Why Are People Seeing So Many Foxes This Year?
There seem to be more red foxes than usual this year across northern Wisconsin. In this week’s Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist takes an in-depth look at these fascinating canines.
Recently a colleague and I were out in a boat doing a survey when we saw some activity on shore. We moved in for a closer look and were treated to a show. A red fox was raiding a snapping turtle nest, carrying off one egg at a time, caching them in different locations nearby. When finished, the fox used its nose to fill the turtle nest back in and trotted away seeming pretty satisfied with a job well done.
Foxes are the smallest canines in North America. Here in the Northwoods we have two kinds of foxes. The red fox is the more commonly observed of the two. It likes forest with lots of rabbits and rodents, and open areas such as meadows, hayfields, pastures and marshes. Most of us picture a bright, rusty red or almost burnt orange fox with a white throat, black legs and a white-tipped tail. In fact, foxes have several color phases including black, silver, and dark brown. The gray fox is another species of Wisconsin fox; it is less commonly seen than the red fox, but just as abundant. It prefers brushy younger forest habitat, much less likely than the red fox to use open grasslands. Gray foxes are able to climb trees to pursue squirrels and chipmunks for a meal, what we call arboreal in nature.
Foxes select a den under a woodpile, in tree roots, maybe under an abandoned building or in a dry culvert, and give birth to 5-10 kits in late winter/early spring. They nurse from their mother for about 3 months, after which time they eat food that both parents catch, eat, and regurgitate for them. This is the age where I get a number of calls, starting in late May through August. The kits are old enough to leave the den, but will not wander far. You will see them sitting next to the road, maybe by a culvert, bridge, or other structure. The adults usually like to hunt at dusk or dawn; however, eating enough rodents to feed the kits takes some effort, so during this time they need to hunt more, leaving the young unattended. This can result in cute little foxes that appear abandoned. Later on in this stage, the foxes are adolescents that want to push their boundaries and explore. They are independent by age 7 months, so they have to learn to hunt pretty fast. Their parents might bring them an injured mouse or rabbit to practice catching at first, and then they will take the young out to hunt.
Occasionally home and cabin owners get alarmed about friendly foxes, especially near homes with children and pets. This should not be a cause for concern; they do occasionally carry rabies, but they would be looking and acting sick. If they are hanging out near your home, it is likely because you have a desirable grocery store, with lots of deer mice, meadow voles, rabbits, or chipmunks. In fact, having the foxes around may help to suppress some rodent populations. These foxes should vacate the premises on their own in September or October. If they are causing a problem with mowing, or pets, or on the road where they are a hazard to people and themselves, you can give them a gentle hint to move on. Try soaking some rags with ammonia or vinegar and tying them on a nearby fencepost, or sprinkling some moth balls or chips nearby (unless you have curious children around). You can also try turning a radio to a rock station and playing it near the den during the day. Foxes will relocate themselves if they are made unwelcome. As a last resort, homeowners can dispatch problem foxes or pay local nuisance trappers to remove the animals, subject to state laws and local ordinances.
Why are people seeing so many foxes? Well, for one thing, we had a short mild winter. Foxes hunt mice through the snow, so thin light snow cover favors their survival. Also, fox numbers can be suppressed by coyotes, which will kill and eat them when they find them. However, wolves kill coyotes, and they leave fox alone. So, we could be seeing the balance shift as wolves reduce coyote populations in some areas.
Foxes are excellent athletes. In addition to occasionally climbing trees, they can leap fifteen feet in the air, a skill necessary to be able to capture small rodents hiding in the grass. They can run up to 30 miles per hour, and are excellent swimmers. If there was an Olympic competition for canines, the fox would bring home the gold.