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Lessons from an adaptable trickster

THE OLD RED FOX has learned a few new tricks. One PEI woman reports that a fox comes to her yard every day to play with her dog. Pedestrians have found themselves at crosswalks waiting for a light to change alongside a patient fox. Matt Rainnie, a popular CBC morning show host, claims he’s seen, on several occasions, a fox sitting at the Tim Hortons drive through “as if waiting for its morning double-double.” One PEI resident has even seen foxes bouncing on a backyard trampoline.

This unusual behaviour, while shocking to the beholder, is a natural manifestation of the fox’s most important characteristic: its adaptability. With this ability to learn and change, the red fox has earned the largest population range of any land-based wild carnivore on the planet. The species covers more than 70 million square kilometres and can be found from the Arctic Circle to Central America, in Asia and North Africa. Using that same adaptability, foxes have become common in cities throughout the world, including most of Atlantic Canada’s urban centres. (The exception is Halifax, probably because it’s a small coastal area cut off from the mainland, with terrain that doesn’t naturally attract them.) For the most part, urbanites don’t see them. Foxes are too discreet and too timid. But they are there.

They are also wicked smart. The red fox has earned its place in folklore as a trickster: impossible to catch in Greek lore, a clever thief in Celtic mythology and possessing powerful magic in Japanese legend. While specialist animals survive in certain conditions, foxes thrive across the continents even as forest cover decreases worldwide.

They have a particular affinity for farms, golf courses, suburbs and cities. In these developed landscapes they easily find their favourite food: small rodents. Their attuned ears can hear a burrowing mouse underground. They also eat berries, insects, eggs, fruit, birds, frogs, and have such undiscerning palates they can dine nearly anywhere.

“They are generalists like humans, rats and pigeons,” says Simon Gadbois, a canid expert at Dalhousie University. “They’ll adapt to almost anything.”

Fox facts

Unlike most animals, the fox’s range has increased with the human population. The species originated in Eurasia a few million years ago and came to North America after the last ice age. In some parts of our region, foxes imported for the fur industry were released when wearing animal fur became passé, and may have interbred with the wild population.

In the Atlantic Canadian wild there are three varieties of “red” fox. The red fox, coloured as the name implies, is the most common, comprising two-thirds of foxes in Newfoundland and Labrador and at least half of those in Atlantic Canada.

But there is also the silver fox, a misnomer since its fur is black or dark grey, and the cross fox, which is all fire and pepper with a distinctive cross of dark fur at the shoulders. They are rare elsewhere but relatively common in Atlantic Canada.

Foxes and people

Foxes move to the city as a result of some push factor. Locally, that factor is often coyotes, one of the few animals to hunt foxes, specifically kits (the young). For that reason, you rarely find the two species occupying the same turf.

Once urbanized, foxes benefit from abundant city food. But it isn’t what you’d call “natural” eating. “People give them steaks, whole chickens... they buy food specifically for the foxes,” says Marina Silva-Opps, a terrestrial ecologist studying foxes with University of Prince Edward Island.

Unlike the fox populations in most cities, Charlottetown’s has grown large enough that human-fox interactions are commonplace. Her team has even found tinfoil, plastic and coffee beans in the stomachs of dead foxes.

City foxes also find a safe haven from predators and trappers. In forests and on farms their kits risk attack by larger predators like bobcat and great horned owls. Though, adult foxes put up enough of a fight to mostly avoid such threats, and may also ward off predators with their pungent, skunk-like musk.

Without predators, populations grow quickly in cities. This year, Silva-Opps’ team found 89 dens in Charlottetown. Foxes dig networks around of four or five holes per family (they breed monogamously) and birth anywhere from four to nine kits in the spring, about 52 days later (a bit less than a domestic dog). Judging from the number of dens, between 160 to 170 kits were born there last spring.

Silva-Opps marvels at the fascinating feats of the Charlottetown foxes, clear demonstrations of their intelligent adaptability, their ability to watch and learn. “Foxes crossing the road on the walk light, they actually wait until the light changes,” says Silva-Opps.

In a large metropolis like London, England, foxes often have short life spans. That is not necessarily so in Atlantic Canadian cities.

Here, where streets are smaller and less packed with cars, urban foxes encounter little in the way of danger, and there are only a few recorded mortalities.

Unfortunately, many people who get used to living among foxes embrace the creatures, literally, by picking up and cuddling the kits. Surveys show that a third of Charlottetown residents have either fed or wished to feed, the foxes. These interactions risk human exposure to disease and fox exposure to an unnatural, unwholesome diet.

As a result, rather than eradicate urban foxes—a likely impossibility—governments and researchers are working to educate the public on proper human-fox encounters, which should involve no more than observation.

“They’re a fascinating little species and have a special place in my heart,” Dalhousie’s Gadbois says excitedly. “Where I grew up I spent a lot of time observing them.” That observation is best done safely, from a distance, whether in city, farm or forest.

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