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Speaking of Nature

Speaking of Nature: October's ghost's

Well, another Columbus Day has been entered into the record books. This one was as late into the month of October as a Columbus Day can be and it turned out to be another really nice one. The weather cooperated and everyone that spent the weekend at my house seemed to have a great time.

A review of my journals from past years shows some slight variability with regard to conditions. Because the observance of Columbus Day is not fixed on the calendar, I decided to look back at the conditions that occurred on Oct. 14 rather than just the holiday and this is what I found: 2012, 66 and rain; 2011, 58 and heavy rain; 2010, 68 and gorgeous; 2009, frost; 2008, beautiful; 2007, overcast; 2005, 56 and rain.

The journal entries exhibit the evolution in the details of my record keeping. I have journals for 2006, 2003 and 2001, but I didn’t make any observations on Oct. 14 for those years. My entries for 2005 were unfortunately sparse on details, but I did mark down the temperature on the 14th for some reason. Then, as we move forward in time, the details become more abundant. Fast forward to 2013 and I try to keep basic weather details for every day of the year, with abundant notes on anything interesting seen or heard.

These sorts of historical reviews usually serve no other purpose than to generate a bit of nostalgia, or encourage one to be more vigilant in the future. But, this year, I happened to catch sight of something that I hadn’t noticed before. I have seen deer in my yard during every month of the year, as well as abundant sightings of rabbits, raccoons and skunks, but I only rarely lay eyes on foxes or coyotes. Yet, for some reason, I have seen the later two exclusively in the month of October. It’s almost as if they know that Halloween is coming and they rise from the shadows like ghosts.

The first sighting was on Oct. 12, 2009. This happened to be Columbus Day and the notes in my journal tell me that I had spent the weekend in Amherst with my parents. We had arrived back home in the evening and Susan spotted a fox sitting out in our lawn and surveying the yard in the failing light.

I apparently had time to grab a camera, but did not have the time (or presence of mind) to get the camera set properly. The resulting photo, which I have shared with you, is completely blurry, but in a beautiful way. This is actually the photo that got me thinking of the wild canids in my neighborhood as ghosts appearing in the days leading up to Halloween.

The second photo was taken on Oct. 7, 2012. Because this journal entry was taken so recently, there are more details to the quality and character of the day. It was just after 7 a.m. and the temperature was recorded as a crisp 43 degrees. Once again I was dealing with very low light, but by this point I was able to react to the conditions with more experience under my belt and the camera was set more skillfully.

This time it was a coyote and it was much closer to the house. I remember how it gave me a casual glance over its shoulder as it sauntered across the lawn and into the pines to the west of my house. I even remember thinking how the same appearance just a few minutes later would have produced a well-lit photo because the sun would have had time to break over the horizon.

In our area there are three wild canids that are commonly seen. The red fox, the gray fox and the coyote. I have personally laid eyes on all three, but the gray fox is the one I have seen the least. Red foxes and coyotes are animals that I see every year, but there may be a good reason that October is a month that I see them often.

Both coyotes and red foxes are mammals that thrive in the presence of humans. We generate landscapes that are favorable to them both and they have taken full advantage of this. In the case of the red fox, we humans have even gone so far as to actively encourage their spread across the globe.

What’s odd about that is the fact that foxes and coyotes have such poor reputations as “vermin.” Coyotes are often thought of as nothing more than livestock predators while red foxes are often seen as hen-house raiders that will steal eggs as easily as they will steal the chickens that lay them. The success of these two species is a testament to their pliable, adaptable natures and their general tolerance of us.

I was actually fascinated to learn that in areas where both red and gray foxes occur, it is the gray fox that is dominant. Gray foxes have the unusual ability to climb trees and thus escape some of the predatory pressures inflicted upon them by the larger coyote. However, gray foxes don’t deal with humans nearly as well as red foxes do. As a result, the gray fox is less common than the red in areas where humans are abundant.

It turns out that both species have been able to thrive in our presence in spite of our presence. Humans are dangerous creatures and particularly so if we take a dislike to one species or another. The more tolerant, enlightened and accepting attitudes that exist today are relatively new in human history. Back in the “good old days,” when more people were responsible for producing more of their own food, we had a very different view of these animals.

As a result of competition for food, humans have dealt rather harshly with both foxes and coyotes. Guns, traps and poisons have been employed to eliminate the competition, but of those three, the most impressive would have to be the guns. However, the guns can only be used when it’s light enough to see, so both foxes and coyotes have learned to stay out of sight during the day. Any individual careless enough to be seen was likely to get shot at.

Both coyotes and red foxes are animals that thrive in areas with a patchwork of habitats. The edges of fields and forests may provide them with great opportunities to hunt for small mammals, including rabbits. Well, it turns out that rabbits are crepuscular creatures, which means that they are most active in the twilight hours of dawn and dusk.

When you combine the presence of a valuable food source such as rabbits with the wisdom of staying out of sight during the daylight hours, you can see that the times around sunrise and sunset are probably particularly attractive times to be active. And, as luck would have it, this is the time of day that coincides with peaks of human activity (driving to and from work) in the fall and spring.

But perhaps this is all too scientific. Perhaps the daydreamer in me had it right when he thought of the idea that these animals were appearing like ghosts just before Halloween. Whatever the reason for their appearance, I hope that you are able to see one of these beautiful animals this year. Keep your eyes open in the car on the way to work and give your backyard a casual glance while preparing dinner. They’re out there, but you have to look for them to see them.

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com

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