By Christine McConville
MEDFORD, MA–So it’s officially winter: the ground is frozen solid, there’s ice in the streams and ponds, and animal control officers are getting lots of calls.
“They’ll usually say, ‘There’s a fox or a coyote in my backyard. What should I do?’ ” said Jerry Smith, Winchester’s longtime animal control officer. He tells them it’s just that time of year.
“It’s mating season, and they are all out there looking,” Smith said. “And if they’ve already got a mate, chances are they are looking for food.” Mating habits aside, wildlife specialists say that throughout the Boston suburbs, there are more frequent, and more varied, sightings than ever before.
“There are some wildlife sightings that people would have been surprised about 20 years ago,” said Marion Larson, information and education biologist at the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. Moose sightings in Lowell and Westford, for example– “that’s something you wouldn’t have seen 20 years ago,” she said.
Some of that has been part of an effort by wildlife specialists to restore certain indigenous species, such as the Wild Turkey, which was virtually extinct in Massachusetts 20 years ago. In other cases, such as Moose, animals are going to greater lengths to keep their bellies full.
“We’ve got Phil the Turkey,” said Medford Mayor Michael McGlynn about the wild bird who frequently jams up morning commuters. McGlynn said he often hears from neighbors who see herds of deer nibbling on bushes, reports he never heard 20 or 30 years ago.
Red and Gray Foxes, Wild Turkeys, and Whitetail Deer have been in Massachusetts for centuries, while coyotes are relative newcomers. But it is only recently that humans and animals are brushing up against each other with any frequency.
Many say the change can be linked to decades of suburban sprawl.
“Every time a house goes up,” Smith said, “the animals that lived in that spot have to go someplace else to find their food,” he said. “Now, you take a five-, six-, seven-acre lot–that’s a lot of animals that have been displaced.”
Medford animal control officer Patrick Hogan said many wildlife observers believe that foxes and coyotes simply prefer the suburbs, because food is more easily available there than in the woods.
“There’s more trash, and bird seed,” he said, “and a lot of people feed their dogs and cats outside, and that’s a really good food source, too.” Animal control officers also say callers’ concerns vary from season to season.
From December to March, coyotes and foxes are out looking for mates, and they’ll cover a good distance, and show up in some unusual places, in their quest. They’ll also create a ruckus. When coyotes howl in the winter, it’s generally part of their mating ritual. Sometimes, they howl to let other coyotes know of their presence. Other times, they’ll howl to keep the competition away.
Eventually the females will get pregnant, and the animals will cover greater distances in their quest for food.
“It can get tough,” Smith said. “The mice and the moles and snakes aren’t around. The only thing they have to eat are the squirrels.”
And it is times like these when a well-fed cat can look pretty tempting to foxes and coyotes. Smith said foxes and coyotes tend to steer clear of dogs, but will wait in a yard where a cat lives, and when the cat takes a nap, the predator might pounce.
Coyote pups and fox kits arrive in April, and soon after that, animal control officers receive a different kind of call.
“Some people get alarmed when they see these animals out in the middle of the day,” Smith said. “One lady called to say there’s a fox in her yard, with three little ones. She wanted to know what to do, so I told her, ‘Get a camera.’ “
Some springtime callers will report a “sick looking” coyote or fox; Smith said it’s usually because the animal is shedding its winter coat, so its fur looks dull and mangy.
By summer, the entire coyote family will go out looking for food, and people frequently mention nighttime howling.
“A lot of times that howling happens when the mother gets a Raccoon,” Smith said. “She’ll start howling, to let her pups know, ‘I’ve got something.’ “
No matter what time of year a sighting occurs, Smith, Hogan, and others frequently remind people that coyotes and foxes are afraid of humans, and encourage people to keep it that way. To make your property less attractive to coyotes and foxes, wildlife specialists suggest securing your garbage and feeding your pets indoors. They also suggest closing off crawl spaces and trimming overgrown brush. –Boston Globe