Illinois hunting and fishing

Red foxes moving to town

June 13, 2010 at 03:57 AM

Illinois hunting and fishing

Red fox facts

Adaptability and a prolific reproductive rate have helped make red foxes the world’s most widely distributed carnivore.

Foxes eat a wide variety of foods and can exist in various different habitats, including cities.

While red fox litters average five kits, they can be as large as 12. Young are born in late March or early April weighing just 3.5 ounces and typically remain in the den for a month before emerging with a grayish coat.

About 20 percent of dens are used two years in a row and some are used for up to 15 straight seasons.

Kits start to develop a red coat at the age of two months. By late fall they are full grown and will part ways with their parents, travelling up to 100 miles to find their own territory.


From out of the shadows a mother fox emerges from a backyard, slips under a fence and walks into the dimly lit cemetery.

Though she makes no discernible noise, four young fox kits materialize from below an old white building. When they aren’t busy biting one another, the writhing mass of red paws at mom to see what she has in her mouth.

Rabbit? Road-killed squirrel? Mouse? All that and more is common fare for urban foxes, who researchers have shown live longer, healthier lives than their rural cousins. Humans, it turns out, make better neighbors than coyotes.

“Coyotes are the bigger kids on the block and they won’t tolerate foxes in their territory,” researcher Todd Gosselink said.

Gosselink’s studies in Illinois have shown that coyotes killed up to half the fox kits living in rural settings and up to 25 percent of the adult foxes. Odds of survival were much greater in town, he said.

“Urban areas provide safer places (for foxes) to raise young and to keep themselves,” Gosselink said. “And there are lots of rabbits to eat.”

No wonder foxes have steadily shifted to urban and suburban areas since coyotes began taking over the Illinois countryside in the 1970s. Forced from field edges they once occupied, foxes have relocated to golf courses, cemeteries and under outbuildings.

For many urban dwellers, the shift has gone unnoticed because foxes are largely nocturnal. Yet early risers can be rewarded with glimpses of the small carnivores, which typically head underground shortly after sunrise and do not emerge until dusk
“I left home at 3 a.m. the other day to do a quail count and I saw two (foxes),” Illinois furbearer biologist Bob Bluett said. “One was headed into a driveway and the other was coming out of a driveway.”

That’s welcome news for Rich Klockenga, 70, who trapped and hunted foxes in the 1960s but now prefers seeing them frolic in his subdivision near Kickapoo.

“I’ve seen them around on and off for the last four years,” Klockenga said. “They’re fun to watch. They’ll come right up in back of the house.”

The same is true in Elmwood, which has had several breeding pairs in recent years. The town’s most visible den is under a white building in the middle of Elmwood Township Cemetery. The photogenic foxes there have been the focus of numerous pictures and are frequently seen on the nearby football field.

Illinois hunting and fishing

As the kits have grown larger, interactions with neighboring homes — and cats — have become more frequent.

Not to worry say biologists. Pets are not frequent fox meals.

“I have found dead kittens at fox dens in rural areas before, but I’ve also seen litters of cats under the same building that had a litter of foxes,” Gosselink said. “Most of the problem of people losing cats is due to coyotes.”

About 60 percent of a fox’s diet is made up of rabbits, mice and rats. They will also eat birds, chickens, plants, insects, earthworms, berries and fresh road-kill. In addition to helping control rodents, there may be other benefits of having foxes around.

“The last two or three years I had a real severe mole problem,” Klockenga said. “This spring I never had any moles around.”

About the only drawback for urban foxes is that disease can spread more rapidly since home ranges are smaller than in rural settings. As a result, outbreaks of mange are more prevalent among urban foxes, whose other main cause of mortality is vehicles.

And while coyotes have also started moving into urban settings, Bluett said towns and suburbs still favor the fox, which is capable of running 45 mph for short distances.

“Foxes are made for quick bursts of speed and agility and the coyote is made for the long haul,” Bluett said. “If you can dart around houses and under fences, you are a lot safer than you are in a bean field.”

The city fox appears to be here to stay.

Illinois hunting and fishing