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Jan 17, 2012 3:30 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Are Red Foxes Making An East End Comeback?

Jan 18, 2012 3:43 PM

Look for that rust-colored blur in the grass. Listen for that weird screech-bark in the night. Observers of wildlife say they’ve seen anecdotal signs that the red fox could be making a characteristically sly comeback on the East End, after more than a decade of scarcity.

East Hampton Town Natural Resources Director Larry Penny said the red fox population soared to new heights in 1983 and 1997, but was decimated both times by outbreaks of mange, a skin disease caused by parasitic mites. But, Mr. Penny said, residents have reported more sightings of healthy foxes lately, including glimpses of kits, and the trend has been borne out in his own analysis of roadside casualties. “This was the first year since about the mid-1990s that I picked up a couple of red fox roadkill,” he said.

Maria Daddino, a wildlife hobbyist who lives in East Quogue, said two of her friends have reported seeing foxes in the hamlet in recent weeks. While Ms. Daddino said she hasn’t seen any herself, she said she started noticing fox footprints in the snow near her house in recent winters. The last time she saw a fox, she said, was when she lived in Bay Shore during the last population boom, in the mid-1990s. “They have an unusual footprint,” she said, “in that they look like an animal with one leg because they cross over.”

Virginia Frati, executive director of the Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center of the Hamptons in Hampton Bays, said the hospital took in seven foxes in 2011 and just two in 2010, although that doesn’t necessarily represent a trend; Staci Earl, the hospital supervisor at the center, said fox intake tends to fluctuate year by year.

“I can’t remember when the last time I heard them barking,” said Ms. Frati, who lives in Noyac. “It’s a beautiful sound when they bark; it’s almost like a strange, echoey bark. You know it’s not a dog because you hear another one answer from a different direction, but I haven’t heard one in years.”

Kelly Hamilton, a wildlife biologist with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation office in Stony Brook, said residents’ reports of foxes have gone up since she started her job five years ago, but added that the rise in “nuisance calls” could be due to increased contact between humans and foxes due to people putting out food. “Fox will become more noticeable if there are people feeding them,” she said. “They will become a lot more used to people, more willing to be out in the open.”

Mr. Penny said Long Island’s red foxes are a mix between a native species and a nearly-identical European species that was brought over by English settlers for fox hunts hundreds of years ago. He said foxes were relatively rare until their first population explosion in the early 1980s, but it’s unclear why. “It’s hard to explain why we didn’t have more foxes early on,” he said, “but I think it’s because we pretty much hunted everything in the old days, prior to World War II and shortly after World War II. We hunted hawks until they became protected.”

Red foxes can still be legally hunted and trapped on Long Island, Ms. Hamilton said, although she said she did not know how many hunters actually go after them.

The DEC does not keep data on the red fox population, Ms. Hamilton said, but foxes can thrive wherever there are enough mice, rabbits, voles, fruits and insects for them to eat. Since there are no predators that eat foxes on Long Island, their population tends to increase steadily over time, unless a disease like mange strikes.

Mange parasites ruin foxes’ coats and make them less likely to survive the winter. “The skin gets like black leather with welts on it,” said Ms. Frati, whose center has treated foxes afflicted by mange. “The smell is terrible.”

Ms. Frati said mange is easily treatable with medicine, but foxes are almost impossible to trap until they are on the verge of death. “Fox are incredibly intelligent animals,” she said. “It’s incredibly difficult to even catch them if they are injured.” When the center takes in foxes, she added, it has to hold them in a special pen with a cement floor, because they are adept at burrowing and even scaling fences.

The center is currently home to a fox that was hit by a car and suffered a broken leg and an eye injury. Last year, the center took in a lone kit that was found scratching on the door of a Chinese food restaurant in Southold Town. The young fox was paired with a kitten from the Southampton Animal Shelter and “they got along beautifully,” Ms. Frati said, until another kit 
came in and took the kitten’s place.

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We had a red fox den in a field in between Blank Lane and Noyac Path/ Newground here in Water Mill. They bulldozed the field, so I don't know what happened to them. I don't know if anyone else knew of its existence -- I happened to see it one day when a fox disappeared into thin air. That's when I realized the fox must have dived underground, so I walked over to where the fox had been and saw three large holes in the ground. And let me tell you, it did not smell good! There were feet scattered ...more
By btdt (449), water mill on Jan 18, 12 7:37 PM
A few years ago I smelled fox near my house off of Hidden Cove in North Sea, but nothing within the past two to three years. Hope they are making a return!
By nsea93 (39), Southampton on Jan 19, 12 11:21 PM
Have seen one last week running across the street in Red Creek Hampton Bays
By realistic (472), westhampton on Jan 19, 12 11:45 PM