Foxes will adapt appetite to whatever's handy

July 3, 2014 

I had to travel to Mississippi State University last week for a meeting. I left my house at 5:15 a.m. As I neared Tradition on Mississippi 67, a flash of white, crossing the road, appeared in my headlights. It was quickly followed by three smaller (but red) versions of itself. What I'd seen was a red fox vixen with her kits. The mother fox was completely white. This isn't a recessive albino trait. Red foxes can range from pure white to almost black.

The red fox is found throughout the Northern Hemisphere and can be found down south in Australia and New Zealand, where it was introduced. In fact, red foxes even have been introduced into areas where they naturally occur. In the 18th century, thousands of red foxes were imported into England from Bavaria and Austria for the fur trade. During that same century, the English were bringing their foxes over here.

At one time, there were dozens of distinct subspecies of red foxes. Now, with rare exceptions, they have intermingled to such an extent that most of the subspecies have disappeared. Not to worry though -- the species (Vulpes vulpes) is doing quite well.

The red fox is a member of the canid family -- along with dogs, wolves and coyotes -- but they share a lot of characteristics with cats. First is their size. Although the red fox is the largest fox in North America and one of the largest among the 28 or so species found worldwide, it isn't much larger than a big domestic cat, and they stalk their prey like cats. The red fox has vertically slit eyes and partially retractable claws. Foxes also are very good tree climbers.

Some of its other characteristics include its ability to reach speeds of 30 miles per hour, leap over 6 feet in height and a distance of up to 15 feet. The red fox will eat just about anything, including birds, eggs, insects, lizards, rodents, snakes, fruit and seeds. During some parts of the year, fruit can make up to 100 percent of their diet.

A red fox isn't above consuming a bit of road kill if the necessity presents itself. They also will cache surplus food for future consumption. In lean times, when the weather is bad or the fox is too injured to hunt, they will rely on these caches to survive. Normally, with such a catholic diet, a red fox is pretty much guaranteed an ample food supply wherever it decides to take up residence. Their diet also is a major reason why they've decided to move in with us. We throw away so much food that red fox populations in urban areas can outnumber rural populations.

The impact of the red fox on neighborhoods ranges from slightly negative to highly beneficial. On the negative side, they can drive your pet dogs crazy. They also will prey on stray cats (whether that's good or bad, I'll leave up to you).

On the plus side, they help control outbreaks of pests such as mice, rats, voles and other vermin. For some reason, they don't like the taste of moles, but they will capture them and take them back to their young so that they can play with them.

If it's raiding your chicken coop (not likely since foxes don't like noisy prey), yodelling under your bedroom window at 2 a.m. or is driving your dog crazy by eating its food, you could list it under the title "pest." But with a little patience and common sense, people and foxes can coexist.

Just be alert and keep your eyes open, and you may be surprised to find one of these lovely creatures living in your neighborhood.

Tim Lockley, a specialist in entomology, is retired from a 30-year career as a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For answers to individual questions, please send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Tim Lockley, c/o Sun Herald, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi, MS 39535.

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