Welcome to this installment of Kings Park Focus on Nature.
A few days ago I saw a Red Fox darting in front of me, across the trail I was running on in Sunken Meadow State Park. Wow - an amazing sight! So I was inspired to share with you some information about Vulpes vulpes, the Red Fox, in this blog.
The Red Fox is a member of the canine family, which of course includes dogs. A typical Red Fox is, as the name implies, reddish orange in hue, with a mix of grey fur, white patches under the muzzle and throat, and feet and fore legs which are very dark brown to black. There are a number of color “morphs”, which occasionally occur as well. The end of the bushy tail is tipped in white. The tail accounts for nearly half the overall length of the adult fox, which ranges from 48” to 57”. These features combine to make the fox a handsome mammal.
Foxes are successful creatures in part because of the many varieties of food they eat. They are primarily predators, eating mammals like mice, voles, rabbits, and squirrels. These prey are often taken with a stealthy stalk completed by a nearly vertical leap which brings them down on the target from above. Other food items include insects, reptiles, birds and their eggs, and fruit and berries. Even if not hungry, foxes will kill prey, and then store it in a cache for retrieval when the need arises.
As with many of our Long Island mammals, foxes are more active at night. They usually spend the daytime resting near their den. Dens are excavated from abandoned burrows started by smaller animals, which are enlarged by the fox. In our area these can often be found on hillsides, under a downed tree, stump, or rock. The entrance is typically recognizable from the large pile of earth and sand piled up from the foxes digging activity. Sometimes bones and other remains of prey items can be seen strewn in front of the burrow. For a view of a Red Fox den here in Kings Park, see the photographs that accompany this blog.
Foxes mate in late winter. The female fox (called a vixen) will give birth to as many as ten “kits”. The male fox (called a dog) hunts for and brings food to the female, who will in turn regurgitate food for the young kits as they begin to wean from her milk. Talk about being a devoted mother! These animals are social. Family groups consist of a dominant pair, and subordinate males and females, which are usually younger relatives. The subordinate animals assist in hunting for food for the kits and guarding the den. Eventually these subordinate foxes will move on to aquire their own territories and start family groups of their own.
It is during the mating season that fox calls are most frequently heard, as at this time they are prospecting for mates or squabbling over territory. In the later case the fighting call is called “gekkering”, which is a series of staccato sounds. Foxes have numerous other calls that feature a rather otherworldly screeching tone.
If while hiking in the woods you notice a strong “skunky” odor, you are probably catching a whiff of an area marked by a Red Fox’s urine, rather than a skunk. We do have skunks on Long Island, but they are uncommon, and found mostly on the eastern end of Long Island. Foxes use their urine to mark territory. Another sign of these rarely sighted animals is their scat. It is usually laden with fur, bones, feathers, seeds, and other indigestible matter, and deposited on top of stumps, logs, and rocks, often habitually.
There is another, much less common species of fox on Long Island – the Grey Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus). This is a much smaller animal, with a length of 30” to 45” as an adult. It has an overall grey color, though it also has some reddish patches of fur like it’s larger cousin. The Grey Fox is similar in its life history to the Red Fox, but is noted for it’s more feline like behavior. This little canine, like a cat, is a very agile climber. The Grey Fox and Red Fox species do not interbreed. The Red Fox has expanded its range in the eastern United States in part due to the changes in the landscape wrought by man, and it out competes the Grey Fox for food and territory.
The Red Fox is a beautiful representative of our local wildlife. As mentioned above, I’ve seen them in Sunken State Park, Caleb Smith Sate Park, and Aurthur Kunz County Park. A diorama including a Red Fox is on display in the visitors center at Nissequougue River State Park visitors center, and at South Shore Nature Center in Islip. Accompanying this blog is a drawing I’ve done showing a fox atop a boulder in Kunz County Park and several photographs. Keep your eyes and ears open for these small canines while enjoying our local natural areas and you just might have a thrilling encounter with one. See you on the trails!