You may have been hearing Coyotes howling more than usual lately. This is because their mating season has begun, and they are much more vocal prior to and during it. Another Coyote sign to be aware of this time of year is the abundance of Coyote scent-marking, with both urine and feces.
Female Coyotes come into heat, or estrus, only once a year for two to five days, in late January or February in the Northeast. It is not unusual to come across spots where both male and female Coyotes have scent-marked during this time. Often one will mark on top of or next to its mate’s marking. Sometimes the female’s blood can be seen in her urine, or, in the case of the pictured marking, her blood dripped onto the snow as she investigated her mate’s urine.
Coyote tracks from three different directions led to an area where a deer’s well-cleaned skull was the only remnant of a communal meal. It had been dug up from a spot nearby where it had been cached, and carried to a more protected area to work on. Coyotes are omnivores, but about 90% of their diet consists of mammals. Coyote scat I’ve examined has included, among other things, the hair of Muskrat, Snowshoe Hare, White-tailed Deer and small rodents as well as feathers, grass and apples.
Coyotes are commonly blamed whenever there is a decline in the White-tailed Deer population. Studies involving the removal of deer populations in a given area have not found any evidence that Coyote removal caused an increase in the deer population, nor did it affect the overall deer population growth. The fact that Coyotes are not causing deer populations to decline can also be seen in the devastating effect White-tailed Deer are having on forest ecosystems throughout the eastern United States as the Coyote population increases.
That’s not to say Coyotes don’t hunt deer – they do, primarily in the spring (fawns) and in the winter, especially when there is enough snow and/or crust to slow deer down but not Coyotes. However, much of their venison consumption is a result of their scavenging deer carcasses, which they do any time of year. Examine Coyote scat and the chances are great you will find deer hair in it; chances are also great that it came from a carcass, not a living deer.
After spending their first five weeks under the ground, young red foxes get big and brave enough to come out and see the world for the first time. The gray coat which they have had since birth will soon be replaced by a sandy-colored coat. This second coat matches the sandy soil outside of the den and thus helps camouflage them. A third reddish coat, the adult coat and one for which they are named, grows in when they are about three months old. (Note white hind foot on this wild red fox kit.)
Foxes, like all canids, tend to mark their territories frequently with both scat and urine. Both convey information to other foxes regarding hierarchy and sexual status, in addition to marking territory. As these Gray Fox tracks crossing a pond illustrate, it’s rare for an elevated object in a fox’s line of view not to be visited and anointed. Research shows that when scavenging, foxes urinate up to 70 times an hour, allowing just a small amount of urine to be left in any one place. In addition to rocks, stumps and other raised objects, the remains of a meal are often urinated on, indicating that the nourishing portions have already been consumed.
Red Foxes are generally solitary animals, except during their courtship period, which occurs any time between December and February. At this time mates pair up, so it is not unusual to see two sets of fox tracks together. This is also the time of year when the males’ urine acquires a strongly pungent, skunk-like odor detectable from hundreds of yards away.
Time is marching on…the blue eyes of Red Fox kits are turning brown, as they do once a kit is around two months old. Their coat is slowly being replaced by the reddish hairs for which they are named. While kits still spend most of their time close to their den, individuals will take short exploratory walks by themselves. Frequently they accompany their parent on forays during which they are instructed on the finer points of being a successful predator.
Female Eastern Coyotes come into estrus only once a year, usually in late winter for two to five days. For two or three months prior to as well as during this time, males roam widely and scent marking by both males and females increases. During their mating season, coyotes often travel in pairs, and it is not unusual to find scent posts where both male and female have scent marked with their urine. (The female’s urine is often tinged with blood.) The percentage of females that breed in a given year (typically 60% to 90%) depends upon the availability of food and their physical condition.
After spending their first month or so underground in their den, red fox kits emerge and discover the great outdoors. This is the most carefree time of their lives – days are spent playing tag, “king of the mountain,” and “hide and seek.” Engaging in mock fights, pouncing on each other as well as on insects (learning how to capture their own food) and tumbling in the dirt are the norm. Food is delivered to them, coats are groomed and life is good.
This is the time of year when you might wake up in the middle of the night and hear a rasping, prolonged scream. It could well be a female red fox, issuing forth a “vixen scream” designed to travel long distances and attract a mate. This scream is not limited to females in heat – males also can scream, as can females at other times of the year. Once you have heard it, you will never forget this sound. Red foxes have numerous vocalizations, among which this scream and a high-pitched “bark” are the most common. You can hear several of a red fox’s more than twenty calls on this website: http://miracleofnature.org/blog/red-fox-screams (Photo by Susan Holland)
This two-month-old Red Fox kit (blue eyes turn brown after the age of two months) amused itself for several minutes with this Wild Turkey tail feather – tossing it up in the air, pouncing on it, chewing it and just carrying it around to impress/taunt its litter mates. Kits are old enough to spend much of their day above ground now and their antics are entertaining, to say the least. While parents are off during the day hunting and/or getting a rest from rambunctious offspring, said offspring amuse themselves by digging, scratching themselves, chasing each other, grooming themselves and chewing on any and everything, from sticks and leaves to the remains of past meals, such as feathers and bones.
Like many carnivores, coyotes do not have permanent homes, other than the maternal dens in which their young are raised. After being active at dawn and dusk (as well as occasionally during the day and night), they are apt to rest, curling up in beds they make in the snow right out in the open. However, they will take advantage of a sheltered spot, such as this hollow stump, if it presents itself. Tracks leading into and out of this stump, in addition to many hairs on the ground inside it, left no question as to what canine had sought shelter here from the cold, winter wind.
Coyotes are opportunistic carnivores – whatever is available and relatively easy to find and/or catch, coyotes will eat. In spring, summer and fall, insects, small rodents and fruit make up most of their diet. In winter, when insects aren’t around and rodents are hidden by snow, coyotes are more dependent upon carrion, particularly white-tailed deer. Coyotes are often blamed for preying heavily on deer, and their scat often does contain deer hair, but studies have shown that most (92% in one study) of the deer consumed by coyotes are scavenged after being killed by vehicles or having died as a result of other injuries. A large percentage of the deer that are killed by coyotes have severe pre-existing injuries and would likely have died from them had they not been preyed upon by coyotes. (The pictured coyote scat consists largely of rotting apples, with a sprinkling of deer hair.)
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Unlike wolves, which hunt in packs and often take down prey larger than themselves, red foxes are solitary hunters and as a result often catch prey much smaller than themselves, such as mice and voles. During the winter, mice and voles become more active during daylight hours because much of their time is spent under the snow, where they remain hidden from view. Consequently, in winter you’re more likely to see a fox hunting during the day than in the summer. Whenever it’s hunting, night or day, a fox depends heavily on its acute sense of hearing. It is most sensitive to lower noises such as the rustling and gnawing sounds that small animals make as they move through vegetation or feed on seeds, buds and twigs. Foxes can locate these sounds several feet away, to within inches of their true location, under three feet of snow. Recent research suggests that they may also use the magnetic field to help them locate prey. (photo: red fox & meadow vole tracks)
Eastern Coyotes are heard with some regularity in New England, especially in the fall. The typical family unit consists of two parents and their young that have yet to disperse (often females). Together these four or five Coyotes serenade us with a very distinctive chorus, often several times a night. One wildlife biologist described this chorus as starting with a few falsetto yips, then blossoming into something resembling maniacal laughter, with the yips stringing together into chattering howls. Coyotes use their voices to communicate with members of their family, as well as with other Coyotes. If the family members have been off hunting by themselves, the howling serves to call the family back together again. The familial chorus also serves as a warning to other Coyotes not to trespass onto their territory. (Unless otherwise noted, my photographs are taken in the wild. This photograph was taken at Squam Lakes Science Center.)
Much is happening below ground at this time of year, including the birthing of red fox pups. In late March or early April, about 7 weeks after mating, female foxes give birth to four to ten young. Each pup weighs about a quarter of a pound, and the white tip of its tail is often already evident. During the first month, the pups grow a dark grey coat (they shed this coat and grow a sandy-colored coat about the time they venture out of their den, which is usually dug in a sandy bank). The mother stays with her young in the den, nursing and curling her body around them to help keep them warm for about two weeks, while the father brings her food. She then resumes her normal activity, returning to the den to nurse, clean and play with her pups.
Do you know a 3 – 8 year old who loves animals and would enjoy getting close-up views of the antics of a red fox kit during the first summer of his life? My second children’s book, Ferdinand Fox’s First Summer, has just been published by Sylvan Dell in both hardback and paperback. I have been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to observe and photograph young red foxes as they interact with each other and with their parents. This book consists of a selection of these photographs, accompanied by text and an educational component at the end of the book. Look for Ferdinand Fox’s First Summer in your local bookstore. If they don’t carry it, you would be doing me a huge favor by asking them to. Thank you so much. My next children’s book is on Beavers and will be coming out in the spring of 2014. (I am still looking for a publisher for Naturally Curious Kids!)
A study of coyote prey (through stomach contents) in the Adirondack Mountains of New York revealed that beavers were second only to white-tailed deer. This photograph shows that, possibly for the last time this winter, a coyote recently took advantage of a still-frozen-but-fast-thawing pond by walking across it in an attempt to reach an active beaver lodge. Once there the coyote attempted to dig into it in order to reach the inhabitants. A hard, two-to three-foot-thick wall of frozen mud, logs and sticks kept the beavers well protected, as it was designed to.
Coyote tracks led to a hole dug in the snow, with the body of a shrew lying on top of the snow next to the hole. Apparently a coyote had succeeded in catching the prey it had heard, but upon smelling this tiny insectivore, the coyote decided it wasn’t that hungry. In addition to having poisonous saliva that immobilizes small prey, shrews possess two glands on their sides that emit an unpleasant odor, detectable even by human noses. Although this odor did discourage the coyote from eating the shrew, it wasn’t enough to save its life.
For the past two to three months, coyote courtship has been taking place. Both males and females have been marking more frequently, and male coyotes have been traveling further than usual in search of a mate. A female has marked the top of the stump in the photograph – you can see the foot prints she made as she squatted to urinate. The blood-tinged urine indicates that she is in estrus, or heat. With luck, you might hear the duet of a male and female coyote that is sometimes sung just prior to copulation.
Has your dog ever flopped down into the snow, rolled over and wiggled its body back and forth, appearing to rub its back? This behavior is exhibited by other members of the dog family, including coyotes. With a little imagination you can see the coyote’s head print at the left side of this impression, and its hind feet on the right, both made while it was “ottering” in the snow. If anyone can shed light on why canids engage in this winter time activity, it would be much appreciated!