A flash of orange-red caught my eye one morning as I walked through the park to work. Something in the brush moved quickly and silently. I moved closer to the tangled brush where the figure moved, but I saw nothing. There were no leaves on the trees and just a hint of green coming from eager forest floor herbs. In this landscape, an orange (or reddish-brown) animal should be easy to spot. Only when it moved again was I able to confirm my suspicions. That’s a red fox!
In the city, red foxes are not uncommon, but they are uncommonly seen. Stealth, adaptability, and abundant prey are the reasons why red foxes can live so close to humans and their impact. City parks, woodland corridors, and backyard gardens offer perfect refuges for the red fox and its prey–primarily rodents.
Since that encounter, I’ve come to know the red foxes of Schenley Park. The foxes have little fear of humans, but they still lurk just out of view. I discovered a fox den in a surprising location in the park. The den is well-hidden in a rocky ledge, but still within a few feet of a busy trail. Occasionally, I stopped to watch the foxes as joggers, bikers, and even dog-walkers passed by, all of them totally unaware of the little predator in the shadows. Kits would dart into a den entrance as a noisy bunch of people passed, then poke their heads out minutes later to check for signs of danger.
Hunting for chipmunks, squirrels, mice, shrews, songbirds, and other small animals is a full-time job for a fox parent. The mother and father provide for their kits and might hunt for prey as large as woodchucks and rabbits. While out hunting, fox kits might sleep or play with a parent in a cleared area adjacent to the den. Play reinforces hunting skills and is an important part of a fox kit’s development. Fox kits might find bones, sticks, or sometimes plastic debris to gnaw on or play with.
By July the foxes had moved dens. Perhaps the trail-side den was too precarious for growing kits, food resources were depleted locally, or maybe the smell of the midden attracted unwanted visitors. For whatever reason, foxes move dens on occasion. I stopped noticing the foxes at play outside the den and started noticing chipmunks boldly darting around the den. Somehow the mouse knows when the cat is gone.
Adaptability is key for red fox survival in urban and suburban areas. Red foxes can build dens in city parks, but might also choose to make a den underneath porches or sheds, and in steep hillside roadcuts. Out of sight and usually inaccessible, the red fox can raise kits and have easy access to nearby food sources. Red foxes also usually hunt at night, except during the demanding kit-rearing season. Urban and suburban areas with forest corridors like railroad tracks, ravines, rivers, and wooded areas along highways offer just enough cover and prey for a fox.
It’s been weeks since I’ve seen the Schenley Park foxes. Summer flourished and stormed and I’ve wondered if the foxes thrived in the flourish or were swept away in the storms. Given their talent for surviving where other animals struggle, I’m confident that the foxes are still around. On my weekly commute to work, I glance up the wooded hillsides occasionally, hoping to see a flash of red fur, but these sneaky predators have faded back into the shadows again. I’m sure they’ll see me next before I see them.