What’s red and black and lives all over? Vulpes vulpes, otherwise known as the red fox. Despite living all over the world, and being abundant in Virginia, I’ve only ever seen a red fox in a zoo or from my car. So I was delighted last week to catch some nearby movement while taking a morning walk. It was a fox that I immediately deemed a male, though I have no idea its sex. He was hunting in a grassy field parallel to the road. I got to see him make the characteristic pounce often captured in photographs (just search Google images), and then he came bounding toward me with a small rodent in his mouth. I had my camera out, ready. He was quite shocked when he reached the fence and finally noticed me. Perhaps he’d have jumped over the fence and crossed the road if I hadn’t interrupted his path. Red fox can jump a six-foot fence, but cannot climb trees like the gray fox can. He froze and we just looked at each other for what was probably only a few seconds. Then he turned, and fled back uphill, through the field, toward a patch of woods. He was gone, but he made my day.
Actually, he made my whole week. I kept thinking about him (or her), and how privileged I felt to be able to observe him for a few minutes. A long time ago – at least it seems so now – I wanted to study wolves, and I’ve come to appreciate all predators as a valuable part of the ecosystem. They help keep food webs in balance and prey populations healthier. Maligned and misunderstood, I tend to think of predators as the underdogs of the animal world, and I will root for them more than for other cute critters.
There are different subspecies of Vulpes vulpes all over the world. Virginia is host to Vulpes vulpes fulva, along with the native gray fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus. I picked up somewhere along the way the theory that red fox were nonnative to the US, brought over by Europeans in the 1700s for hunting. Apparently the red fox provided for a longer chase, and was therefore more ‘fun’ to hunt. However, it appears that Vulpes vulpes is native to North America, but was not found in eastern US before colonization, and is a distinct species from the European red fox (http://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/pubs/journals/pnw_2012_statham001.pdf).
Before European colonization, red fox were native to Canada, Alaska, and mountainous regions of the western United States. By the 1800s red fox were noted in the southeastern US, reportedly expanding their range from the northeast because of anthropogenic changes to the land. Concurrently, European red foxes were brought over, contributing to the rise in occurrence. The study noted above used mitochondrial DNA to determine the origin of red fox in newer, expanding populations in the west and in populations in southeastern US. Turns out the little fox I saw is probably native! The study found red foxes in the southeast to be closely related to populations in Canada and northeastern US.
What about being out during the day? It was 9:00 in the morning. Shouldn’t a nocturnal or crepuscular animal already be holed up for the day? I later read that a lactating female will hunt during the day. So maybe he was really a she. I also read that foxes rarely eat their food where caught, but rather return to their den to eat or cache it for later. Given the intent of her trajectory once she caught her prey, I guess I did interrupt her path. I hope she got home safely.
Next time, I hope there’s no fence and I’ve no camera. I just want to watch in the moment. I just want to wonder about what the fox is wondering/sensing. It does not matter to me whether it is native or related to the European red fox; to me it symbolizes the wild. Sure, all non-domesticated animals symbolize the wild to me at one level, but seeing a predator is different for me. I am worried about our loss of the wild, and will welcome any glimpse I can get that it’s still out there.