First, the light-hearted part. How do you pronounce the word “coyote”? KyOATee or KYoat? My whole life I have pronounced it KyOATee, but on the program I watched about them this week on the National Geographic Wild channel, there were an equal number of speakers who pronounced it both ways. I couldn’t figure out if there was some sort of regional difference, if it was the Canadians who pronounced it one way and the Americans who pronounced it the other way.
The answer is: there is no difference. Both Canadians and Americans pronounce it both ways. But here is the curious thing: the word comes from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. Their word was “coyotl”, which Spaniards could not pronounce. So they replaced the “l” with an “e” and pronounced it KyOATee. That’s the way Americans pronounced the word in the western U.S. and Canada, where coyotes first appeared.
Coyotes gradually spread east until today when they are in every state, and in every province in Canada, although I have never seen one. I’m not surprised by that. They are very shy and wary creatures. In the Southeast U.S., they are more or less known for raiding chicken houses in the middle of the night.
But a couple of strange twists have occurred. In the language and in the life of coyotes. Today, people in the West are most likely to use the pronunciation KYoat. In the East, KyOATee. That is a mystery. And something happened to the coyotes themselves. When they got up to the most northeasterm parts of the U.S. (Maine) and northeastern Canada, they began interbreeding with wolves.
So today there are two recognized populations of coyotes, the Western and Eastern varieties. I get the impression that they have not yet been designated as different species. But they are different in appearance and most importantly, in behavior. The Western coyotes are the shy, wary creatures I thought them to be, who hunt singly. Eastern coyotes hunt in packs, like wolves. You have to wonder….since pack hunting is so much more successful than lone hunting, will the process reverse itself? Will Eastern coyotes begin to populate a wider area and move back west?
The NatGeoWild program (I’m not trying to be cute here, that’s their designation for their TV channel) was about a young woman who was killed, and partially eaten, by coyotes in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Cape Breton is an island off the far northern coast of Nova Scotia, and is part of Nova Scotia. The attack took place on a hugely popular hiking trail called the Skyline Trail. This young woman was hiking alone, but in broad daylight, and in a place that was so well-traveled she was likely to run into other hikers, or to call for help and have someone hear her.
I can’t tell you how shocked I was to hear that a person had been killed by coyotes. Not to mention, I cannot think of another way to die that is more horrifying than being attacked and killed by a wild animal. Apparently it is not unheard of, but the young woman, whose name was Taylor Mitchell, is quite chillingly described as the first adult ever known to be killed by coyotes.
Like in most such incidents, park rangers went out and hunted down the coyotes in the nearby area. I don’t know how many were killed, but three of those killed were determined to have participated in the attack. An Alpha Female (who actually had human material in her stomach), an Alpha Male, and another male who was determined by DNA testing to be related to them–likely a son.
The process of them figuring out what happened was fascinating (and allowed your brain to stop focusing for a minute on the horror). Between the lab and the park rangers and biologists who investigated, they put together a very credible account of what happened. Still, all of them were as shocked as I was. First of all, they decided that due to the popularity of this particular trail, the coyotes had lost their natural fear of humans. Second, when Ms.Taylor realized at some point that she was being stalked, she ran. They could tell this by the trail of items strewn on the trail behind her, like her camera and various other things she apparently threw at them. I realize that popular advice says to stand your ground, but I don’t think that would have worked in this case. Granted, you cannot outrun a coyote. But what was she supposed to do? Just stand there?
The investigators determined that this was not an “accidental” killing, so to speak. In other words, Ms. Taylor did not inadvertently come across a den, where the coyotes were obliged to protect a litter of pups or something. These coyotes simply hunted her for food. She was doomed from the minute she was targeted. They “knew” she was alone and far from help–separated from the herd–which is why they picked her in the first place.
When I looked up Eastern coyotes, I found another interesting thing. Due to DNA testing, biologists now believe that Red wolves are not wolves at all, but are wolf/coyote hybrids, just like Eastern coyotes.
The moral to this story, if there is one, is Don’t ever hike alone, no matter how safe the trail may seem. And take a gun.