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.

Red 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 races.

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 eat carrion.

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 or February.

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.


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