One of the ways we try to differentiate ourselves from the traditional environmental media is by looking at things evenly. For example, a press release showed up in my inbox the other day with a headline that screamed: Cold Snap Will Be A Killer For Birds, Group Warns. We didn’t sound the alarm, figuring that with all the legitimately sad environmental problems out there jostling for attention, people need to get worked up over natural processes like fish need bicycles. I’d rather run a story about how birds have evolved to cope with cold weather, seeing as this isn’t the world’s first cold snap and will certainly not be its last.
But it’s easy to be crotchety and run your red pen through a story idea; it’s harder to come up with a good story angle yourself. Consider fox and coyote interactions. I’ve been doing just that for years, because it seems like where I live, foxes, specifically reds, are in a protracted funk. Growing up, I’d see foxes clamoring up manure piles, chasing each other during mating season, feeding with their puppies on wild strawberries that were growing outside their den. And I never remember seeing coyotes. Now it’s the exact opposite. I do still see some fox sign, but it’s probably 10 to 1 coyote to fox. The old fox dens sit empty, for the most part.
And like you, I’m sure, I talk to people about this sort of thing. I’ve talked to people in Maine and New York and all around the eastern half of America. And many of them say that they’ve been noticing the same thing on land they’re intimately familiar with.
So are coyotes, a non-native animal that only arrived in the northeast 50 or so years ago, displacing red foxes? This seems like a good question and a good hook for a story. The problem is I just don’t know how to tell it.
I started my research into the matter by asking naturalists what they were seeing, and some of them confirmed that they’ve seen coyote-killed-foxes. Some foxes partially eaten, some just left for dead. I scanned the scientific literature and found corroboration in one research project done in Canada. One naturalist said that she suspects that where the two animals coexist, they may be using the same habitats at different times. Others have shared the observation that foxes are being pushed into towns and residential areas; that the coyotes run the woods now and the foxes are fleeing to the suburbs, choosing humans as the lesser of two evils. My sister-in-law had a litter of fox pups born under her back porch at work a few years back, which certainly seems to lend credence to this hypothesis.
I talked to fur trappers next, figuring these were the men and women on the front lines who’d know better than anybody. There is universal consensus among everyone I spoke to that there are more coyotes today and fewer foxes, and that to a certain degree there has to be a cause and effect, even if it’s just competition for resources. This contention is backed up by harvest data. But most went on to say that the question probably obscures the big picture. And that, really, it’s changes to the landscape and farming practices that are having the most profound effect on foxes.
A trapper based in western New York that I corresponded with online, shared this observation:
“Decades past, when crop fields were harvested for the season, they were either left alone or fall plowed and then disked in the spring. Fallow ground was left for grass and weeds, hedgerows and weedy fencelines were everywhere, and water tables were higher, resulting in more wetlands year-round. Now we have common farming practices to bushhog corn stubble and disc under corn, beans, and other row crops in the fall. That results in untold 1,000s of acres that are now just frozen-dirt deserts, which before would hold small rodent and bird populations all winter. Hedgerows and fence lines are gone, period. Everything is now one enormous field, with edges plowed to the max tight against roads, creeks, ditches, with nil margin between. Wetland areas have been tiled and drained with reckless abandon. The carrying capacity of land for wildlife is measured by the worst possible time in the food-source cycle. Look around you out there in farmlands other than working dairy operations...it is one big, dirt desert wasteland right now. Where literally tons of biomass (small rodents & birds) used to exist, few do now. Take away that much fox food, you take away the ability of the land to support the fox.”
Several other New York trappers had similar observations, as did one in the Midwest.
I asked a biologist in Vermont what he thought, and he took the really large view, pointing out that while fox populations fluctuate based on a lot of things (rabies and mange, food cycles, habitat changes), the fluctuations he’s observed still fall within the margins, and the state isn’t worried about the overall population. He went on to point out that whatever the problems foxes might be having in specific areas, if you look at the animal as a species, it’s one of the most resilient there is. Foxes live in the desert and the tundra; they exist practically everywhere, including places where coyotes have historically prowled. It’s one thing to worry about a specialized animal like the polar bear, because there’s no proven track record of adaptation or resilience in the face of change. Red foxes, on the other hand, are as malleable and adaptive as mammals come.
So I come back to the beginning, which is to say back to scratching my head over an angle. Am I just trying to write a story that may as well be entitled: Coyotes Will Be A Killer Of Foxes, Group Warns – making a bigger deal than needs to be made over a natural process? Or is there really something interesting here that’s worth writing about? If we let the scientific process dictate the writing process, we’d never write about anything in the present, or the future, or anything remotely speculative. And how boring would that be?
What do you think? And what have you been seeing where you live where it comes to coyote and fox interaction?