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March 31, 2009

Suburbitat, A Suburban Naturalist’s Journal: Crazy Like a Fox.

Illustration by Sue Sell, Periwinkle Design.

Suburbitat, A Suburban Naturalist’s Journal: Crazy Like a Fox.

On New Year’s Day my wife and I saw two young foxes running down the street, frolicking like kittens in broad daylight. The red fox (Vulpes fulva) tends to be shy, and is most commonly seen at dawn or dusk. However, occasionally they can be seen in broad daylight, when they feel that a safe retreat is close by or when they have the need to hunt for prey that is active in the daytime (diurnal).

A friend told me recently that the expression “crazy like a fox,” acting in inexplicable ways that turn out to be extremely shrewd, comes from people observing foxes prancing and chasing their tails in a seemingly distracted way, then suddenly snatching their bewildered and unsuspecting prey.

A number of people at High Plains Environmental Center have seen foxes exhibiting this kind of brash behavior and have been anxious about it. Although it is possible for foxes to have rabies, unless the animal is actually behaving aggressively there is no cause for concern. Typically a fox will avoid interaction with humans and most people would be surprised to know that foxes live close by.

The red fox is related to other canine species like coyotes and dogs but avoids interaction with them because they pose a threat due to the fox’s smaller size. The fox’s habitat tends to be in woodlands, along streams and rivers and where their territory over laps with that of the coyote, the fox keeps its distance. The red fox can run at speeds up to 26 mph and tends to elude danger by circling and backtracking rather than fighting.

Foxes appeared to be larger than they are because of their relatively long black legs and elongated, bushy, white tipped tails. A red fox weighs 7 to 15 pounds and reaches about 3 feet in length, with an extra 12 to 18 inches for the tail. Last fall, for about a week or so, I saw a jet black fox in the same area each day. Although it had an unusual color variation, the fox still had the white tip on its tail, a distinguishing feature of the red fox.

The gray fox, (Urocyon cinereoargenteus,) is closely related to the red fox. The two species can not be distinguished by color alone but the gray fox is smaller and has a black-tipped tail. The gray fox is more reticent when it comes to people but it will share the coyote’s territory because the gray fox has the very catlike ability of climbing trees to find safety.

In underground burrows, during March or April, a female fox gives birth to her litter of 4-9 “kits” which are born blind and have sooty, brown, close cropped fur. The male fox helps to raise the young and the family stays together until fall.

A fox will live within a small local territory of approximately 5 square miles for all of its life, unless its habitat is destroyed or disturbed. The foxes diet varies widely based on availability; they will eat rodents, reptiles, amphibians, birds and fruit.

Foxes do not hibernate but they may retreat to their dens in bitterly cold weather, using their bushy tails as a muff to protect their sensitive noses and feet. Most often the fox is content to find shelter in thickets or under logs and brush piles.

Although foxes and human beings live in close proximity to one another they have not always been good neighbors. Humans have long hunted the foxes for sport, while the opportunistic fox is not averse to raiding a chicken house or rabbit cage when the chance arises. People who keep pets outdoors should be aware of this potential threat.

Foxes will not normally bother cats but young or small cats can be vulnerable. In our city cats are not allowed to wander freely. Cats can do tremendous damage to wild bird populations and compete unfairly for small animals which are the unsubsidized fox’s meager and hard-won meal. Left undisturbed in suburbitat, foxes can provide significant benefit to their human neighbors by reducing rodent populations.

Leaving dog food, cat food, or garbage out overnight can attract foxes into your backyard. Remember, never intentionally feed wild animals. Feeding wildlife often ends with the animals becoming a nuisance and being destroyed.

Throughout the world a considerable amount of folklore surrounds the fox, such as the Kitsune of Japan. Kitsune are foxes that appear in various forms, particularly those of beautiful women. One story tells of an aristocratic young gentleman who was enthralled by a beautiful young lady that he met on a quiet country lane. The man was so thoroughly smitten by this enchanting lady that he followed her home and swore his undying love for her. The girl’s father welcomed the young man into his large family and called him “son-in-law”.

Thinking he was living in a large beautiful palace the man was actually living with the foxes under his own garden shed, from which he emerged several days later with his fine kimono dirty and tattered, to the utter amazement of his family.

Personally, I don’t know if the fox is magical or not, but I am always pleased when I see one. They remind me that the world is much larger than the schemes of human beings. Nature and the fox, whether clever or crazy, seem to have plenty of schemes of their own.

Postscript: Two days after writing this, I came around a corner and found myself gazing into the golden eyes of a fox, who then trotted off nonchalantly down a busy street at mid-day. Perhaps the foxes have been unable to hunt on these bitterly cold nights and are forced to go out in day.

Jim Tolstrup is the Executive Director of the High Plains Environmental Center in Loveland, Colorado. HPEC works with developers, businesses and homeowners, to promote the restoration and conservation of Colorado’s unique native biodiversity in the suburban environments where we live, work and play. www.suburbitat.org

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