What’s living under Dale’s studio?
Published 8:00 am Thursday, June 22, 2023
The leaves next to Dale’s studio are rustling. “Cool, it must be our resident black snake,” I thought to myself. A tiny nose pokes around the corner. This isn’t our snake, it’s a baby fox!
OK, so where are Mom and Dad? Are there more? Since they are mostly nocturnal, I realize this kit is just starting to explore. In broad daylight!
Within a couple of days, we see both parents and not one, but four kits. They are living on our property, which hopefully means they know they are safe. We got our critter cams set up so as not to disturb them unnecessarily.
How can you tell a red fox from a gray fox? Look closely at their tails, which they use for balance, keeping warm at night and communicating with other animals. Now look at the tip. Gray foxes have black tips and red foxes have white tips. Also, only gray foxes climb trees, and red foxes stay on the ground.
Foxes generally mate for life but don’t live together. In the spring, the male and female find each other and stay together until the fall, raising the kits. Then they separate until the following spring.
Most litters are 3 to 5 kits, born in a den made in hollow logs, caves or under buildings. The parents will move the den if they think the kits aren’t safe, often moving it several times. Our family has been in the same place for the last 9 weeks!
Born blind and helpless until about three weeks old, the kits are weaned and learn how to hunt by three months old. Incredible. After nine months, the kits disperse, looking for mates to start their own families. Since gray foxes live an average of 6-10 years, we hope to see this family back next year.
Much can be learned from foxes as they have a superpower. Really? How about their use of the earth’s magnetic field to hunt?
Have you ever seen a fox successfully pounce on a mouse and wondered how? Foxes use all their senses to hunt, especially their hearing. Each ear can rotate 180 degrees in different directions so that they can hear a mouse over 100 feet away.
But even cooler, they use the earth’s magnetic field to measure the depth and distance of the mouse. By aligning their bodies in a northeast direction, the same direction as the earth’s magnetic pull, they increase their success in catching prey.
Gray foxes have quite a few predators. Coyotes, bald eagles and bears are predators in western NC. The kits are especially vulnerable, which is why they stay close to their den while young.
Of course, their biggest predator is us humans. Foxes are sometimes considered pests and are often hunted or trapped for their fur. So we’re happy to give this family a safe haven.
Why are foxes important to our ecosystem? As foxes move through their habitat, they disperse seeds of the fruits and vegetables they have eaten, allowing plants to spread and survive. Plus, they control small rodent populations, especially mice and rats. They are expert hunters. Every night, our foxes bring back rats, voles, mice, squirrels and rabbits for the family to eat. It is quite extraordinary how much prey they catch.
And of course, they are really cute. We have learned so much about the strength of the family bond. If we get too near when the kits are out, Dad barks at us to back off! Watching the family grow is one of the greatest joys we have experienced while living here. If you get outside and look around, you might just see a fox living near you! And now you know if it a red or gray!
Loti Woods is a founder of Weiler Woods for Wildlife, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to inspire and empower the next generation, using art & education, to be champions for wildlife. To learn more, visit https://weilerwoodsforwildlife.com.