Coles County Wild Things

Coles County Wild Things

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Red Fox In Illinois

There is an intriguing little family living in my rural neighborhood. My own family has caught fleeting glimpses of its members in the evening hours over the last few weeks. If not for the headlights of our vehicles, we might have passed right by them in the darkness, never knowing they were there.

The red fox ( Vulpes vulpes ) is found throughout Illinois (more common in the northern two-thirds of the state), and generally occupies regions where there is a mix of farmlands, open country and wooded or brushy areas. Some may take up residence in cities on occasion when finding food in the wild becomes difficult, but this is not common. Because it is such an adaptable hunter, it preys upon a wide variety of smaller species that includes mainly rabbits, mice and other rodents. Being opportunistic feeders, they often add insects, reptiles and amphibians, a few wild birds, and carrion (dead animals) to the menu. In summer and autumn, they will even consume berries, wild fruits, nuts and acorns. They do most of their hunting along brushy fence rows, in woodlands, and in marshy areas. Areas of grass and weeds are favorite places to look for food. They will often store uneaten food in caches buried and covered with grass and leaves and marked with urine. They may or may not return to eat, and these food stores are often raided by skunks, opossums, or other foxes.

Red foxes will mate in late winter and the three to six blind and helpless pups ( or "kits' ) are born about 53 days later ( about ten days sooner that most other canine species ). This usually occurs in late March or April. A mated pair will often take over a woodchuck burrow that they will enlarge for their own den. They seem to prefer burrows on the sunny side of a hill, along a fence row, in a wooded thicket or in a grassy area. A den under an abandoned building is a possible choice as well. Returning to the same den site each year is common, and some can be used for up to fifteen years by generations of the same family.

Pups open their eyes in about eight to ten days, but remain in the den for a month or more, often mewing like kittens. As they grow, they venture out to the front of the den where they play with twigs and leftover bones, fur or feathers, have mock fights, and chase their tails while waiting for their parents to return with food. Both parents care for the young and may travel a mile or more to find and bring in food for them. At about two months of age, the mother weans them and the family hunts together in the cover of night. In the autumn months the pups are fully grown, the family breaks up, and the young fend for themselves. The rest of the year is spent in a solitary existence, and the fox will sleep on the ground with its tail curled over its nose and feet like a bushy blanket, its dense fur coat helping it stay warm in even the coldest weather. Six to ten years is considered to be a ripe old age for a red fox in the wild.

The color of the red fox coat is usually a reddish brown, but can include variations such as silver, black or reddish brown with a black cross on the back ( called "cross fox" ). All color phases may occur in the same litter, but common to all are the black "stockings" on the lower legs and feet and a bushy tail with a white tip.

Rural red foxes often fall prey to coyotes when their paths cross. Since coyotes will select cover-rich habitats such as grasslands, waterways, and cornfields, the red fox tend to avoid these areas. They seem to prefer active and abandoned farmsteads, and rural residential areas – human-inhabited places that coyotes generally avoid and that the fox can rely on as refuge from these larger, elusive predators.

While the red fox often lives near residential areas to escape predation from coyotes, the presence of humans will usually scare them away. Taking pet food in at night and eliminating other outside food sources such as birdseed and dropped fruit can help prevent fox "curiosity" around our homes. If you see one of these highly intelligent creatures lingering around, turn on the outside lights and run after it with a broom yelling and swinging – your neighbors may think you're strange, but the fox should take off running. Foxes won't usually attack dogs, but they do sometimes enjoy teasing and outwitting them by circling and backtracking when being chased, or by watching them run back and forth while barking. While they're not known to attack children, if they're hungry enough, they may go after your cats.

We're enjoying catching occasional glimpses of our elusive nocturnal friends. One in particular seemed quite comfortable in the glare of my headlights, jauntily crossing a culvert and sitting placidly down while it surveyed its artificially illuminated surroundings. I stopped and quietly observed it for a few moments, totally enthralled and humbled at being allowed this brief peek inside its secret life in the darkness. Hopefully, its nightly excursions in the summer nights will lead us to cross paths again soon.

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