Red Fox: More Common
Than You Think
If you're like most Americans,
you probably think that in order to see wildlife you must travel
a substantial distance from your home. It's true that as we develop
more land, converting farmland into suburbs and forests into shopping
malls, many of the birds, mammals and other wildlife are pushed
farther away. But some wildlife species are able to adjust and
adapt to man-made surroundings. One such case is the red fox.
foxes are fairly common, found in most of North America, except
in parts of Canada and the Southwestern United States. However,
they are not native to some of the Eastern states. In the mid-18th
century, red foxes were imported from England and released in
New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware and Virginia by landowners
who enjoyed hunting them with hounds. Our red fox populations
are hybrids from the interbreeding of imported foxes with native
Red foxes inhabit a variety of habitats, including woodlands,
farmland, pastures and brush. Because they adapt to so many different
environments, red foxes survive quite well in urban and suburban
areas. Essentially, they have become urbanized. They are, however,
still wary of people. Although active during both day and night,
you're most likely to see them at dusk or dawn.
Red foxes are small, dog-like animals with a sharp, pointed nose,
erect ears and a bushy tail. The body of an average red fox will
be about 25 inches with the tail adding another 12 to 18 inches.
Noted by their red color above, a red fox is white underneath.
The backs of the ears, lower legs and feet are black, and the
long, bushy tail always sports a white tip. The name red fox is
kind of a misnomer as there are several color phases besides red,
including silver and cross. The silver phase is almost completely
black with silver tipped hairs. The cross phase is reddish- brown
with a dark cross on its shoulders. All color phases of the red
fox have a white-tipped tail. The gray fox is the only other fox
in the Chesapeake area. Gray foxes are smaller (8-12 pounds),
gray in color with a black-tipped tail.
Red foxes are omnivorous, meaning they eat both plants and animals.
Their varied diet includes insects, birds, mice, snakes, rabbits,
nuts, berries and fruits. Like several other small predators,
the red fox's diet changes with the seasons and locality. One
study found that animals made up the bulk of their winter diet
while insects and fruits were the summer preference. They also
Noted as sly and cunning, the red fox is really just extremely
cautious. Their hearing differs from many other mammals in that
it is most sensitive to low-frequency sounds. The fox listens,
for example, for the underground digging, gnawing and rustling
of small mammals. When it hears such sounds, it frantically digs
into the soil or snow to capture the animal.
The red fox is cat-like in stalking its prey. It hunts larger
quarry, such as rabbits, by moving in as close as possible, then
attempting to run the prey down when it bolts. The red fox can
run up to 30 miles per hour and is able to jump over barriers
that are six feet high. They continue to hunt even when full,
stashing excess food under snow, leaves or soft dirt.
An adult fox rarely retires to a den in winter. Instead it curls
into a ball, wrapping its bushy tail about its nose and foot pads
and, at times, may be completely blanketed with snow. Adults are
solitary until the mating season, which begins in late January
Foxes often smell like they have been in a fight with a skunk,
but the smell emanates from a scent gland located beneath their
tail. This skunk-like smell is associated with the courtship when
males and females establish territories by "scent marking."
Mating usually occurs from January through early March. One litter
of one to10 kits is born between March and May in a maternity
den. The maternity den is commonly an enlarged ground hog den,
usually in sparse ground cover on a slight rise, with a view of
the surrounding area. It may also be in a stream bank, slope,
rock pile or in a hollow tree or log. The den will be well-marked
with excavated earth, cache mounds where food is buried, holes
where food has been dug up and scraps of bones and feathers.
Upon birth, most kits already show the white tail tip. Food is
given to the first kit that begs. Some young may die in years
when food is scarce. At first, the mother predigests and regurgitates
meat, but soon she brings live prey, enabling the kits to practice
killing. At about one month, the young play above ground. Later
the young begin to hunt with the parents.
The kits disperse at about seven months, with males traveling
up 150 miles away and females remaining closer. Adults also disperse,
remaining solitary until the next breeding season.
The adult red fox has few enemies other than people and automobiles,
but rabies, mange and distemper are also problems. For years,
unregulated trapping and bounty payments took a heavy toll on
red foxes but they rebounded after the collapse of the fur industry
and the abolishment of most bounty payments.
Because they are generalists, able to survive on many different
foods and live in different habitats, don't be surprised to find
a fox in your neighborhood. They have been seen within Annapolis
city limits. Foxes are not dangerous unless they are being handled
or rabid (which is very rare). A fox in a backyard is often just
cutting through. Of course, like other urban wildlife, foxes will
be attracted to food. To reduce the likelihood of foxes frequenting
your yard, ensure that all trash cans have tight fitting lids,
never put meat scraps into a compost pile and never leave pet
food outside. When people and wildlife share space, problems can
sometimes occur. Usually there are simple solutions to deterring
"nuisance" animals. County animal control officers or extension
agents can suggest deterrents or humanely remove problem wildlife.
In this increasingly developed environment, urban wildlife like
foxes, raccoons, squirrels, bats and birds enrich our lives. Seeing
wildlife in the backyard is often a child's first experience with
the outdoor world, providing a connection to nature. With patience
and common sense, people and wildlife can coexist. So stay alert
and keep your eyes peeled. You never know what fascinating animal
may be living next door.
Kathryn Reshetiloff is employed by the Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. Illustration by Laurie Hewitt, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.