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)

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

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