Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Kodi and Wild Canids

We are fascinated by Kodi's starkly different reactions to foxes versus coyotes. In the pecking order of wild canids it goes by size: wolves are at the top, followed by coyotes, then foxes. Here in the northeast, the small red fox (10 to 15 pounds) avoids its larger competitor the 35 to 40 pound coyote whenever possible. Kodi weighs in at 50 pounds, but falls between the red fox and the coyote in the pecking order.

Kodi will not accompany me on walks in certain places - those areas where coyote sign is strong and domestic dog evidence is low. If he smells coyote in the air, or sniffs its urine on a twig, or picks up a coyote track, he tucks his tail and ears and turns back toward home. A fox track elicits the opposite reaction. When Kodi picks up the scent of a fox, he runs fast in search of the next track, with tail up and spirits high.

I spent the weekend at my parent's Winterberry Farm in western Massachusetts where both coyote and fox roam. Kodi is reluctant to follow me down into the fields in the back forty, where coyotes travel daily. On Saturday at noon I happen to look outside at the bird feeders and there was a red fox feeding on spilled bits of suet and seeds. He was a mangy looking fox, which is likely why he was seeking food beneath a feeder at mid-day. Mange often kills in winter as the animal is unable to stay warm given the loss of so much fur. Finding food to stay warm is critical.

I waited about a half hour before going outside with Kodi. I wanted to see if he immediately picked up on the fox scent. Sure enough, as soon as we reached the feeders he started sniffing, found the track, then darted in a big circle where the fox had wandered. Kodi was moving fast and I was worried that he might follow the fox track across a busy road so I leashed him up. I let Kodi follow the tracks which led down to one of the back fields. Then we crossed a much larger coyote track. Kodi immediately noticed without any prompting from me. He looked up, sniffed the air, and started back the way we came. Soon, we picked up the fox track and his mood changed again. The thrill of the pursuit was on again.

For the two years that we've had Kodi he has never seen a fox or a coyote up close. His first year of life was spent in a kennel and who knows where else in Indiana. So, his ability to separate coyote from fox seems completely innate and entirely by scent. We've never had a dog that behaved this way with wild canids. It is fascinating, although also frustrating when Kodi refuses to venture into coyote territory. Coyotes are common, so there are some wonderful places that Kodi will not go.

Back at the feeders, Kodi trotted over to several small shrubs and tree seedlings, raised his leg, and urinated. Kodi was alerting the fox that this was his territory. Canid researchers call this "raised leg urination," a key part of the canid scent-marking toolkit. Upon our return to New Hampshire, Kodi immediately insisted on a walk around the neighborhood so he could deploy his own raised leg urination to let friend and foe alike know that he was back.

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