adventures in nature

red fox kits! (and the evolving red fox native versus native discussion)

After a twilight meander in Wildcat Canyon Regional Park, as I was leaving the park and driving through a heavily wooded riparian area, I saw a small form pop out of the shadows on the side of the road. I stopped. A second form popped up along side the first. Moments later, a third little form darted across the road from the other direction! Small canines with white tips on their tails and black on the backs of their ears – red fox kits! I returned two nights later in hopes that they were still using the same den, and I was in luck. Using my vehicle as a blind, I was able to get some shots of the four kits along with a grainy shot of one of the adults who came by briefly. I’m guessing they are about five weeks old.

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The kits were particularly intrigued by a sound in the vegetation on the hill behind their den, which turned out to be a black-tailed mule deer feeding. The deer eventually came down on the road, and it was like a scene from a Disney movie with all the fox kits, a deer, and one of the adult foxes all just milling about on the road. The deer seemed unfazed by all the foxes, but the kits were fascinated with this long-legged creature that came in their midst.

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There was a street lamp that gave some light to the area, but as you can see the light was far from ideal for clear photos. I was happy to be able to capture what I was given.

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Here is a shot of one of the adults to give a scale to the size of the kits …

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Watching them play and wander around the area was magical, they were curious about their surrounding but still stayed within about 20 feet of the den. When an occasional car would drive by, they would dive into the storm drain, wait a few moments, then little heads would pop out to see if the area was clear. They still weren’t in full control of their bodies yet, tripping over their own legs and bowling over each other with little attacks and hops. When the adult was present, they exuberantly raced to “attack,” or just to nuzzle and see if mom or dad had some food or a new toy (there were feathers from several species of birds around the den, the kits seemed to be playing with them at times).

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After about 10 minutes, the four furry bodies started to slow down, and two had already disappeared back into the den. With a few final stretches, the remaining two went back in the den to rest after their short play time.

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This was my first encounter with red foxes in this area, and though they aren’t unusual in urban areas around the country, I was somewhat surprised to see them. I spend a lot of time in this area and haven’t seen anything but gray foxes and coyotes so far. LOTS of gray foxes and coyotes. The grays tend to stay in the heavily wooded areas not far from the riparian creek zone lower in this park, the coyotes rule in the more open areas higher in the park where cows are still grazed.

I find it ironic that often densities and sighting of wild animals are higher near human development. It’s always a little perplexing and slightly embarrassing when I spend a lot of time out in the more “wild” areas and don’t see as many wild animals, then upon returning into more urban or suburban areas suddenly they are all over the place. I get excited about seeing a bobcat out in a park, then I see a story about a 14 year old kid snapping a pic of a wild mountain lion in his aunt’s backyard with a cell phone. C’mon! Seriously? Especially now though, in the middle of a drought, this is not surprising. Water is more available near human development, and prey animals tend to be attracted to the vegetation and other larder sources around human development – gardens, garbage, etc. And where they prey go, the predators follow. This is a simplified explanation, as wildlife corridors also factor into areas where animals can be found, but it generally holds true it seems.

The red foxes that are found in the Bay Area are usually considered non-native, a lineage of red foxes that descends from European red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) that were introduced into the U.S. for hunting and fur harvest long ago. They have been extremely successful in adapting to life here, especially in urban areas – but often to the detriment of many native species. Their presence can be divisive due to this, but then again so is the presence of feral cats.

To complicate things, there are at least two other identified red fox species in California, and they are actually natives – one is called the Sierra Nevada red fox (Vulpes vulpes necatur) and is extremely rare. That fox has only been currently been identified as living in the Sierra Nevadas and Cascades, East and North of the Central Valley. Recent research though has also identified what is being called a sub-species of the native Sierran red foxes, and these are found in the Central Valley and called, creatively, Central Valley red foxes (Vulpes vulpes patwin). Confusing!! So, there is a possibility of these foxes being native, or a hybrid, but given the proximity to the immediate Bay area, and the ecology, odds are probably more in favor of it being of the introduced type. The ecology is what seems to define where these species can be found (Central Valley preferring open grassland habitat, Sierra preferring montane zones, and non-natives thriving in marsh, riparian, and urban areas). Interbreeding seems a likely possibility, but research still seems scant.

Here and here is some interesting information on the Central Valley red fox (V.v. patwin). And this is an interesting blog post from 2010 about the Sierra Nevada red fox.

I will mention that when I saw the adult fox (albeit under poor lighting), it appeared different than I expected – less fur (shorter coat) and more subdued coloring, almost like a coyote. But, given the brief encounter and the poor light, that doesn’t mean much. I’ve seen at least one other online posting of a nearby sighting of a red fox in or near Wildcat Canyon Regional Park, but they certainly don’t seem to be common there (or at least commonly sighted). Most of the sighting seem to occur at parks in the more marshy areas closer to the Bay.

The native versus non-native investigation still seems to be evolving with regard to red fox populations here, it will be interesting to see what future research reveals.

Regardless of the genetic make-up and heritage of these animals, it was a delight to watch them play and to know that another wild animal is surviving and making a living here in the shadow of human civilization. We are inundated with news of how animals are negatively impacted due to human influence, so it’s reassuring to sometimes see first-hand a “success.” There are few things that lift the heart more than watching puppies or kittens, but to see wild ones close and in person is a whole other experience, one that I am truly thankful for and will never forget.

4 responses

  1. Thanks Zach for your wonderful account and comments abt ID of the foxes … One Christmas holiday time of the year I returned home from work early while still light out … Two pairs of ears were silhouetted over the shrubs against a field behind …. between the pump house and the garage … I cannot be certain abt anything other than they were baby foxes … Probably gray … They stayed around w/ parent for abt 10 days playing on and around the pump house and in the back field … Must have had a temporary den in the black berry bushes behind the garage if that sounds at all possible … One morning I woke up quite early opened my the front door and there was “momma or papa” fox walking in front of my porch out to the street … Did not miss a step when it past me behind the screen door watching … It was like she had just woken up and was on her way to get breakfast … She stopped on the street having left her pups back at the pump house …having noted that I wa. Ow betw her pups and herself … Sat for a moment and did a few little yelps for some signal I imagine for them to stay put … W/in what seemed a very short time saw her return from the next property w/a very large rodent heading back toward the pups … It was such a gift (my Christmas gift that year from nature) to have them so present and so relaxed …. Then gone …. Will always remember as you said of the wonderful nature/ gift to have had their presence so close to be observable so easily w/o binoculars … Wish I had thought to take pictures … a memory is all I have

    May 17, 2015 at 12:49 am

    • What a wonderful story, thanks for sharing!Sometimes the memories are better than pictures …

      May 21, 2015 at 6:26 pm

  2. Zach: Very nice run down on red foxes. Just for the record I want to note that I am seeing red fox tracks daily at Salmon creek and Bodega Dunes. I’ve also seen them at Manchester beach and in PRNS. Meghan Walla Murphy told me she saw tracks and a red fox at Dillon beach. I think we can assume they now inhabit the coast from at least Manchester beach south to the Bay Area.

    All of this seems new in the last two or three years. Possibly even earlier. About 5 or 6 years ago I began to notice tracks of an animal in very fine sand that I called the predator, but never could find clear enough tracks to ID it. I now wonder if it may have been the red fox.

    This animal seems to be intermediate between the grey fox and coyote both as to track size and habitat. I was worried the red foxes would displace the grey fox, but so far, at least, that hasn’t happened. It is possible the grey foxes are a bit more constrained in their territories. The red fox seems to hold it’s own against coyotes. (The tracks are sometimes confused with coyotes, too).

    In the material you assembled there is discussion of how foxes dealt with coyotes….but I wonder if there were not wolves before the colonists got here, and if so what impact they had on red fox distribution.

    A couple of grey foxes spent part of yesterday morning hanging out up here on Joy Ridge….I don’t know of any red foxes up here.

    At Salmon creek I also notice some tracks which might be snowy plovers in areas commonly hunted by the foxes. So far they seem to be doing okay. I’m not sure about these tracks. I have seen the snowy plovers laying tracks, but seeing just the tracks alone I’m not confident I can tell them apart from other small beach birds. But these tracks seem to be solo birds operating exclusively in the first line of terrestrial vegetation, which generally is not the pattern of most small plovers/sandpipers, etc.

    May 17, 2015 at 8:32 pm

    • Thanks Jim. Good stuff, thanks for the updates on the coast.

      The research from the re-introduction of the wolf in the Yellowstone area, if I recall correctly, seems to indicate that foxes actually benefit from the wolves being there because they keep coyote populations in check and restrict the movements of mountain lions, and there’s not as much competition documented between wolves and foxes in comparison. That is going from memory though, I have no citations on that at the moment. The last wolves in Cali (before OR7) were recorded in 1924 according to some sources online.

      These particular reds seem to be in grey territory, but as I’ve mentioned, I’v seen many more greys around. It will be interesting to see what happens.

      May 21, 2015 at 8:20 pm

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