Updated: Feb 25
By Chris Henderson
You know, it’s pretty hard to complain much about the winter we’ve been having. I don’t know if it’s been the mildest on record, but it is one of the mildest in my memory. Of course, as this is being written, a possibly significant snowfall is in the forecast. I’m not all that worried, though, as we seem good at dodging winter’s bullets.
As sort of a follow up to last week’s column, let’s take a little look at foxes this time around. They are really interesting little critters.
Foxes, along with coyotes, make up Pennsylvania’s wild dogs. Perhaps a bit of clarification is in order here. The reference to wild dogs does not mean feral domesticated species which have become wild. Foxes are genuine wild dogs.
The red fox is one of our better known wild animals. It is easy to distinguish from the gray fox or the coyote by its white tail tip. Portrayed in cartoons, movies and stories as extremely clever and cunning, they have proven themselves to be among nature’s most cautious and adaptable creatures. They have learned to live quite well around humans, and to reap some of the fruits of our labor. They are not above a midnight raid on the henhouse. More often, however, these omnivores feed in the wild. They eat a wide variety of fruits, nuts, etc., and they prey on eggs, birds, small mammals and insects. Like other dogs, they sometimes bury some of their food for later use. In fact, there is little that they won’t eat. Much of their activity is nocturnal. Foxes have oval eye pupils like cats, and therefore they possess superior night vision.
Red foxes normally mate in February or early March. In early spring, a litter of six or seven young, known as kits, are born. They weigh between three and four ounces, and are blind and helpless at birth.
Except for a period after the young are born, red foxes have little use for a den. The female stays with the kits in the den while the male serves as the food provider. Except for this, no matter how brutal the weather may be, the foxes will curl up somewhere outside, using their tails as blankets. It is uncertain whether or not red foxes are native to North America, although they probably are. Large numbers of them were brought here from Europe during the 1700’s, as they were more sporting than gray foxes to hunt with hounds.
Aside from the difference in coloration and the dark tail tip, the gray fox is very similar in appearance to the red. Their litters are frequently a little smaller, but their early behavior around the den is a lot like that of their red cousins. In addition, they feed on basically the same things, and their habits are in large measure nocturnal.
In many ways, the habits and lifestyles of the two foxes differ drastically. The gray fox is much more den-oriented than the red, using a den all winter for shelter and protection. Perhaps the most amazing of the gray’s characteristics is its ability to climb trees. In fact, it is the only North American member of the dog family with true tree climbing ability. It makes “dog noises,” such as barks, yelps and growls, but not as often as the red fox. Its bark can sound like that of a much larger animal, and may be used at times for defensive purposes. In many areas, the gray fox is not as much at odds with farmers as his red kinsman.
Foxes are notorious carriers of rabies, and should never be petted or handled. Animals which seem friendly or unafraid of people are particularly suspect.