Volume 14, Issue 23 ~ June 8 - June 14, 2006

Burton on the Bay

By Bill Burton

Our Growing Family on Stoney Creek

May the grass grow at your door and the fox build his nest on your hearthstone.

—Traditional Wexford Curse

Me, I guess I’m the lucky one. Of the eight curses of Wexford, to my knowledge only the above two have afflicted me — and both of them I welcome as I would a friend at my hearth.

The remaining six thorns in the brow I want no part of for me, nor for my readers. If you’re unfamiliar with them, and curious, they are:

May the light fade from your eyes, so you can never see what you love. May your own blood rise against you, and the sweetest drink you take be the bitterest cup of sorrow. May you die without benefit of clergy; may there be none to shed a tear at your grave, and may the hearthstone of hell be your best bed forever.

Get my drift?

The grass does grow at my door, though it’s mowed sufficiently, and in it there is much clover, which attracts the cottontail rabbits I love to watch filling their bellies in early morning and — by my Saturn’s headlights — when I return home during the night.

These same bunnies probably attract the foxes, of which we now have at least two at the Burton homestead up here on the shores of Stoney Creek in North County.

In recent years, Riviera Beach — once a hamlet of summer cottages primarily occupied by Baltimoreans to escape the heat of summer — is now a bustling community, somewhat crowded and getting more so. Our property covers three lots, so we and our birds, rabbits, squirrels and other wildlife don’t feel the squeeze.

There’s sufficient room for all of us. Including the two newcomers.

Our Peaceable Kingdom

Last summer a red fox moved into the wooded slope that falls from my chain link fence to the creek. Now while my hip is mending following a fall, I spend much time looking out a bow window watching my songbirds and other wildlife on the east lawn.

On the first day the hot weather moved in, there along with granddaughter Grumpy and wife Lois I saw an adult gray fox, supposedly a nocturnal creature, sunning itself. Four days later it was back at the same spot, toying playfully with a butterfly winging over it. It paid no attention to the songbirds on the grass where sunflower seeds and cracked corn had been scattered from feeders by squirrels and other birds at feeders above.

I wondered whether the appearance of both a red and a gray fox (and surely they must have mates and probably kits) in our now heavily populated neighborhood could be associated with the expansion of the coyote population throughout the state.

Perhaps something else has attracted the foxes; the other day Grumpy and her mother, my daughter Heather, witnessed the other first in the 35 years I’ve lived here — and a first in the nearly 80 years I’ve been observing wildlife anywhere. Not only was there a fat woodchuck visiting, but he had climbed the fence to feed on leaves of a briar vine that hadn’t been cut due to my incapacitation this spring.

I had always figured woodchucks abhorred heights and wouldn’t go any higher than a stone wall. This one was near the top of the chain link fence, hanging on precariously while enjoying a mid-day meal not a dozen feet from where the gray fox sunned itself the next day.

Department of Natural Resources’ Bob Colona tells me it’s not unusual for woodchucks to climb trees; once he was momentarily frightened by one in Garrett County. Passing under an old apple tree, he heard a commotion and thought a bear was above him — but it was only a woodchuck dining on apples. Whistlepigs can climb up, but it’s not easy for them to come down.

Perhaps, I shouldn’t be too appreciative of hosting our resident woodchuck. Bob, who works wildlife nuisance complaints as well as heading furbearing programs for the department, says there have been times when the undersides of decks have been chewed out by them. That’s how much wood a woodchuck can chuck.

Knocking at Plenty’s Door

Incidentally, that other new inhabitant hereabouts, the gray fox, is also a tree climber, which will come as a surprise to many. Moreover it can descend more gracefully that a ’chuck. That ability to climb a tree could prove handy if it comes across a couple of hungry and aggressive coyotes, which like the red fox are down-to-earth creatures. Literally.

When I asked Colona whether the recent fox sightings along the shoreline of Stoney Creek could be associated with mushrooming coyote population, he answered in one word: “Probably.” Coyotes are now in every county of Maryland, and in western parts of the state where they first moved in there has been a decided decline in red fox populations.

On occasion, when opportunity arises and a coyote is hungry enough to challenge a critter larger than its normal fare, the “prairie fox” will take a red or gray fox. But that’s not why the reds become endangered when coyotes move in.

Being more aggressive, larger and in growing numbers, coyotes simply out-compete the red fox for food. A coyote’s food needs are three times that of a fox.

It’s not as bad with the gray fox, more a nocturnal creature whose range is also a bit different from that of coyotes and reds. Gray foxes seem more tolerant of humans, move into more crowded areas. Colona tells me his preliminary feeling is that gray foxes could be increasing in numbers based on data received from bowhunters the past two or three years. More grays have been sighted, fewer reds — but needed is much more data to verify this.

Are red foxes doomed by the coyote takeover? Colona says past studies in areas subject to the mass coyote invasions into new territory indicate once the population of the latter gets high, which usually takes eight to 10 years, red fox numbers become dramatically depressed. Then, gradually they bounce back a bit, but not close to their previous level.

So, now that I’ve got the two most common foxes in my east lawn’s menagerie, I confess concerns for my woodchuck. A fox might have to be quite hungry and/or aggressive to take on an adult ’chuck, but not a coyote. If the appearance of foxes is indicative of pressure from coyotes, then the latter can’t be far behind.

So what could be next? The only North American cat or dog species I know of big enough to challenge a coyote is a catamount, also known as cougar and panther, or a wolf.

See what one can get into when embarking on an innocent mission to feed birds, rabbits and squirrels? One thing can lead to another. Enough said.

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