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Thanks to superb adaptability, red foxes thrive among humans

One warm evening not long ago, two anglers were leaving the Connetquot River State Park Preserve on New York's Long Island, after an almost trout-less day of fishing in the secluded nature reserve, when they spotted unusual movement in high grass at the edge of the woods.

Just off a park road, perhaps 15 feet away, the pointy-eared, sharp-faced, white-muzzled faces of three young red foxes popped up. They flinched not at all and regarded their human visitors intently with bright-eyed curiosity. Cute - very cute. The fishermen agreed that the foxes had saved the outing.Foxes? On Long Island? Yes, says Gil Bergen, the park manager. Not only that, he said, their numbers seem to have increased of late, and the young ones have grown bold - "they're quite cheeky." Both the growing numbers of the foxes and their assurance in the presence of humans are signs of a remarkable ecological success story of global dimensions.

In an age when so many wild species are under threat, their populations dwindling and their futures insecure, the red fox is thriving like few other wild predators. In fact, biologists say, it has become the most widely distributed wild meat-eating mammal on Earth, thanks to an evolutionary heritage that has enabled it to adapt superbly to the presence and activities of people.

Along with similarly adaptable creatures like raccoons, white-tailed deer, blue jays, mallards, Canada geese and many others, the red fox is a creature of the future, a likely survivor in a natural world increasingly chopped up, manipulated and dominated by people. Many scientists fear that as these super-adapters proliferate and spread, a larger number of more sensitive and less adaptable species will be driven off the landscape, leading to a net loss of species and a relatively simplified, impoverished natural world.

To scientists who study the red fox, however, its success is good news indeed, not only because they consider it one of the most beautiful animals alive, but also because they have found it to be one of the most interesting and unusual. The behavior of the young foxes on Long Island suggested why: They focused their inquisitive attention on the human visitors through cats' eyes, with catlike intensity.

Field biologists have discovered that in many ways red foxes, unlike other members of the dog family, are as much cat as dog. They have the grace of cats, stalk prey like cats, slink like cats, hunt alone like cats, pounce like cats, have long whiskers like cats and are as agile as cats. (Unlike cats, however, they mate for life.)

On top of that, red foxes are literally as swift as the wind, having been clocked at 45 miles an hour over short stretches. They also run in a straight line, which is probably why they are the favorite prey of hunters on horseback.

Their signature move, called the lunge-and-pounce, is a marvel of athleticism. They have been observed to leap as far as 17 feet over level ground in a single bound, from a crouch, to nab a mouse or rabbit unerringly. All in all, the fox's lithe build, russet coat, bushy white-tipped tail, black-tipped ears and legs and snowy white chest stir admiration among those who know it best.

"After all these years of studying the foxes, I am still really struck by their grace and their beauty," said J. David Henry, a Canadian government ecologist, based in the Yukon, who has been closely observing foxes in the wild since the early 1980s.

"It's something I never habituate to," Henry said. "They are a constant source of inspiration to me, and it never wears thin."

Henry is the author of two books on foxes: "Red Fox: The Catlike Canine," published in a revised edition by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1996, and "How to Spot a Fox," published by Chapters Publishing Ltd., of Shelburne, Vt., in 1993.

Not everyone sees the fox in positive terms, of course. It has long been associated in legend with sly deceit, and it is no favorite of farmers and homeowners whose chickens or pet cats have been preyed on by them, or owners of houses where a pair of foxes builds a den under a deck.

"Every night we have to lock in the chickens and pheasants," said Sophie Lowe, who with her husband, Tom, raises both kinds of birds not far from the Connetquot park. They rarely see the foxes except in the park after their young are born in the spring, she said. (Foxes breed once a year, carry their young for about 52 days and produce an average litter of five, whose members reach maturity in six months.)

Most people probably never know foxes are around, since they tend to be shy and secretive during the day and forage mostly from dusk to dawn. But they happen to love fragmented landscapes like farms and suburbs, which present lots of edge-of-the-woods habitat for the mice, voles, rabbits and other small mammals that are the foxes' preferred prey. Experts educated in fox lore might detect them by listening for a high-pitched bark that sounds like a wail, or sometimes almost like a crow's caw, or a characteristic shriek, or any one of some 40 sounds foxes make. But they do not howl like wolves or coyotes.

"Although it's unsettling to many people to have foxes living near them, it might not be as unnatural as many people think," said Paul Rego, a Connecticut State wildlife biologist.

If the preferred prey is not available, foxes will eat almost anything they can subdue and swallow, and so can survive almost anywhere. The fox in the henhouse is an accurate image. So is that of the fox and the grapes; they have been known to subsist for long periods of time on a diet of 95 percent fruit. In suburbs, they forage in the garbage.

Some, abandoning their normal secretiveness, have become uncharacteristically bold, even in the daytime. In New Jersey's Island Beach State Park, they have "become habituated to behaving like panhandlers," said Robert Lund, a wildlife research scientist with the State Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife. In Connecticut, said Rego, there are frequent complaints about bold foxes loitering near homes. "They just lie out in a yard, chase the cats, and don't run off when people are near," he said. "It's not uncommon at all."