The tale of the tails
A District reader tells Answer Man that he was surprised to see an adult red fox in his back yard. Just how common are foxes here?
I grew up near Seattle and I am used to urban wildlife, especially raccoons. I live between 13th and 14th streets on T Street NW, and last week I saw an adult red fox in my backyard. I was too slow to get a picture, and it scurried off into an alley. Are foxes common in the area?
— James McAllister, Washington
Let’s put it this way: Foxes are not uncommon.
Obviously, you’ll find them in Rock Creek Park, that wonderful slice of nature that hangs down like a leafy, green uvula.
“There’s always been foxes in the park,” said Ken Ferebee, Rock Creek’s natural resource management specialist. “I personally think there’s more now than there used to be. I’m not sure why that is. It’s the perfect situation for them, having wooded areas, then having all the neighborhoods around. There are ample food sources and plenty of places for them to shelter.”
Foxes are frequently seen on streets that border the park, and it’s not unusual for them to venture even further afield. “Their range can be that large,” Ken said. “They’ve adapted to the point where they can create a den site that doesn’t need to be in a wooded area. It could be under a house, in an alley, under somebody’s garage or storage shed. It’s conceivable they’ve established an area around Logan Circle. They don’t need a lot, really.”
What foxes do need besides shelter is food. And Washington — from forested Rock Creek Park to the mean streets of Logan Circle and Columbia Heights — is a big buffet table. Their principal food source is small mammals: mice, squirrels, chipmunks . . . and rats.
“There’s probably plenty of food down there,” Ken said of reader James’s neighborhood. “A fox will get into trash, too, if there’s an opportunity.”
Scott Giacoppo, vice president of external affairs for the Washington Humane Society, said mild winters can result in a rise in wild animal populations.
“There’s a likelihood that more kits from foxes — more raccoons and possums — will survive to have an extended life expectancy,” Scott said.
The relationship between animals and humans can sometimes be an uneasy one. Foxes do get rabies. When they do, they can be especially aggressive. They will chase humans and can bite them, as happened to a woman last week in Rock Creek Park.
“A fox poses no threat to you and your family, unless [it’s] sick or injured,” Scott said.
Although foxes are primarily dusk and dawn animals, Scott said that one of them being out in the day doesn’t necessarily mean it’s sick. If the animal looks healthy — with a shiny coat and clear eyes — and isn’t acting abnormally, it needn’t be feared.
“We would advise people to admire their beauty,” Scott said. “Take a picture. Never approach them. If they’re hanging around the yard, I would start looking for reasons why.” Make sure trash is secured, and if you have a bird feeder, clean up dropped seeds and shells regularly.
Ken said the fox’s only natural predator around here is the coyote. That’s right: Coyotes have been in Rock Creek Park since at least 2004. “We’ve seen one as recently as November of last year,” Ken said. He gets about eight to 10 coyote-sighting reports annually.
“I think the size of the park is going to limit their population,” Ken said. They need more room than foxes. They, too, can venture out of the park.
“I haven’t heard a lot of stories in this area of coyotes being aggressive,” Ken said. “They can get aggressive if people start feeding them. Then they’re going to be expecting food and associating food with humans.”
Coyotes can get about as big as a German shepherd (or about twice the size of a fox). Ken said he’s heard reports of coyotes taking pets, but he’s doubtful that happens very frequently. Coyotes eat the same things as foxes, along with everything from frogs to acorns. Although a hungry coyote may go after a Chihuahua in the yard, it wouldn’t be its top food choice.
“There’s been some research done out in the Los Angeles area and Chicago, where they’ve looked at some diets of coyotes,” Ken said. “They found that only 1 to 2 percent of it is pets.”
Whether it’s foxes or coyotes, remember: It’s an urban jungle out there.
A young red fox stands in the tall grass in Waterbury, Vt. Foxes can often be found in Rock Creek Park, where woods surrounded by neighborhoods offer them plenty of food and shelter.