One spring morning, a red fox chased a squirrel around the chairs on our patio. The squirrel was there because birds drop seeds from our feeders; the fox was there to catch the squirrel. The squirrel fled with the fox right behind. The chase ended with the squirrel chattering angrily from the safety of our big red maple. Stymied, the fox trotted back across our patio. He was a handsome fellow: his reddish fur thick and glossy, his black legs trim and springy, and his fluffy white-tipped tail a thing of beauty floating behind him.
At the edge of the lawn, he lifted his leg on a clump of daffodils, leaving a pungent memory of his presence before vanishing into our little woods. “Better luck next time,” I told him. He might have been hunting for food to take to his kits. I’ve watched young foxes nurse and romp near their den; I’d sacrifice a squirrel or two for them.
Foxes live beside us. They are secretive and wary of humans. Though both red and gray foxes live in Maryland, red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) are the only ones I’ve seen in Strathmore-Bel Pre. (Elliot Dash took these foxy photos near Bel Pre Creek.) Red foxes are small mammals, weighing just 8 to 15 pounds. (For comparison, both of our cats weigh more than the average fox.) Our suburban habitat, with its mixed woods and open areas, suits their adaptable nature. Their diet is adaptable, too. As a friend says, “Foxes eat seasonal and local.” Though they’re in the Order Carnivora, they eat anything from fruit to insects to smaller mammals like mice. This means they’re often out in daylight; prey is active then.
One winter morning I saw a fox emerge from our woods. His head was up, his neck arched, and from his pointed jaws dangled a good-sized rabbit. Along the side of our house he carried his victim, then crossed the street and headed up our neighbor’s slope to a remnant patch of snow under shrubs. He cached his rabbit in the snow, a natural refrigerator. Smart.
Foxes are not dangerous to humans unless they have rabies, which is very rare. They can have mange, caused by mites. Mange can result in the loss of fur and a damaged immune system, often leading to starvation. In winter, a fox with a bad case of mange may die of hypothermia.
A healthy fox’s fur coat is so thick that the animals don’t need to den except for birthing and raising their young. Winter is the time of courting and mating; it’s a good time to see foxes or at least notice signs of their presence. I often find fox tracks on our snowy driveway or in the winter woods near Bel Pre Creek. Their small paw-prints have fuzzy edges because red foxes have fur around their toes, which seems a fine idea.
In late winter or spring, the barking of a fox occasionally wakes me in the night. Whether it’s a mated pair conversing or a vixen calling to her youngsters, that voice is unmistakable. It sounds like a dog trying to mimic a cat: a raspy high-pitched bark with eerie overtones. It’s an audible reminder that we humans live with many companions in a wild and fascinating world.