A Quartet of Coyotes

We've been happily and excitedly watching conservation photographer Steven David Johnson document his special encounters with a coyote family in Virginia since August on his Facebook page.  It's always cool when one comes across a photographer following a Red Fox family, and although it's not something you see every day, it definitely is seen more often than a photographer following and successfully documenting a coyote family.  The minute I saw these images, I knew they were special.  They were special, yes, in the sense that it's not a commonly seen photo-story, but special too because this is what coyotes need in order to show a world that too quickly dismisses them as vermin that they are so much more.

Steven's conservation storytelling by way of this photo series is really important work for coyotes, considering how persecuted they are, and have been, for decades. This series sheds a light on these animals as the sentient beings they are, with rich lives and personalities of their own. It shows their strong familial ties, especially this time of year when family units are strong.

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A Nip in the Myrtle

I asked Steven to send us some info on this experience and here's what he had to say:

"In early August, I was walking through our back woods in rural Virginia, and I came upon a group of coyotes. It was an amazing experience to look these creatures in the eye and see their intelligence and curiosity staring back. Over the next number of weeks, I observed the coyotes inhabiting an in-between space - somewhere between wild and domestic. While clearly very acculturated to human/rural life and human interactions, they also have their own will and purposes.

Now in October, after two months of watching and learning, I can distinguish each of the four coyotes as individuals. Based on markings and personality, I think of them as Darksnout, Ringo, Smiley and Buff. Each day reveals new behaviors. I’ve witnessed them snarfing up forest berries and snapping up rodents. I’ve found them drowsing in an old field of creeping myrtle. And at first light, I have a front row show for the energetic morning rumpus – an all-out coyote sparring match. Their presence has enchanted our little woods, and every morning that I spend watching them feels like a gift.”

I also asked Steven about the age of these four coyotes, as they looked to me to be first year pups about the age of 6 to 7 months old. Steven replied, "Someone posted a comment earlier about the age of the coyotes based on a photo showing details of their teeth. That person estimated they were 4-5 months old back in August. I've been trying to piece together their origin story. I heard one grapevine rumor that they were orphans. I haven't confirmed that, but it does seem likely they are siblings. They often hunt together (but sometimes separately), and seem to be doing well on a diet of berries and rodents and whatever grubs or beetles they are finding under logs and bark. Occasionally, I see them with a bit of bone or larger meat. Based on the look of it, I'm guessing they are scavenging from hunters' leavings.”

And this made sense to me, as the lack of a parental unit was uncommon to see. Coyotes mate for life, and have strong familial ties. Unlike wolves, though, coyotes usually hunt solo or in pairs on small prey items like insects, voles, and rabbits. They do also eat berries and the like. They rarely hunt in packs but will if need be, especially in the winter months when small prey are harder to find and larger prey need to be pursued; they are one of very few species that seem to be this flexible. According to Dan Flores, the author of Coyote America, jackals and coyotes are the only other species besides humans that are a true 'fission-fusion' species, able to survive alone or join forces and work cooperatively together if need be (i.e. if prey animal is large, like a deer). This is the key aspect that has allowed them to expand as much as they have.  

Click on images for full size version and mouse over for captions! 

I was watching two of the coyotes drowse in the creeping myrtle. When a third one came, there was a bit of agitation and playful nipping ensued. When the fourth arrived, THERE WAS AN ALL OUT MELEE. And it happened in complete silence - a furry ballet of leaping, wrestling, and teeth-baring. And they were all fine afterwards!

But these four young coyotes seem to be doing well, according to Steven.  He did voice his concerns, too, however, "Of course, I worry about them a lot too. Predators tend not to last too long in rural communities. One morning, I saw them come out of the woods and down into the main yard area. While I usually observe them quietly, this time I chased them back into the woods while banging a pot lid because I wanted to reduce the chances that neighbors will view them as a threat in any way. But mostly I follow the lives of these coyotes in the forest and fields at first light and twilight, and these times that I’ve spent witnessing their behavior – tussling, chasing, hunting - have been moments of wonder and delight.”

We hope to see more of this story unfold and look forward to more of Steven’s valuable observations.  

Be sure to check out the entire series at Steven's Coyote Flickr Album

And see more of his photography work at his website: www.stevendavidjohnson.com



Steven David Johnson chairs the Visual & Communication Arts and Theater Department at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Steve is an Affiliate of the International League of Conservation Photographers, and his photography of the natural world has appeared in Orion, BBC Focus Magazine, National Geographic Kids, National Science Teachers Association Press books, and numerous conservation publications and journals.

In 2013, he introduced a new university course in Conservation Photography. Topics include aesthetic responses to nature, visual documentation of ecosystems, and an exploration of the relationship between human communities and the natural world. In the course of the semester, students work on a major real-world project in partnership with regional conservation organizations.

When not in the office, you’ll probably find Steve coyote-watching or half-immersed in a vernal pond photographing Appalachian salamanders.

Sharing Our Yard With Red Foxes

Text and Images by Ashleigh Scully

Over the years I have had the opportunity to photograph many different red fox families. In every situation, I’ve done everything I can to keep myself hidden and reduce any impact that I may have on the foxes. It’s really important to allow the kits to not imprint on humans or prevent the parents from going about their daily routines of hunting and feeding. During these experiences I’ve realized that red foxes have become dependent on many different types of manmade structures, including sometimes the “stuff” around our own homes. These include drainage pipes, porches, sheds, log piles, boulder piles and even outdoor furniture  (a woman in our town has a vixen return to her yard each spring to give birth underneath her old picnic table).

Why do foxes use these things? I think there are many reasons. First, eastern coyotes are continuing to populate suburban areas and red foxes may be using our backyards as home territories because it makes them feel safe from these larger, competitive canids. Second, the structures available in our yards make good den sites. We have red foxes that use excavated groundhog burrows around our property, but we’ve also seen them use an old boat covered in a tarp, a shed in a local wildlife refuge, and a pipe used to collect stormwater runoff.

As a photographer, these “things” may not be attractive to see in photos. Yes, I’ve photographed red foxes on snowy mountains, along flowing creeks and in our hay field hunting meadow voles at sunset, and these opportunities are always exciting and thrilling and make great images. But the photographs of foxes using our “stuff” can be just as powerful. Because foxes in suburban areas in some cases have nowhere else to go. They are boxed in by highways and development and pressured by people and pets. At the same time, we’ve created habitat behind our homes that suits them just fine. At our house, we have had the same male and female denning for at least 5 years, and I see one of them almost every day. We accept them when they steal one of our dog’s toys to give to their kits, or when they sniff around our chicken coop, or when they scream loudly at night during mating season. We decided a long time ago that this is part of the experience of living where we live, and we love it. 

It’s important that we all learn to live with red foxes, and sharing images of them in our yards can tell a story that people can empathize with. This is what all wildlife needs.  

Visit Ashleigh's website at ashleighscullyphotography.com

The Fox Effect

By Amy Shutt (written in December 2016)

I’ve never lived a conventional life. Things don’t happen to me in the same way or order they do for most people I know. I didn’t go to college right out of high school and graduate in four years with a degree that would guarantee me a job with benefits and a 401K. The route I chose took me 10 years before I was able to graduate college. I attended three universities and went through three majors before staying put in Philosophy. I had basically given up photography when I switched my major from it to Philosophy.  Going to school for photo had unfortunately caused an aversion to the craft. 

I worked and went to school mostly part-time, but pushed through full-time the past two years. During all this I was also raising my daughter on my own and had been since I was 21 years old . I worked 14 hour days on my online retail business and it was doing fairly well. 

In the spring of 2007 I was running my business from home and it was doing well enough that I eventually needed more space. After many years of living in a tiny garage apartment I finally had the means to move into a real house. It was still a rental but this was a real house on a lake near the university, and perhaps one of the most picturesque neighborhoods in this city. 

I chose the house because it was built in the late 1930s and there were heirloom bulbs in the messy cottage garden. I recognized the gladiolus flowers were a variety from the 1940s and the walking irises were just as old, probably passed along from a neighbor. I also chose the house because I could look out the kitchen window and see cormorants, herons and egrets on the lake through early blooming camellias that dotted the long rolling back yard. I’d always lived near water and I was excited to continue the trend for my daughter. Waterways, ponds, and lakes in Louisiana mean birds, turtles, and other fantastic critters-the kinds of things that just feel like home to me.  

We had been living in the new house a month so far so we were still busy settling in and unpacking. One gorgeous Louisiana spring afternoon as we headed home, I drove into our neighborhood and as I turned the corner only a block from our house my daughter pointed and yelled, “Mom, I just saw a fox!”. I instantly slammed on the breaks and looked back; she was right. There to my left sitting in the drainage ditch between the street and the sidewalk was an adult fox. Her copper fur shown like tiny blazes of fire in the late afternoon light as it filtered through the Live Oak tree canopy above. I backed my car up slowly and stopped when we were eye to eye with her. She just stared at us; she didn’t budge. To this day I think she was the tamest, or boldest, fox I’ve ever come across. 

I was locking eyes with something that looked and felt so much like a domestic dog, until I noticed her thin vertically oriented pupils. They were more cat-like than canid.  At that moment I didn’t know why her pupils were shaped like that, but I saw the wildness of that animal in a way I’ve never seen it in an animal before or since. I couldn’t look away; I was completely transfixed.

Later I would learn that the shape of the fox’s pupil and the degree to which they can close down or open them is what allows them to see in dim light; its an important feature since they are largely nocturnal. Not only that, vertically oriented pupils help predators who hunt ambush style, those who hide until they attack their prey from a close distance.  The pupil shape allows them to judge distance without moving their head, which for an ambush predator is vital to avoid detection from their prey. We stared each other down for a few more seconds before she very calmly disappeared into the drainage pipe. 

I quickly drove home to grab my camera. All my film cameras were boxed away so all I kept around was a point and shoot that could fit in a coat pocket. Armed with my tiny camera, I pulled the car up next to the drainage pipe and out popped the adult fox. And then to our surprise out popped a fox kit too! The kit was just as bold as the mom and she looked at us curiously, sniffing the air. We watched them for a couple of minutes then they disappeared into the pipe. I took three snapshots that day.

Evening walks soon led us to the den. The fox family was making their home just a few blocks from our home underneath an old uninhabited but maintained house. The house faced the lake and was on a rather busy road, but the foxes largely used the drainage pipes to navigate the area. I remember one morning just after sunrise we drove past the fox house and noticed a small traffic jam caused by the sight of the kits playing rambunctiously outside of their den. As I slowly drove past a man in a truck opposite of me asked, “Can you believe this?  Amazing isn’t it?” I smiled and nodded my head. Yes, it was quite an amazing sight.  

People seemed to really enjoy this little mini-view into the wild on their way to work or school. Taking in the entire scene made me smile, but I remember being a bit concerned for their well-being at the same time. It seems for every one person who welcomes urban wildlife there is another who feels the opposite and who might be capable of trying to have the animal removed and “relocated”. The problem with this is two-fold. Removing and relocating or trapping and killing an animal from an environment just opens up the space for another animal to move in, and if the population is healthy,  one will. Both of these options have always seemed pointless to me. Also, animals are territorial. Relocating an animal could dump it into another animal’s territory, immediately causing conflict. 

About a week after we discovered the den location, my daughter and I sat down at the bottom of the fox house driveway at dusk to watch the fox family emerge from under the house. We sat about 15 feet from each other and kept a good distance from the den entrance. One by one they slowly started to emerge. Mom fox noticed us immediately but kept a distance and just watched us watching her babies, who ran and romped and played and chirped. The bolder kit of the litter soon took notice of my daughter, looking curiously and sniffing the air as he made his way towards her. The others followed soon after. At the time my daughter had long hair down to her waist and she used a fruit-scented shampoo. I wondered if the fruity scents of her freshly washed hair is what drew them to her.. They got closer and closer and eventually their little noses were an inch from her hair and for 20 seconds there was my daughter with a garland of coppery little foxes wrapped around her. The one thought that keep going through my mind was, ‘Why don’t you have a camera with you?’  They eventually lost interest and went back to their romping and running. My daughter was 11 at the time and I know it was an experience she’ll always remember. 

After that, I remembered to bring my point and shoot with me on our next early evening walk. Keeping distance and watching to make sure I wasn’t making mom fox uncomfortable or nervous,  I shot off a few pictures to document the family. The pictures are awful because of the low resolution of the tiny camera and with bad lighting it couldn't correct for, but they are still some of my favorites captured moments. They represent the last time I saw the fox family. Neighborhood talk was that the couple to the left of the fox house had them trapped and removed. I’ll never know if that happened, or if they were run off from the den, but either way we never saw them again.  

The pictures also represents a very pivotal moment in my life and it’s why I feel I owe so much to the fox. After I took those snapshots that day I uploaded them to an online forum I used to journal and speak to friends on. The first response was from a Russian photographer friend of mine, “Oh these do these creatures no justice. Go and get your cameras out of storage, stop being stubborn, and start shooting again” was the gist of what he typed to me that day. And I remember thinking that he was off the mark because I was just shooting the foxes in a documentary fashion and it didn’t matter. However, I knew deep down it did matter. It mattered in the sense that I gave up something that once gave me great joy and happiness. I gave up the one thing I never got bored with and the one thing I was always hungry to learn more about. It wasn’t just a disservice to the foxes but it was a disservice to myself too.  I was being stubborn and getting in my own way.

I vowed that day to start shooting again. It meant a lot at the time because I had yet to make the DSLR leap from film. I was a purist and had resisted it for some time. But that day it all became clear, and I started saving up for my first DSLR. Had none of these experiences happened, had I never moved to that house, had I never seen those foxes,  I would not be doing what I do today.  Photography would not be a part of my life. And yes, I came back to it in a roundabout unconventional way and “late” comparatively speaking, but as I mentioned early on--nothing I do seems to be the result of conventions. I follow my heart more often than my logic, which can sometimes result in a little bit of magic in my life.  

Sometimes when I am with students at a workshop or they tell me how much they have fallen in love with photography or nature having gone through my basic photography class, a little picture of the fox family pops up in my mind. Over the past 4 years, I’ve taught hundreds of students and I wonder if I’d never had the pleasure of meeting the fox family if, photographically speaking, my students would be doing what they are doing today. 

It makes me think of the term butterfly effect, with reference to chaos theory, which is defined as “the phenomenon whereby a minute localized change in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere”. It’s not exactly the same thing, but taking from the general idea I’ve come to call all of this The Fox Effect. There are undeniable links and connections to foxes in my life and to the people around me. This new photojournalistic project of mine on canids that I’ve been formulating in my mind for almost a year now is a tribute to these inspirational creatures we call foxes and their canid relatives. It is about this effect they have had on my life and those who come into contact with them in some capacity. I hope you follow along. 

Red Fox Family Dynamics

Red Fox Family Dynamics by Brittany Crossman

Spring isn’t just a great time to photograph foxes because they have kits, but because its also a great time to make observations about family dynamics. During other seasons, these observations are difficult to make since foxes are typically solitary animals, hunting and feeding on their own. Fox families are interesting for many reasons, their roles from fox to fox can defer sometimes drastically. Red foxes sometimes invite a non-breeding female (usually one of their kits from the previous year) to help raise their new litter.

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Two of the four dens I have been following this year have had a “helper fox”. The role of this non-breeding vixen is to protect, feed, groom and play with the kits. One den in particular, the helper seems to play a bigger role in the lives of the kits than their father (dog). I have yet to see the male bring back food or even play with his kits. However, he does stay out in the field on guard. The helper fox frequently brings back meals, plays, and grooms this den of 5. Some speculate that the role of being a helper provides good practice for when that vixen has kits of her own in the future.

Following Fox Families on Prince Edward Island

By Brittany Crossman

Why Prince Edward Island? Is probably the most frequent question I am asked. Prince Edward Island is a Vulpes vulpes gem. The island has a large, healthy urban red fox population, as well as many rural foxes that call places like PEI National Park home. These two options alone give a great variety of photographic opportunities, as well as learning experiences. Foxes living in different environments, urban versus suburban, behave quite differently. These differences make photographing the island foxes appealing.


Another alluring aspect of PEI is the color variants of the foxes. On the island, there are three red fox pelage colorations: red, cross, and silver. Red being the most common of the three. The cross fox is the red coloration with black marking due to being partially melanistic. This color phase gets its name from the long dark stripe running down its back, intersecting another stripe across the shoulders forming a cross. The most uncommon is the silver fox. These foxes are complete melanistic variants (think of it as the opposite of albino) which gives them dark black fur.  The name silver fox comes from the light greyish-white outer hairs. The amount of silver in these foxes varies from fox to fox.

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As a wildlife photographer, spring is always an exciting time as it is when animals start having their young. For me, this means fox kit season. Red fox kits have become one of my favourite subjects to photograph due to their charisma, and playfulness. Watching their dedicated parents care for them is also very endearing. This spring I have been lucky to photograph two separate fox families. Both these families are unique, and have very different family dynamics. The first den has two red parents, and a third adult helper, which is no doubt the mother’s female kit from last year. These helper foxes are non-breeding vixens related to the family that stay back, contributing to the survival of the next generation. The mother and helper seem to do the majority of the work at this particular den. They both hunt, bringing back what seems like an endless buffet of rodents.

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The father fox usually isn’t far, always on the watch, but doesn’t seem to have much do with hunting and caring for the kits. He usually is in the nearby field curled up in a ball sleeping. When the mother brings back food, and starts to nurse the kits, the father fox comes for a quick visit, but typically takes food, trotting back out to the field.

The other den has a silver father (dog) and a red mother (vixen). This den too has a helper fox, but, the role between the vixen and dog is almost 50/50. They rotate turns at the den and hunting. When the vixen gets back, the dog goes out to hunt. When he returns, then the vixen will leave again. The silver male at this den seems to have a never-ending amount of patience with his kits. Unfortunately, this family hasn’t been seen in the last little while; there are off-leash dogs in this area, which they didn’t seem overly fond of. I am hoping they just moved to another den location which isn’t uncommon for foxes to do if disrupted.

When finding an active den in use, it is always very exciting, but important to give them space. If you ever find a den, keep a distance and let them get used to you. Once they no longer feel that you are a possible threat, the photographing opportunities are endless. 


*All images and text in this article are copyright Brittany Crossman and shall not be republished or reproduced in any fashion without the written consent of Brittany Crossman.