For more than a month, Tricia and Bryan Mahoney have seen a show play out each evening around sunset. One by one, as many as eight young foxes pop out from under the Mahoneys' deck and convert their Worthington yard into a prancing playground.
For more than a month, Tricia and Bryan Mahoney have seen a show play out each evening around sunset.
One by one, as many as eight young foxes pop out from under the Mahoneys’ deck and convert their Worthington yard into a prancing playground.
Although the animals seem carefree, their presence in the suburban neighborhood — a few blocks west of the city’s downtown — is actually a sign of desperation, say officials of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Foxes have been migrating to cities and suburbs to seek shelter from coyotes, which kill their smaller canine cousins because they compete for the same food: mice, chipmunks, rabbits and squirrels.
“Red foxes seem to be spending more time near development and humans, particularly when they are rearing young,” said Suzanne Prange, a wildlife research biologist in ODNR’s Athens office.
“I believe this is in response to an increase in coyotes.Foxes are smart, and they have figured out that they and their pups are safer near humans, where coyotes are less dense.”
The sharp rise in the state’s coyote population during the past 20 years has come at the expense of foxes.
According to the annual ODNR bowhunters survey (taken in rural areas), 18 red foxes and three coyotes were seen per 1,000 hours in the field by hunters in 1990. By 2011, the numbers had reversed: seven red foxes and 16 coyotes were seen. (Gray foxes also are found in the state but more commonly in wooded, hilly areas of southeastern Ohio.)
Surveys of Ohio fur-buyers tell a similarly dramatic story: In 1980, furriers bought about 18,000 red-fox pelts and 28 coyote pelts from Ohio trappers; in 2010, they bought about 1,700 red-fox pelts and more than 3,000 coyote pelts.
Both Prange and critter-control experts say foxes are relatively harmless backyard neighbors, despite occasional news stories about the animals attacking a house pet or even a child.
Such incidents, experts say, are rare.
“There’s really not much to be concerned about,” Prange said. “They’re only 12 to 15 pounds. My house cat weighs more. They’re a lot of fur; there’s not much to them. Unless you have a chicken coop in your yard, they’re not much to worry about.”
Adam Turpen, a manager with SCRAM wildlife control in Columbus, agreed that foxes typically tolerate house pets. Still, he advised against feeding pets outdoors because foxes, like raccoons and other omnivores, will compete with pets for food.
For the most part, the Mahoneys’ Worthington neighbors say they enjoy having the foxes around, even though some think a fox killed a declawed house cat whose remains were found near a fox den.
“We’ve seen the foxes picking up squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits,” said Andreas Von Recum, retired director of research at Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, “They are in abundance here — more than we would like — so foxes will do some good.”
Neighbor Donald Humphrey, a former park planner with the National Park Service, welcomes the foxes for similar reasons.
“Since we’ve seen the foxes, the cottontails that used to play havoc with my beets and chard and other greens are gone,” said Humphrey, who has occasionally thrown out some scraps for the foxes.
“These are innocent little creatures trying to run around and feed their families,” he added.
Mike Teets, whose family has seen foxes in its Dublin yard for years, has also found them harmless — and even playful.
One evening this spring, he said, a fox ran alongside Teets’ 10-year-old daughter as she sprinted bases in the backyard.
“They have never bothered us in any way.”
The Mahoneys realized that foxes were nesting under their deck late one night when motion-sensor lights suddenly brightened the backyard.
“It looked like the Super Bowl out here,” Mr. Mahoney said. “They were just prancing around. We counted eight kits and two adults.”
The family has enjoyed watching the animals grow but is ready for them to move on. The yard — dotted with squirrel, chipmunk and mouse carcasses — provides grisly evidence of the foxes’ nightly hunts.
“Hopefully, they’re going to do the natural thing and be on their way into the wildlife in the next couple of weeks,” Mr. Mahoney said.
Although the number of fox sightings in Ohio is way down from that of two decades ago, sightings have risen slightly during the past four years, making Prange believe that the animals are adjusting to the coyote threat.
“I have some hopes they’re adapting and turning it around.”