2018-12-08 / Columnists

Nature Notes

Fox Population Coming Back to Island
By Patricia Martin

Red Fox (Photograph provided by Clark Bloswick) Red Fox (Photograph provided by Clark Bloswick) In the conclusion of my last column, I asked if anyone had seen a red fox recently. Immediately, a response came from Clark Bloswick with a recent night photograph of a fox from a trail camera. Not long afterward, I ran into another friend, who last winter had seen (and photographed) a pair of red foxes near their home. Apparently the foxes were eyeing the birds that had gathered at the bird feeder, or under it. The foxes set up a surprise attack, with each fox approaching the feeder from a different side of the house trying to catch the bird in a pincer move. The strategy didn’t work this time, but as my friend said, it was interesting to watch. So anyway, the long and the short of it is that there is a fox population coming back on the Island.

The reason that the question of the foxes was raised was that for a few years they seemed to have disappeared, or at least were in short supply. On the Island, fox populations have had their ups and downs over the years. More than 15 years ago, maybe more like 20, a whole den of foxes died because of the bat strain of rabies. The population rebounded, but then the coyotes began to expand their numbers. A large coyote population in a limited area will usually cause a decrease or elimination of the red fox population, as coyotes will certainly hunt them. (Lynx and bobcats also prey on foxes, but we don’t have to worry about them on Mackinac). In addition, large hawks and owls will threaten unwary fox kits. Diseases like rabies, previously mentioned, and distemper can also destroy fox populations as well as sarcoptic mange, which is prevalent and often quite severe and can lead to early death in foxes. On average, the life span of a fox is only about a year, although they can survive for five or six years.

The red fox is the largest of the true foxes and one of the most widely distributed of the order Carnivora. They are found in the Northern Hemisphere from the Arctic Circle to North Africa, North America, and Eurasia. Their range has increased with human expansion and now includes Australia. They originated in the Old World but colonized North America, first in the Illinoian glaciation (400,000 years ago) and more extensively during the Wisconsin glaciation (75,000 to 11,000 years ago). Red foxes are notable for their large sizes and their ability to adapt to new environments. There are 45 recognized subspecies, which are divided into two major groups - the larger northern foxes and the smaller basal foxes of Asia and North Africa.

In North America, red fox (Vulpes vulpes) are up to 15 inches in height and weigh in at 7.7 to 15.4 pounds. They have a handsome red or yellowish-red coat with white underparts. The bushy tail is reddish sprinkled with black and white at the very tip. It is this tail that has led to the common name “fox” from the Proto-Germanic “fuhsaz” (Dutch “vos”, German “Fuchs”), which all came from “puk,” meaning thick-haired tail. The Ojibwa word for fox “Waagash” comes from “waa” meaning up and down bounce of the tail. So our foxes’ tails seem all important. The slender legs and feet of the red fox appear clothed in “black stockings” that contrast sharply with the red back. There are several color variants that may be noted, the “cross fox” and the “silver fox.” The cross fox is mostly yellowish or grayish brown and has a vague black cross in the shoulder area. The silver fox has a blackish body with a variable round of white frosting. They both have black legs and a white-tipped tail.

The male red fox is a loner most of the year, but forms a strong pair bond with a single female in early winter and remains with her until their young disappear in late summer. During the reproductive season, the life of the fox revolves around the underground den, which is often a modified woodchuck burrow; although on Mackinac I have generally seen them using dugouts under rocks and logs. The dens usually have multiple entrances, and it is not unusual for them to have a second den for them to move to if their primary home is disturbed. Outside the breeding season, the solitary foxes simply curl up in a brush pile or beneath a thicket. Their dens are marked with urine to alert other foxes of their home. Kits are born just shy of two months after the mating in January or February, and so five young are born in the spring. The parents hunt every night, traveling up to five miles searching for food and marking their territory with urine. The mated pair occasionally searches for food side by side, although they are generally solitary hunters using their acute hearing and sense of smell to locate prey. They quietly stalk their target and then pounce, grabbing it with their forepaws and killing it with a quick bite on the back of the neck. Rabbits, squirrels, mice, voles, and ground-nesting birds are generally consumed, but they are opportunistic, sometimes feeding on carrion, taking snakes, crayfish, salamanders, and beetles. During the summer and autumn, they also consume nuts and fruits. There is a saying about canines that if they hunt singly or in mated pairs they are more omnivorous, but if they hunt in packs, they are carnivores.

In most cultures, foxes have been associated in lore and legend with trickery, deceit, and cunning. One Native American story has them paired with the coyote as the creators of the world, but who left when man appeared. Because of their adaptability and cunning, they have adjusted to living among humans, and because of their numbers, fox hunting developed as a sport to control populations. During the fur trade, their pelts were sought for making capes and collars for clothing, and, by the way, note that the North American red fox has a pelt that is considered superior to that of its European cousins as its silky, soft texture is preferred to the European fox’s courser one.

Keep an eye out for these wily and bright, furry friends this winter. Have a great holiday!

Trish Martin is a year-around resident of Mackinac Island, has earned a master’s degree in botany from Central Michigan University, and owns Bogan Lane Inn.

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