Massachusetts is home to both red and gray foxes. Although cat-like in appearance and hunting behavior, fox are from the canid family, as are coyote, domestic dogs, and wolves. Red fox weigh 7-15 pounds and are the larger of the two species (about 3 feet not including the tail); gray fox are much smaller and usually weigh no more than 11-12 pounds. While it is not uncommon to confuse them by color since red fox can appear gray, and vice versa, a white-tipped tail indicates a red fox. Fox inhabit diverse habitats, and readily adapt to suburban and urban areas. They are omnivorous, feeding on a variety of animals and plants, including squirrels, mice, and fruits. Young fox are called kits and litters of 3-8 are born in the early spring. They will usually remain with their parents learning to hunt until late summer or fall.
Fox conflicts with humans are minimal and they do very little damage. Often they are blamed for damage they did not do, but benefit from, such as spilled garbage. Fox are typically shy animals and usually retreat near humans. It is not uncommon however, to see a fox in an area where they feel secure or in areas close to cover. Springtime in the Northeast brings with it plentiful fox sightings. Fox generally try to be active when humans are not. Although primarily nocturnal (active at night), fox are often seen in suburban or urban areas during the day.
Fox are also fairly transient animals and frequently move from place to place. Fox present no danger to humans unless they are rabid, which is rare, or if they are being captured or handled. A fox will typically flee from an encounter rather than fight. If the fox appears healthy, enjoy the opportunity to observe this fascinating animal. If you notice signs of lethargy, stumbling, or erratic behavior, contact local animal control.
POSSIBLE CONFLICTS & SOLUTIONS
Fox are becoming more and more prevalent in suburban and urban places. Human homes and yards provide them with optimal habitat and food. Common conflicts with fox often occur in the springtime when they are looking for denning sites and may build a den under a porch or shed. If a summer home has been vacant during the winter, it is not rare to return in the spring to a fox family within close proximity to the home.
In addition, humans often inadvertently invite fox and other wildlife to yards by leaving garbage in unsecured containers and feeding pets outside. If pets must be fed outside, have supervised feeding times and bring the food in immediately afterward. Fox will feed on rodents that feed on spilled seed from bird feeders. Temporarily bringing feeders inside if fox are in an area can help. Composting should be done using animal-proof composting bins and garbage should be stored in containers with tight lids or containers secured with bungee cords.
Fox are cautious around people, and a curious fox that comes close to yards and humans can be discouraged by banging pots and pans together, gently spraying the animal with a hose, or yelling or whistling. Installing a motion-sensitive attachment to sprinklers can also discourage fox to move on.
If a fox is denning under a porch or shed, tolerance is recommended for the family until the young are old enough to follow the parents out each night, and then follow up with the necessary exclusion work to keep them from reusing the den. Once the kits are seen playing and romping outside of the den, it is a sign they are maturing and will most likely be moving on soon. At that time you can follow up with the necessary exclusion work to keep them from reusing the den.
Mild harassment techniques can be used if needed to encourage the family to move on their own more quickly. These techniques are intended to make the fox uncomfortable and to get the parents to move their young. There are a number of techniques that can be successful including playing a radio and placing items with a strong human scent (e.g., dirty socks or old sneakers) at least two feet away from and not blocking the entrance to the den. Make sure to turn the radio off at regular intervals so that the mother feels safe enough to return to the den and retrieve her young.
After it is certain that all young have left the den, install a one-way door, which allows animals out but prevents them from reentering the den. Only after it is certain that all animals have left the den, permanent exclusion should be done to keep the problem from reoccurring with another fox or other animal. Construction materials and hardware cloth, available at most hardware stores, should be used when critter proofing a deck or shed. It is important to bury the hardware cloth about 8 inches into the ground, and then to turn it outward in an L-shape to prevent foxes and other wildlife from burrowing under it.
Supervising pets while outdoors is important, as it is not uncommon for a fox to prey upon small domestic cats or kittens. Keeping cats indoors is the best preventative measure for them (which the MSPCA recommends regardless of whether or not there are fox nearby). Special consideration should be taken for outdoor pets like rabbits and poultry, which will need to be protected with secure hutches or pens.
PUBLIC HEALTH CONCERNS
Fox are a rabies vector species, which means that they are a primary carrier of one of the major strains of this disease. Keep companion animals up to date on vaccinations and call your veterinarian if pets have contact with any wild animal. Similarly, if you have contact with a wild animal, notify your doctor immediately.