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Last week I had three encounters with wild canids down on the Roaring Run Trail!
The first was Monday morning: I was out for an early bike ride and had just pedaled up the hill to the junction of the right turn that drops the trail down to its last mile into Edmon and the gentle left curve that leads over to the waterfall near where the railroad used to cross over the creek. About 60 yards ahead of me I saw a red fox laying on its side, back towards me, right in the middle of the trail! My first thought was, “oh, no! A dead fox!” But, then I thought I saw it move! About 20 yards away from the still recumbent fox I shouted, “hey, fox!” and the fox leaped up, saw me barreling toward him, and raced off into the nearby thicket of knotweed. He was a very handsome animal with a beautiful coat and great agility and speed! Why he was napping in the middle of the trail, I have no idea!
The next day, I was back on the bike trail about the same time of the morning. Pedaling up the hill, I got very excited about seeing the fox again, but he was not in sight when I reached the trail intersection. I rode down to the turn-around at the waterfall and got a quick drink from my water bottle. When I started back down the hill the fox ran across the trail right in front of me and plunged into the knotweed patch and disappeared!
Two days and two fox sightings!
I went back out biking Wednesday morning, but I did not see the fox.
Wednesday afternoon, though, I was walking on the trail with Carl when we heard a rustle and crash in the underbrush across the river. We could see the tops of the knotweed moving as if something was chasing/being chased through the dense vegetation. Suddenly, a coyote popped out of the knotweed onto the open bank of the river and then just as suddenly leaped back into cover. The crashing went on for a couple of seconds and then it was quiet. Was the coyote hunting on his own or with other coyotes? Was it/they after a woodchuck or rabbit or muskrat or maybe a deer? Did it/they get it?
Three days and three canid sightings!
There are four types of canids in Western Pennsylvania: dogs, red foxes, grey foxes and coyotes. All four are very similar, but they are easily distinguishable from each other.
Dogs can come in a wide range of sizes (5 to 150 (or more) pounds!) and a great range of coat colors and hair lengths. Most dog breeds, though, have floppy ears, short muzzles, and steep foreheads (to make room for their large, domesticated brains!). They also typically hold their tails in an upward curve when they run. Dogs also look a bit bulkier and shorter legged than their wild counterparts because they have larger, deeper chests and slightly shorter upper leg bones than their wild relatives.
Coyotes here in the east are actually hybrids of western coyotes and the eastern gray wolf with a little bit of domesticated dog thrown in. Eastern coyotes can weigh up to 50 pounds and are about 33% to 50% larger than the western coyotes. They are much larger than either red or gray foxes but are right in the middle of the size range of domesticated dogs. Coyotes have pointed ears, a long, pointy muzzle, a flattened forehead, and shorter, though often bushy (usually black-tipped) tails that they carry below their backs when they run. Coyotes have a lean, leggy look due to their shallower chests and longer upper leg bones (as compared to those of a domesticated dog).
Red foxes are smaller than most dogs and almost all coyotes. They typically weigh between 8 to 15 pounds. They have pointy muzzles, flat foreheads, pointy ears and long, bushy tails. As their name implies, they are usually a reddish-brown color but some individuals may actually be in a range of browns and even grays. Most red foxes, though, will have black legs (their “stockings”) and a white tip on the end of their tails. Red foxes are the ultimate canid generalist! They can be found in almost any habitat (wild or human-modified) all around the world. They also eat almost any type of food from small mammals, to birds’ eggs, to fruit, detritus and carrion.
Grey foxes are about the same size as a red fox, and, as their name implies, they are usually grey in color (especially on their backs), but they can have a great deal of reddish-brown hair on their sides. Their back coats usually have a dappled pattern of gray and black (this color pattern makes the gray foxes I have seen in the wild seem to shimmer as they move along!). Grey foxes also have a black stripe down the middle of their backs that extends on down to the tip of their tails. They don’t have black leg stockings or a white tail tip. Grey foxes are also seldom seen in human modified ecosystems. They are animals of the forest.
Both coyotes and red foxes are regularly found in urban and suburban communities. The abundance of food and shelter in these human-modified ecosystems make them ideal habitat choices for both of these types of canids.
Red foxes, being incredible generalists, make use of many types of human foods and also human detritus. They raid garbage cans, hen houses, compost piles, gardens, fruit bushes and trees, and eat avidly from food dishes left out for pets. They also go after small mammal prey (like rabbits, chipmunks and squirrels), and since many of these prey species are active during the day, often shift their activity periods from nocturnal and crepuscular time frames into diurnal intervals. The sight of a fox walking down a busy, city street in the middle of the day is not an unusual occurrence in many cities across the country! Foxes seem to prefer urban/suburban habitats that are relatively open and fairly well developed.
Coyotes, on the other hand, tend to keep to their more “natural” types of prey even when they inhabit a human-modified habitat. They eat rodents, rabbits, large insects, birds and birds’ eggs, along with occasional house pet (watch your cats and small dogs, everyone!). They may also may form groups to hunt larger prey (like deer) particularly in the winter. They also tend to keep to their nocturnal activity patterns and usually spend their days well hidden from sight. They usually choose to live in urban/suburban habitats that still have a predominance of “natural” spaces (woods, dense fields, etc.) probably to give them cover to hide during the daylight hours.
Coyotes do not tolerate red foxes in their natural habitats. They will kill foxes on sight in order to remove a potential food competitor from their community. In urban/suburban systems, though, coyotes have been shown to tolerate the presence of red foxes. It is thought that the abundance of food in the human-modified ecosystem (and also, perhaps, the selection of different specific habitats, times of activity and food sources) have led the very energy conscious coyote to the conclusion that tolerating minor food competitors is a more energy efficient strategy than expending their energy reserves to kill them.
If you would like to read more about coyotes and red foxes in urban habitats two excellent articles are: Mueller, Drake and Allen (University of Wisconsin) in PlosOne (January 2018) and Rodewald, Kearns and Shustack (Ohio State University) in Ecological Applications (ESA) (April 2011).