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


MORE ABOUT STEVEN:

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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.

Keeping Wildlife Wild

Coexisting with Urban Red Foxes: Why there Is No Other Option (Article Series) 

Article Two: Keeping Wildlife Wild - Please Stop Feeding the Wildlife – The Negative Ramifications

Authors:  Brittany Crossman // Photography: Brittany Crossman and Amy Shutt

CLICK ON IMAGES TO SEE LARGER VERSIONS // MOUSE OVER TO READ CAPTIONS


Although the act usually comes from kind-heartedness or lack of education, feeding wildlife is more harmful than beneficial. From bears to foxes to squirrels, animals have been making recent headlines panhandling for easy snacks. There are many reasons why one should refrain from feeding wildlife, a few of which we will cover. Whereas The Canid Project focuses on members of the canid family, this is primarily based on the red fox, although many other species are in the limelight of this topic as well. So what is the big deal?

RED FOXES EXPLORE THEIR URBAN HABITAT IN SEARCH OF RESOURCES

Here is just a handful of the reasons why we need to let the wildlife be wild:

“But they look hungry sitting there staring, or walking up to my car”

They aren’t. They are very capable of feeding themselves without help. What these animals are doing is taking advantage of an easy meal in which they do not need. Making wildlife dependant on generosity only hurts them in the long run. Most people act in the moment, without thinking about long-term consequences their actions may have. Not to mention human food typically isn’t healthy for wildlife either, decreasing consumption of proper nutrients, which then can lead to health problems or disease.

A common trend also seems to be feeding wildlife from vehicles, throwing food out the window. Feeding foxes from cars does nothing but endanger them. Red foxes begin to associate vehicles as a moving refrigerators, ultimately losing their fear of them. As a result, they will begin approaching oncoming traffic. Modifying fox behaviour by conditioning them to approach vehicles for food, can cause accidents, if people swerve to avoid hitting them, or cause unnecessary injury to the animals.  Not every traveler will share the same response as you, not everyone cares about wildlife. Unfortunately, red foxes fed from cars usually end up losing their lives to vehicle collisions.

FEEDING FOXES FROM CARS IS DANGEROUS BUSINESS.  MANY RED FOXES LOSE THEIR LIVES TO VEHICLE COLLISIONS.  IN SOME AREAS IT IS THE #1 CAUSE OF MORTALITY. 

PANHANDLING IS A DANGEROUS WAY TO MAKE A LIVING FOR FOXES AND OTHER WILDLIFE IN NATIONAL PARKS.  (THIS PHOTO WAS TAKEN IN PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND NATIONAL PARK). 

A FATHER FOX PANHANDLES ON THE SIDE OF THE ROAD FOR FOOD, AS HIS YOUNG KIT WATCHES AND LEARNS. PANHANDLING IS A DANGEROUS WAY TO MAKE A LIVING FOR FOXES AND OTHER WILDLIFE IN NATIONAL PARKS.  (THIS PHOTO WAS TAKEN IN PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND NATIONAL PARK). 

“I just wanted to get a photo”.

Your best photo ops will definitely not be of a fox chowing down on Doritos, cookies, or bread. As a wildlife photographer, I understand striving to capture that perfect moment. The best advice for this is simply to be patient, besides, capturing natural moments is far more rewarding. If you give wildlife their space, be respectful by not making them feel threatened, eventually they will carry on with their business like you are not even there. Wildlife doesn’t need to be fed in order obtain images of intimate moments. If anything, feeding wildlife will ruin your photographic opportunities. They will fill up on “junk food” and you will undoubtedly miss out on shooting natural behaviours such as hunting, playing, and interactions among one another.  

A RED FOX LICKS THE ALUMINUM CAN OF A SWEET SOFT DRINK, THROWN ON THE GROUND BY A PASSING VEHICLE

Some species self-regulate their populations based on food accessibility.

The red fox is one of them. This means, fertility rates and birth rates are based on how much food is around. When plentiful, some species give birth to more kits. When humans interfere by creating a temporary false sense of abundance, especially during the tourist season, it offsets this balance. Leaving garbage out, leftover food, or purposely feeding wildlife creates an artificial food supply. After the tourist season is over, everyone packs up and leaves, there is no longer that leftover food or garbage to scavenge. If there isn’t a natural abundance of prey or food, this causes competition for resources and inevitably injury, starvation, and worst case death.

A FATHER FOX AND HIS KIT LOOK FOR HAND OUTS  NEXT TO A "DO NOT FEED FOXES" SIGN AT A TRAIL HEAD IN PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND NATIONAL PARK. 

"PROBLEM FOX IN THE AREA" 

Human-wildlife conflict is probably one of the more popular issues with feeding.

Feeding wild animals teaches that people are food sources, which then causes them to lose their natural fear of humans. Without this fear, wildlife may approach people, coming too close for comfort, hoping for that handout. This behaviour can either irritate or frighten people, leading to complaints, relocation, or euthanasia of the animal deemed problematic.  Feeding, especially by hand, amplifies the odds of someone getting bitten. When that occurs, it is almost always the animal that suffers the grim consequences. Putting yourself and the animal at risk for a momentary thrill is just plain irresponsible, and inconsiderate.

There are many negative ramifications of feeding wildlife for both humans and the wildlife. We hope that with the right education and community outreach the public will remember these consequences before making the short-sighted decision to offer a free handout.  Wildlife can still be enjoyed in backyards and parks without feeding them; it opts for a safer alternative for people and wildlife alike.


THE CANID PROJECT contributors actively research and document human-canid relationships and both the positive and negative ramifications of these relationships.  The project's aim, as a global creative conversation, is to document and share the stories of humans and the wild canids who enter each other's lives in some capacity.  We actively present this information through our photography, creative non-fiction narrative, exhibits, talks, and community outreach to inspire and educate the public, as well as shed light on how these relationships shape our views on the wild canid species. If you would like to donate to this 501c3 non-profit to help further our efforts please click the donation button below, take one of our workshops, or visit our shop! Thank you! 

Donate to The Canid Project's Educational Efforts

BRITTANY CROSSMAN PHOTOGRAPHS SOME OF THE URBAN FOXES FOR THE CANID PROJECT'S ARTICLE SERIES ON COEXISTENCE. 


Seeing More Red Foxes in Your Neighborhood or Town? Here’s Why…

Coexisting with Urban Red Foxes: Why there Is No Other Option (Article Series) 

Article One: Seeing More Red Foxes in Your Neighborhood or Town? Here’s Why…

Authors:  Amy Shutt and Brittany Crossman // Photography: Brittany Crossman


With expanding urban sprawl in North America, encounters between wildlife and humans are occurring more frequently. Although habitat loss has reduced wildlife populations, destruction of wild lands is seldom the only reason why certain wildlife has moved into our backyards.  The reasons for the increase in wildlife in many urban areas, and in particular red foxes for the purpose of this article, are more complex than simply wandering displaced animals looking for a new home. We will discuss some, but not all, of these reasons in this article.The scientific study of urban wildlife began only recently, but it’s a fast-growing field. Urban wildlife presents many challenges for wildlife management, while also providing great opportunity for education, outreach, and conservation. At this stage, coexistence seems the only viable solution; and having an educated public embrace this approach is the key to living in harmony.

AN URBAN FOX IN CANADA TROTS THROUGH A PARK IN THE CENTER OF TOWN.  THE PARK ACTS AS A GREEN SPACE THAT PROVIDES COVER AND DEN SITES FOR URBAN RED FOXES.

First, some terminology.

Some wild animals are labeled ‘synanthropic species’.  These species live near humans and directly benefit from human-altered environments like gardens, garbage dumps, and farms.  Such areas provide critical resources such as cover (think sheds, under porches, barns), and food (for example, bird feeders, our garbage, the rodents attracted to our garbage, and non-native garden plants that provide fruit year round). Examples of synanthropic species are raccoons, skunks, foxes, coyotes, and certain rodents. These species have learned how to exploit human-created habitats, and they thrive in a mosaic of suburbs and cities next to woodlots and fields, which provides  some distance from humans, but also the close proximity that benefits them as well. 

The red fox is also known as an ‘edge species’, which means they naturally occur at the borders between two habitat types, which is called an 'ecotone'. These ecotones,  such as woodlands transitioning into grasslands, offer them different resources that they need to survive, which is why red foxes do not select just woodlands as their habitat. Water sources and corridors, like creeks, are also important in habitat selection.  Den sites are usually found within at least 1 to 2 miles of a water source. As we will see below, humans have created habitats very similar (gardens and yards that back up to brushy or densely forested areas as an example)  to their natural habitat; our human-modified environments mimic the transition zones of these selected habitats. 

Why aren't red foxes true forest species and why do they prefer a transitional zone of two habitats?

As mentioned earlier, it’s a common misconception that the reason we see an influx of foxes and coyotes in our suburbs and cities is because we have supplanted their woodland homes with our development.  Although habitat loss for some species is a real issue that has forced animals from their territories, synanthropic species, like the red fox, are seldom true forest animals by nature, but rather “edge species”. But why? With red foxes it has a lot to do with their primary prey.

Red foxes are opportunistic omnivores but they are primarily hunters of rodents, such as mice and voles, which live in grassy fields. In addition, insects, rabbits, hare, and birds also make up their menu; these species tend to favor the shrubby and weedy edges between forest and fields.   However, red foxes also require cover and den sites that may not be available in open areas.  Forests, with dense brush at its edge and hollow logs offer possible den sites and shelter. Therefore, where forest meets grassland is the ideal natural environment for the red fox. Similarly, a neighborhood with human shelters, creeks and ponds, corridors (like a road, railroad or ditches) they can travel to get from one habitat patch to another,  lawns, fields of grass meeting the edge of a fragmented forested area or green space,  basically provides the same resources that a natural ecocene of forest and grassland provides. And they have an added bonus of even more food resources by staying close to humans: our food waste and the rodents it attracts.  

So what does all this have to do with why they are in my town?

 The conclusion is that through our own expansion, city developments, and agricultural practices we have created an induced ecotone that mimics in many ways the natural ecotones where red foxes are found naturally in the wild. Human-modified areas often provide a mosaic of habitats: grass and fields where they can hunt, ditches, parks with trees and fragmented woodlands that provide cover and safety, corridors, and even denning opportunities in our green spaces and sometimes under our sheds and houses (Note: it is thought that Red Foxes may prefer a more natural setting away from high human traffic for dens, unless the lack of resources or green space is high, then they will be more likely to den under/in human infrastructure).  And of course as mentioned previously, don't forget that living among humans, or in close proximity to humans, means even more food resources via our trash and the rodents drawn to it.

It's no wonder the red fox is drawn to such human-disturbed areas.  And, it's no wonder they are here to stay. 

 

Click on photos to see larger version, mouse over to read captions:

A YOUNG FOX IN CANADA EMERGES AT DUSK IN AN ECOTONAL AREA OF GREEN SPACE AND HUMAN MAINTAINED ROADS AND LOTS.

A RED FOX HUNTS IN AN OPEN GRASSY FIELD, WHICH IS PART OF THEIR HABITAT SELECTION DUE TO THE FACT THAT THESE AREAS ARE FAVORED BY THEIR PRIMARY PREY. 

A CROSS FOX KIT PEEKS OUT FROM HIS DEN SITE, A MANMADE WOOD PILE.  


BOOKS AND TEXTS REFERENCED FOR THIS ARTICLE:

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  • 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 

THIS ARTICLE IS ONE OF FOUR IN OUR CURRENT SERIES: Coexisting with Urban Red Foxes: Why there Is No Other Option

So now that we know why they are here and that they are here to stay, be sure to check back for Article Two of this series:  Public Concerns About Red Foxes: Debunking the Myths. In this upcoming article we will debunk the most common myths, explain the pros of having red foxes in our towns, and take a look at the larger picture so we can understand why we must embrace the idea of coexistence.


DO YOU HAVE A QUESTION FOR US ABOUT RED FOXES? IF SO, FILL OUT THE FORM BELOW AND WE WILL INCLUDE THE QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS IN THIS NEW SERIES:

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