Fox family makes for great observation

T-R PHOTO BY GARRY BRANDENBURG - A female red fox and one of her six kits enjoys late afternoon sunlight near her den site in Albion. The fox family was utilizing an abandoned house for shelter by digging out a burrow system under a portion of the building. The kits like to roam about, play and tussle with each other in late afternoon or early evening times. Red foxes prefer foods such as moles, shrews, rabbits, mice, insects, bird eggs and nestlings. Fruit during the summer will also be utilized. They are most active at night when they conduct hunting forays.

RED FOX (Vulpes fulva) are common but not seen often. This small canine family member is about three-feet long including tail. Adults weigh about seven to 14 pounds. They are the only mammal with a rusty red fur coat. Fur on its outer ears, legs and feet are dark brown to blackish. White can be found on its cheeks, throat and underside plus at the tip of its long bushy tail. Fox ears are very acute, being able to discern prey species activities from far away or even under thick cover of snow. Classified as a carnivore, they will take some plant materials.

Fox in the city is a common finding among biologists. Why? Part of the reasons have a lot to do with competition from coyotes which are everywhere in rural countrysides. However, within a cityscape, large or small, coyotes are less abundant and foxes seem to have found that living close to people is not all bad. The advantages add up for foxes trying to survive. So they go with what works. In a city, finding food may be a tad easier. They learn routes to travel and where people have left dog dishes outside. Free food for a fox is part of their strategy. Of course, rabbits, mice and other small critters can be

captured also during nocturnal patrols. People sleeping away the night may be completely unaware of the comings and goings of red foxes.

A pair of foxes will mate in late January to early February. Gestation takes about 50 to 55 days. Kits will be born in late March to early April. Litter sizes can be from four to 10 kits. Most litter sizes are mid-range, however. The availability of food sources will dictate how many of the kits make it to independence by summer’s end. Kits have a lot to learn and a short time to soak up knowledge on how to survive.

At two months of age, kits are weaned. At this time in their lives, coat color is sandy brown with dark colored fur on their feet. By the end of June, their coats will take on a more reddish color. By the end of summer, in July and August, the kits will be on their own, seeking out new territories with sufficient cover and foods.

Red foxes live three to seven years if all goes well. Kits may be vulnerable when they accompany the vixen on night time hunts. Barred or great-horned owls may try to take a kit. Hawks may try to the same.

And if paths cross with coyotes, the chase will be on. Coyotes are fast, but red foxes are a bit more agile especially in thick brushy cover. A few crossing of a highway incidents do take foxes when cars or trucks strike them.

Red foxes will come into contact with other critters like skunks, groundhogs or weasels. Most of the time the outcome is a standoff. If diseases like rabies, coccidiosis and sarcoptic mange are in other wild critter encounters, the fox may pick up the disease. Rabies is not a nice thing for the fox or any critter it may bite. It is usually

fatal. Coccidiosis is an intestinal disease caused by various species of protozoans. Contaminated soils holding the protozoans is the culprit. Sarcoptic mange is a highly infectious vector caused by burrowing mites. If the mite infestation is severe, burrow sites may stay contaminated for a long time. Part of Mother Natures plan for foxes to

dig new den sites is to avoid mite problems in old burrows. A new “home” every year for foxes is a good thing.

Worldwide there are eleven species of foxes occurring in North America, Europe, Asia and North Africa. Even Australia has red fox due to introduction of the species. Antarctica is the only continent without foxes. Arctic foxes will have all white fur coats curing the long winter and more dull gray to black summer hair. Arctic foxes are adept at finding ground nesting arctic bird nests, and given the opportunity, will raid the nest for eggs or young birds. The red fox of North America will also raid ground nesting birds … if they find a nest. Life is not easy for foxes and not easy for ground nesting birds like pheasants or wild turkeys. In the give and take of life cycles, some must die so that others may live.

A short word or two about BALD EAGLES. This scribe knows of at least seven active nests in Marshall County this year. I am certain I do not know of others. But for those nests where I can take a peak via the use of a spotting scope, the young baby eagles are growing well. Eagles are adaptable and making a go of their duty to live and reproduce. To see eaglets doing their thing, do go to the website for raptor resources. At Decorah, a tree camera with remote control is allowing the entire world of eagle watchers to share the life of a pair of adult eagles coping with raising their two young birds. Three eggs were laid

at the Decorah nest. The first egg was broken on March 11. The other two eggs laid on Feb. 26 and March 26 made it through incubation. They hatched on April 4 and April 7 respectively. Each young eagle is now about one month old.

One thing to note on how young eagle’s bodies grow is the disproportionate rate of development of body parts. The legs feet seem to get larger quicker than the rest of the body. Head and beak make a quick growth also. Wings take the longest but will soon take up the slack. Fresh fish, little mammals and other tidbits of food brought to the nest by parent birds will be consumed quickly. Adult eagles will soon find ravenous appetites of young birds a more than full-time job to supply food for themselves and the family. Since the eagle camera and live trapping/banding of Decorah eagles, D-32 and D-33 are well on their way to a successful first flight later this summer.

FORESTS are making huge leaps in development during May. Buds are popping and leaves are expanding. Green colors are now dominating the canopy as sunlight and photosynthesis begin for another year. Insects are awakening after a long sleep. All is just in time for another month of May clockwork mainstay, the return of warbles and lots of other species of neotropical birds. Every park setting in Marshall County will soon have these returning visitors. Look for Orchard and Baltimore Orioles, Bobolinks in grassland habitats, and in the forests, tanagers, buntings, redstarts, thrushes, wrens and kingbirds.

On the forest floor, wildflowers are well on the way to emerge. White, purple and pink blossoms will be everywhere. Wildflowers and their habitats tend to be fragile. Picking the flowers from a natural area is illegal. They are not really the best of specimens for a bouquet. Leave them growing where you see them. An extensive list of books and field guides exists to assist a person with identification. A few common names will soon come to your attention such as bloodroot, spring beauty, anemone, dogtooth violet, jack-in-the-pulpit, sweet william phlox, ladyslipper, blueflag iris and many many more.

Taking a hike now in any forest is nice since mosquitoes have not populated extensively. Morel mushrooms are beginning to pop up out of the forest leaf litter. Wood ducks whistle their alarm calls if one gets too close to a hollow tree nest site. Raccoons may be out and about searching for food. Garter snakes have come out of den sites so they can

find insect meals to munch on. Little frogs are peeping away in a chorus of song meant to attract other frogs for the advance of new frog eggs. Life is bursting at the seams to conduct business during 2019. Be there to observe and learn. Nature is therapy of the best kind.


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.