By Sally Griffin
Some animals capture the human imagination. This is true in many lands and many times. These animals are imbued with characteristics that seem all too human. This is especially true for the fox. Viewed as the embodiment of trickery, even to the point of treachery, foxes are met with both respect for and disapproval of their craftiness. The word shenanigan (a deceitful trick or mischief) is said to come from the Irish expression sionnachuighim, meaning, “I play the fox.” The story of Goldilocks and the three bears is supposedly derived from an older tale of three bears who live in a castle in the woods that is visited by the fox, Scrapefoot, who drinks their milk, sits in their chairs and sleeps in their beds.
Where does this come from and why the fox? In myths, the coyote is a close competitor for trickiness. However, more often than not, Old Man Coyote ends up tricking himself. In the wild, where coyotes and foxes are found together, it is the coyote that wins the day and the territory. However, the fox is almost an archetype (pure embodiment) of living successfully by one’s wits and getting ahead, often at the expense of others. The moral of most stories has the fox as someone to be both admired and loathed. They are seen as a being who is intrinsically untrustworthy. Hence a “foxy lady” is both someone who is appealing and attractive and someone who is not to be trusted. Maybe part of this is because foxes are asocial. They live by themselves. Ironically, when looking at the actions and demeanor of real foxes, there are many reason to doubt many of the myths and tales about foxes.
Foxes are found throughout the world, apart from Antarctica. Four out of the five kinds of foxes live successfully in Colorado. These include the most common type – the red foxes – but also swift, kit and gray foxes. Each fox has its own niche habitat in Colorado. The gray fox lives in areas with lots of brush, the kit and swift fox, who are closely linked in size and hunting habits, live in the desert area shrub-lands. The red fox lives pretty much wherever he wants to live. This includes our area which, not unlike most urban areas in Colorado, is home to many red foxes. They commonly live in areas where they can find the things they need: water, food and places for dens. If humans also want to inhabit those same areas, the fox is willing to share. Foxes become accustomed to human activity and are seldom aggressive toward people.
The red fox is best identified by its reddish coat, black legs and ears, and long, white-tipped, bushy tail. But according to the Colorado Division of Wildlife, they can also be jet black or silver with white accents. Foxes, while part of Canidae family (the same family as wolves and coyotes) are much smaller and much less strong than other canids. They weigh from 6 to 31 pounds, stand 14 to 20 inches tall and are 17 to 36 inches long. Their tail adds 12 to 21 inches to their length. For such a small creature, the red fox is a beautiful sight.
Watching a red fox hunt in deep snow is a wonderful experience. Their red coat is striking against the white of the snow. The fox sits so quietly that you wonder what he is doing. But if you watch carefully, you will see his ears twitching just slightly. Suddenly, he crouches, then jumps high in the air and his landing digs a sudden deep hole in the snow. At the bottom of the hole is a mouse that is quickly dispensed with and carried off to one of the fox’s dens for storage, or, depending on the time of year, to the main den where hungry kits wait. Experts say that foxes can pounce up to 16 feet to land on their prey. Their hearing is highly developed which allows them to hunt even in deep snow.
The omnivorous red fox is skilled at hunting, in addition to rodents, rabbits and birds, and birds’ eggs. They will also eat insects, grasshoppers, fish, crawfish and worms. Occasionally, they like desserts of fruit, berries and nuts. Red foxes often live alone, on a range of 5 to 10 square miles, depending on food availability. In urban settings they tolerate each other in closer proximity because more food is available. Although they are spotted at all times of day, they tend to be more active at dawn and dusk. Their eating habits are what get them in trouble with the humans with whom they cohabitate.
The old saying about “The fox in the hen house,” is based on the ability of a single fox to decimate the population of the hen house or rabbit hutch in an amazingly short period of time. Also, danger to small pets, particularly those under 10 pounds, is possible, although typically rare. The other threat from foxes involve diseases like rabies and mange. In fact, the City of Wheat Ridge has recently experienced an increase in calls reporting foxes with Sarcoptic Mange. This is an infestation of mites on the animal’s skin, which can cause hair loss, severe irritation and can cause death to the animal. It is highly contagious to humans and pets.
The good news is that foxes are very shy and will usually avoid people. However, if they have found your area to be a good or easy source of food, they are likely to return when they don’t think you are around. And their reputation is well deserved. They will find ways to tease guard dogs. They quickly adapt to noise-making devices and flashing lights, which provide only a temporary deterrent. A combination of frightening devices used at irregular intervals may keep the foxes from figuring them out. If noise and light at random times will drive you nuts, another deterrent is Mylar balloons bobbing around the protected areas. Most authorities agree that the best bet is to simply deny the foxes access to food sources, including vulnerable livestock. Experts suggest:
• Never feed foxes.
• Do not try to befriend them.
• Monitor your pets’ activities when they are outside.
• Provide backyard poultry and rabbits with good, secure housing.
• Prevent foxes from denning under porches, decks or outbuildings.
• If you spot a sick fox in Wheat Ridge, call animal control at 303-237-2220.