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Nature

Good Natured: Coyote, fox or dog? Follow the tracks

Masters of efficiency, red foxes and coyotes walk in direct register, meaning they place their hind feet directly on top of the prints left by their front feet. This trait means their tracks typically proceed in a straight line. In this photo, taken as a light snow was falling, the tracks themselves are indistinct but the straight trail the animal left, combined with a stride length of 20 inches is diagnostic. These tracks were made by a coyote.
Masters of efficiency, red foxes and coyotes walk in direct register, meaning they place their hind feet directly on top of the prints left by their front feet. This trait means their tracks typically proceed in a straight line. In this photo, taken as a light snow was falling, the tracks themselves are indistinct but the straight trail the animal left, combined with a stride length of 20 inches is diagnostic. These tracks were made by a coyote.

Years ago – and I’m talking 40 to 50 – if you encountered dog-like paw prints in the wild in our area, chances were good you’d found just that – the tracks of Canis familiaris, the domestic dog.

At that time, our other most common canine species, Vulpes vulpes, the red fox, was becoming increasingly rare because of an epidemic of sarcoptic mange, and Canis latrans, the coyote, had yet to explode on the scene.

Then, as we moved into the 1980s, things began to change. Coyotes, which had been in Illinois all along, but not in great numbers, started to become more prevalent. To give you an idea of relative numbers: State wildlife management records show that, in the mid-1970s, about 3,000 coyotes were taken, or harvested, annually; by the early 1980s, however, that figure had climbed to 10,000 annually.

Coyotes continued to expand their range throughout the 1990s, while red foxes battled to recover. The mange crisis had passed but much of their territory, especially in rural areas, had been taken over by coyotes.

Nowadays in the Tri-Cities, it seems like these two types of wild canines have come to an uneasy truce, with foxes claiming in-town yards and neighborhood parks as their turf, and coyotes, for now, patrolling toward the outskirts.

All of this is my own very long-winded way of saying that, today, if you notice dog-like tracks in your yard, a park or forest preserve, you can count on the track being made by one of three “suspects:” coyote, fox, or their cousin – and our companion – the domestic dog. The question is, how do you tell the difference?

Tracking books will tell you that fox tracks are smaller than coyote, and that both coyote and fox prints are oval in shape while dog prints are more round. (Cat tracks tend to be round too but, as you’ll see in a future column, are a different animal altogether. No pun intended.)

If you’re more of a facts and figures person, you can use these measurements for reference:

• Red fox: 11/2 to 23/4 inches long, and 11/4 to 2 inches wide; stride length of 13 to 18 inches.

• Coyote: 21/2 to 31/2 inches long and 11/2 to 3 inches wide; stride length of 171/2 to 26 inches.

• Dog: Less than 1 to greater than 4 inches long and less than 1 to greater than 4 inches wide, or basically all over the board; stride length varies widely, as well.

The trouble is, some foxes are quite large, and some coyotes can be quite small, leading to quite a bit of overlap. So, what I tend to rely on more than measurements is context. That is, where are these tracks you’re working so hard to decipher?

Are you in a natural area that has several hundred acres of open space? Chances are, you’re looking at either coyote or dog.

Are you in a neighborhood that has houses with porches, decks and/or sheds built up a foot or so off the ground? Probably either a fox or a dog.

I’ll admit, at this point these answers are really still just guesses. Unless you can see the actual animal that’s making the tracks, you’ll need to ask a few more questions:

Do the tracks go in a straight line? If so, then your options are either coyote or fox.

Are the tracks just all over the place, with no rhyme or reason? Yes? Then you can be pretty sure you’re looking at dog tracks.

Unlike their wild relatives, our pet dogs have been conditioned to expect a bowlful of kibbles at the end of their day. Efficiency of movement and energy conservation are the last things on their minds.

As we learned last week though, tracks aren’t the only signs animals leave behind. As you study your mystery prints, be sure to check for other evidence too:

Scat – Thanks to a digestive system meant to wring every last nutrient from a meal, fox and coyote scat has a decidedly twisted look. Contents this time of year tend to be mostly fur and bones. (This feature will vary throughout the year, with berry seeds being the most obvious component in summer, and apple and plum skins in fall.) But most distinctive, to my eye anyway, is the “flourish” at the end of each deposit. Reminds me, every time, of the swirl on a serving of soft-serve ice cream.

To differentiate between fox and coyote scat, I use a “rule of thumb.” If the scat’s circumference is wider than my thumb, it’s probably from a coyote. Narrower than my thumb, it’s likely from a fox.

Also, because scat is a way of communicating as much as it is a means of relief, coyotes and foxes tend to leave their “marks” in the center of paths and trailways. By way of contrast, dogs, whose scat is round and has a grainy texture, tend to step off-trail when it’s time to “take a break.”

Scent – When you’re out and about and you think you’re smelling a far-off skunk, think again. Red foxes will often mark areas with a scent that is remarkably skunk-like in nature. It’s not as strong though and, to me, somewhat sweeter than the pungent odor of a ticked-off Mephitis mephitis. (Fun bonus fact: Skunks’ scientific name comes from the Latin Mefitis, a goddess who embodied the noxious gases emitted by swamps and volcanoes.)

Burrows – February is mating season for foxes and coyotes, which means April is when offspring will be born. Before that time, females of both species will be on the lookout for suitable sites for their natal dens. Sometimes this quest involves excavating a burrow; sometimes it means taking over one dug by a woodchuck or other type of burrower; and sometimes – for foxes especially – it may involve the space underneath a deck, porch or backyard shed. These dark, quiet recesses mimic the conditions of underground dens but offer the particular advantage of requiring little or no work on the part of the expectant mother.

These spaces also are very appealing to a number of other local mammals, including raccoons, skunks and opossums – species will be profiled in next week’s Good Natured column.

• Pam Erickson Otto is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or potto@stcparks.org.

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