The red fox is the most widely-distributed carnivore in the world, ranging from the Arctic Circle southward to North Africa, North America, and Eurasia. So it should not come as a surprise that the red fox is a common resident of the Finger Lakes Region as well. It is at home in rural, suburban, and sometimes even urban habitats. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, expanding coyote populations have pushed the red fox further into residential areas in recent years. But like all wild animals that have been antagonized by man over time, the red fox has evolved into a mostly nocturnal creature, which is why we so seldom see one.
Standing 15 to 20 inches in height, the red fox resembles a small dog. It is a handsome canine with its reddish-orange coat, bushy white-tipped tail, sharply-pointed ears and muzzle, and black legs and feet. A large adult male can weigh more than 15 pounds. Females are smaller. Although listed as a carnivore, red foxes dine on a variety of foods that include berries, seeds, earthworms and road kill. I have photographed a red fox cleaning up spilled birdseed from beneath my bird feeders on several occasions. But small mammals like mice, squirrels, and rabbits make up its primary diet. Ground nesting birds like turkeys and grouse are particularly vulnerable, as are their eggs.
Red foxes mate in February, which is why you may smell the skunk-like aroma of fox urine at this time of year. Like dogs, male foxes mark their territories by squirting on anything and everything they pass by. Especially on damp days, the pungent odor permeates the outdoor air.
In preparation for giving birth in mid-April, a mated pair of red foxes will excavate an underground den or more likely hijack a woodchuck burrow and remodel it to suit their needs, which of course invites one to question whatever happened to the den’s original occupant. On average, most litters consist of four to six pups, known as kits. For several months after kits are weaned, both parents spend their days and nights constantly hunting to keep their hungry babies fed. It is the only time of the year that you might see a healthy red fox foraging during the day.
The red fox is host to a wide variety of parasites and related diseases that include mange, distemper, and rabies. Avoid contact with any animals that appear disoriented or sickly and keep you pets away as well.
The red fox has acquired a reputation for cunning and craftiness that stems from its ability to outwit prey and outsmart people. Even with the best of security precautions in place, a red fox has been able to slip into and out of my neighbors’ henhouse to steal a chicken or two. Living in the woods myself, I have been fortunate to photograph red foxes a on a number of unexpected occasions.