200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 18: “Catching the Wily Coyote ”

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Coyote illustration by John James Audubon
Coyote (Canis latrans) from John James Audubon's The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America:Image from the Ewell Sale Stewart Library & Archives

Catching the Wily Coyote

Before the 1820s, trappers and travelers to the American West were familiar with the coyote, but this animal remained unknown in the scientific sense until 1823, when Academy founder Thomas Say described it. Say encountered the coyote during a famous journey known as the Long Expedition. Often called prairie wolves, these animals “are by far the most numerous of our wolves, and often unite in packs for the purpose of chasing deer,” wrote the expedition's chronicler, Edwin James. He named the animal Canis latrans (barking dog) in reference to its distinct call. To the dismay of Say and his fellow explorers, these creatures frequently ventured close to the expedition's encampments but proved exceptionally difficult to catch.

James explained that Say's colleague and fellow naturalist Titian Peale “constructed and tried various kinds of traps to take them,” but to no avail. Each morning Say and Peale would discover a host of coyote footprints telling them that the coyotes were interested in the bait but too crafty to be caught. In fact, one coyote actually dug underneath the trap and retrieved the bait. Ultimately, they trapped a coyote, but it was killed in the process.

Visit the Academy today to check out our dioramas, many of which contain animals gathered during 20th century expeditions to the American West!

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