Trying to Throw my Mind Around a Story

Trying to Throw my Mind Around a Story

Red fox. Photo by Gary Lehman.

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 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?

  1. Sydney Lea
    Jan 10, 2014

    Thanks for the article, Dave. As it happens, in the past year I have seen more fox sign and more foxes than I have in perhaps half a decade. That’s a short span, though, and if I had to hazard a guess at the ratio of coyote to fox sign in, say, the past 15 years, I’d venture 5 to1.

  2. woody meristem → in Northcentral PA
    Jan 10, 2014

    If you take a good look at the eastern coyote, it’s pretty obvious that the animal is more similar to the Algonquin wolf in habitat requirements and lifestyle than it is to the western coyote. While what we call a coyote may not be native to the northeast, neither are we of European heritage native to the northeast.

    Here in northcentral PA gray foxes are doing just fine, it’s the red fox with its preference for brushy habitats and edge that’s declined. As Austin P. said, the habitat red fox prefer is gone, Gone, GONE! due to modern farming practices.

    The coyote, because of its adaptability and intelligence, will be able to survive and prosper throughout the northeast.

  3. Ginny → in Brooklyn, CT
    Jan 10, 2014

    My experience has been the same here in rural northeastern Connecticut.  We, who used to routinely be treated to the sight of “Reddy Fox” running across the field, or playing with the kits near their den, now get excited at any sighting—they are few and far between.  Coyotes—all over the place! And too close for comfort.  Cayoodling within a few hundred feet of the house, late at night.  Boldly showing themselves as we drive by the field near their den. 
    Are foxes going the way of porcupines?  I can’t even remember the last time we saw one of those wonderful fellows!

  4. C. Diane Boretos → in Central Maine
    Jan 10, 2014

    I see alot of fox sign (tracks, scat) in Central Maine and on Cape Cod. Both of these areas have either coyote or coywolf populations. They utilize the same corridors, and hunt similiar prey, but I couldnt say that it’s just the coyotes that may be impacting the red fox populations.As others have commented, there are so many factors that come into play with intra-species interactions.

  5. Chris Hearn → in Tiverton, RI
    Jan 10, 2014

    We have had a very robust rabbit population this year. Normally I would see plenty of fox and their scat and hear them. This has not happened. I do hear the coyotes quite often.

  6. David Haas → in Lancaster, NH
    Jan 10, 2014

    I agree with the theory they are being driven closer to town. I’ve observed more fox tracks this winter in the fields close to our village and rarely see coyote tracks close to town. Head out into the rural areas and its just the opposite. My rural friends here the coyotes howling in the spring which I never hear but in the village I had a grey fox barking in my front yard

  7. Rick Meril → in LA by way of NJ
    Jan 10, 2014

    Red and Grey Fox (West Virginia Dept. of Natural Resources)

    Although coyotes and foxes share a common range throughout much of North America, there appears to be an inverse relationship between the densities of coyotes and that of foxes.  High densities of coyotes tend to limit the distribution of fox territories and their numbers. Biologists have noted the decline of foxes following the colonization of coyotes into an area. Foxes apparently avoid core home ranges of coyote to avoid contact with the stronger predator. The territory of the grey fox occupies more interior woodland and apparently encounters are less common than in the more open land territory of the red fox. Most studies have concluded that foxes are not eliminated but become less common when coyotes invade their territory.

  8. Rick Meril → in LA by way of NJ
    Jan 10, 2014

    New York State Dept. of Conservation

    Tree climbing is one of the most notable adaptations in the gray fox. Gray fox have been reported to den several yards above the ground. This is not only advantageous in escaping predators such as coyotes, it may also improve their ability to find food. By gripping the bole of the tree with their front paws, and as they push off with their hind feet, they will let go with their front and re-grip the bole of the tree higher up. Once they’re up in the crown they tend to jump from branch to branch. Descent is backwards or if the tree is leaning they will run down the trunk of the tree.

    Due to their more aggressive behavior, Gray fox prefer to hunt thicker cover than the more timid red fox. The gray fox’s preference for thicker cover, aggressive behavior, and the ability to climb trees minimizes the effect that eastern coyotes have on their population. The red foxes preference for open terrain where they are more visible and farther away from cover allow coyotes to suppress red fox populations where coyotes are abundant.

  9. Rick Meril → in LA by way of NJ
    Jan 10, 2014

    Observed Interactions Between Coyotes and Red Foxes
    Alan B. Sargeant &  Stephen H. Allen

    US Geological Survey

    Coyotes (Canis latrans) are believed to influence the distribution and abundance of red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) (Sargeant, 1982). Examples of inverse relations in abundance of the two species are numerous (Dekker, 1983; Goldman, 1930; Johnson and Sargeant, 1977; Linhart and Robinson, 1972; Sargeant, 1982; Schmidt, 1986). Populations of both species are composed primarily of territorial family groups. In allopatric populations, territories tend to be contiguous and nonoverlapping (Andelt, 1985; Sargeant, 1972). In sympatric populations, red fox territories straddle the periphery or are located largely outside of coyote territories (Major and Sherburne, 1987; Sargeant et al., 1987; Voigt and Earle, 1983). Avoidance of coyotes by red foxes is believed to be the principal cause of spatial separation (Sargeant et al., 1987).

    The accounts we received showed that coyotes occasionally kill fox pups at dens but there is no evidence this is a major source of mortality for foxes living among coyotes. Dekker (1983) inferred that red foxes often den in the immediate vicinity of farms to seek refuge from coyotes but reported no instances of coyote-inflicted mortality on fox pups. Sargeant et al. (1987) also found that in sympatric populations red foxes den closer to occupied farms and roads than coyotes. During 1980-1984 we visited 48 fox-rearing dens on a 313-km² area in northwest North Dakota where coyotes were common; we found no evidence of coyote disturbance to the dens or of coyotes killing fox pups. The arrangement of the coyote and fox dens on that area indicated families of each species were separated spatially in the manner described by Major and Sherburne (1987), Sargeant et al. (1987), and Voigt and Earle (1983); most fox dens were near farms and roads.

    Although red foxes have reason to fear coyotes, they frequently may be near coyotes without showing apparent concern, and coyotes encountering foxes may not respond aggressively. The observed communal feeding by a coyote and fox, and the reported instances of coyotes and foxes rearing pups near each other, reveal the high degree of interspecific tolerance that can occur. Nevertheless, it is advantageous for foxes to avoid encounters with coyotes because each encounter includes risk of injury or death. This mixture of coyote aggression and indifference toward red foxes may explain gradual changes in fox populations in the wake of changes in coyote populations (Sargeant, 1982) and the presence of some red foxes among coyotes for years (Sargeant et al., 1987).

  10. andy Shultz → in Augusta, Maine
    Jan 10, 2014

    I think the perrenial headline is: “Everything Depends on Everything Else!” This may be boring from a “news” point of view, but to me as a forester and resource manager, it is endlessly fascinating to learn more about the real world interactions of animals (including the human kind), plants, weather, etc. NW does a great job at promoting this concept with just the right amount of sensationalism, because, in fact, it is a sensational concept all by itself. Speculation is ok, but keen and accurate observation makes an even better story. Thanks for providing the space for the stories.

  11. Carolyn → in East Wallingford, VT
    Jan 10, 2014

    We’ve had a small but steady fox population in our little rural corner (mixed open and wooded habitat) in the 15 years we’ve lived here. Coyotes are known to be around, and intermittently heard at certain times a year, but rarely seen in our immediate area. In the winter, we prowl our perimeter to look for tracks, see who’s around to menace our cats. While we see fox prints regularly—one known to den at the other end of the road seems to make a great circle several times a week—we rarely see larger canine prints. Just last week, though, we noticed a set of those running a route behind our pond. We have only visually observed coyotes as singles, though when we hear them, it’s always a pack running a ridgeline or down by the river.

  12. Penelope Harris → in Vermont
    Jan 10, 2014

    I love both the coyote and fox. The coyotes for their midnight yapping, barking and noise making and the fox, because they are a beautiful sight to see, stunning puffed up red coats trotting across our fields or leaving their tiny “dog” tracks in the snow.

    Now this is a naturalist talking obviously. A hunter would snicker at the coyote remark as many of them believe they are dispensable and responsible for the death of fawns, while I believe they do a good job of culling sick, diseased, and weak deer from the herds. While I don’t have access to a ratio count of coyote to fox it seems like we have equal numbers of both. Of course the resident foxes have always been plentiful thanks to a neighbor who has, at any time, 200-300 chickens, ducks, geese and guinea fowl running loose at his farm. The term “open refrigerator” comes to mind here. 

    The habitat here is also prime for red fox.  Hedgerows, small wetlands, fields gone wild until they are cut once in August, and then allowed to grow until winter.

  13. Beth Fletcher → in Chatham, Cape Cod, MA
    Jan 11, 2014

    I have seen many more foxes this fall and winter than other years. This seems to run in cycles with the abundance of rabbits. The foxes seem healthy, no mange and very active.

  14. Carl Strand → in Mystic, CT
    Jan 11, 2014

    I’ve been blaming coyotes for a lack of both red and gray fox.  Granted we’re in a suburban area, but where I am directly has about thirty acres of fields that are only cut for hay, not tilled,and marsh that is shrubby with some trees. We also have a wooded nature preserve next to the fields.  A trailcam in an old barway shows coyotes prolifically, turkeys and a few deer - no fox.  It’s possible that mange killed them off, but it seems coyote keeps them from returning.

  15. Charles (Randy) Taplin → in Warren, VT
    Jan 11, 2014

    I see lots of fox tracks in the snow. My son has a wildlife camera which we installed by the compost pile. We saw fox every night. We also have coyote on our 50 acres, they seem to coexist.

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