Fearless fox makes itself at home in region Fleet animal is more tolerant of humans

December 25, 1997|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Fleet-footed foxes streaking across lawns have become so commonplace throughout the Baltimore region that the brownish red predators fabled in literature and sport are no longer a remarkable sight in back yards, city parks and suburban developments.

Once limited to the farm and woodland, the fearless fox trots across the path of a city taxicab on Belair Road, a light rail car approaching Baltimore-Washington International Airport or the gardens behind a Catonsville or Pikesville cul-de-sac.

"The spread of fox into suburbia is directly connected to their increasing tolerance of humans. They no longer see humans as a threat and are not as wary as they once were," said Bill Bridgeland, a Sparks wildlife biologist who calls foxes' risk to humans "minuscule."

While the fox population grows more sociable, the animal whose name connotes cunning and stealth elicits a sharp reaction from its human observers.

As a result, residents who see a fox loping around their bird feeders often contact a federal wildlife office -- so much so that these sightings represent the largest category of calls that Department of Agriculture information officers receive.

In the tally for the year that ended in September, Baltimore County residents contacted federal officials 259 times. (A large subconcentration of foxes has been observed around Cockeysville, Pikesville and Sparks.) Seventy-six calls came from Howard County, 47 from Anne Arundel, 17 each from Carroll and Baltimore City. Raccoon sightings accounted for the next highest number of calls.

"Generally, people are scared of predators, but the chances of a fox biting or attacking are very, very slim," says Scott Rowin, a federal Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services employee based in Annapolis.

"I got a call from a woman who had just moved into a house on a hill in Cockeysville," recalls Robert W. Stanhope, the naturalist at the Oregon Ridge Nature Center in Baltimore County. "She'd heard a strange, coughing bark on a cold night. The sound is coming from her deck: It's a couple of foxes in amorous pursuit. It's something you'd only see if you build your house in the woods."

Local naturalists try to soothe the excited suburban householders. They also work to overcome the myths about foxes -- including that they are dangerous creatures ready to lunch on a house cat or puppy dog.

The naturalists explain that, as predators, foxes go after rabbits, bird eggs, mice, road kill, garbage, squirrels, chipmunks, birdseed and pet food, as well as fruits and berries -- often at hours of dim light, both morning and evening.

"Foxes are extremely fast. If I see one, it's only a fleeting glimpse," says naturalist Bridgeland. "But at the same time, they are becoming habitated to the sounds and sights of people. They seem to find everything they need in people's back yards. By nature, they are very opportunistic."

Bridgeland notes that Maryland has two fox species: red and gray. The larger of the two is more common -- the red fox (Vulpes vulpes), whose color might be reddish brown or black but always with a white tip on its tail, with black legs and feet. The gray fox is less numerous and more secretive, and it prefers forests.

While home construction has intruded into wooded and former farm areas, bringing humans in proximity with fox populations, wildlife officials say new roads and tract houses are only part of the story.

Humans are encroaching on the wild animal population of the fields and forests around Baltimore, but, at the same time, the animals are getting increasingly comfortable with their human neighbors, their food and their automobiles.

"There are species of animals -- certain birds that need large, uninterrupted forests, and reptiles and amphibians -- that cannot tolerate the mass clearings required for housing developments and shopping centers. But the fox has adapted to conditions imposed upon it," Bridgeland says.

It's the winter weather that bears down upon the fox, not the townhouse and gas station.

"It's really a beautiful thing to watch a fox in the winter. They have to be such good hunters to survive in heavy snow cover. They listen for any little sound of a mouse under a crust of snow, then jump straight up and come down hard with their two front feet. They dig through the snow real fast. They'll often miss. They can do this a hundred times a day and only catch a few mice."

On the other hand, catching a fox is not so easy, Bridgeland remarks.

"Trying to catch a fox in a suburban area is time-consuming and often fruitless," he says. "Foxes tend to be very wary."

Pub Date: 12/25/97

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