Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Meet Vulpes vulpes

The wily red fox is at home in the Wood River Valley

Express Staff Writer

A red fox, making a somewhat unusual daytime appearance, surveys his territory from a culvert at the Bigwood Golf Club in Ketchum last winter. Foxes are common in the Ketchum area but are typically spotted roaming through open spaces and near waterways in the nighttime hours. Photo by Willy Cook

They stare at us with yellow eyes, or saunter nonchalantly across our paths. They don't seem particularly intimidated by people in the Wood River Valley, these four-legged creatures that share our environs.

Regardless of the weather, we see them roaming our alleys and fields, coming to our doors for handouts or dead by the side of the road, victims of the automobile.

Meet Vulpes vulpes—better known as the red fox. Like the black bear, the name is somewhat of a misnomer—they come in lots of different colors.

The red fox is North American's most widespread and successful predator, due in large part to their eating habits. They'll eat practically anything. This wily neighbor of mankind has adapted well to the presence of humans. They have few natural enemies. Larger predators such as wolves, coyotes or mountain lions occasionally prey on them, but far more often they fall victim to the traps of fur hunters, the shotguns of farmers or the tires of trucks or cars.

The red fox

Genetic diversity gives us the red fox in lots of different colors. Most are red, ranging from an orange-red shade to tawny or yellow. But others are mottled brown, silver or even black. They have white bellies, but sometimes the white extends part way up their sides. In Russia, red foxes have been bred to a white color and are raised on farms for their fur. But one thing all red foxes have in common is a white brush on the tip of their tail.

Their behavior can vary. Red foxes are typically solitary and monogamous, but males have been known to have a harem of females, though they typically hunt alone. Male foxes are known as dogs, tods, vixes or reynards, while females are referred to as vixens. Young foxes are called kits, cubs or pups. A group of foxes is known as a skulk.

Red foxes don't live particularly long lives, with three years an average in the wild. In captivity, they have been known to live up to 12 years. Females only give birth to one litter per year. Litter size is usually three or four kits, but can go as high as six.

The red fox is the largest and most widely distributed of 27 known fox species. They are members of the Canidae family, which includes dogs, coyotes, jackals and wolves. They can be found in North America, Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Australia and some Pacific Islands.

Courtesy photo by Brian Tuohy
Hailey residents Brian and Jennifer Tuohy found this litter of fox cubs in 2006 near Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey. Their close proximity to jet traffic illustrates how the red fox has readily adapted to living near humans.

Today the red fox is considered the only fox in Idaho. The smaller kit fox has all but disappeared from the state, but can still be found in warmer climes to the south.

Their red cousins, however, have been more successful, in large part because they adapt well to the presence of humans and they're not as fussy about what they'll eat.

What's on the menu?

Practically anything that humans eat is on the menu of the red fox. Although about 60 percent of their diet consists of mice, voles and other small rodents, they are considered omnivorous. They find rabbits tasty, as well as pheasants and other wild game birds. They're not adverse to raiding garbage cans or even sneaking a meal from cat or dog bowls. Fruits and vegetables are just fine, and the red fox has been known to raid gardens and are particularly fond of cabbage and turnips. Occasionally they kill domestic turkeys or chickens and have even been known to make off with domestic cats.

"Any good predator that's going to be successful will pretty much eat what he finds—they're not going to be too picky," said Mike Todd, regional fur-bearer specialist for the Magic Valley Region of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

Sometimes they rely on humans almost exclusively for their meals.

"People should not be in the habit of feeding them," Todd said. "I know good and well up in Blaine County that people feed them. But I would discourage this—they're cunning enough that they can find their own groceries."

No protection for the fox

There is no legal protection in Idaho for the red fox. You can legally kill one except in game sanctuaries as long as you've got a trapping or hunting license. There's no season on them either—they can be shot or trapped any day of the year. They're classed as fur-bearers because their fur has a marketable value.

While red fox sightings are common in the Wood River Valley, the species is harder to spot in other parts of the state, mainly because they are nocturnal by nature and not as popular elsewhere.

"When they're in an area where they know they won't get killed, they aren't very scared," Todd said. "People in Blaine County like foxes. You don't see many down here in the Magic Valley in daytime."

In farm country, foxes are often seen as a nuisance because of their propensity to kill domestic fowl. Hunters sometimes blame them for declining pheasant populations, but Todd said that's not the case.

"The pheasant population is down because of declining habitat and not because of the fox," he said. "The removal of the fox ... is not going to bring the pheasant population back."

Coyotes don't like them either, and will kill them if they find them.

"Coyotes don't get along with fox and coyotes don't get along with wolves," Todd said. "It's known that if you decrease the coyote population that you can increase the fox population."

So what is happening with the fox population in Blaine County and elsewhere in Idaho? That remains unknown because no studies have been done. Todd said the population seems healthy, but without studies its impossible to say if the population is stable or on the increase or decline.

Foxes and humans

Experts agree that foxes don't make good pets. In fact, it's illegal in Idaho to own one. Foxes fall into that category, along with skunks and raccoons, because of their potential to carry rabies. "Rabies have never been documented in a fox in Idaho," he said. "But the potential exists for them to have rabies—therefore there's the prohibition."

Todd said a fox might bite a person if they get too close, but beyond that they present very little threat to humankind. The best way to treat a wild fox is to enjoy them from a distance, he said.

"Respect them and let them be the wild animal they want to be."

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