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Wildlife In The Suburbs

Red Foxes Find Their Niche

Red fox sightings in Great Neck are not unknown, but usually encounters are fleeting. It  appears that there is a healthy, viable family of foxes that has a territory in the area of Udalls Pond and Strathmore. Some Strathmore residents have been very worried about the foxes, afraid that they were responsible for killing off missing ducks on the pond and kittens born to a feral cat.  A recent letter to the editor had blamed foxes for the death of some full-grown feral cats.

Karen Wolffe reported that her daughter, while walking their mid-sized dog, noticed that three foxes were following them at a distance. The foxes did not run away until the family dog had gone inside Ms. Wolffe’s house.

There were no reports that indicated that the foxes were feared to be rabid.

We set out to learn more about fox behavior from knowledgable people and can report that all of them concurred that foxes pose no threat to children or adults. At least one researcher hypotheses that foxes play a beneficial role in the ecosystem keeping down  white-footed mice populations and in turn the numbers of ticks transmitting Lyme disease.

Joshua Stiller, a wildlife biologist at the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, confirmed that there is a good population of red foxes on Long Island and that the earliest recorded sightings go back to the 1700s.

Healthy foxes are smaller than they appear to be due to their fluffy, full coats of fur. They are only 8 to 12 pounds. Stiller noted that it would be very unlikely for a fox to go after a healthy feral cat. “It’s just not worth it to them to go after an animal with claws and sharp teeth,” he said. On the other hand, if a feral cat is sickly, a fox might venture to tangle with it. They will also feed on roadkill.

Stiller added that raccoons would be be a “formidable foe” to a fox. According to him, foxes primarily prey on small mammals, mostly white-footed mice, rats, shrews and chipmunks.

Foxes do not run in packs. It is believed that male and female mate for life. The female bears up to three “kits” per season in late winter. While foxes are mostly nocturnal, Stiller says that during this time of year when the parents are hunting to provide food for their kits and teaching them the wily ways of foxes, they are more visible during day light hours.

He thought that the three foxes following the resident walking her dog had more to do with the kits’ curiosity than any stalking behavior. He also did not think foxes would attempt to attack a mid-sized dog.

Bobby Horvath, a state and federally licensed wildlife rehabilitator added that  homeowners often provide an ideal place for a fox den. “Decks that are 4 to 6 inches off the ground are the perfect size for foxes to give birth. They like it snug.” Horvath says that red foxes are born a dark gray and gradually acquire their red coat. “The kits start adapting to their environment and love to play and explore...they’re not afraid of people at this stage.”

Frank Vincenti, director of the Wild Dog Foundation, is usually called into communities to discuss coyotes, but he is equally interested in the red fox population on Long Island. He took the time to come to Great Neck and walk with Mrs. Wolffe through Strathmore’s park and pond. While the two did not spot the fox family that day, Vincenti pointed out that the huge piles of mulch near the park would be a draw for mice and rats which would in turn attract hungry foxes.

He told the Record that while he and Ms. Wolffe were ambling along the culvert for Udalls Pond, they did see the wayward ducks that had been missing from the Strathmore pond. Vincenti said, “Those ducks are domestic and they don’t have the same instincts for self-preservation that wild ducks have...the mallards that are still in the pond can simply fly away if a fox comes near the edge.”

Vincenti also encourages people who feed feral cats to be careful about not “overfeeding” or leaving food out overnight because uneaten food left out will attract foxes to come have a free nibble. He added that male feral cats are known to kill the kittens of other males and that one cannot assume that foxes were responsible.

He pointed out that foxes view dogs as potential predators and might very well watch them carefully to determine if they pose a threat.

Foxes are territorial and usually roam 2 to 5 square miles compared to coyotes that can travel territories up to 25 square miles.

Taal Levi, Ph.D. has been conducting a nationwide study on the prevalence of Lyme disease using mathematical models. Dr. Levi, currently based at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York, said that while people usually associate areas with high deer populations as “hot spots” for Lyme disease transmission, white-footed mice actually carry the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Ticks, during their larva stage, need blood and if they latch onto a mouse that carries the bacteria, it will be transmitted to the tick. “If the mice have predators, like foxes, we have found the incidence of Lyme disease to be less than in areas without foxes,” Dr. Levi commented. He also theorizes that since foxes have smaller territories than say, coyotes, they may keep mice populations at bay more efficiently.

Strathmore residents reached out to the Town of North Hempstead to do something about the foxes...maybe relocate them. Spokesman Justin Meyers gave the following comment from the town: “We receive a ‘fox sighting call’ from time to time. The town does not oversee wildlife issues but we are now exploring steps local government and local residents can take in regard to the occasional fox sighting.”

New York State Department of Conservation is encouraging New Yorkers to participate in a new “citizen science project” to document the current distribution of select furbearers to help guide wildlife management decisions and add data for research needs. Gray foxes, which are more rare than red foxes, are included in the list of animals the DEC is tracking. Other animals of interest include river otters, weasels, mink, skunks, coyotes and beavers. Visit the website at www.dec.ny.gov/animals/30770.html for more information.