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The return of the red fox to Shelter Island

DON BINDLER PHOTO The kits are alright. These curious young foxes were taking the spring air outside their den one morning this week.

DON BINDLER PHOTO The kits are alright. These curious young foxes were taking the spring air outside their den one morning this week.

Red foxes are making a comeback on the Island.

Although it was never entirely depleted, the Island’s fox population was drastically low for many years, with sightings of them few and far between. But now, the vibrant red canine appears to be thriving once again.

“We’re definitely seeing a population increase with the red fox. We’ve been noticing a lot more of them around lately,” said Mike Scheibel, natural resources manager at Mashomack Preserve.

This spring’s resurgence of the red fox, a.k.a. Vulpes vulpes, comes on the heels of nearly a decade long decline in their numbers, thanks to their susceptibility to mange, a disease caused by the mite Sarcoptes scabei.

Because coyotes, the fox’s main predator, don’t live on the Island, mange is their biggest local threat. After burrowing into the skin, the mites cause severe irritation, skin thickening, infection and hair loss. Some foxes become too sick to hunt and in turn, can’t provide for their young.

Others experience fur loss so severe they quickly succumb to hypothermia once winter sets in.

But the transition from barely alive to thriving isn’t a new phenomenon. The fox population is cyclical and directly influenced by mange. In a burgeoning population, disease can run rampant.

When it declines, so does the mange, enabling them to reproduce and flourish. Round and round it goes.

JIM COLLIGAN PHOTO

JIM COLLIGAN PHOTO

“Mange is a communicable skin disease that affects most, if not all, mammals,” said Animal Control Officer Beau Payne. “When a population begins to exceed the carrying capacity, that’s when animals become more susceptible to any disease.”

Long-time Island residents such as Councilman Jim Colligan have witnessed the fluctuation of the Island’s red foxes over the years.

“It was around 2009 when the Island was overrun with them,” Mr. Colligan said. “Since then, they’ve rarely been spotted. But there’s been more sightings lately along with other signs of them.”

Mr. Scheibel said that Mashomack is home to at least four fox dens. The dens usually occupy underground tunnels burrowed by groundhogs or foxes themselves. The offspring, called kits, are born in the den blind and dependent on both parents until they’re about three months old and learn to hunt. Litters average in size from one to 12 kits, and the parents are believed to be monogamous mating partners for life.

According to the National Wildlife Federation, foxes are the most widely distributed carnivorous mammals in the world. They prey on rodents, birds, eggs, reptiles and certain fruits. And, they love to eat chickens.

JIM COLLIGAN PHOTO

JIM COLLIGAN PHOTO

“Foxes are very lovable animals,” Mr. Colligan said. “But for Islanders who keep chickens, they can be very troublesome.”

Councilman Paul Shepherd is one of those Islanders.

“The foxes are absolutely adorable, until they start eating your chickens,” Mr. Shepherd said. “It won’t be just once. They keep coming back if they know they can get to them.”

Both councilmen advise flock owners to keep chickens in their coop until noon. This is especially important, Mr. Shepherd said, during spring and early summer when the naturally nocturnal fox continues to hunt through early morning to feed its young.

“Some chicken owners turn to hunting foxes to protect their flocks,” he added. “But the fox is really just doing what it needs to do for its family. Those of us with chickens just need to up our defense modes by securing our coops.”

The red fox resurgence may also eventually lead to a decline in the Island’s wild turkey population. But don’t expect to see a fox tackling grown turkeys.

“I don’t think there’s a chance a fox could take down a full-grown turkey,” Mr. Payne said. “But they do love to feast on their eggs and the poults.”

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