Red fox are widespread
I’ve seen more red fox in the area this summer than in past years. In September alone, almost every drive home at night would yield eyes glowing from the ditches, ears poking up just above the tall grass. Sometimes the fox would be scampering to get off the road into cover.
It’s difficult to tell if this indicates more foxes — the Michigan Department of Natural Resources doesn’t do population tracking of small predators — or is just due to the time of year, said Brian Roell, a DNR wildlife biologist.
Fox pups born in the spring mature quickly and will separate from the vixen come autumn. So a wave of young foxes now is “dispersing,” headed out to try life on their own, Roell explained.
And since road shoulders and ditches can be easy travel corridors — plus, as hawks and owls can testify, good places for finding rodents and other prey — these juvenile red foxes naturally gravitate to the roads, Roell said.
But life on the road, of course, has its hazards. I’ve seen at least four road-killed red fox this summer, one obviously an adult, the rest smaller and likely kits that panicked and bolted the wrong way.
But more sightings also could indicate red foxes had a good breeding year. If prey is abundant enough, foxes will respond by producing larger litters — the average is five, but can be more than a dozen pups, according to the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology’s Animal Diversity Web online site.
In the region, cottontail rabbits are expanding in range and snowshoe hare populations are rebounding, Roell said. Ground birds, rodents and squirrels and their relatives all are in good numbers, he said, adding that “there seems to be a bumper crop” of 13-lined ground squirrels.
It adds up to plenty of prey available to feed hungry fox kits and, in turn, to hunt once those youngsters start fending for themselves.
Another factor: Roell has not heard of significant outbreaks of distemper or mange this year, which would thin the numbers of surviving young as well as adults.
Red fox are the most widespread wild canine species in the world, occurring throughout most of the northern hemisphere and as far south as Central America and northern Africa. They are the largest of the true foxes, or Vulpes, species, though the ones in North America generally are smaller than those in Europe, according to the museum website.
While red fox probably always has been native to the region, early European settlers imported red fox in the eastern states for hunting as sport; this larger European variety then spread west, leading some researchers to speculate the red fox now found here actually descend from those imported foxes displacing the native ones.
In addition to the well-known red with black paws and ears, red fox have color variations such as a “cross” fox — so named because of the dark stripe down the back and across the shoulders, along with a darker face — and “silver,” which can be near-black to black with white-tipped fur.
Red fox is one of two true fox species native to the Upper Peninsula. Gray fox can be found as well, but they are smaller and most active at night, so more difficult to see.
Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 240, or email@example.com.