Bird Watcher's General Store

Foxes Save for a Rainy Day - 11/17/06


Dear Bird Folks,

I know you write exclusively about birds, but I was hoping you knew about foxes too. I've read that when foxes steal eggs from Herring Gull nests they bury them, as opposed to eating them on the spot. Is this true? If so, how can they find them again and why don't the eggs break?

-Jessica, South Orleans, MA

Oh no Jessica,

I can barely fake my way through bird questions each week without expanding to other creatures. Do you know how many living things there are out there besides birds? Do you? I don't know either but I'd bet it's a lot. Fine, I'll do it just this once, but only for you and because, by asking about gulls eggs, you remotely tied it to birds. But I'm telling you right now, if I start getting a pile of questions about bats, whales, gerbils and mongooseses, I'm going to send them to you. I can be talked into writing about a lot of things, but I draw the line at gerbils and mongooseses.

Now let me see, foxes eh? Hmm. Which ones are they? Are they the fluffy ones? Every spring and summer we get a fair amount of questions from people wondering why they are seeing foxes that aren't fluffy. (See, you aren't the only one who ignores our birds only rule.) Their immediate concern is that a skinny, ratty-looking fox, walking through their yard during the day, must be sick with mange or worse, the dreaded rabies. Although both afflictions are possible, more often than not the ratty foxes we see in the warmer months are simply going through their summer molt. When the weather turns warm foxes, like us, lose a few layers. They aren't those handsome fluffy creatures we see in animal books. Summer foxes are creepy looking. And the reason why we see them so often is because they have a family to feed. The adults must hunt day and night to keep the kids fed, so they'll grow quickly and move out as soon as possible.

Red Foxes are omnivores. There is very little that they won't eat, except for maybe Valveeta. They will readily gobble down fruit, nuts, insects and an assortment of small mammals, including mice, voles, rabbits, and the occasional Gray Squirrel. I know a lot of people are sad to learn that foxes might remove a squirrel or two from their yard, but it's true. Try to get over it. Like most creatures in nature, foxes aren't guaranteed that their next meal will be available whenever they get hungry, so foxes continue to hunt even when they are full. Surplus food is hidden. Thus, if they catch an extra squirrel, they squirrel it away for later use. The farmer who finds several dead, uneaten chickens left rotting in a coop assumes the fox killed for "fun," when a possible answer is that the fox didn't have enough time to remove and bury all of the dead birds. The habit of killing things for fun is reserved for us humans.

More often than not foxes, like some birds (see, I snuck in a little bit about birds) make several small caches, instead of one large one. That way all is not lost if some other creature finds the food before the original owner returns. The foxes' keen sense of smell certainly helps them locate the hidden food, but memory appears to play an even more important role in guiding them back to their concealed stashes. Then there's this. Once the food is removed the fox will then "mark" the spot with urine, so it knows not to bother digging in that location on future visits. Yup, that would stop me from looking for food there again.

An interesting food related behavior foxes have is that even when they aren't looking for a meal, they will often dig up their stash. A fox may dig up hidden food on several occasions just to make sure the grub is still there. It's not clear if this checking and rechecking is the fox's way of taking inventory or if the fox has simply forgotten to take its OCD medication.

Foxes will indeed take eggs from nesting gulls or from any other bird. Their powerful jaws can be amazingly gentle. They have no trouble scooping up and carrying away delicate eggs. Researchers were puzzled when they would find fox scat containing eggshells long after the nesting season was over. The answer seems to be the stash. Eggs buried in the ground can be dug up and enjoyed anytime of year.

There you are, Jess, that's all I know about foxes. When they capture food they either eat it right away or hide it for later. And when they finally eat the hidden food, they pee on the spot where the food used to be. A lovely thought, eh? I guess I shouldn't complain when my kids forget to take their dishes off the kitchen table.



Artwork by Catherine Clark


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