Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Illinois Foxes
Nature Bulletin No. 700   January 12, 1963
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist

The Red Fox and the Gray Fox are the only common wild relatives of the dog in the Chicago region. Another, the coyote, if present at all in recent years, is very scarce, Both foxes have long pointed faces, large ears, long legs, long bushy tails and weigh only about ten pounds. The red fox is reddish yellow with a white tip on the tail and has black stockings on its feet and legs. The gray fox has a grizzled gray back with rusty yellow on the throat, sides, feet and legs. The tip of its tail is black.

In Illinois the red fox is most at home in farmlands, open country and the borders of woodlands where it has held its own and thrived over the years in spite of hunters, trappers and the disturbances of its habitat by man. The less common gray is a shy forest animal that has increased in wildlife sanctuaries. However, the total fox population of the Cook County forest preserves is probably little different from that of other areas of similar size in Illinois.

Foxes consume a wide variety of foods but the principle items in the diets of both species are rabbits, mice and other rodents. In summer and autumn they eat quantities of berries, wild fruits, nuts and acorns. To this menu they add insects, reptiles, a few wild birds and carrion. Formerly, the belief of sportsmen and farmers that foxes were deadly enemies of game birds and domestic poultry led to the payment of bounties for their destruction. Now that the facts show that they are more beneficial than harmful, most of these bounties have been stopped.

During the 1920's the long thick richly colored fur of the red fox was fashionable for women's scarves, muffs and coats. Hunters and trappers in the northern states received $10 to $20 each for good quality skins. Since then, fox fur went out of style and its price has fallen too low to tempt the professional trapper. In a few downstate Illinois communities, sportsmen still run foxes with dogs merely for the pleasure of listening to the music of the hounds.

Foxes mate in late winter and the 3 to 6 blind helpless pups or kits are born about 53 days later. A pair of red foxes often takes over a woodchuck burrow that they enlarge. The grays commonly den in a hollow tree, a hollow log or under a rock pile. The pups open their eyes in about ten days but remain in the den for a month or more. At this time they mew like kittens. After that they are fed in front of the den where they play with bones, have mock fights, and chase their tails. The parents range out for a mile or more to bring in food for them. If disturbed the young are moved to a new den -- and sometimes their playthings with them. At two months of age they are weaned and the family begins to hunt together. In autumn the family breaks up. Six to ten years is a ripe old age.

During the remainder of the year the red fox sleeps on the ground with the tail curled over its nose and feet. The gray has the astonishing undoglike habit of climbing trees to sleep or escape danger, Chiefly nocturnal hunters, each travels several miles in a night. The gaits of a fox are about the same as those of a dog except that when walking or trotting the tracks of the right and left feet are in a single straight line instead of zigzag. Their top speed seems to be only 26 miles per hour for short distances. The red is more cunning than the gray and readily outwits dogs by circling and backtracking.

The oldest writing that man learned to read was the tracks made by wild animals in mud, dust or snow. Instead of studying the Three R's, Indians and other primitive hunters were lifelong students of these signs. It is still thrilling to get into the out-of-doors after a fresh snow and try to read the record of the secret life of a fox written during the hours of darkness.

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