Going back three decades or so, foxes had a pretty sweet deal in the East.
Two species, red fox and gray fox, were the only wild canine predators present. They could claim that exclusive status since red wolves were persecuted out of business by people somewhere back in the 1800s.
During the 1970s, however, Western-native coyotes little by little immigrated east, spreading their range into the vacuum left by the red wolf. Since then, coyotes have occupied virtually all of the eastern United States, overlapping ranges with the foxes already at home.
So how has that gone? For the coyotes, fine. For the foxes, not too good.
Coyotes have flourished in their new territories. There are some anecdotal observations that coyotes boomed soon after they became well established in the East, then declined only slightly to settle in at an abundant status quo.
“I’ve had several people say that they’re not hearing coyotes (howling) as much as they once did,” said Lee Cope, a Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources conservation officer based in Marshall County. “But there’s still plenty of coyotes.
“Sometimes I think people have gotten so used to coyotes being around that they just don’t notice them like they did when coyotes were new to the area.”
While coyotes’ proliferation may have moderated somewhat, it is widely accepted that any substantial presence of coyotes is a kick in the head to foxes. Coyotes and foxes, reds and grays, are competing canine predators at odds with each other. There’s no spirit of peaceful co-existence between them.
Coyotes are by far the physically dominant species, roughly three times the bulk of foxes.
Foxes — big powder puffs in fluffy winter coats — aren’t as big as many people think. The red fox typically is only a 10- to 12-pound critter, and the gray fox is just a bit smaller, usually 8 to 11 pounds. Contrast that with a common coyote ranging from 29 to 33 pounds and some considerably more.
When there are conflicts between these canines, they aren’t resolved with debate. The foxes might want to just get along, but there’s a tendency of coyotes to attack foxes when the species come into contact.
A federal study of interactions between coyotes and foxes based on happenstance observations found that in 71 percent of documented coyote/fox interchanges, the result was aggressive behavior by the coyotes. There were numerous reports of coyotes running down and killing foxes. In some instances they fed on the foxes, but in other confrontations they killed and left them lying, sometimes after mutilating the carcasses.
Throughout the eastern U.S., wildlife managers rather uniformly note that most species have shown no significant declines because of the influx of coyotes except for foxes.
“We used to have a lot of gray foxes, but over time after coyotes started becoming established, our fox population declined quite a bit,” said Land Between the Lakes wildlife biologist Steve Bloemer. “That happened several years ago, and the population remains significantly lower now than it did before the coyotes showed up.”
Bloemer said red foxes traditionally have been low in numbers in the LBL because of their preference for open habitat and the heavily timbered nature. With coyotes in the mix, relatively few gray foxes and even fewer reds exist, he said.
Trapper John Goheen of Calvert City, a student and catcher of furbearing critters since well before coyotes arrived on the scene, said foxes clearly are the losers in the predatory match-ups. He sees a direct link between the coming of the coyote and the decline of foxes.
“The red fox are down, and the grays are really slim in numbers now,” Goheen said. “Some counties are more overrun than others, but coyotes are pretty much everywhere.”
Goheen said, despite a downturn in numbers of red foxes, that species may be more evident to some people nowadays because of one way reds have adapted to the presence of bullying coyotes.
“Red fox may be pressured by coyotes, but one thing they’re doing is moving into town,” he said. “Coyotes are more shy of people, and red foxes get along pretty well right around where people live. Reds are fairly commonly seen these days in yards.”
There’s no likelihood that red foxes are packing their bags and moving into subdivisions and other such people-populated neighborhoods to get away from coyotes. It might be, however, that foxes that naturally gravitate to human residential areas tend to survive better because of less presence of coyotes.
Illinois Department of Natural Resources furbearer biologist Bob Bluett said open farming country has gone though some habitat changes that, added to coyote pressures, have squeezed many more foxes toward suburbia.
Farming practices that favor huge, mono-cropped fields leave little suitable habitat once grain crops are harvested, Bluett said. The demise of small farms that once offered overgrown corners, fences and hedge rows eliminated much of the edge cover and food base that once supported foxes. The patchwork of cover and mixed open ground that is found in human neighborhoods may become the preferred option.
“They have more or less moved into residential areas and have seemed to do well there,” Bluett said. “We probably have more rabbits and other food in urban areas.”
Where foxes can find small prey like bunnies and mice plus the occasional bowl of dog or cat food on nearby porches, they can make a living. And if they can feed themselves and have some adequate lounging cover in a place where coyotes are reluctant to forage, that sounds more like ideal habitat.