ground. Three times she did that, and three times he came back to life. The fourth time, she beat him into little pieces, mixed the pieces with earth, and ground them like corn between two stones. He still came back.
His secret was that his vital organs were not in his chest like those of other animals. They were at the tip of his nose, and the black tip of his tail. And each time she killed him she failed to destroy those two vital spots, so Coyote came back to life. Achilles’ only vulnerable spot was his heel, and he had the misfortune to catch an arrow there. Coyote was luckier.
The coyotes that have invaded the Chicago area in the past few years are descendants of animals that have been under a death sentence for centuries. There have been bounties on coyotes ever since Europeans first encountered them. We have shot them, poisoned them, trapped them, and, for all I know, battered them into little pieces, mixed them with earth, and ground them between two stones like corn. Their response has been to expand their range all the way to Maine.
It would be perverse not to admire the resourcefulness and resilience of coyotes. They took everything we could throw at them and came back stronger than ever. And they do add some depth to the local landscape. But as always, they are ambiguous figures. I worry especially about the effect they seem to be having on our local fox populations. Coyotes dislike competition, and foxes tend to disappear from areas invaded by coyotes. The foxes that used to live at Somme Woods vanished just after the first coyotes arrived.
Of course this kind of problem develops because we have incomplete ecosystems around here. If we had timber wolves, as we used to, they would do a very effective job of controlling coyotes. The expansion of coyotes east to Maine came only after the wolves had been extirpated from the region. Anybody interested in starting a campaign to introduce wolves into our forest preserves as a means of keeping the coyotes within bounds?
This has been a good season for seeing new animals. On May 29 I saw my first spiny soft-shelled turtle. It was basking on the bank of the North Shore Channel just north of Devon Avenue. Alan Anderson, Allen Feldman, and I canoed the channel this year in our second annual attempt to discover black-crowned night heron nests.
Unfortunately, we were again a little bit late. The trees were fully leafed out, seriously blocking our view of the likely nesting locations. We did see one possible nest, and we also saw a total of 54 of the herons between the east end of the channel–which is just north of the Baha’i temple in Evanston–and Devon. Maybe next year we will get ourselves together early enough to paddle the channel around the beginning of May.
We did record a total of 43 species of birds, many of them likely nesters along the channel. The most interesting, aside from the herons, were two hooded mergansers. These small fish-eating ducks do nest around Chicago, so they may be part of the breeding population along the channel.
Soft-shelled turtles have leathery rather than rigid carapaces. These offer less protection, but they allow the turtles to be quicker and more flexible. Field guides advise caution to anyone who picks up a soft-shelled turtle. Their long, flexible necks make them quite capable of biting the hand that holds them.
I think the animal we saw had never been approached from the water before. He sat quietly while we pulled the canoe to the bank, so I got a good long look at him from only four or five feet away. It wasn’t until Alan stepped out onto the bank that the turtle reacted and scooted into the water.
I was the last one to leave the canoe. As I put my right foot onto the bank the canoe slid from under me. My right foot was anchored on the bank, but my left foot was headed for the middle of the channel. This was not a stable situation, so I fell. My right shoulder landed on the canoe. The impact produced a large bruise on my upper arm that has been changing colors ever since, producing an effect like a light show in super-slow motion.
If I had landed amidships things would have been fine. Unfortunately I landed more or less on the port gunwale, tipping the canoe and dipping my right leg, most of my left leg, and the right side of my torso into the channel. The water was very cold, but since we were only a mile downstream from the Howard Street sewage treatment plant I was more concerned about hepatitis than hypothermia.
I managed to hold onto the canoe, so when it righted itself I was back in it. Luckily both the tip of my nose and the tip of my tail stayed dry, so I don’t anticipate any permanent damage.