Our Foxes

David Brooks, Laura Caughlan, Susan Caughlan, July 2006

This page is certainly different from the usual contents of this Web site, but perhaps serves as a reminder that the atmosphere isn't the only source of interesting environmental observations! In our township, which is relatively rural considering its proximity to Phildelphia and its many highly developed suburbs, red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) are not uncommon. Since moving here in 2002, we have seen them crossing our property and, less fortunately, lying dead by the roadside. The first winter we lived in our house, we found a fox huddled out of the snow under our front steps.

One morning in mid-May 2006, Susan was leaving for a meeting and spooked a fox crossing our driveway, carrying a dead young oppossum. It dropped its prey and scurried off into the woods. When Susan came back to the house to report this sighting, we concluded that the fox was unlikely to abandon this substantial meal. I picked up my camera and got into position. In only a couple of minutes, the fox returned, and I snapped this picture.

What I learned from this first encounter was that foxes are not afraid of humans. They are wary, perhaps, but unlike some other wild animals, which bolt when they are disturbed, the fox's tendency appears to be to observe and assess first, then deliberately act. I was about 10 m away and it appeared more curious than concerned.

In June, we started seeing a different fox. We named the previous one Fox1 and this one Fox2. Fox1 has a long full tail, but Fox2 has a short, somewhat scruffy tail, and sparse fur on its hindquarters. We believe it is the same as the fox we first saw briefly in 2002, which appeared much less healthy at that time.

Now we regularly see Fox2 on our driveway and yard, especially late in the afternoon, and can approach to within just a few meters. We talk to it (yes, really) and it mostly just observes us and goes about its business when it's ready.

We assumed these foxes were raising a family in the long-abandoned gravel quarry on our property. We finally got photos of three of the family. This proved to be more of a challenge because the adult foxes are more skittish when their kits are around. In this photo, even ignoring the still apparent size difference, you can tell which is the adult. She (or he?) is watching attentively, while the kits act like children of all kinds, oblivious to possible dangers in their surroundings. The kits stay close to the adult, who stays close to the safety provided by the undergrowth off to the side of the driveway. For this photo, I was perhaps 15-20 m away and couldn't get closer.
More recently, we speculated that the mysterious disappearance of goldfish from the small pond on our front walk had an obvious explanation. On June 29th, near dusk, I took this photo through a glass pane in our front doorway. The interior door was open, with only the screen door between us and Fox2 about 3 meters away. Laura and I were both standing there, and one of our (indoor only) cats was clawing the screen. Fox2 was unconcerned and lapped water from the pond for a couple of minutes before trotting off through the flower beds. We think this observation solves the goldfish disappearance mystery.

Resident foxes do not please everyone in our relatively rural township. Foxes are wily and persistent predators with a reputed fondness for chickens. However, from what I have read online, evidence suggests that foxes prefer rodents even when chickens are available. Around our house, we are pleased that they help control the population of rabbits (as in this photo) and mice. Although foxes are certainly cute, this photo serves as a reminder that they are wild animals with a job to do!

We would like to claim credit for maintaining our property in a condition that foxes find acceptable. However, all we have done is leave most of our three acres untouched. We assume that the abandoned quarry, rocky and now overgrown, provides lots of choices for den sites and plenty of hunting opportunities. We haven't looked for the den, which would be nearly impossible this time of year and, in any event, we believe the foxes will be more likely to stay if we don't bother them there. In any case, we look forward to a long relationship with this particular family.

Notes from 5 July. My earlier common-sense warning about not touching foxes or their stool came into sharper focus this morning, when Laura found Fox2 asleep out of the rain on our front doorstep, being nuzzled by one of the kits ("Wake up, Mom, it's time for breakfast!") By the time Laura got this picture, they had moved, looking more than a little offended. Why were they there? We have had an enormous amount of rain over the last few days and it's possible their den was flooded. For whatever the reason, this behavior may reinforce the belief that foxes can be pets -- independent and a little wild, but still easily approachable and friendly (sort of the canine version of a house cat). This is not true!

Also, this fox family has left an amazing amount of stool on our driveway and flagstoned front walk. It is sticky and unattractive and begs to be moved. I don't know if anybody would be tempted to pick it up (I certainly wouldn't!), but use a shovel!

Update, 15 October, 2006. How I acquired my very own personal fox.

Since the end of the summer, we have only rarely seen a fox, occasionally sunning itself in mid-morning on our driveway. It is one of the kits from the summer -- judging by its tail, the one at the top of the last photo above, standing in the background. When the fox family was more evident, hunting, doing cute things, and playing on our property, they were "our" family foxes. Now, the weather has turned a little chilly and a fox's thoughts turn to finding a sheltered and cozy spot to sleep. So, this morning, when fox poop appeared on our front doorstep, Susan announced that this was now "my" very own personal fox.

Photography notes: These photos were taken with a handheld Panasonic DMC-FZ20 digital camera with 12X optical zoom and automatic image stabilization. I have applied no digital processing other than cropping some of the images and using the "sharpen" feature in my image editing software.

I end this page with what I hope is no more than a simple common-sense warning: Do not touch foxes, alive or dead, or fox stool, with your bare hands! Foxes and related animals may be infected with a parasite that can be transmitted to humans and can sometimes be fatal. Be careful around pets who may have come in contact with foxes or their stool. See this CDC Web site for Alveolar Echinococcosis for more information.