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.

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

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.

The Wildlife In Our Backyards

Text by Amy Shutt // Photos by Ashleigh Scully, Brittany Crossman, and Amy Shutt

Let’s talk about the wildlife in our backyards. 

I’m going to get straight to the point. I want to talk about the responsibilities we have to the wildlife with whom we share our immediate surroundings.  Yes, I mean the raccoons we hear arguing in our back gardens at night, and the opossums playing dead in our accidentally open trash cans outside, and the ghostly red streak we see shooting in front of our car as we drive home on a dark evening (that we somehow know is a fox), and the coyotes singing us serenades at twilight. 

I hear people often express in exasperated voices how they cannot believe they are seeing foxes or “so many” raccoons in their neighborhood.  They can’t believe they live in a city and feel these animals should not be there - in the city - as well. They would rather see those wild animals in the woods where they “belong” - as if cities have always been here and these wild animals are encroaching on us, with their trees and forests.  There is a disconnect in such statements.  I think it comes from just not knowing the facts or from blindly believing untruths that were passed down over the years.  I am mostly optimistic and feel  that if people are exposed to the facts, they will see the flaws in those statements.  

The first truth I want to discuss (as far as the United States is concerned) is this: the four animals  mentioned above have actually benefitted from human expansion, and there are reasons they will hang around the edges, in suburbs, in small towns, and in large cities.  They are even labeled "edge species", and for good reason. They learned early on that our villages, towns, and large cities provide a lot of food via our trash and the rodents that are drawn to it. That is a fact and not much is going to change that.  We’ve inadvertently produced perfect conditions for these edge species to thrive!


Another fact is that removing a wild animal from a suburban or urban area, whether a single raccoon or ten raccoons, or a whole fox family, does not solve anything.  What actually happens when a trapper removes an animal?  Well, with his trap and animal in hand, he leaves your property and has also left a vacancy for another individual animal to occupy. If the local population of that species is healthy, another individual will fill that vacancy, sometimes overnight but certainly sooner or later.  Therefore, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll notice another “pesky” critter that will  “need” to be removed.  Rinse and repeat. 

Some people may not care much about where the wild animals they have had removed from their properties end up, but I’m sure most do to some degree. Some people may turn a blind eye and just tell themselves it was released in the woods miles away and that all is ok.  After all, ignorance is bliss. But, you need to know that is rarely the case. 

For instance, in some states if a coyote is trapped, the trapper has only two legal choices: euthanize it, or, if he has the proper permits, sell it to a coyote pen operation. It’s often the same for red foxes.  I hear the going rate is a hundred dollars a head where I live.  So, the trapper can euthanize the coyote and get nothing in return or for a hundred bucks, he can sell a coyote to a person who will put it in a penned-in property, where it will be chased and terrorized by competing hunting dogs with no place to hide and no way to escape.  These competitions can last days. The coyotes and foxes will be ran to such exhaustion that they will often give up after a few hours, too tired to run anymore.  At that point, the hunting dogs are more able to kill the exhausted coyote or fox (although not legally-but can you imagine trying to call off dogs from a target that is helpless in front of them?).  In other words, these animals are possibly doomed to a cruel and grisly death, or at the very least a tormented existence.

Shocking, right? I had no idea this even existed legally until this year. But it does.  Check out this link to find out more about these operations:  http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/fox_penning/

Or download this penning fact sheet here: http://www.humanesociety.org/assets/pdfs/hunting/fox_penning_fact_sheet.pdf

Ok, so maybe now you can see that trapping and "relocating" isn’t the best idea, and in some instances - with coyotes especially – we are inadvertently producing more coyotes by culling them. For more information on this “rebound effect” see these articles below:

Maybe now you “get it”, but you still aren’t so keen with the idea of foxes or coyotes in your yard or garden.  You may be wondering what one can do humanely to discourage wild canids from visiting their yards and gardens.  Heck, you may be on the opposite end of the spectrum and wonder what you can do to encourage nightly visits from our wild friends (I’ll give you a hint: it is NEVER to feed them).


So, let’s talk about what one can do to encourage or discourage wildlife from one’s property, and do so in ethical and humane ways that won’t upset your neighbors, as some may likely share your same views, but some will also have differing opinions.  How can we all coexist with the least amount of conflict?

Why feeding wildlife is not the best idea:

  •  In the United States there’s a reason we see ‘DO NOT FEED THE WILDLIFE’ signs in city parks, on nature trails, and in national parks. For starters, feeding wildlife causes animals to lose their natural fear of humans.  Although this may be fun for you, it is ultimately a selfish act.  Is your feeding habit inadvertently putting the animal in danger? Are you causing these animals to cross roads they wouldn’t need to cross otherwise so they can have a tasty treat in your yard?
  • How do your neighbors feel about them? There will likely be some neighbors who are not so keen on having wild animals in their yards, or the leftover food cached in their gardens.  The same neighbor or, maybe another one, might get frightened by a wild animal that approaches them for a handout, because it will begin to associate humans with food. Often, feeding wildlife ends badly for the animal and can make a naturally elusive animal one that is a brazen nuisance.  I’ve heard all too many times the story of the disgruntled neighbor calling animal control to have the “nuisance” animal removed. Some may even leave poison out, which then endangers all animals, not just the target animal.  I recently heard a story of a man in a neighborhood, only 20 minutes away from where I live, shooting coyotes out his bathroom window after he lured them to his yard with raw meat. 
  • If food is overly plentiful due to “supplemental” feedings from humans, animals like foxes and coyotes will not disperse as they normally would in the late summer and early fall in the wild.  This can cause a larger population density in a smaller area, which can result in injuries, sometimes even death, as they fight over food and territory. It also increases the likelihood of transmission of disease due to unnatural crowding.
  • Diseases, viruses and parasites can easily and quickly spread from animal to animal as they gather to feed in abnormally crowded conditions.  If you are feeding a fox, then you are also likely attracting feral cats, raccoons, opossums, rats, etc.
  • Feeding wild animals from cars makes them less scared of vehicles, which just increases the chances for them to be hurt or killed in a collision.
  •  Last, they don’t need us! Enjoy wildlife from a distance.  It’s much more rewarding to observe them in their natural behavioral state.  Perhaps try your hand at wildlife photography or get some binoculars.

What you can do instead of feeding wildlife to make your yard wildlife friendly:

  • Make brush piles!  Small animals and birds will benefit from them.  They provide cover and shelter for reptiles, birds, and small mammals. The animals attracted to the brush piles will also attract larger mammals into your yard. See more on brush piles here: http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/resources/tips/brush_piles.html 
  • Do not use rodent poison or traps! You can kill or hurt other wildlife or roaming pets in the process. 
  •  Plant native plants. Adapted to local conditions, natives require little care, and the insects and fruit that they produce increase populations of  the prey species used by the “edge” species, all of which occasionally themselves eat insects and fruit .  Staying native provides seasonal food that these animals eat in the wild.  And when it’s not seasonally available, the animals will move on, as they do in the wild, to find food elsewhere. For more info, see: http://www.audubon.org/content/why-native-plants-matter
  • Install a pond or water feature.  Water in a yard is a magnet for dozens of species of wildlife. If you put it out there, they will come. See: http://www.nwf.org/Garden-For-Wildlife/Water/Backyard-Ponds.aspx

What you can do to discourage foxes or coyotes from loitering or denning in your yard:

  • Hazing!  Hazing includes being loud and large. Yell and wave your arms while approaching the animal. Try using loud horns, whistles, banging pots together., or spraying water from a hose.  For more info see: http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/coyotes/tips/hazing_guidelines.html
  • Keep your trash cans closed.  Rinse all cans and food containers going into recycle bins.
  • Feed and water your pets inside and do not leave pet food or water outside.
  • Keep your compost in closed bins.
  •  Remove fallen fruit from the ground.
  • Repair broken floorboards on porches and close up openings that lead under the house or sheds.
  • Keep your pets inside and do not let them roam off leash.
  • If you have cats outside, consider keeping them indoors (for more on this, see:  https://www.thespruce.com/keep-cats-indoors-555124 ) , provide a screened in porch or catio for enrichment, or consider a cat fence with predator guard: http://www.purrfectfence.com 
  • Keep chickens/rabbits in good strong enclosures that are predator proof.

I am a firm believer in the possibility of true coexistence with our wild neighbors.  It's time now for a paradigm shift in the way we view predators; the recent science tells us so.  It's time to look at the world and its inhabitants as a whole, with every action affecting a part of that whole, not as single, isolated, and disconnected features outside of ourselves.  



  • Red Fox: The Catlike Canine by J. David Henry
  • Behavior of North American Mammals by Elbroch and Rinehart
  • The origin of recently established red fox populations in the United States: translocations or natural range expansions?, Journal of Mammalogy, 93(1):52–65, 2012
  •  Movement Patterns, Home Range And Den Site Selection Of Urban Red Foxes (Vulpes vulpes) On Prince Edward Island (Thesis 2016) by Hailey J Lambe
  • Range structure in the red fox (Vulpes vulpes L.) in the forest zone of Eastern Europe, Contemporary Problems of Ecology, February 2010, Volume 3, Issue 1, pp 119–126
  • The influence of habitat patch attributes on coyote group size and interaction in a fragmented landscape by Todd C Atwood, 2008 ( Canadian Journal of Zoology, 2006, 84(1): 80-87)
  • Coyote space use in relation to prey abundance by L. Scott Mills and , Frederick F. Knowlton, 1991 ( Canadian Journal of Zoology, 1991, 69(6): 1516-1521) 

How You Can Help

The Canid Project is a young organization just getting its true start in 2017. We are a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. Our educational endeavors, future projects, and our brand new Louisiana state-permitted fox rescue and rehabilitation facility are run entirely on public donations.  Please consider donating to our cause: