Wildlife experts note seeing animals foraging in daytime indicates urban adaptation
(Nov. 22, 2019) While occasionally startling to tourists, area residents have become accustomed to spotting red foxes during daylight hours, at times even peering into store windows in search of nourishment.
Despite some preconceived notions regarding fox behaviors, John Moulis, with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said these creatures are highly adaptable when residing in densely populated areas.
“People have impressions of what is normal behavior for foxes,” he said. “It’s based upon whatever their interactions with foxes has been in the past.”
Red foxes, whose males are referred to as dogs and females as vixens, vary widely in stature, weighing between 6-24 pounds and measuring from 18-33 inches. The species can move rapidly if required, reaching maximum speeds of 30 mph.
Moulis, DNR Wildlife and Heritage Service eastern regional manager, said foxes are one of a number of species who manage to co-exist around humans.
“Foxes, raccoons and some other animals have proven themselves to be very adaptable to human environments in suburbia,” he said.
Evaluating behaviors for creatures whose parents have learned to troll backyards and alleys in search of food isn’t easy.
“It is difficult to convey this differing sense of normal behavior based upon what the preconceived perceptions of what a normal fox does,” he said.
Foxes’ annual cycle involves mating during the winter months, with peak births occurring in mid-March. By July, cubs begin to emerge and forage solo. By late September, cubs often begin to disperse, although some may fail to launch and remain with their mother.
Throughout the year, the presence of foxes spotted in developed areas during daylight hours hunting prey, playing or basking in the sunshine can alarm residents unfamiliar with adaptation tendencies.
“They live under decks and they live under sheds,” he said. “As far as foxes go in suburban areas, it catches people off guard.”
Moulis related a recent response to residents troubled after seeing a fox loitering in their yard during the day.
“I got 20 feet away from the thing, then he looked at me and trotted off towards a few trees,” he said. “You just have to remember animals that grow up in these communities, around all this activity, are probably laying behind somebody’s house underneath a tree all day anyway.”
Moulis said foxes conditioned to living around human activity may appear fearless.
“In suburban areas, they run on the outside of chain link fences and hardly pay any attention to the same old dog that’s barked at them every day for a year,” he said. “It’s just not an issue for them if the dog wants to be noisy on that side of the chain link fence.”
Appreciating genuine concerns over potential exposure to rabies, Moulis said there are cues to help confirm an animal’s health.
“The more time we spend watching them to … discern what normal is, the better off we’ll all be for understanding their behaviors,” he said.
Moulis said the principal cues involve an awareness to stimuli, sound and noises.
“If a car drives down the street and its ears twitch or it turns its head to look because something moves,” he said. “It makes you understand the animal is alert to what’s going on around it.”
Moulis said there are also tell-tale signs of rabies infection, which involve two distinct phases.
“One is the excitable, aggressive phase,” he said. “Anything that moves an animal charges and tries to bite. That’s what people fear.”
The second phase manifests itself as confusion and illness.
“It becomes lethargic [and] may appear to be confused,” he said. “It may appear to be tired or uncoordinated and fall over on its side.”
Animals suffering through this phase of rabies infection are often seen flopped out in open areas without protection from predators.
“It acts confused and most of the time unaware of the stimuli,” he said. “This is where you can almost walk up to it, but it doesn’t act like it knows you’re there.”
To avoid unnecessary alarm, Moulis advises residents to spend time observing foxes, when possible, to become familiarized with behavioral patterns.
“The more time we spend watching them to be able to discern what normal is, the better off we’ll be for understanding their behaviors,” he said.