The Thriving, Adaptable Red Fox

October 20, 2014
The Thriving, Adaptable Red Fox
S.H. LeePreferring to hunt at night, red foxes forage for mice, rabbits, and other small mammals.

Red foxes are probably native to the AMC region, but we can thank hunters for swelling their numbers. In the late 1700s, settlers brought red foxes from Europe to the Eastern seaboard in order to hunt them, according to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. The hunters found the native gray fox less interesting because hounds would tree it, or it would run in a much smaller area than a red fox would. The graceful red foxes also won favor because they can sprint as fast as 45 miles per hour and leap as far as 17 feet—attributes that helped some of them survive the hunt and reproduce in the wild.

Nowadays, if you see a red fox passing your campsite at dawn or loping through your yard at dusk, you might feel startled. But these foxes are close to people more often than most of us realize.

Red foxes, with their orange-red fur and long bushy tails, aren’t a more familiar sight because they are solitary animals that prefer to hunt at night or in the early morning. They spend time in family groups only when raising their pups, which grow to an adult size of about 10 to 12 pounds and 40 inches from nose to tail by their first autumn.

“In the spring, the adults are more visible, because they’re foraging for their young, even during the day,” says Andrew Burnett, principal biologist with the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife. “I generally just tell people to try to enjoy them. It could be a few weeks, maybe months, and then you won’t see them again.”

The red fox population seems stable in New Jersey, Burnett says. Although he knows of no estimate for how many red foxes live there or in the Northeast as a whole, nearly 7,000 were caught in New Jersey by trappers last year. The number of complaints about the sly predators is increasing in the state, but Burnett says that may reflect people’s changing attitudes toward wildlife rather than a bump in population.

Red foxes adapt well to human activity, since they love to forage in fragmented landscapes like those created by farms and suburbs. These areas present lots of edge-of-the-woods habitat for mice, meadow voles, rabbits, and other small mammals that red foxes eat. They also dine on insects, birds, and berries, and scavenge garbage and carrion.

A healthy red fox does not pose a threat to people but may kill small farm animals like chickens and lambs, as well as cats and small dogs. To reduce problems, people should keep livestock in protected enclosures and pets indoors, wildlife officials say. You should also put away bird feeders or outdoor food for pets (both of which will attract other animals) if foxes seem to be looking for a meal in your area. On some New Jersey barrier islands, the foxes are harming threatened and endangered beach-nesting birds such as piping plovers, red knots, and least terns, so the state traps and kills red foxes during the nesting season, Burnett says.

Still the foxes are thriving. In fact, Burnett says the red fox may now be displacing the smaller gray fox in some regions. So don’t be too surprised if you see a flash of orange fur again.

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Heather Stephenson

AMC Outdoors, the magazine of the Appalachian Mountain Club, inspires readers to get outside and get engaged. Learn more.