Sightings of red foxes up, coyotes down

October 22, 2006|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Special to The Sun

If you think you've seen more red foxes in the county than usual, you're probably right. The little bushy-tailed critters are enjoying life in Harford and nearby counties, judging from reports suggesting an increase in population.

"We have a tremendous amount of fox here, and they have gotten rid of all the small game, like rabbits, pheasant and quail," said Robert Tibbs, who has a beef cattle farm in the Level area.

Red fox sightings rose by a third in the region that includes Harford and neighboring counties, according to the most recent available state survey of bowhunters. That compares with an 8 percent increase statewide from the previous year.

About 450 bowhunters participated in the 2004-2005 annual survey by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which requested information on 14 "furbearer" animals, such as coyotes, raccoons, foxes and minks.

The hunters saw red foxes more than any other furbearing animal, with the most sightings in the Piedmont province, which consists of Harford, Cecil, Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery and Carroll counties.

The number of calls about red foxes from Harford residents to a nuisance wildlife information line increased in the 2004 federal budget year, but the overall numbers are too small to draw conclusions, said Robert Beyer, associate director of Maryland Wildlife and Heritage Service's Game Management Program.

Red foxes have an inverse relationship to the coyote population because they compete for the same habitat, wildlife experts say. When the coyote population grows, the number of red foxes declines. With so many red fox sightings in the Piedmont region, it's not surprising that coyote sightings were not as numerous there as in other parts of the state.

Red foxes can be found in rural, suburban and urban areas. They prefer to live near the edges between fields and forest, although they are adaptable. "Red fox have set up housekeeping under someone's backyard shed," Beyer said. "It's a good, safe place for them."

"As these suburban counties continue to grow, it pushes these animals even closer [to people] than they would like to be," said state Del. Barry Glassman, a Harford Republican who raises market lambs. "We do see a lot of red fox."

Red foxes have orangish-red coats, black feet and weigh about 10 pounds. They will eat insects, fruit, nuts, berries, snakes, garbage, mice, voles, rabbits and birds. They can prey on cats and small farm animals such as chickens or ducks.

"The biggest trouble with fox is they dig their homes in the field, and you run your tractor out there and do some damage to your equipment," said Lee McDaniel, manager of the 850-acre Indian Spring cattle farm in Darlington.

McDaniel's farm has a wildlife management plan that involves trapping about 20 foxes a year. That's an increase from a decade ago, when he noticed a sudden rise in the coyote population.

"Ten years ago, we had a large influx of coyote, and the red fox population dropped to almost nothing," he recalled. Coyotes killed two sheep and chased cattle on the farm, he said.

After several years of trapping or shooting coyotes, McDaniel said, the population decreased. "Our experience has been that since we've seen the coyote population decrease, the red fox have come back to the level of the 1980s, and we're back to trapping them," he said.

Coyotes, which historically lived west of the Mississippi River, have taken up residence throughout eastern North America, said Robert Colona, furbearer project leader at the Department of Natural Resources. Maryland and Delaware are the most recent two states for coyotes to call home. Coyotes look like small German shepherds, but with large ears, a pointy snout and long bushy tail.

"One reason they've done so well is that they can eat virtually anything - plants, fruits, small mammals, birds and animals up to the size of livestock and deer," Colona said. "They're very opportunistic. In the right conditions, they can take down some very large animals."

Are they a danger to people? "About 15 years ago I would have probably told you they were no threat to humans, but that has changed," Colona said. "I don't want to alarm the public, but there have been cases in the East where coyotes have attacked humans. It's usually the result of coyotes in an area where there's no harvest [hunting], and they've acclimated to humans and lost their innate fear of humans. It's really rare, and we haven't documented that in Maryland."

But Tibbs said the last coyote he saw seemed less skittish than ones he spotted years ago.

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