The tale of the tails

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - John Kelly’s Washington Have a ques­tion about the Washington area? Send it to an­swer­man@wash­post.com. To see pre­vi­ous col­umns, go to wash­ing­ton­post.com/johnkelly.

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.

MITCH MO­RASKI/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

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