Unpacking Coyote(s)

The only languages which do not change are dead ones.

David Crystal

A while back, there was a fascinating talk at the LBIF about coyotes in New Jersey. Near the outset, the presenters ticked off a bunch of engaging coyote facts, including one in particular, which caused enough confusion that people still bring it up in conversation today.

The researchers stated plainly and emphatically, “Coyotes don’t form packs.”

A lot of dog lovers were immediately puzzled by this. Commonly, a “pack” is known to be the primary family unit for canines, which would include coyotes. Coyotes don’t form families, they wondered?

It also confused anyone attending who had been lucky enough to see a tightly coordinated group of several coyotes attempting to cross Long Beach Boulevard or perhaps parading down the beach. It sure looked like a pack, they scoffed.

But most of all, the fun fact that “Coyotes don’t form packs” puzzled anyone who reads, watches, studies with, or follows other respected coyote researchers who use the term “pack” to refer to coyote family groups, all of the time, professionally and informally!

So if biologists and researchers can’t agree, what should we be calling our coyotes?

The answer may lie in the darker sciences of linguistics and psychology. 

Linguistically, “pack” is a collective noun. And actually, it is a very, very special type of collective noun with its own fancy classification: term of venery.

Terms of venery are a particular class of collective noun used to describe groups of animals belonging to the same species (and another fancy word, conspecific, can be used, meaning “of the same species”). A pod of whales? A murder of crows? A parliament of owls? A pack of coyotes? All terms of venery

So now we know that “pack” is a term of venery generally shared by canines, describing conspecific canine groups. Linguistically it doesn’t matter if the animals are related or not, and it also doesn’t matter what they are doing when they are all grouped up. They just all need to be, in our case anyway, coyotes. 

While there are plenty of other street names (street terms of venery?) for groups of coyotes that we could use instead, including “band” of coyotes, “run” of coyotes, and “rout” of coyotes, “pack” still seems to be the linguistically correct term for a group of canines of the same species.

So what gives? Why all the different hot takes and drama? My hunch is that the answer lies in the domain of another science: psychology!

When most people hear “a pack of coyotes was running through the neighborhood,” they most likely imagine a gang of random, wayward, delinquent coyote youths teamed up to amplify their hijinx and destruction. But coyotes don’t do this. Coyotes are solitary hunters, unlike wolves who form cooperative packs of conspecific but often unrelated individuals working together to hunt and take down massive bison and what-not. Of course, coyotes will pair up sometimes, and they have been observed letting other wayward coyotes into their family group and/or teaming up to take down larger prey, but this is unusual. They aren’t wolves. 

But coyotes are family first. And their packs, or whatever we decide to call them, work together as a tight group, mainly to raise young and defend their territory from other coyotes who might have a good enough grasp of linguistics that they mistakenly think they can join the family simply because they are conspecific!

That might be the best explanation. Discouraging the use of the word “pack,” however linguistically correct it might be, as a way of disassociating them from the more-scary wolves and tamping down on irrational fears of coyotes, is probably both smart and helpful. If the word “pack” conjures up images of “coordinated hunting of large prey” more readily than “family,” then it is probably a bad term to use as far as the animals are concerned. Especially on a small, skittish, barrier Island like LBI. 

One of the biggest misunderstandings about our local coyotes is that they are, in reality, a single family unit of multiple generations, and the Island is one territory, possibly two, at best. It can feel like the Island is crawling with random coyotes when reports say a coyote was seen in Surf City at 8 PM and another in Beach Haven at midnight. But most of the time, it was the same coyote; and its mother, father, or siblings were probably nearby in the shadows or right around the corner.

They aren’t a gang. They are a family.

So, what term of venery should we bestow on them if “pack” has too much baggage? I’ll leave that up to you. If you have any clever ideas, please leave a comment.

For inspiration, I’ll leave you with two things. First, a quote:

Psycholinguists argue about whether language reflects our perception of reality or helps create them. I am in the latter camp. Take the names we give the animals we eat. The Patagonian toothfish is a prehistoric-looking creature with teeth like needles and bulging yellowish eyes that lives in deep waters off the coast of South America. It did not catch on with sophisticated foodies until an enterprising Los Angeles importer renamed it the considerably more palatable “Chilean sea bass”.

Hal Herzog

And secondly, a video. While it is not unusual to see the whole (insert preferred term of venery here) of coyotes on the beach if you have a wide enough view, it is tough to capture them in one frame on camera. In this special clip we have them all prancing through Harvey Cedars, with the exception of Sir Francis, the littlest coyote with a busted leg, who was running about 15 minutes behind the rest.


    1. Relatively. But we actually had an incident this spring with two guys duck hunting in BARNEGAT LIGHT STATE PARK. Amazingly, there was no specific law on the books saying they couldn’t do it. Weird right? I suppose it’s such common sense it never came up!


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