As a long-time Middletown resident and a nature lover, I have seen my share of backyard critters. We have mice, voles, squirrels, raccoons, skunks, opossum, groundhogs, rabbits, and deer, but in my many years in New Monmouth, I have never seen a fox – until now.
Last week, my neighbor alerted me to the presence of a fox in my yard. I must admit, I thought she was mistaken, but as I was driving down my street this morning, a reddish orange mound in the road ahead caught my eye. Closer investigation revealed a pair of beautiful, red foxes cuddling near the curb! They saw me in my car and skedaddled onto a neighbor's lawn. I watched them, sizing up the potential danger they posed to my small chihuahuas; they watched me, sizing up the danger I posed to them. While I scrambled unsuccessfully to snap a photo of these two creatures, they disappeared beneath the bushes. Upon reflection, I realized while I know about the natural habitats and behaviors of my backyard wildlife, I know absolutely nothing about the red fox. To date, my only exposure to these animals has been via the song, “What Does the Fox Say?”, popularized by Ylvis, the Norwegian singing duo. And I can't even answer that question. What sound does a fox make? What does a fox den look like? What does a fox eat? (Hopefully, not chihuahuas!) More importantly, are these pretty creatures a threat to humans and pets? If foxes have moved into my neighborhood and possibly into my yard, a little investigation is definitely in order.
According to the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, both the red fox and the gray fox are native to New Jersey. The fox I saw, the red fox, has pointed ears, slender muzzle, slanted eyes, and a very long, bushy tail which comprises 70% of head and body length. Male foxes are called “dogs” and females are known as “vixens”. In New Jersey, foxes weigh about 12 to 15 pounds with the male averaging two pounds heavier than the female; they breed in January/February. Prior to giving birth and for a time afterward, females remain in or at the den while the male provides food. A litter could have as many as fourteen pups, though the average is five. Maturity is reached by ten months for both male and female young; the family remains together until the autumn after the birth when the young, now as large as adults, venture out alone.
When not in breeding season, the red fox is a solitary creature and does not form a pack like wolves. Foxes are territorial; home ranges are between 2 and 7.5 square miles. Foxes reside in an earthen den and often take over the dens of other animals, such as groundhogs. Generations of a single fox family may reside in the same den. Foxes prefer the earth and rarely enter water. They hunt and move about during the evening, night, and early morning hours (though it was close to 10 am when I saw them on my street and early afternoon when my neighbor spied one in my yard). Foxes are nonspecific predators and efficient scavengers. While their diet consists mainly of meadow voles (plentiful in my yard), foxes will eat garbage, dead animals, rabbits, birds, fruits, berries, and insects.
Now for the important questions. Do foxes pose a danger to humans? Despite our initial alarm at seeing a red fox in close proximity to our homes, the answer is no. According to the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, foxes commonly live close by human residences and more frequently inhabit backyards than forests. Actually, the presence of a human is allegedly a deterrent to foxes (though they certainly did appear rather curious about me this morning). Are foxes a danger to pets? Possibly. Foxes will prey on small livestock such as ducks, chickens, rabbits, and cats (and tiny chihuahuas?), dragging their prey to a secluded area or their den to be eaten. Foxes, while seldom aggressive, can carry contagious diseases such as mange, rabies, and distemper. Precautions should be taken to protect small pets, and foxes that appear sickly, disoriented, or aggressive should be avoided and reported to animal control officials.
So there you have it, the truth about the red fox. Oh, one more thing. I'm pretty sure the foxes I saw this morning had a clear message for me. It went something like this: “Human development and progress have encroached upon the fox's natural habitat. Therefore, we have moved closer to you by necessity not desire. Please respect us. Do not feed us; we are capable of feeding ourselves. Do not tempt us with overgrown shrubbery, uncovered trash, or unguarded, small pets. Let us go our way. We do not want to live with you, but we must live near you. And if you are curious about us and insist on staring at us from the safety of your automobile, we will stare back at you in mutual curiosity and then retreat to our dens where we belong. Leave us alone; we will leave you alone.”
And that's what the fox says!