Foxes have made a home in Nevada

Marlys Barker, Nevada Journal Editor
Deb Jennings captured this picture in August at the corner of 12th Street and I Avenue in Nevada.

It’s poetic really. A family of foxes takes up residence on the historic property of Evergreen Lane in the heart of Nevada, and the playful young are seen quite often this summer frolicking amidst the wild prairie area behind the main house.

“During a staff meeting last April, we saw something going on near one of the buildings at Evergreen Lane. We thought it was a fox, but we weren’t sure,” said Jodi Schuman, a staff member at Memorial Lutheran Church.

“In the days that followed, we confirmed that a fox family had chosen one of the building areas as a den,” Schuman said. “We were treated to an afternoon break to watch mom fox and dad fox play with the four kits. We enjoyed watching them grow over the summer.”

It didn’t take long for community members to start reporting fox sightings on social media this summer and fall.

“This may sound crazy, but I’m 100 percent positive I just saw a fox on the corner of G Avenue and 11th Street,” wrote Josh Spaete on a Facebook post on Oct. 13. He soon had a number of responses assuring him, it wasn’t crazy at all.

Nevada resident Steve Lekwa, who is retired from his longtime position as Story County Conservation director, said the adult red foxes likely settled at the Evergreen Lane property as they were out searching for a place to make a home and raise their young. “They were just looking for the things that a fox needs to survive,” he said, noting that foxes will search for an area where they can find food — mice, rodents and rabbits are plentiful in town and water accumulates in pump discharges, rain puddles and there’s the pond at SCORE — and where they aren’t near other adult foxes or coyotes.

Normal places for foxes to set up their homes would be forest/timber edges and other places that are enclosed. “Foxes are not much for open country; they want places that are more enclosed,” Lekwa said.

The foxes at Evergreen Lane, he said, will not all stay there. By this time of the year, “the young that were born this spring will be dispersing and trying to find their own habitat area where they can mate and set up a family for next year,” he said. “The adult pair may return and use their same den (at Evergreen), but the young adults may travel a couple or up to 10 miles before they find a place where they feel safe and secure.”

Lekwa said that while foxes are wild animals and do not prefer to be in contact with humans, Evergreen Lane doesn’t have a huge amount of human activity aside from special events. Normally it’s pretty quiet there. The historic property also has structures that the foxes could dig down under to make a den, and Lekwa said, other than possible damage they might cause by digging, there is really no other problem he can think of with them being there. The fact that they are pretty harmless to people, unless they feel cornered or trapped, means they are not really a danger in town, although they could be aggressive toward small dogs and other small pets if those were running free.

Jessica Eyanson, a member of the Nevada Historical Society, said, the foxes living at Evergreen Lane have caused no damage to the premises.

A benefit of having the foxes in town, Lekwa said, would be that they help keep the rodent and rabbit populations under control. When you consider the diseases that can be spread by mice, he said, it’s nice to have foxes taking care of those creatures naturally.

Similarities, differences between foxes and coyotes

Another common wild animal seen in Nevada and other Story County communities would be the coyote, which is generally twice the size of a red fox. Size and color are the two main ways to identify whether you are seeing a fox or a coyote, Lekwa said.

The red fox, the species living at Evergreen Lane, is the most common species in Iowa, Lekwa said. It has a rusty red fur color and a white tip on the tail. The ears and lower legs have dark fur. “Occasionally we come across a genetic variance of the red fox that may look silvery gray in color,” he said.

The coyote, which according to the state Department of Natural Resources’ website, iowadnr.gov, is the most common wild canine species in Iowa. It is a mottled gray color, Lekwa said. “They tend to have a lighter gray or whitish patch in the front at the throat area, and there is no white tip on their tail.”

Lekwa said that many Iowa coyotes have traces of domestic dogs in their DNA. They’ve mated with dogs, for sure, and that’s where you get the “coydog,” he said. But more often, Lekwa added, coyotes would rather fight with a dog than breed with it.

Foxes and coyotes enjoy similar habitat and food, Lekwa said, so therefore they compete and tend not to coexist well. When coyotes are thick in numbers, foxes tend to withdraw from an area, he said, noting that coyotes will kill foxes. “In fact, that might be why we are seeing a fox family in the city limits, because there’s less pressure and competition from coyotes there,” he said.

Coyotes do wander into communities, but are even more skittish about people than foxes are, Lekwa said. “Coyotes generally aren’t dangerous to people…but if one were cornered or injured, just like a fox or any other wildlife species, all of those would aggressively try to defend themselves,” he said.

What other wild animals are in our midst?

It can certainly be the talk of the town when a wild animal is noticed inside the city limits, but Lekwa said there are many “wild” animals making homes in our communities here in Central Iowa.

Some of them are very common to us — squirrels, chipmunks and rabbits — they’re wild.

When it comes to larger animals, Lekwa said, “More often than people realize, deer are moving through our communities, especially in Nevada and other towns with creeks. Where there’s water,” he adds, “we will also have beavers and otters … these are things I’ve seen or seen evidence of.”

Muskrats are common in our communities; raccoons “probably know the storm sewers in our communities better than the city maintenance crews,” and there are great horned owls which often take up residence in old trees and compete with members of the fox species for food.

Lekwa also notes that predatory birds have become present in Nevada. “We had a red-tailed hawk that was nesting at Evergreen Lane a few years ago,” he said. And common now, he added, are Cooper’s hawks, which often raid bird feeders. “I see those regularly throughout the year now,” he said.

And the list could go on.

Respect the wild animals

Before anyone gets any big ideas about trying to get too close to any of the wild animals, and especially the foxes living at Evergreen Lane, Lekwa urges people to think wisely.

“I think it’s important to respect that wild animals are wild. We’re drawn to them, they’re attractive and babies are certainly cute and we might want to play with and cuddle them, but wild animals are wild. It’s important that we let them remain that way, because if we do make them very comfortable with people, then they won’t have the natural reluctance to be with people,” he said. Not having those normal negative reactions could prove dangerous to them down the road.

“Enjoy watching them from a distance,” Lekwa said. That’s what he has loved doing his entire life.

And when it comes to foxes, he loves that there are a few close by to observe. “I find foxes to be a really appealing creature. They’re beautiful to watch, intelligent and very athletic. I’m glad that we still have a few things like that around.”