A fox runs through a driveway passed a garage door after being spook by a dog on Falcon Drive in Whitehorse on Sept. 3, 2019. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Foxes and coyotes in the Wilderness City

There’s lots more research to be done on how wildlife adapts to urban environments, says biologist

  • Apr. 2, 2020 11:30 a.m.

Lori Fox

Special to the News

While Southerners in some COVID-19 stricken cities marvel at the boldness of some wild animals like deer browsing amid their empty streets, for Yukoners, seeing wildlife thrive in close proximity to us is a common sight — foxes, especially.

Every neighbourhood in Whitehorse has its own cache of foxes, and seeing a fox out for a casual evening stroll is such a common occurrence that drivers can routinely be observed braking to allow the animals to cross the street as if they were human pedestrians. Although they occasionally get into the trash or make off with a leather glove (or eat the occasional cat), humans and foxes live side-by-side in the city here, more or less peacefully.

Less often seen within the city limits is the fox’s much maligned — and often unreasonably despised — close cousin, the coyote. Just because we don’t see them very often doesn’t mean they’re not very much around, however, says Tom Jung, senior wildlife biologist with Environment Yukon.

The way these two canids interact in urban areas such as Whitehorse is very different from the way they behave together out in the bush, Jung notes.

The red fox (Vulpes vulpes), which occasionally comes in other colours such as black or silver — these are merely coat variation and not different species, unlike the all-white arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus), which is genetically distinct— and the coyote (Canis latrans) share a lot of things in common. Both are highly adaptable generalist predators, meaning they aren’t all that fussy about what they put in their mouths, and although both species will eat trash left out by careless Yukoners (lock your bins!), coyotes especially are known to dine on carrion. Both species, says Jung, eat small mammals, with the snowshoe hare a favourite snack for both.

This shared palate means that foxes and coyotes are often in direct competition with each other in the wild, says Jung. Coyotes – which hunt alone but have a complex social hierarchy, not unlike wolves – are much larger than foxes, longer in the leg and heavier, weighing in at around 10 to 12 kilograms (22-26 lbs). Compared to the substantially more svelte fox, which usually max out at around 7 kg (15 lbs), it’s easy to see why coyotes have a distinct competitive advantage in terms of access to food and territory — and why foxes generally try to keep away from them.

“In the wild, coyotes and foxes don’t really get along,” says Jung. “Coyotes may actually chase a fox out of an area — or, in some instances, may even kill them, if they have the opportunity to do so.”

If that sounds cruel or unfair — and it’s important to remember not to anthropomorphize animals in the first place, but still — Jung notes that this is actually all part of a larger pecking order in the boreal, and wolves will chase a coyote off their turf just as quick as a coyote will turn on a fox.

In urban areas like Whitehorse, however, things are quite different. With the abundance of resources and protection from larger, more dominant predators a city provides, foxes and coyotes don’t have to compete with each other the way they would out in the backcountry, says Jung.

“Competition breaks down and they more or less get along,” he says.

Moreover, the relative safety a city provides allows foxes — which are a bit more tolerant of humans and less shy than coyotes, part of the reason we see them more often — to be more active during the day. Coyotes continue to be primarily active during the night, which means the two predators aren’t overlapping the way they would in a wild setting, kind of like two roommates who don’t really like each other, but tolerate each other peaceably because they work different shifts and never really have to see each other.

Although the abundance of food and the absence of wolves mean both “coyotes and foxes have a pretty nice life in the city,” urban living appears to be particularly good for foxes, Jung notes.

“There’s quite a bit of research on foxes in urban areas, and most of it points to urban life being really good for foxes,” he says. “It’s sort of a story of the poor country cousin — foxes in the wild don’t do as well.”

Although no Yukon-based research has been done on the subject, the relatively peaceful relationship between foxes and coyotes observed in Whitehorse stacks up with research done in other urban areas, Jung says.

In 2014, the University of Wisconsin launched the Urban Canid Project, which found foxes and coyotes in Madison, WI (population 255,000) had overlapping ranges in urban environments that would likely not occur in the wild. They noted that foxes allowed coyotes unusually close to their dens in these scenarios, and notes an unusual lack of aggression on the part of the coyotes. Similar observations have been made in larger urban centres, such as Chicago.

Whitehorse is a particularly interesting area of study for this, says Jung, due to its remoteness. Surrounded on all sides by an ocean of boreal forest with hundreds of kilometres between it and the next true city – Fort St. John – Whitehorse is, in biological terms, an urban island, with the truce observed between foxes and coyotes observed in town most definitely not observed in the near-by wild.

“Although there have been a few studies (of this nature) in urban areas in North America, the context is very different… where there’s a lot of human development, no matter where you go,” says Jung. “Whitehorse is unique, in that it’s an urban area embedded in the wilderness.”

Animals like foxes and coyotes — or brown bats, raccoons and pigeons, to give some other examples — that do well in urban areas are called synurbic species, Jung says, and represent an emerging field of biology. How animals like foxes and coyotes adapt not only the presence of each other, but to humans, and how we all react and interact to each other within the artificially-created setting of an urban environment is a growing field of study about which little is known.

“The idea of urban ecology or urban ecosystems, at least from a wildlife perspective or wildlife management hasn’t had a lot of attention,” he notes.

“We’ve only scratched the surface in our understanding of the ecology of urban areas — most people just don’t sign up to be a wildlife biologist to study things in a Walmart parking lot,” he adds.

“There’s lots of research to be done.”

Contact the Yukon News at editor@yukon-news.com


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Dr. Brendan Hanley, Yukon’s chief medical officer of health, speaks to media at a press conference about COVID-19 in Whitehorse on March 30. The Yukon government announced three new cases of COVID-19 in Watson Lake on Oct. 23. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Three new COVID-19 cases identified in Watson Lake

The Yukon government has identified three locations in town where public exposure may have occurred

Asad Chishti, organizer of the rally to support the conservation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, leads marchers through chants with a megaphone outside the Bank of Montreal in Whitehorse on Aug. 28. The BMO is the second Candian bank to announce it will not directly fund oil and gas projects in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Bank of Montreal second Canadian bank to join ANWR boycott

BMO joins RBC, the first to commit to the boycott

Premier Sandy Silver, left, and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brendan Hanley speak during a COVID-19 update press conference in Whitehorse on July 29. Silver urged “kindness and patience” during the weekly COVID-19 update on Oct. 21, after RCMP said they are investigating an act of vandalism against American travellers in Haines Junction.
(Alistair Maitland Photography file)
COVID-19 update urges “kindness and patience” for travellers transiting through the territory

“We need to support each other through these challenging times”

Whitehorse Correctional Centre officials have replied to a petition by inmate Charabelle Silverfox, who alleges she’s being kept in conditions mirroring separate confinement, arguing that her placement isn’t nearly as restrictive as claimed. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Inmate not being kept in restrictive confinement, WCC argues in response to petition

Whitehorse Correctional Centre (WCC) officials have replied to a petition by an… Continue reading


Wyatt’s World for Oct. 23, 2020

Today’s mailbox: Electricity and air travel

Letters to the editor published Oct. 23, 2020

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Irony versus Climate

Lately it seems like Irony has taken over as Editor-in-Chief at media… Continue reading

Evan Lafreniere races downhill during the U Kon Echelon Halloweeny Cross-Country Race on Oct. 16. (Inara Barker/Submitted)
Costumed bike race marks end of season

The U Kon Echelon Bike Club hosted its final race of the… Continue reading

Smartphone showing various applications to social media services and Google. (Pixabay photo)
National media calling for level playing field with Google, Facebook

In Canada, Google and Facebook control 80 per cent of all online advertising revenues

Education Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee, right, before question period at the Yukon legislative assembly in Whitehorse on March 7, 2019. The Yukon government announced Oct. 19 it has increased the honoraria rates for school council members. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Honoraria increased for school council members

Members of school councils throughout the territory could soon receive an increased… Continue reading

Triple J’s Canna Space in Whitehorse on April 17, 2019, opens their first container of product. Two years after Canada legalized the sale of cannabis, Yukon leads the country in per capita legal sales. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon leads Canadian cannabis sales two years after legalization

Private retailers still asking for changes that would allow online sales

A sign greets guests near the entrance of the Canada Games Centre in Whitehorse on June 11. The city announced Oct. 16 it was moving into the next part of its phased reopening plan with spectator seating areas open at a reduced capacity to allow for physical distancing. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
CGC reopening continues

Limited spectator seating now available

During Whitehorse city council’s Oct. 19 meeting, planning manager Mélodie Simard brought forward a recommendation that a proposed Official Community Plan amendment move forward that would designate a 56.3 hectare piece of land in Whistle Bend, currently designated as green space, as urban residential use. (Courtesy City of Whitehorse)
More development in Whistle Bend contemplated

OCP change would be the first of several steps to develop future area

Most Read