When they are three weeks old, Eastern Coyote pups emerge from their dens and see the world for the first time. At first they stay very close to the den, but within a short time the pups are exploring the surrounding territory. Soon they will be accompanying their parents on their forays, learning how to hunt.
Looking and acting much like Red Foxes, one discernible difference is the color of the tip of their tail. Unlike Red Foxes, which have white-tipped tails, Eastern Coyote pups’ dusky-colored tail tips (hard to see in photo) eventually turn black. (Thanks to Marc Beerman, http://www.oldmanphotography.com for photo op.)
The time for nest-building has arrived for Black-capped Chickadees. They most often choose dead aspens and birches as nesting trees, and the punkier the wood the better so that the birds can easily excavate a cavity with their small beaks. While both male and female create the nest hole, the female builds the nest within the cavity by herself.
Most chickadee nests are used only once, and consist of coarse material such as moss for the foundation and finer, softer material such as the hair of rabbits or deer for the lining. The pictured chickadee is only a day or two away from laying eggs, for she is collecting shed fur from red fox kits (they grow three different coats on their way to maturity – gray, sand-colored and red) for the lining of her nest. She found a bonanza of nesting material on the dirt mound at the entrance of an active fox den, where the kits spend much of their time. (Thanks to Jim Block for photo op.)
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.)
When your quest is to find out as much as you can about the identity, activity, diet and territory of your four-footed neighbors, it is logical to make the most of all your senses. Tracks can be seen, scrapings and bite marks on a tree can be felt and yes, one’s sense of smell can enhance any tracking expedition. Just as the tracks and scat of different species of animals have distinctive characteristics, so does the urine of different animals. Scent marking, including urination, is a behaviour used by animals to identify their territory, and therefore a highly visible sign in winter.
At this time of year, foxes are breeding, and without even putting your nose near where a fox has marked his territory with urine, you can detect its skunk-like odor as you pass by. If you’re so inclined (and I realize many readers may not be) you can heighten your sensory experience as well as your identification prowess by sampling the smell of other animals’ liquid waste. White-tailed deer urine has a pungent, piney smell, quite pleasing to this naturalist’s olfactory receptors. You can detect a porcupine den from a considerable distance by the pungent, very distinctive but hard to describe odor of its urine (which spills out onto and coats the bark of a tree den, thereby advertising the porcupine’s presence). Coyote urine smells very much like a domestic dog’s, and members of the weasel family often have musky-smelling urine, though a recently-sniffed fisher marking had very little scent.
Needless to say, it’s a lot easier to discover and sample urine when there’s snow on the ground and it is more evident. Virginia opossums, snowshoe hares, red and gray squirrels, eastern coyotes, red and gray foxes, raccoons, fishers, mink and striped skunks are all in or entering their breeding seasons, when scent marking is more frequent. Snow is currently on the ground, at least in northern New England. It’s prime time for olfactory activity, if you’re game. (Photo: stump marked by a red fox)
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.