Many animals figure prominently in children’s tales and cartoons, sometimes being honoured and sometimes being maligned. Two of the most common fabled creatures we see near our cottage are mainly nocturnal, dog-like members of the carnivore group of mammals. We occasionally see them because they are still active after dawn if we are up and about early. What is that you might ask. Is it a raccoon or a red fox?
The raccoon, with its black ‘bandit’ mask, is often portrayed as a troublesome thief who dexterously steals from peoples’ gardens, cottages, bird feeders, campsites or garbage. It is, however, mainly a curious animal that takes advantage of any food opportunities provided by its natural environment and by people. The raccoon (Procyon lotor) is the only member of the raccoon family (Procyonidae) found in our area. It is an omnivore, a very good climber, and is easily identified by its bushy, ringed tail and its black facial mask.
Adult raccoons weigh between five to 14 kilograms and can measure 65 to 100 centimeters from the tip of their nose to the tip of their tail. While some have become urban pests, their food in the wild consists of fruits, nuts, grains, insects, bird and turtle eggs, and young aquatic animals such as frogs, crayfish, clams and fish. Raccoons are most often found near streams, lakes and ponds where, it is believed, the sense of touch in their forepaws is enhanced by water, assisting their search for food under rocks or in the mud.
Raccoons do not hibernate deeply and require access to food year-round. They consume large amounts of food in the fall to build up fat reserves to help sustain them over the lean winter months. Breeding occurs in late winter with two to seven (typically four) young being born two months later. The females den in hollow logs or under man-made structures where they feel safe. Raccoons can be ferocious when they or their young are threatened, having been known to wound and kill attacking dogs, or growl at intrepid photographers as occurred during the taking of this photograph.
Foxes are often symbolized as cunning, intelligent and attractive animals, however, they have also been labeled as chicken thieves. The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is a member of the dog family (Canidae), and shares our area with two other larger members of this family, wolves and coyotes. The red fox is an opportunistic feeder that usually stalks and pounces on its prey which includes small rodents, rabbits and birds.
They will also consume turtle eggs, fruits and invertebrates when available.
The red fox is small and dog-like with a reddish fur coat, white chest and belly, black-tipped ears and slender black legs. Yet they are solitary hunters like cats. They weigh between 3.6 and 6.8 kilograms and measure 90 to 110 centimeters in length, including their distinctive bushy reddish tail which is white-tipped and can comprise 35 to 45 centimeters of the fox’s total length.
The red fox is active year-round, preferring open habitats that include brushy shelter. They have keen senses of sight, hearing and smell which enhance their hunting abilities and allow them to avoid contact with people. The vixen (female fox) has a litter of one to 10 kits (pups) in April or May. She usually digs a den or expands a groundhog hole to house her kits, but may also use a hollow log, pile of brush or an abandoned structure. This vixen and her two kits had a den hidden by brush along the road-side near our cottage.
The red fox plays an important role in balancing small mammal populations. Coyotes are food competitors with the red fox as well as predators of the fox. Domestic dogs and cars are other key causes of fox mortality.
Our sources of information include Tamara Eder’s Mammals of Ontario, Peter Alden’s Peterson First Guide to Mammals, and Dave Taylor’s Ontario’s Wildlife.