Red foxes are adapting to Crozet’s changing contours, quietly living among us in neighborhoods from Old Trail to the Highlands and beyond. The striking, self-possessed creature, with its rusty red-gold fur, black paws, prominent ears, and bushy white-tipped tail, is a compelling sight for most residents—except, of course, for keepers of small livestock. It’s tough to guard a henhouse against a persistent fox.
“We bought 15 Muscovy ducks, the type that can fly,” said Miette Michie, who lives on 10 acres off Miller School Road. “Those ducks were lined up on top of a fence one day, and a fox sneaked up, jumped straight up, and picked one of them off the fence in a flash. He thought it was like a buffet.” Still, Michie enjoys seeing the foxes and their cavorting kits traipsing across her property. “We’re fine with them,” she said. “They don’t eat our flowers.”
Called an “edge species,” foxes like to live at the border between two habitat types such as forests and fields, much as raccoons, coyotes, and humans do. Crozet’s farms and gardens provide easy sources of food, and porches and sheds backing up to woodlands are ready-made shelters. Foxes prefer to make their dens within a mile of water, and Crozet has streams aplenty. Though classified as a canid (dog) species, foxes are mostly nocturnal, some can climb trees, and they hunt by stalking and pouncing on their prey.
The fox diet is as adaptable as their living arrangements: small rodents, rabbits, birds and insects are favorites, as are nuts, fruits and berries. In a boon to their human neighbors, foxes are predators of nuisance species like mice, rats and groundhogs, and are even thought to reduce local tick populations by picking them up on their fur as they move through underbrush and then grooming them away.
The red fox is the most widely distributed and populous canid in the world. While Virginia is home to both red and gray foxes, the red species dominates in more populated areas, and is found in every county except the extreme southeast corner of the state. If foxes are present, it’s likely that coyotes are absent, as the two don’t share territory.
What does the fox say
Though stealthy, red foxes are not quiet creatures. Among dozens of different sounds, the adults and kits bark a loud yip yip yip to self-identify and locate others, and females in search of a mate often belt out an uncanny, human-sounding scream. “I’ve never forgotten the first time I heard a fox scream when I was little,” said Crozet resident Janie Perrone. “It was bloodcurdling; I couldn’t imagine that an animal made that noise.”
Red foxes have natural predators such as coyotes, bears and mountain lions, who compete for their food sources, and eagles and owls, who hunt their young, but humans are also a significant threat. In Virginia, red foxes are trapped as nuisance creatures around homes, shot when caught stealing livestock, hunted for their fur, hit by cars and displaced by construction.
Virginia is also home to more fox hunting clubs than any other state, a long tradition that features hunters on horseback following hounds on the scent of their red fox quarry. Proponents say the fox is rarely killed during the hunt and the joy of the sport is in the chase. However, 36 state-licensed preserves allow wild-caught foxes to be held in fenced enclosures and chased by foxhounds- in-training, a practice that involved almost 6,000 foxes in a recent five year period studied by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF).
Red fox refuge
The Rockfish Wildlife Sanctuary (RWS) in Nelson County is situated on 20 forested acres and maintains 50 outdoor enclosures for rehabbing injured animals and birds, including three fox pens. The pens are furnished with ramps, logs and rocks, as well as mounded bales of straw for the animals to hide inside.
“When kits are brought to us, it’s usually because the mother is dead, often shot by a homeowner or hit by a car,” said RWS manager Madeline Zimmer. “Sometimes that same person who killed the mom feels terrible when they find the kits in a nearby den, and they end up bringing them to us.” The sanctuary’s staff strives to sustain the natural wildness of the babies.
“We feed the kits ‘mush bowls’ [formula mixed with solid food] so we don’t have to handle them by bottle feeding,” she said. “The less close exposure to humans they have the better.” The fox kits are rehabbed for six months and then are given a “soft release” in Nelson County, where their enclosures are opened and they have access to food for a period of time as they acclimate to hunting and foraging.
While the RWS’s fox residents are mostly orphaned kits, it sometimes receives adults that have been domesticated as pets and then abandoned, which means they can never be released in the wild. “Those animals have no wild instincts and no fear of humans, so we can only keep them here as education animals,” said Zimmer.
“The back of my yard is against a ravine that runs through the development,” said Highlands resident Linda Bell. “It’s basically a road for the animals, and fox families come trotting through. The only thing I worry about with foxes is that they tend to carry rabies.”
While foxes are indeed a species with high rabies risk, they are rarely found rabid, said Larry Crickenberger, animal control officer for Albemarle County. “You can’t really tell a rabid fox just by looking at it,” he said. “Sometimes they might look bewildered or walk around in circles, but the idea they are ‘foaming at the mouth’ is really a myth.”
Animal Control officers will sometimes help county residents with sick foxes as a public safety service, but will not interfere with foxes merely living in a back yard or under a deck. “We do not trap wildlife,” said Crickenberger. “There are licensed trappers through the game commission that do that and charge for it.”
Hunters of fur-bearers and nuisance trappers both are regulated by the DGIF, and it is illegal for a regular person to trap a wild animal and relocate it. “Honestly, the animals have less chance of surviving when you remove them,” he said. “They can die from the stress alone.”
One Crozet resident recently discovered a fox with mange, a skin disease caused by mites, and wondered if the animal could be helped, but Zimmer does not recommend trying to treat a mangy fox on one’s own. “Mange is super treatable, but putting out food mixed with medication for a wild fox isn’t safe,” she said. “You don’t know who’s going to eat it, and it’s possibly lethal to other animals at different doses.” Zimmer advises calling the Waynesboro Wildlife Center, which has lots of experience treating mange and other wildlife diseases.
Some residents suspect rabies in any fox they see during daylight hours, but most of those animals have simply become habituated to humans, says Zimmer. “Mother foxes have to go out every day to find food for their babies, and if all you do is run into people, you’re going to become less afraid of them,” she said. “People should try not to jump to conclusions, and instead should always call before intervening.”
Crazy like a fox
Trickster, thief, co-creator of the world—foxes have featured prominently in folklore and mythology for thousands of years and still retain a mystical, exotic air. From fables such as “The Fox and the Goat” to children’s stories like “Chicken Little,” foxes are portrayed as clever, silver-tongued, and more than a little deceitful. Fox-watchers are endlessly intrigued by their manner and talents.
A group of foxes is called a “skulk.” Researchers have found that they use the earth’s magnetic field to judge pouncing distance to their prey. When hunting in deep snow, they can hear a mouse moving three feet below the surface, and will execute a high, arcing leap to dive bomb the rodent, nabbing it successfully three-quarters of the time. A fox will sit at a distance and gaze at a human over its shoulder, slyly.
Perrone, who lives on eight acres off Brown’s Gap Turnpike, has experienced the allure of foxes first-hand. “We were sitting on the patio one quiet evening and the June bugs had started to swarm, and a fox passed through the yard and paused, completely entranced by the bugs,” she said. “It started to leap and jump, turning one way and the other, snapping the bugs in its jaws right out of the air, just enjoying itself. It didn’t care that we were there at all.” That’s coexistence at its best.