“Smart as a Fox”

CS_FoxLT_Kit.We once received an evening call about a bunny burrow being unearthed by a snoopy Jack Russell Terrier. Although the cottontails were unharmed, separation of dog and bunny had to happen, as well as repairing the bunnies’ home. While replacing the nesting material and putting the infants back to ensure their Mom would continue feeding them, the wildlife rehabilitator noticed a shadowy figure across the road sitting very still and watching her every move. After closer examination, the patient observer turned out to be a very interested Red Fox. I probably don’t have to tell you that plans changed immediately, and the bunnies headed to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport to be raised and eventually released. It’s exciting when you catch a not so common glimpse of wildlife, especially an elusive species known to avoid people as they live their wild lives, but its unfortunate such a gorgeous creature as a Red Fox has so many unappreciative things said about it even though it’s part of the dog family, which is man’s best friend. Although they don’t readily sport any nicknames, people describe them as smart, clever and sly! They have taken on these descriptive terms because the problem solving fox is known for its many sophisticated tricks for losing predators like backtracking and running on fence poles to confuse or eliminate tracks. Although due to North Carolina law we cannot rehabilitate a Red Fox at our shelter, we have seen our share of beautiful foxes passing through the grounds at the facility and feel blessed that the bordering states’ wildlife rehabilitators can and do take on the task of fox rehabilitation. Because they are here, in Eastern North Carolina, we should know more about these stunning wild dogs and how to co-exist with them peacefully, especially since they eat lots of insects, mice and rats that would multiply much faster than we could manage if they weren’t on duty. The Red Fox is distinguished from other fox species by its ability to adapt quickly to new environments, however, foxes are shy, non-aggressive and primarily nocturnal animals, so it’s not likely most people will encounter a Red Fox in the wild. However, the Red Fox is the most widely distributed canid or wild dog in the world. CS_FoxLT_0089X (1)EIt is named for its red-orange coloration. The tail, body and top of the head are all some shade of yellow-orange to reddish-orange. The undersides are light, and the tips of the ears and lower legs are black. Red Foxes can occur in other color variations, such as black, silver, or a cross between red and silver, commonly known as a “cross fox.” A rare genetic condition, can also cause a Red Fox to appear brown or gray in color. The Red Fox may be active during warmer hours of the day since their thin coat lacks insulation. The tail, used for balance, signaling and thermal regulation, is long (about 70 percent as long as the head and body length), bushy and has a white tip. Adults are the size of a small dog and weigh from 7.7 to 15.4 pounds, but their skulls and muzzles are narrower than most domestic dogs. Their canine teeth are relatively long. Their eyes are specially adapted to night vision with a unique layer of cells that reflect light back through the eye, which is very cat like. North American Red Foxes are generally lightly built, with comparatively long bodies rather than the stout and heavy build of the European Red Fox. Preferred habitats include farm land, pastures, brushy fields and open forest stands. They frequently hunt the edges of these open habitats. The Red Fox, unlike other mammals, hears low-frequency sounds very well and can hear small animals digging underground. They frequently dig in the dirt to catch prey. Mice, meadow voles, squirrels and rabbits form the bulk of its diet, but it will also eat insects, reptiles, invertebrates, birds (including game birds, so keep your chickens close, very close), eggs, fruits and berries in spring, summer and fall. Since the Red Fox is also a scavenger, it may also eat carrion and garbage. They continue to hunt even when full and store the extra food under leaves and dirt. They are agile and capable of jumping over 6 to 7 foot fences and can swim well. Foxes are so athletic they have been known to climb trees and settle on low branches. The Red Fox mates from January through March. The female will make one or more dens or burrows, also called earths, right after mating. The extra den locations are used if the original den is disturbed. The same dens may be utilized year after year. A little less than two months after mating, the female gives birth to a litter of between one and seven kits. The male brings the female food while she is caring for the kits. The kits have short noses and resemble puppies when born. The parents create a patted down dirt area just outside the den, and the kits are allowed to play there when they are about a month old.CS_FoxLT_0019XE Mom discourages the youngsters from leaving that mound of dirt, especially when she is away hunting. CS_FoxLT_0047XEThe mother begins feeding her kits regurgitated food to wean them, and eventually she brings them live prey to “play” with and eat. Playing with live prey helps the young kits develop the skills they will need for hunting. They catch small rodents with a characteristic high pounce. This technique is one of the first things cubs learn as they begin to hunt. Red Foxes are usually together in pairs or small groups consisting of families, such as a mated pair and their young, or a male with several females with kinship ties. The young of the mated pair remains with their parents until at least the fall of the year they were born and will sometimes remain longer, especially females, to assist in caring for new kits. Although the Red Fox tends to prey on small mammals and smaller predators, it is vulnerable to attack from larger predators, such as wolves or coyotes, but in our coastal area, the human and their motor vehicles are the Red Fox’s most dangerous predators. Red Foxes have been known to live 10 – 14 years in captivity but live on average 5 years in the wild. Unfortunately, the Red Fox can become habituated to humans if easy access to unnatural foods exists. To avoid conflicts, people should keep their yards and neighborhoods free of feeding sources such as pet food. Sometimes well-intentioned people who feed feral cats attract red foxes, as well as coyotes, raccoons and opossums. A concentration of many species of wild animals sharing food sources could result in outbreaks of certain diseases, such as rabies or canine distemper. Sharing the planet with the Red Fox, as with any wild animals, demands that safety precautions be taken. Makes sense!

Happy Spring Everyone!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of  “Same Them All”