Wild Wanderings: Foxes in Maryland

Photo | Orietta C. Estrada An important part of our ecosystem, foxes help fight Lyme disease by eating rodents who may be hosts for the infected ticks.

Photo | Orietta C. Estrada
An important part of our ecosystem, foxes help fight Lyme disease by eating rodents who may be hosts for the infected ticks.

Red foxes are one of two fox species found in Maryland; the other is the gray fox. These small canines, weighing up to 14 pounds, are related to dogs, coyotes and wolves. Their lifespan is short, maxing out at around four to five years and, in contrast to their pack-oriented relatives, they are solitary by nature.

Range and Breeding

The species as a whole ranges from “Eurasia and North America except for polar, desert and tropical regions, as well as Arabia and North Africa,” and are considered an invasive species in Australia, according to biologist William Riley, an assistant field surveyor for Swansea University. These animals spend their entire lives within their home territory, so if you’re regularly seeing a fox in your neighborhood, it could be the same individual.

They are active all year, mating in the winter and having litters of pups in the spring. That means that we should be seeing fox pups around town soon! Despite being solitary when compared to their social cousins, males and females come together to dig burrows, or rehab old groundhog holes. Riley said that males help raise the litter, which is four to eight pups, by bringing food to the vixen while she stays in the den. Interestingly, Riley, who has spent hours in the field with red foxes at his university, has observed two subadults from a prior year “babysitting” their mother’s recent litter while she was out foraging. Apparently, it takes a village to raise pups, too.

A Fox’s Place in Your Community

Foxes are typically seen during the night and at dawn. You can spot them in the evening by noting the color that is reflected back from their eyes as they catch the light from your flashlight or high beams. A fox’s eyes will reflect back white or light blue. (For reference: Cats and dogs will reflect green.) So, keep an eye out for foxes while you’re driving at night.

These canines are an important part of our ecosystem. Riley said that foxes “help fight Lyme disease by eating rodents.” He explained that though it was originally believed the increase in Lyme disease following wolf extirpation on the East Coast was due to increases in deer populations without predation, “rodents are much more important hosts for Lyme-carrying ticks than deer.” When the wolves were extirpated, coyote populations increased, which caused fox populations to decrease and lowered “the amount of dedicated rodent predators in the area.” This means that a fox in your community is a good thing.

Red foxes have a natural fear of humans, so if you do come across one, don’t be alarmed. Give it space and move out of the area—or stay still and enjoy the moment. Riley explained that foxes are also afraid of “larger canids due to natural persecution from wolves and coyotes.” About cats, he said, “there is typically little risk for the cat; foxes’ preferred prey are rodents and animals of similar size.” However, he cautioned, if you keep chickens, foxes may kill poultry given the chance; therefore, a secure chicken coop should be used. Foxes are omnivores and will eat fruits, plants, nuts, crayfish, birds, rodents and insects, so they’re not on the prowl to harm pets.

On my wild wanderings, I often come across foxes, and whenever I spot a fiery-red coat trotting across a field, tail gently bobbing behind, I can’t help but quietly ooh and ahh. Every time. They never cease to amaze me with their wild beauty. Should you have the opportunity to observe a fox or a pup this spring, I encourage you to take in the moment. However, if the animal is in danger (e.g., in the road, fallen into a pool, or injured), especially a pup, reach out to Maryland DNR at dnr.maryland.gov/wildlife.

Have a question about birds or wildlife in the area? Email orietta@towncourier.com.