June 11, 2006

Sightings of red foxes delight wildlife lovers

by Paula M. Davenport

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Even inveterate wildlife lovers are swooning over a trio of red foxes -- an adult and two youngsters, called kits or pups -- recently seen hunting and frolicking on the edge of Southern Illinois University's Carbondale campus.

For those who study and work on campus, such a sight is among the advantages of a non-metropolitan university.

The adult fox brought the kits to campus on a "field trip" on a sunny afternoon last week.

While the youngsters hunkered down near a tree line, the grown fox sprang from the brush, shot across a sprawling lawn and pounced on a plump, red fox squirrel -- an aptly named feast for three.

While it appears to be the first such sighting here in recent memory, foxes are growing ever more acclimated to living nearer to people, experts agree.

"It's not that incredibly rare," says Clay Nielson, an assistant scientist at the University's Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory. "Foxes and other animals, such as coyotes, tend to do very well in these kinds of environments, even if it's close to town."

The kits are thought to be about eight to 10 weeks old and are about the size of German shepherd puppies at that age -- just skinnier. The adult is little more than twice the size of the offspring.

The critters boast healthy-looking bright red coats, slightly oversized ears -- the better to hear you with, my dear -- white chests and lower muzzles and signature long, fluffy red and black-tinged tails with white tips.

But their visits near campus could be short lived.

They may be making day trips away from the den where they were born to practice hunting while gaining strength, endurance and agility.

It's doubtful the local squirrel population will plummet, though. Foxes also feed on rabbits, rodents, other wild mammals and birds, carrion, insects and plants.

"Some (fox) families move to temporary dens or other hiding places like road culverts at this point in the pups' lives," according to information on the Illinois Natural History Survey or INHS Web site, http://www.inhs.uiuc.edu/dnr/fur/species/redfox.html.

"Pups start fending for themselves at 16-20 weeks of age, but don't stray more than a half mile from their den for the next few weeks. By fall, they're fully grown and leave the area where they were raised. Young males travel an average of 25 miles from where they were born," states the Internet site. Though found throughout Illinois, red foxes are most common in the northern two-thirds of the state.

Today, the species is making a comeback. Many foxes died during a mange epidemic in the late 1960s and ' 70s.

"While not as abundant as they once were, red foxes are still common in Illinois. During late spring or early summer, densities of up to three red foxes per square mile can be found in the best habitats," explains the INHS Web site.

Meanwhile, the foxes' near-campus location remains a secret for fear they'll leave should folks flock to see them.

"Human disturbance will significantly increase the chance that they may move. Even though they tolerate some human activity, I think the mother would move them if there's a lot of new activity or movement," says Nielson.

Still, who knows? Maybe they'll stick around and convert to "Saluki-ism."