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Our Fascinating and Fearless Foxes

Foxes are continuing to populate our urban areas

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Red fox puppies play in the backyard of the author’s home in northeastern Lincoln. Photo by Eric Fowler.

By Sam Wilson, Furbearer and Carnivore Program Manager, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

A big dog rushed into my backyard a few years ago, likely because it saw a red fox puppy playing under the bushes. It let out a deep bark as it saw the adult fox that was watching over the pups. That is when things really got interesting.

The adult fox leapt up and raced toward the big boxer — pretty brave for a 10-pound fox. It made a loud bark on its way — a warning that clearly meant for the pups to hightail it to the den. Suddenly my yard was churning with racing canids: orange fur flashing across the yard, faster puppies leaping over their slower siblings, and the other parent fox racing straight toward the big dog from an adjacent yard. The dog had keyed onto the first adult and was chasing it, allowing the second fox time to dart in and disrupt its focus. These adults were working in unison to distract, challenge and divert the dog, giving their pups time to escape. It was an amazing thing to watch. Their technique was perfect, and given the power of an 80-pound dog, they had to be. The dog chased one and then the other as they jumped past, but they dodged deftly each time it got too close. After a minute or so of darting in and dodging out, the owner of the dog was there to get it back on leash.

A male fox and one of its pups sit on the edge of a city park in northeastern Lincoln. Photo by Eric Fowler.

The fox pair had protected all of their pups, also called kits, without so much as a scratch and clearly demonstrated how devoted they are as parents. That was the first of many displays of their commitment that I would witness thanks to this fox couple deciding to den next to my yard for the past six springs.

Growing up in rural Nebraska, my dad and I were in a constant, friendly competition to see who could spot wildlife first. So I have spent most of my life scanning field edges, creek bottoms, wetlands or any other habitat where I thought I might see wildlife.

My brother often laughs and says, “Wildlife always comes to see you.”

A few instances of bucks waking me up while taking a “hunting nap,” or owls sleeping outside my office window might give one that impression. To be fair, I also spend my time trying to see wildlife — so I always assumed it was a team effort.

Trail cameras placed by the author near the den have helped him count the number of pups. This image captured the mother and all seven pups, her largest litter, in 2017. Photo by Sam Wilson.

But having a pair of red foxes raise pups right in my backyard, in the second largest city in Nebraska, really made me wonder. I am the furbearer and carnivore biologist for Nebraska Game and Parks, and red foxes are one of the species that I manage. It seems unlikely that they would raise their pups right off my patio for six years in a row. Serendipity!

The first time I knew of foxes in my neighborhood, I heard them before I saw them. I was startled awake at 2 a.m. one January by a periodic and horrific scream coming from right outside my bedroom window. In my tired state, it was hard to imagine what in the world could make a sound like that. I finally looked out the window and saw a fox open its mouth, tighten up its body and project a scream throughout the neighborhood. I actually get dozens of calls each year at Game and Parks asking what animal could be making such a sound. Many think it must be a mountain lion. All of the recordings I have heard throughout the years have been the scream or bark of red foxes.

A male fox stretches after waking from a nap in a northeastern Lincoln park. Photo by Eric Fowler.

Foxes can produce a variety of sounds, from chirps and quick, quiet barks that communicate with nearby pups, to the very loud scream that is used during their mating season and as a territorial warning. The first time I heard this scream, it was during the mating season, but I have also seen adults challenge dogs at a distance with this call when they approach their den.

I had seen foxes in Lincoln many times before, often at the Commission headquarters on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s East Campus where habitat is plentiful. But in the last five to 10 years, the number of calls I have gotten about foxes in Lincoln and Omaha has increased dramatically. That is likely because the number of foxes has also increased; however, we don’t track fox population trends in cities, so this is anecdotal.

Harvest estimates from rural areas have trended down slightly over the same time, but foxes remain common statewide. Biologists believe that foxes are using urban areas to avoid being killed by coyotes. Larger canids kill smaller canids, from wolves to coyotes, and coyotes to foxes. It is like picking on your little brother, but it is a matter of life or death for the smaller canid. Foxes are adaptable and a little more tolerant of human presence than coyotes, so the trade-off of living in town and risking being hit by cars or chased by dogs is worth it. Coyotes are found in urban areas, too, particularly if there are larger areas of open habitat like wooded creeks or grasslands. But they are not found as often in tighter urban neighborhoods that foxes will happily use.

A fox lets one of her pups nurse while others wait their turn. Photo by Eric Fowler.

The fox family moved in when my boys were just starting to run around the yard, and they have thoroughly enjoyed growing up with them around. The pups get used to us pretty quickly, but it took years for the adults to become relaxed, especially the female. I should point out that we never feed them, and we give them enough space to keep them wild. Each litter is different, and we have a few fun memories every year. My boys are now in a friendly competition with me to see who can spot the first pups of the spring — the tradition lives on. The next game we play is “count the puppies.” This is much harder than you might imagine. For one thing, some puppies want to play while others just want to nap, so the count usually starts small and goes up as more decide to play at the same time. Even then, with all of the running, wrestling, jumping, hiding and fleeing, it is a pretty tall task to agree on a number. With the help of some trail cameras, we eventually get it figured out. The largest litter was seven and the smallest was four. Those numbers are pretty typical for red foxes. With seven pups in the den, it is pretty easy to understand why the female would slink off to the park for a nap when she needs some “me time.”

University of Nebraska-Lincoln students Katelin Nelson and Kyle Dougherty and professor Elizabeth VanWormer take blood samples prior to attaching a radio collar to a male red fox trapped in the author’s backyard. Dougherty was researching fox density and habitat selection in Lincoln. Photo by Sam Wilson.

Both coyotes and foxes have plenty to eat in town. They take advantage of common roadkill like squirrels, rabbits and robins, but also hunt those same species plus mice, voles, moles, ground squirrels and other species. Foxes are carnivores, but do eat plants and will happily eat pet food or discarded human food that they find. We have seen the foxes bring all kinds of food, from blue jays to hotdogs, into our yard. One of the nice parts about having the foxes around is that they have kept rabbits out of my garden, something several varieties of “rabbit proof” fences have failed to do. When the pups are growing and hungry, the parents take turns hunting and pup sitting day and night. It is not uncommon to see them come in with five or more mice, shrews or voles in their mouths, drop them off and then return to the hunt. This 24-hour-a-day effort is another example of the commitment and teamwork of both parents.

A few other fun memories include: having the fox pups watch back-and-forth in unison as my boys played soccer; watching the parents hide and bury mice to teach the pups to search, smell and hunt; and certain pups like the one we nicknamed “Floppy Ear” that had playful personalities. There was also the time the entire family came out to meet another adult fox, which I assume was a daughter from a previous litter. All 10 foxes celebrated the reunion, chasing and playing for a full hour. That third adult fox stayed for a few days and helped hunt and parent.
The pups usually show themselves in March, and the family moves to a new den by June. Foxes typically have multiple dens, and it is thought that they move from den to den to help reduce the burden of fleas and other insects in the soil of their natal dens. The pups will disperse and look for their own territories by late summer or fall. Red foxes can reproduce at 10 months and typically live 2 to 6 years. Captive foxes have lived more than 10 years, but few wild foxes would reach that age.

A fox pup carries a vole dropped off at the den by one of its parents. Photo by Eric Fowler.

The apparent increase in urban foxes led to a research project in 2018-2019 by Kyle Dougherty, a master’s student at UNL. His objective was to study the density and habitat needs of urban foxes. I offered to help Kyle trap the first fox for his project. Kyle had a good trap design, and soon enough, we had a male fox laid out on my patio for measurements. We placed the latest GPS collar and ear tags on the animal. It was surprising how light and dainty the adult fox was when we had it in hand. The long legs and fur make it appear larger than it is. With several foxes around, it would be a few weeks before I knew this male was half of our fox couple. When the battery died, Kyle sent a command for the collar to release. That small ear tag remained, however, allowing me to still identify the male. The GPS collars showed that foxes were keying in on open areas like parks, golf courses and more open neighborhoods. They were also more active at night and in the morning.

Foxes have been in Lincoln for decades and the foxes that are born in town are very used to seeing people, cars and dogs. Because it is all they have ever known, they are not nearly as wary of people as rural foxes that have been hunted. They can be territorial with dogs during the pup rearing season in the spring and early summer. One example is an escorting behavior where they may bark at your dog while you are on a walk, and then follow you from a distance until you are no longer near their den or pups. Basically, they want to make sure they know where your dog is until it is safely away from their pups. They will also wait until you pass by on the sidewalk and then walk behind you a few dozen yards, not being territorial, just trying to get where they are going.

A pup practices its hunting skills by stalking a bluejay. Photo by Sam Wilson.

While the foxes have been a delight for my family, there are some downsides beyond the screaming during mating season. I do have to put a few squirrel tails in the trash each year. Foxes can dig under sheds or porches in areas where they are not welcome and damage property. In most cases, they can be fenced out or convinced to move to another den with a motion alarm or battery powered radio. Foxes are not typically dangerous to people given their slight build and small size. Like all wildlife, people should not approach them. Foxes can kill small pets like kittens, cats, chickens and tiny dogs, but common sense approaches, such as keeping cats indoors and dogs on leashes, prevents the vast majority of problems. I have seen adult cats square off with one fox, but go up a tree with two. We welcomed a small dog into our family a few years into this and made the decision to be with him on a leash when he is outside. It has worked well for us so far.

Many people across Lincoln have shared similar experiences where foxes have “come to see them,” particularly throughout the last decade or so. Hopefully, people and foxes can continue to live together in both rural and urban areas, as it seems certain they are here to stay.