Nature Nearby: Return of the Night Screamer
By FRED SEITZ — It was a dark, but not necessarily stormy, night.
A blood-curdling scream pierces the air. Some neighbors awaken puzzled at the sound; others have called police in past years thinking harm was being inflicted. Inside our house, our dog awakens and stares out the front window. There, in our and nearby yards, slinks a small, dog-like creature, staring back at our dog and soundlessly arguing about whose territory our front yard is.
It is mid-winter; territory must be claimed and a female found. His screams help him establish that territory and let other male foxes know his intentions. The annual winter/spring saga is unfolding. The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) has come to seek a mate.
I suspect this may be the offspring of a prior year’s breeding. Fox usually pair with the same mate for several years. However, the male may leave the den a few months after the litter of four to ten kits have begun to hunt on their own.
This common canine neighbor has long been the subject of debate: Is he a U.S. native, a migrant from Canada or an invader introduced in the 1700s by the British to facilitate their horse-mounted hunts? DNA tests of the little noisemaker have provided ambiguous results as to whether the red fox is directly related to these imports.
Whatever his heritage, the red fox is widespread throughout North America, as are several of its relatives: the tiny kit fox in the southwest, the swift fox in the Great Plains and the gray fox, which is found in Maryland but favors more rocky and mountainous areas. Our familiar red fox has a coat of the bright russet that gives him his name, or may be darker, and even gray. However, the red fox retains the white spot at the end of his tail, whereas the gray fox usually has a black spot at the end of his. Our red friends usually grow to about 3 feet long — a foot of which is that bushy tail. Their weight ranges from 14 to 17 pounds.
Both red and gray fox are omnivores and have a wide-ranging diet. They will dine on small mammals (voles, mice, chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits) and small birds. In summer, they often eat crickets and other insects. They eat berries and other fruit in season. Very opportunistic, they will also ingest carrion and dog food, as well as food and non-digestible trash discarded outside by humans.
Fox are largely nocturnal animals. When seen during daytime, the red fox is sometimes maligned as having rabies. However, daytime sightings often occur when food is less abundant, and the foxes are simply hungry. While they can carry rabies, it is unusual. I have seen our current screamer several times when the sun’s out, but he usually leaves when I pass by, and does not show any signs of illness or aggression. He even seems undisturbed when he’s spotted me walking my dog — the same dog with whom he’s had territory disputes.