Canines of the Cape

Text and photos by Sam Wilson / Winter 2021

A closer look at the fleet fox
In the penetrating quietude of backcountry Alaska, the smallest pitter patter of footfalls is enough to alert you that you may not be alone. I was standing on a tundra knoll in the backcountry of Denali National Park with a group of hardy adventurers and spotted the dainty creature trotting lightly among the yellow-green dwarf birch and willow shrubs. Seeing the striking red fur through the brush confirmed my suspicions, and out of the brush popped a small fox with an object in its mouth. I took a few photos and we watched as it dropped the rounded papery object, tossed it around, and then pounced back on it playfully. I looked at my photos and saw that it was likely a nest of a ground-nesting wasp or hornet (no longer occupied!). The curious young fox had found it and was carrying it around as a dog would. It then dropped the papery ball and sat on a nearby tundra knoll to watch my group. Then the fox began lolling on its back in the sunshine, much to the delight of myself and the guests I was guiding in the National Park. While we sat down for lunch, the fox spent about 10 minutes totally relaxed in our presence. After a quick glance towards our group once again, it took off back into the tundra brush, off to go do some foxy things.

We associate foxes with the connotations sly, mischievous, or cunning. Indeed, foxes seem to carry an air of carefree impishness, often at ease in the sudden presence among people and animals. Often just as quickly, they disappear back into the shadows, and our minds imagine them scheming up plans in secret. In North America, foxes have earned their unbounded confidence. The Red Fox has penetrated almost every available habitat on the continent, from high arctic tundra to prairie, open woodland, and even urban centers. For many in New Jersey and around the East Coast, it is a familiar creature of the suburban backyard.

In Cape May County we host three species of canids: the Red Fox, Gray Fox, and Coyote. Many readers are probably familiar with the dog-like yipping, howling, whining, and even barking of coyotes throughout the county. Gray foxes are less familiar because of their relative scarcity and restricted habitat. They are smaller than Red Fox and Coyote and usually an interior forest dweller. They belong to the same canine family as Red Fox but are not a close relative. Gray foxes are also more reclusive and don’t make many appearances outside of the more rural areas around northern Cape May County, especially preferring the protection of the deeper pine woods like Belleplain State Forest and Cape May’s National Wildlife Refuges. Red Fox is the median size of the three, and the most familiar and recognizable.     

Identification of coyotes and foxes may seem straightforward, but both come in different color morphs. The coyote is the size of an average dog and usually is buffy-tan or brown infused with black, blond, and white guard hairs. Red foxes in our area are almost always classic red above with white underneath, neatly patterned under the face, and have blackish legs. In some northern areas of the country, the ‘Cross-fox’ is common, just a color morph of Red Fox and comes in a variety of colors. They are usually darker with varying amounts of reds, browns, and beiges against a darker coat. All color morphs of Red Fox can be identified by their bushy, white-tipped tail. Gray foxes are smaller and of course grayer. They are also rarely seen away from interior forests or forest edges.

Though foxes are generally considered solitary creatures, they will live in family groups when raising kits. Coyotes are more associated as pack animals, though in general the pack size is small and dependent on the size of the family group.

There has been a lot of speculation about the origins of the North American Red Fox and whether it is native to the continent, especially on the east coast. Good evidence shows it had reached North America from Eurasia during two different glaciation events, probably around 400,000 years ago. However, it is not a native resident of the New Jersey coastal plain, likely having arrived in the region about 300 years ago. Before the deforestation of large parts of North America, the Gray Fox was the most common canid on the continent. Red foxes have had an easier time in adopting as their home the fragmented forest tracks left by human communities.                              

Their range expansion has now brought them all the way out to the oceanfront dunes and beaches of the eastern seaboard, an area that probably did not exist in the past. The reason for its expansion to all parts of New Jersey is not entirely clear but probably has a lot to do with major changes in habitat, like the aforementioned destruction of old growth forests and better prey opportunities in human communities attributed to hunting animals attracted to our garbage. During the colonial period there were also several introductions of European Red Foxes to the eastern US; however, the record is conflicted on exactly where introductions took place, the number of introductions, and the success of these events. If Red Foxes naturally occurred in New Jersey before European colonization, they were likely never abundant.

The Coyote and its close cousin the Gray Wolf have had a longer native history on the continent, originally thought to have evolved from a similar ancestor around 1 million years ago. However, recent evidence refutes this ancient divergence and suggests that North American wolves and coyotes diverged as separate species as recently as 55,000 to 117,000 years ago. Indeed, the coyote and the wolf have probably been diverging and mingling freely since prehistoric times, much to the chagrin of geneticists trying to tease apart this adulterated history. There is even evidence that coyotes and wolves share some genes with an unknown, now extinct North American canine. From an East Coast perspective, the intrepid coyote is an even more recent arrival than the incursion of the Red Fox.

The total eradication of wolves from the eastern United States in the early 1800’s left a major gap in the ecology of the area. Many large predators like the wolf were persecuted indiscriminately, regarded as dangerous to people, as pests that took livestock, or fierce predators that significantly affected populations of popular game animals. The Eastern Coyote probably originated in the Great Lakes region sometime after the eradication of the Gray Wolf. Western coyotes began moving into former wolf territories while hybridizing with remnant wolf populations where they still occurred in Ontario, Labrador, and Quebec. They formed a distinct subspecies of Coyote that we now know as the eastern coyote. Genetic studies show that at least a quarter of the genome of our Eastern Coyotes is Gray Wolf and about ten percent is shown to come from domestic dogs! Because of this hybridization with wolves, the eastern coyote is larger than the western coyote, weighing between 45 and 55 pounds in adults. Their diverse genome is beneficial for an animal adapted to a variety habitat from forest strongholds in the pine barrens to human-dominated habitats around urban/suburban centers. Records show that the first documented coyote sighting in New Jersey took place in Hunterdon County in 1939, and the first verified report occurred in 1948 in Cape May County.

The dispersion of canines across the continent and intrusion into dense human communities are examples of incredible opportunists adapting to their environment quickly and intelligently, much like crows and raccoons. Their adaptability is probably a result of their high intelligence, indiscriminate palate, and flexibility in living in vastly different environments. Generally, we think of canine diets as being meat based. That is generally true for the largest canines like wolves; however, foxes and coyotes are omnivorous. I once watched in surprise as a fox on the Alaskan tundra gobbled down wild blueberries for over a half hour. Indeed, in some areas in the summer and fall, berries and other fruit can make up a large portion of the diets of coyotes and foxes. In Cape May, foxes primarily target small mammal species like voles, mice, squirrels, and small rabbits. They will secondarily target other prey species like songbirds, small waterfowl, raccoons, opossums, reptiles, insects, and in the case of our coastal living foxes, marine invertebrates and flotsam washed up on the beach. Unfortunately, human communities abutting directly to beaches means there is plenty of trash and food to draw them to the oceanfront. This puts them near rare and endangered beach nesting species like Piping Plovers and Least Terns.

Though foxes and coyotes are generally more active at night, it is not unusual to see them during the day. At midday during a salt marsh boat tour behind Wildwood in Jarvis sound, I witnessed a coyote in the open marsh chasing down and harassing Eastern Willets, a large shorebird that nests in the back bay marshes in New Jersey. Though it was thrilling to see this animal chasing down birds in the salt marsh for the tour participants, the coyote probably took a significant toll on the birds of the marsh.

Studies have shown that urban coyotes like the one from Wildwood do tend to hunt and forage far more than their reputation as scavengers would suggest. The most common food source in one urban study was small rodents, followed by fruit, deer, and rabbits. Human garbage is just 1% of their diet.

The complicated relationship humans have with top predators is made even more complex by their relationship with other lesser predators in the ecological community. Populations of ‘mesopredators’ like foxes, raccoons, and feral cats can be regulated by coyote predation or be extirpated simply by their presence in the area, driving out these smaller predators. They sometimes have a negative effect on populations of threatened songbirds, turtles, or beach nesting birds. It is up to management authorities to identify nuisance predators and strike the right balance in protecting endangered species, while identifying effective deterrents.

One of the biggest threats to wild canines is the disease Sarcoptes mange, caused by a mite. It is a terrible affliction caused by the movement of mites hatching eggs in the skin. Its most noticeable effect is major hair loss, weight loss, and eventual death due to open sores or starvation. Mange is not a threat to domestic animals unless untreated and can be medically treated using common deworming/mite/flea/tick medication like Ivermectin or Bravecto.

The only threat to humans or animals that foxes or coyotes pose is rabies, though it is extremely rare to encounter an infected animal. Wild foxes or other mammals that are openly salivating, overtly friendly, or acting strangely like swaying or stumbling should be avoided. Seeing a fox or coyote in daylight is normal and should not raise an alarm. Healthy foxes generally avoid people and domestic animals, though they will happily raid an unprotected chicken coop. Fox or coyote attacks on people are extraordinarily rare, with no documented cases occurring on the East Coast. 

Unfortunately, mange is common in the area and very easily spread. Several foxes here have been affected by the disease in Cape May Point. I encountered a fox while working at a residence at the Point that watched me work from another yard. It was nearly hairless, giving it a very strange sickly look. It retained a bit of the typical foxy nonchalance but spooked easily as I walked towards the street and it. Likely, this animal was very stressed, but it acted normal when approached and quickly ran away.

Most Cape May residents who spend time outdoors have probably seen our local foxes scurrying across a street, traversing the dunes, or engaged in nighttime saunters through suburban backyards. The many protected habitats in the county help boost populations of the wildlife we see. Coyotes are surprisingly secretive and not often seen but they can be heard yipping, howling, or barking throughout the county, including Cape Island. Though we must consider threats to endangered wildlife, it’s clear these intelligent and adaptable animals are well established and here to stay. From a natural history perspective, like us, they are relatively new arrivals on this land. Untangling the histories and mysteries of wildlife and their place in our human-altered space is often messy, confusing, and convoluted. The super-adaptable canines of the Cape will continue to elude and surprise us, but it will always be a thrill to get a glimpse into their complex and secretive lives.