New Kits on the Block
Red foxes are making themselves at home in Inglewood, Grand Valley and Palgrave, hunting in our yards and denning under our sheds and garages.
The foxes of Inglewood include Bethell Hospice in their foraging circuits. And that is a great delight to staff and residents, says ecologist and hospice volunteer Neil Morris. “The foxes love the nature at the hospice. It’s such a nice fit,” he says. Tranquil gardens, butterflies, bird feeders, foxes. A pageant of natural delights.
Last spring, hospice staff set out orange slices to attract beautiful Baltimore orioles. One memorable day, onlookers gasped as a fox snatched an oriole and sauntered off. Neil sums up the reaction: “It’s a story where you laugh and cry at the same time.” After staff and residents got over their initial shock, he says, they came to terms with the incident. Carnivory, after all, is how foxes make their living.
Red foxes may be at home in Inglewood, Grand Valley and Palgrave, but they are also perfectly comfortable in Alexandria, Egypt; Sapporo, Japan; and Melbourne, Australia. These creatures are the widest-ranging carnivores in the world. That enormous range, as well as their ability to thrive in forests, grasslands, mountains and deserts, marks them as extraordinary animals. They possess a suite of qualities – curiosity, intelligence and risk-taking – that have helped a few other vertebrates, including rats and people, conquer the planet. And like rats, foxes appear to be figuring out how to make a living in our midst.
Foxes now live not only on the periphery of our towns and villages, but also in their cores. They hunt in our yards and den under our sheds and garages.
Last July, Kevin Parsons, a Canadian evolutionary biologist at the University of Glasgow, told Canadian Geographic magazine he had been surprised by the number of foxes on Glasgow streets. “I found it really strange,” he said, “because in Canada you can sometimes see foxes darting away in the distance late at night or really early in the morning, but never walking along the sidewalk next to you.”
His observation may have been true, even in recent times. But it seems the foxes of Headwaters are becoming more like Glasgow’s. Everyone interviewed for this story mentioned the casual deportment of the foxes in their neighbourhood. They spoke of foxes trotting down village streets, of foxes lolling about on lawns, and of fox kits playing at den sites in backyards. Though this growing familiarity is not celebrated by everyone, the general response to foxes in the ’hood has been overwhelmingly positive.
Janice Partington watches foxes that have denned for the past five years in a sandy bank at the intersection of two streets in her Caledon community. “Smack in the middle of the community, they have raised four to six kits each season,” she says. Though Janice is aware of other dens in the area, she says that “this prominent one has become a bit of a local legend.” There is joy and wonder in watching the patently adorable kits wrestle with and chase one another. And there is drama in watching the parents teach their young how to hunt by dropping still-living prey at their feet. Unfiltered, authentic nature not mediated by a screen.
These foxes are regulars in Janice’s yard. She fondly recalls an evening sitting on her back deck at dusk watching one of them jumping playfully for June bugs.
In normal times Janice’s neighbour, Laura Campbell, would travel widely to compete with her four border collies in agility events. Covid pressed pause on that, but gave Laura, an animal lover and avid photographer, time to get to know the resident fox family better. Last spring she sat for hours watching them and enjoying master classes in natural history. She learned of their ability to discriminate sounds. Automobile noise was met with blasé detachment, but the occasional roar of a motorbike sent them scampering for their den. Bird calls were generally ignored, but the cawing of crows triggered alarm.
Learning the cues that signal fox anxiety led Laura to conclude they are not unduly bothered when people watch them from a respectful distance. The kits and the adults conducted business as usual. Fox watchers in other communities reported the same. The robust health of these citified foxes (aside from one adult fox in Inglewood with mange) suggests they were not unduly stressed, as does the high survivorship of the kits.
In Georgetown last spring, Doug and Mary Lou Brock had front-row seats on a veranda overlooking a fox family denning under their neighbour’s garage. “Almost everyone was excited,” says Mary Lou. People lingered on the sidewalk, hoping for a glimpse of the remarkably large family – mom, dad and nine kits. Those kits gradually became habituated to Doug and Mary Lou’s presence on their porch. “One kit approached me within about four feet and looked at me as if to say, ‘What are you doing here? Why are you intruding on my patch?’ There was nothing menacing about the encounter at all,” says Mary Lou. The kit was simply curious.
Francis Hulme, the Brocks’ neighbour and fox landlord, first caught a glimpse of his new tenants after dark and thought they were coyotes. The next morning he began plugging the gap under his garage with rocks. When Doug told him they were foxes, Francis decided to grant them provisional lodging. He soon fell under their spell.
One quiet evening I watched from a perch on the Brocks’ porch as Francis spoke in soft, reassuring terms to the kits in his yard. He sat in a lawn chair as they playfully fought in the waning light.
Over the course of two months or so, Francis watched the kits grow from “fluffy little fur balls” to almost the size of their parents. He witnessed them practise their hunting skills on insects. “They would rise up and jump forward, coming down with their forefeet on a cricket or grasshopper.”
When the kits finally left in late spring, Francis missed them. “I’d be very pleased to see them again this spring,” he says. If they return, he will happily defer repairs to his slumping garage until summer.
Linda Pim, a friend of Neil Morris and a fellow Inglewood resident, also took note of the foxes last spring. She expresses a “fascination that they were in the village in a way we’ve never seen before,” and wonders if their boldness was encouraged by the pandemic-related quiet of the streets.
Perhaps the Covid lockdown did contribute to the higher visibility of local foxes last spring, but there are other reasons why red foxes are becoming more citified. To invoke the carrot-and-stick metaphor, the carrot is abundant prey. As gardeners know, rabbits thrive in our towns and villages. These eastern cottontails were the most frequent prey subject mentioned by the fox watchers. Other prey included such common urban animals as squirrels and chipmunks.
The stick factor is more speculative. Coyotes are the uber-successful apex predators of these hills. Their choruses ring out on quiet evenings in rural areas and on the edges of our towns. Larger predators are not noted for their tolerance of smaller competitors, and coyotes are no exception. Fox kits are confined to their den sites for about three months and make easy prey for coyotes. My guess is that foxes respond to this formidable stick by moving in with us during the vulnerable denning period. It’s not that coyotes don’t hunt in towns (they do), but it’s possible foxes play the percentages. Their kits are less likely to become coyote food in suburbia than in the countryside.
Neil Morris supports the coyote-avoidance hypothesis. He suggests “an interesting mutualism is going on. The foxes do us a favour by keeping rodents down and offering aesthetic and natural virtues.” In return, we grant them safe lodging.
Coyote avoidance is also exhibited on Keith Lamont’s Thistlestone Farm in Wellington County. For much of the year, his sheep graze in fields protected from coyotes by electric fencing. The smaller foxes slip between the electric wires with impunity and for decades they have built their dens within this electrified sanctuary. Keith welcomes the arrangement. The foxes are no threat to his sheep.
I realize I’m casting the urban fox phenomenon in glowing terms. But of course the interplay between nature and people is usually nuanced. Last spring, a fiasco unfolded in the Beach area of Toronto. A family of foxes denning under the boardwalk attracted a horde of paparazzi vying for selfies with the animals. One especially boorish selfie-seeker reached into the den to grab a kit. The Toronto Wildlife Centre erected barricades and enlisted the assistance of volunteers to protect the foxes. Sadly, some of those volunteers were verbally abused for their efforts.
The ill-treatment of the foxes in the Beach surely flowed from the sheer numbers of people who visit the boardwalk but have no allegiance to the community. In smaller communities, a protective norm seems to emerge: “These are ‘our’ foxes and we’ll take care of them – just as we do other community members.”
Another issue that clouds the sunny image of urban foxes is their possible predation of house cats. Of course, if cats were kept indoors, this wouldn’t be an issue. Regardless, I found no evidence of foxes killing cats. Janice Partington did describe one incident of a fox chasing a cat, but the cat found refuge in a tree. She also told me about a cat chasing a fox. Do foxes occasionally kill cats? Perhaps, but it’s almost certainly a rarity. A fox would much rather tangle with a squirrel or a cottontail. Moreover, the fox watchers I spoke to didn’t report cats among the prey they observed.
However, if roaming cats have little to fear from foxes, the same is not true of chickens. The cliché about “the fox guarding the henhouse” didn’t emerge from thin air. When I spoke to the owner of a farm nestled inside a Caledon community, she rued the loss of a dozen chickens to fox predation last spring. That loss cost money – $25 a chicken – and forced the farm to confine their chickens to coops. “With the foxes around, we can’t have happy, healthy hens,” the owner says. She understands why foxes appeal to residents, but notes many of the same people also “like to eat free-run eggs. They can’t have it both ways.” She’s worried. “The foxes will definitely be a problem again this spring.”
I feel for this embattled farm owner. A farm within a village is a good thing, as is the growing number of folks raising backyard chickens. Although the grief that foxes will likely visit on some of them is not a problem easily solved, I hope it can be managed with compromise and understanding.
Of course, I can’t conceal my bias. I view foxes in our communities as restorative, a healing of sorts – nature finding a way to live with us in our built environments. And gracing us, in turn, with beauty and delight – like that experienced by 82-year-old Francis Hulme sitting in his yard on a quiet spring evening talking to “his foxes,” by the staff and residents of Bethell Hospice thrilling to the foxes hunting in the hospice gardens, and by Janice Partington watching a fox snap at June bugs in her backyard, its orange fur lit by the setting sun.
Wildlife populations in Dufferin and Caledon have come and gone over the past few centuries, most dramatically since European settlement. Some species have vanished from the landscape. Others have arrived. Now things are changing again.