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Stewardship Perspectives: Winter 2002

Red Foxes are on the Rise in Suburban and Urban Areas
Throughout the United States, red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) are thriving in suburban and urban areas. Like blue jays, squirrels, raccoons and whitetail deer, red foxes can live in fragmented habitats that have been heavily altered by human activity. Red foxes can survive on a wide variety of foods, ranging from rodents and birds to insects and nuts, making them more adaptable to changes in their environment than other species. Canadian ecologist and red fox expert, J. David Henry, describes red foxes as "one of the most flexible and adaptive species on Earth." (National Wildlife, June/July 2001) As a result, red fox sightings are becoming more and more common in suburban and urban areas in the United States.

As predators, red foxes help control small mammal populations. When these populations increase, foxes will move in to take advantage of the additional food supply. They are opportunistic feeders, eating mice, ground squirrels, voles, rabbits and other small mammals.

Red foxes have a high reproductive rate. Female foxes, or vixens, give birth to their young in underground dens between March and April after a 50-day gestation period. Although the babies, or kits, are blind at birth, they mature quickly and leave their parents by winter to establish their own territories. By the next spring they will have mated and paired off for life, reproducing within a year of birth.

How abundant red foxes were in North America prior to European colonization is not known with certainty. Most likely, red foxes were uncommon in many areas and not as abundant as today. One reason for increased populations is that, prior to European colonization, dense forest dominated the landscape, as opposed to the fields and woodland edges that foxes prefer. Also, other predators that thrived prior to European colonization, such as wolves and coyotes, would have competed with foxes for prey. Today, red foxes are one of the most widely distributed carnivorous mammals in the world, ranging from North America to Europe and Asia.

Tom Hardisky, a wildlife biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, describes red fox populations as "very healthy and stable in both rural and suburban areas." Wildlife Conservation Officer Keith Mullin, also with the Game Commission, adds that "the amount of farmland present in Chester County gives red foxes access to both open fields and wooded areas, both of which are excellent habitat for foxes. Barring an outbreak of sarcoptic mange, a significant decrease in the rodent population, or an increase in competing predators, red foxes should continue to do well."

Many foxes have moved from rural areas to more urbanized places due to the loss of farmland throughout the region. An increase in fox populations in suburban and urban areas does not mean necessarily that the red fox population has increased overall. These changes may signify that foxes are simply moving from one habitat to another.

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