Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

February 19, 2008

The Passing of a Song Dog

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:52 pm

The passing of a song dog occurs more frequently than we might be aware of. Song dogs are out and about during the full extent of the cold season and leave evidence of their wanderings in the form of crisp snow tracks.

  You may have guessed that I am about to embark on another track treatise and that I have introduced the subject in my usually obtuse manner. Song Dog is a euphonic name for the coyote, by the way. This nick name came from their propensity to yip and yap at the full moon, but their common name derives from a corruption of their original Native American label. The coyote name, in fact, came from the same Central American folks who brought us the word tomato. Tomato was “tumatl” and coyote was “Coyotl.” Don’t ask me how the “l” graduated down the alphabetic line to “o” in the first case, but I suspect the “l” in coyotl caused too many tongue injuries in frustrated Europeans trying to pronounce it.  The “e” ending simply made things easier to say – just like it made chocolatl easier to eat.

  While keeping track of name origins is important, knowing the track at hand is even more important in this case. Earlier in the winter I spied a lone coyote loping along the edge of a corn field. As is usual among this species, it appeared to be self absorbed and laid down his feet in a mantra-like beat pattern. It was a good half mile away and I initially felt that I was unobserved, but the wily beast stopped every 10 yards to throw a glance over in my direction to prove me wrong. Only smart coyotes survive in this area and so they must be constantly aware of all that is near and far. Most eastern coyotes have turned to nocturnal habits and so they stay out of our way for the most part. We must rely on their track evidence to give testimony to their abundance.

  I spotted this set of coyote tracks last week on a morning after a nice overnight snowfall. At first glance you’ll probably remark that they appear very dog-like (as the animal itself does). As fellow members of the canine corps, coyotes and dogs share many traits – not the least of which is a four-toed foot with a central pad.  There are a few particular differences that can help separate their tracks, however.

  First of all, the average coyote track is about 2 ½ inches long, while dog tracks can vary from glorified rat-sized Chihuahua prints to cattle sized Great Dane spoor. A German Shepherd would leave a track similar in size to that of a coyote, but it will reveal its “dogginess” by the fact that the paw print is nearly round in outline.  If you draw an imaginary line outlining the borders of a dog track you will trace out a fairly circular shape. A similar exercise with a coyote track will reveal a narrow oval. The coyote track is more pointed and is narrower than a dog’s print.

  Both dogs and coyotes set down their feet in a repetitious pattern which leaves a single hind foot mark adjacent to a front foot. The larger of the set is the front foot in both cases. If you take a look at how these multiple tracks line up, you will see another coyote sign marker. Coyotes pretty much keep in a relatively straight line when they walk, while dogs will veer and angle about (especially in the presence of hydrants). This dotted line trait is also indicative of foxes, but they have much smaller feet. 

  Now that you know what to look for in a coyotl trackl, it’s time to go in pursuit of the story behind a set of rare winter Arakun prints. But, that will have to wait until next time.


  1. Ger,

    Do you mean snow dog – or song dog in title?

    Comment by Kathy — February 20, 2008 @ 7:21 pm

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