By Winslow Umberger
You may have heard it echoing through the cold winter night—the startling sound of a woman wailing and shrieking. If so, it’s chilling to hear, but don’t call the police just yet. It is likely to be a fox. What? In the middle of winter? Don’t they hibernate? Actually, foxes are active in our area all year long, and winter is mating season. This is the time when the male fox gives up his bachelor lifestyle— living and hunting alone—to find a female, or vixen, to settle down with and raise babies.
“These sounds, which travel farther in the crisp, cold air through leafless trees, are a common feature of our winter nights,” says Savannah Trantham, co-founder of Appalachian Wildlife Refuge. “The scream of a fox is a memorable one, with a high-pitched tone that is not too dissimilar from the wail of a human in distress. When they scream, they often do so in sets, stopping and starting and then stopping again in three- to ten-second intervals.” They actually make 28 different types of calls to communicate with each other.
So while snakes, skunks, chipmunks, bats and groundhogs—to name a few—sleep through the winter, the fox remains active. Instead of hibernating, foxes grow longer, thicker winter coats and, outside of breeding season, live largely in the open whether it is a dense forest or suburban neighborhood. During the day, they usually rest in the open in forests or ravines, curling their long bushy tails around themselves to keep warm. If weather becomes extreme, they take shelter until the weather has calmed down enough for them to carry on.
Though largely nocturnal, it is “increasingly common to see foxes during the daytime in urban and suburban areas,” says Justin McVey of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. “They are responding to an abundance of food—mainly small mammals such as mice, rats and rabbits in winter—and don’t necessarily perceive people as a great threat.”
There are two species of foxes found in our area: the red fox and the gray fox. The red fox has a big bushy tail with a white tip; the gray fox sports a black-tipped tail. The gray fox is different in another aspect: it can climb trees with retractable cat-like claws. The smallest member of the dog family, foxes have excellent vision and a keen sense of smell and hearing. Known for their cleverness and ability to adapt to different surroundings, it is understandable why foxes are found worldwide.
So how can we coexist with these year-round critters? “Like any wildlife, you need to keep a respectful distance,” says McVey. “Don’t try to approach or pet the fox and never feed them or any wild animal for that matter. Once a fox becomes habituated to people, it may become bold and aggressive.”
Come spring, you may come across a den of pups that seems abandoned. “They are not necessarily abandoned as many animals do not stay with their young. They are likely off hunting and will return to feed them,” says Trantham.
According to the NC Wildlife Resources Commission website, simply seeing a fox is not a cause for concern. It is, in fact, an exciting opportunity to experience one of North Carolina’s native species. However, if you see a fox frequently, the wildlife commission offers advice on coexisting with foxes and other wildlife species online at ncwildlife.org.
While you wouldn’t call 911 about the foxes’ “love” songs, there are times when you encounter wild animals in need. In these instances, Appalachian Wildlife Refuge is the 911 for injured or orphaned wild animals. Help is a click away at appalachianwild.org, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Appalachian Wild is a 501(c)(3) organization providing aid to our forest friends as well as support for North Carolina’s volunteer wildlife rehabilitators. Find out more at www.appalachianwild.org.