by Janice Welsh
They roam the north woods, howling in the cold night air. They hunt rabbits and mice in Twin Cities suburbs. They sneak around golf courses and back yards right in town.
What are these mysterious creatures? They are Minnesota's wild dogs: foxes, coyotes, and gray wolves.
With their big teeth, long snouts, deep chests, and long bushy tails, wild dogs look like many of the dogs people have as pets. Wild dogs act a lot like pet dogs. They bark and howl. They eat meat, but they will eat other things they find. They send signals by making faces and wagging their tails. And they guard their territory just like your own dog would guard your house.
Foxes are the smallest of Minnesota's wild dogs, weighing about 12 pounds when full grown. Two kinds live in Minnesota: red and gray. The red fox lives in fields and open places. The gray fox spends most of its time in the woods.
Foxes, like all dogs, have excellent senses of smell, sight, and hearing. They eat small mammals, birds, insects, and fruits.
The female fox, or vixen, gives birth to four or five babies in spring. Baby foxes are called kits. Like all newborn dogs, kits are blind and helpless at birth.
Young foxes leave their home territory in early fall. They stay alone until midwinter, when they look for a mate.
Foxes often appear in fables. The stories say the fox is sly and cunning. In real life, foxes are secretive and shy. Because they stay away from people, they can survive even in big cities.
In American Indian legend, Old Man Coyote was a trickster and wanderer. He fixed the world up for humans, but he also caused all kinds of trouble. Like the real-like coyote, he was crafty and could survive even when people were after him.
Coyotes live in forests, farmlands, and even suburbs. In northern Minnesota, coyotes are sometimes called brush wolves.
Coyotes weigh 25 to 35 pounds. They are strong swimmers, and will not hesitate to enter the water to chase their prey. Coyotes eat mice, gophers, rabbits, lizards, small birds, and sometimes deer. When live prey is hard to find, they feed on fruit, berries, or dead animals.
Coyotes are born in spring. They grow quickly and go outside the den at 3 weeks of age. The mother begins teaching the pups to hunt when they are about 2 months old.
In the fall, the pups will leave to find their own territory, where they will live and hunt. The size of their territory depends on how much food a coyote can find there. The more the food, the smaller the territory the coyote needs.
The gray wolf is also called the timber wolf because it often lives in the forest. It is the largest of wild dogs. Adult males usually weigh 70 to 90 pounds. Females weigh 55 to 75 pounds.
Like people, wolves are social. Two to eight family members live in a pack. One male and one female wolf lead each pack. They are the father and mother. Wildlife biologists call them the alpha male and alpha female.
Wolves are carnivores (meat eaters). They are predators at the top of the food chain. This means they hunt and eat other animals, but no animals kill and eat adult wolves. They may live 10 years or more in the wild. Wolves usually hunt in packs for deer, moose, and beaver. Wolves often go after sick, young, or old animals. Why do they look for weak animals? Because they are easier to capture than healthy adults.
Wolves sometimes go several days without eating. Then they catch a large animal and stuff themselves. An adult wolf can eat 20 pounds of meat at once. That's like eating 80 Quarter Pounders at one time!
Pet dogs had wild ancestors. Researchers believe people tamed dogs from small wolves that lived in Asia more than 10,000 years ago. Now the world has 800 breeds of domestic dogs.
Watch a house dog wag its tail and bark. Wild dogs behave the same way. If more than one dog lives in a house, one will boss the others, just like an alpha male or female in a wolf pack.
Sometimes, stray dogs hunt in a pack. Dogs may chase and kill deer. Sometimes people blame wolves for killing done by dogs.
Janice Welsh, who wrote this story, runs the DNR's Project WILD, a program for schools.
A complete copy of the article can be found in the March-April 1995 issue of Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, available at Minnesota public libraries.