Coyotes, Foxes and Bears … Oh My!

A bear den in a Finger Lakes woodland. Photo by John Adamski.

If you’ve spent any amount of time in the woods lately, you may have noticed a strong foul odor on occasion. That’s because the coyote and fox mating seasons are poised to begin and the males of both species are busy marking their territories by urinating on nearly everything they pass by. The skunk-like aroma is even more prevalent on mild days when a midwinter thaw is underway and is sometimes strong enough to convince you that a skunk is indeed somewhere close by. But rest assured—skunks are still in hibernation.

Today the Eastern Coyote is the Empire State’s top predator. But prior to the 1930s, they didn’t even exist here. Biologists believe that western coyotes began an eastward migration in the early 1900s to fill the void left by the timber wolf, which was extirpated from eastern forests by the late 1800s. Coyote packs are thought to have migrated along the northern shorelines of the Great Lakes and interbred with Canadian timber wolves along the way—creating a distinct subspecies that explains why the Eastern Coyote is somewhat larger than its western cousin. In fact, wolf DNA has been found in Eastern Coyote genetics.

Lacking competition, the coyote soon established itself as New York’s predatory top dog. The Department of Environmental Conservation estimates that 30,000 coyotes call New York State home today.

The Empire State is also home to two different species of foxes—the red fox and the gray fox—both of which are native. The red fox is the most widely-distributed carnivore in the world, ranging from the Arctic Circle southward to North Africa, North America, and Eurasia. So it should not come as a surprise that the red fox is a common resident of the Finger Lakes Region as well. It is at home in rural, suburban, and sometimes even urban habitats. According to the DEC, expanding coyote populations have pushed the red fox further into residential areas in recent years.

The gray fox is a small carnivorous canine that is found throughout the eastern and southern United States, ranging from southeastern Canada to Columbia and Venezuela in South America. It is also a resident of New York State, but because it is a forest dweller, it isn’t seen very often. The gray fox was the most common fox species in Colonial America but the cutting of forests for timber and farmland reduced its habitat and enabled the red fox, which has a preference for more open and diverse habitats, to become the dominant fox species. What sets the gray fox apart from all other wild canines is its ability to climb trees, which is useful in its preferred habitat of deciduous woodlands.

Each of these three canine species breeds between mid-January and mid-February and a two month gestation period follows. Coyote pups and fox kits are born blind in underground dens—usually abandoned or hijacked woodchuck burrows—in March or early April but they don’t venture out for another 3-to-4 weeks, until after their eyes open.

Black bears are on a different schedule. They mate in June and July and cubs are born in their mother’s winter den in late January or early February. The female, known as a sow, comes into estrus only once every two years. She is promiscuous and will mate with more than one male, or boar, while she’s in heat. Through a unique biological process known as delayed implantation, her fertilized eggs remain dormant until she enters her winter den in late November. When she gives birth in mid-winter, she may deliver anywhere from two to five cubs—each potentially having a different father—depending on how many times she was bred.

This winter, DEC wildlife biologists are seeking the public’s help to learn about new black bear dens throughout New York.

As part of DEC’s ongoing monitoring of black bears in New York, wildlife biologists periodically check on black bears during the winter den season. The bears may be fitted with a GPS-telemetry collar to help biologists track the bears’ activities throughout the rest of the year and to relocate dens in subsequent years for monitoring cub production, condition, and survival.

Bears may den in a rock crevice, tree cavity, or under heavy brush or fallen trees. Since female bears generally give birth in January or early February, high-pitched squeals from nursing cubs may be audible if you’re near a den. I found the den in the photo above in a neighbor’s woodlot during the winter of 2006 when I heard cubs squealing. DEC urges anyone who finds a bear den to not approach or disturb the den, but simply to note the location and move away from the den site.

DEC requests that anyone locating a bear den contact their local DEC Wildlife office with specifics about the den location, including GPS coordinates if possible. In Region 8, you can call the Avon office at 585-226-5380 or the Bath office at 607-776-2165.

Story and photo by John Adamski

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