Most people who follow AWRI’s research know that the population size of gray foxes has plummeted over the past 20 years and is reaching a dangerous low. We have focused our research on gray foxes because they are in great need and our resources are limited. However, the red fox has displayed a remarkably similar declining trend, although not quite to the same extent. The number of red foxes in Ohio is likely near an all-time low, although there appears to have been a recent uptick based on our carnivore study and personal observations. There are roughly two to three times more red foxes than gray ones in Ohio.
The increasing coyote population has likely played a role in the decline of both fox species; however, I believe the coyote's role is greater in the decline of the red fox. I believe this for several reasons: 1) gray foxes can climb trees and escape some coyote predation, 2) red foxes and coyotes exhibit greater habitat overlap, and 3) the highly adaptable red fox is increasingly moving closer to humans, especially during the pup rearing season (when pups are most vulnerable).
When I worked for the state, I received calls from confused and sometimes panicked people who had a red fox family camped out in their yard, and the number of calls increased yearly. Typically, the foxes find a denning spot in the yard that is hidden or at some distance from the house. Nevertheless, sometimes the foxes den near the house and/or begin to show a lack of fear of people. I have received multiple reports of pups playing next to houses or even in the driveway! Most folks are excited to see playful pups in their yards, but they still worry about what to do about them. Some people fear that their strange behavior is a sign of illness, of which rabies is always a concern. Still others fear for their children and/or pets.
I always consoled people dealing with this particular fox problem. There is no need to fear the foxes. Additionally, the presence of the foxes indicates that there are few, if any, coyotes nearby. Coyotes truly could be a threat to free-ranging pets. Additionally, the foxes are not taking up permanent residence. Without fail, the family leaves of its own accord in the fall when the young are nearing adult size.
Sometimes wildlife can tell biologists important things if we only open our minds and hear them. To me, this behavior is proof that coyote predation, especially on pups, is a significant source of red fox mortality and likely a contributing factor to their declining numbers. There certainly could be additional factors, including diseases and parasites, because red foxes are susceptible to the common canid diseases (such as distemper and parvo), as well as mange. However, the ever adaptable red fox is reducing the effect of at least one substantial reason for their decline by using our yards as a safe haven where their pups can grow up.
So, if you have red fox pups in your yard, there is no need for concern (however, I stress that you should never attempt to touch a wild animal...injury and to a lesser extent rabies are concerns). If you are host to a fox family this spring, consider yourself lucky to be a part of their conservation and enjoy their antics from a distance!
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