By DAVID WASMUTH
For Montclair Local
Sly and cunning are two common descriptors. It has even given us the term “outfox.” It’s hard to think of another animal so associated with intelligent deception, but does the fox, ever more common in Montclair, really deserve to be put in the unsavory company of con artists and unscrupulous sales people?
First, when we talk about foxes in the Northeast, we should keep in mind that there are two species: the red fox and the grey fox. The grey fox is rare and sticks to forested, undeveloped areas, avoiding people. The much more common red fox is perfectly happy to have us around. It favors farmland and has adapted well to suburbs, including Montclair.
The red fox’s origins in New Jersey are uncertain. No trace of it has been found here from precolonial times. One theory is that the deforestation and expansion of farmland brought on by colonization reduced the range of the native grey fox and allowed the red fox to expand south from its previous range farther north. A competing theory holds that the red fox was deliberately introduced here from England by colonists eager to re-create in America that sadistic pastime of the English ruling class, the fox hunt (in the words of Oscar Wild, “the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable”).
However it got here, once settled in New Jersey the red fox thrived in the altered landscape. Not long ago considered exotic in Montclair, it is now commonly sighted. Considering that it is mainly nocturnal, it is likely more common than we realize.
And why not? Life is good for foxes in Montclair. No serious predators aside from cars, lots of places to shelter, and plenty of food, both natural (squirrels, groundhogs, rabbits, mice, chipmunks) and human-supplied (house cats and backyard chickens).
The fox’s reputation for devious smarts may stem in part from its alert, intelligent-looking face, but is likely based on its sneaky hunting techniques. Although related to dogs and wolves, foxes hunt with a stealth that recalls cats. Their partially retractable claws help them sneak up on prey silently. They lie in wait and then attack with a sudden cat-like pounce of up to 15 feet, pin the prey to the ground, and kill with a bite to the neck. They also have keen hearing and will dig to capture small mammals if they detect the sound of digging.
Breeding takes place from late January to early February, when males compete for females. With scream-like howls, females announce that they’re looking for a mate. The competition between suitors is not especially violent, mainly involving a lot of jumping around, pushing and displays of tail; the male with the bushiest tail tends to win the female’s (or vixen’s) affections. The relationship established, a couple often remains monogamous for life. In any case, they stay together as a family through at least the first season, sharing care for the kits, which are born in late March or early April.
By June, the kits are weaned and start following their parents on hunts. By late summer, the new generation of foxes starts hunting on their own. At this point, the young males begin to disperse, moving as far away as 15 miles. Young vixens stay closer to home and may even help their parents feed the next litter.
Foxes use dens – often repurposed groundhog burrows, but space under porches or sheds can also serve – when they give birth and are raising litters. Most of the rest of the year, including in winter, they sleep in the open, curled up in a ball for warmth.
While the red fox has adapted well to the proximity of humans, one human-caused problem poses a serious threat. Mange, a parasitic infection that causes mammals to lose patches of fur, was deliberately introduced to western coyote populations in the early 20th century in a vain attempt at coyote control.
While it did little to reduce coyote numbers, it infected other wild canine species, including foxes. It’s now common to see foxes with the bald patches caused by mange. This is not just unsightly; the damage to its fur makes a fox extremely vulnerable to winter cold.
Red foxes are curious animals and not particularly shy of humans. Videos circulate of them acting as playful as a dog or cat with people they are accustomed to.
As cute as this may seem, it should not be encouraged. Although they are not aggressive toward people, foxes are wild animals, not pets, and like any wild mammal they can be unpredictable and should not be approached or deliberately fed.
I confess to a soft spot for foxes. Their shady reputation does not seem deserved. I admire their family values and like the fact that, aside from hunting, they are generally gentle and nonviolent. As a vegetable gardener, I applaud their contributions to groundhog control. I sympathize with backyard chickens, but they should be safe if they are securely closed up in their coops at night. As for house cats, their place is in the house, where they will neither hunt nor be hunted. And while I don’t buy into the negative “cunning” stereotype, it must have taken some level of intelligence and adaptability for red foxes to become the world’s most widespread wild predator.
In “What’s in Your Backyard,” Sanford Sorkin and David Wasmuth will alternate writing about the birds and beasts you may see around your house. Wasmuth is a local environmentalist and amateur naturalist. He is a Rutgers environmental steward and the founder of the Montclair Backyard Habitat Project. Seen a bird or animal you want to know more about? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.