Q. I live in the Atlanta area and recently heard that a fox had been seen in our suburban neighborhood. Should the community be concerned about this? What precautions should we take? Also, how many types of foxes are there and what kind are likely to be here?
A. Foxes are to be appreciated, not feared. They are fascinating creatures and more abundant in suburban areas than most people realize. They are often nocturnal, which makes it less likely that people will see them. Two foxes, red and gray, live in your area. They vary so much from each other that mammologists assign them to different genetic groups. Both are attractive animals with pointed noses, fluffy tails, and nimble movements.
A gray fox is a small, sleek mammal with a silver-gray body tinged with orange. The tail sports a black stripe on top and a black tip. Some geneticists consider a gray fox on the California Channel Islands to be a separate species. Frequent in wooded areas and swamps, gray foxes are sometimes called cat foxes because of their ability to climb trees. The gray fox ranges from eastern Canada through the southeastern United States to Central and South America.
The typical red fox is easily recognizable by its black legs and orange body, although a variety of coat colors exist. The orange tail has a distinctive white tip. Red foxes are more common in open fields and pastures than in forests. One of the most widespread carnivorous mammals in the world, it inhabits much of Europe, Asia, and North America, including most of the southeast. They are the target species of the centuries-old English pastime of fox hunting. In Australia, red foxes (introduced by humans over a century ago) are considered a scourge. They prey on native fauna that have no defense against a dog-like predator.
The smallest foxes in North America are the kit foxes of the Southwest and the swift prairie foxes of the Midwest. These little critters have huge ears and look more like a gray fox than a red fox, although they are more closely related to the latter. Another relative of the red fox is the arctic fox, which inhabits the cold northern regions of North America, Europe, and Asia. They change their fur color from brown in summer to white in winter. The arctic fox is the only land mammal that is a natural resident of Iceland, where it displays a rare coat color that is pale bluish-gray in winter and darker in summer.
I have seen red and gray foxes in suburban areas. Like other carnivores, they must not only find prey, but also avoid becoming victims. In addition to eating other animals, foxes consume a variety of foods, such as berries, fruit, or dog food left in a container on the back porch. Being hit by a vehicle is listed as a common source of mortality for adult foxes in many rural and residential areas, as well as on roads through natural habitats. Coyotes and bobcats are known predators, now found in suburban areas.
Concerns about foxes attacking pets are almost always overblown. A fox would think twice before attacking an adult domestic cat that could easily outmaneuver it. A cat that scratches and bites could end up being an expensive meal and not a safe thing to do in the first place. A squirrel, rat, or rabbit would be a much better deal. As for dealing with a dog, especially a big one, forget it. Most foxes will run like the wind when faced with a dog.
Except in the rare case of a rabid fox, which could occur with other wild mammals, we should house foxes in the suburbs. They offer a bit of intrigue to the average suburban neighborhood. Plus, a baby fox is just as cute as any pup or kitten.
Whit Gibbons is professor of zoology and senior biologist at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory at the University of Georgia. If you have an environmental question or comment, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.