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Is Chicago Seeing More Foxes Than Usual? Not Quite, But Recent Sightings Spark Curiosity And Delight

Several foxes have been spotted throughout the city, leaving Chicagoans curious about where they came from and why they're showing up. Experts say you should "observe, not disturb" if you spot the creatures.

A fox frolics in a Beverly backyard in December, 2021.
Alexis Jakobson/Block Club Chicago
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DOWNTOWN — Dan Miklos and Rosa Brackebusch were walking out of the Shedd Aquarium last Monday evening when they saw what they thought was a coyote come out of the bushes several feet away from them.  

“We’ve been hearing about sightings of coyotes in Chicago,” Miklos said. But when the animal trotted closer, they were surprised to realize it was actually a fox. 

Coyote sightings have been well-documented in the city as their population in Chicago began to soar starting in the 1990s. Fox sightings in the city, however, have been much less common. From Nov. 1 through Jan. 21, Chicago Animal Care and Control received 15 fox-related calls versus 510 coyote related-calls during the same period.

In the last few months though, photos of several recent red fox sightings — by the lakefront, in parks and even next to the Cabrini Rowhouses — have delighted Chicagoans all over. 

“The skyline was in the background, the lake was right there, it was just this majestic fox. It was very out of place but very cool to see,” Brackebusch said. 

The recent sightings have also prompted many to wonder if foxes are more active outside this time of year, or if there has been an uptick in the city’s fox population.

Video filmed by Rosa Brackebusch of a red fox running across the lawn right next to the Shedd Aquarium.

Wildlife experts say foxes, which are crepuscular or nocturnal, may come out more during the day now while it’s breeding season and they’re trying to scrounge for extra food to feed their cubs. 

They may also be roaming further for food, or taking more risks near people like crossing busier streets, because they can’t find enough food where they’ve been living during the winter, said Seth Magle, director of the Lincoln Park Zoo’s Urban Wildlife Institute.

The lakefront — which Magle calls a “wildlife superhighway” because it offers miles of connected habitat — is also home to all sorts of animals, including foxes who have made dens along the broken concrete.

Chicago is home to red foxes, who are more common and recognizable from their characteristic red coat, and gray foxes, who can climb trees but whose populations have dwindled significantly due to habitat loss and disease. 

Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell whether there are fluctuations in the red or gray fox population. Researchers don’t know what the total fox population is within the city, largely because foxes are difficult to track and actually estimating the population of any wildlife species is a “massive undertaking”, according to Magle.

Instead, Magle and his team have been monitoring the city’s fox population since 2010 through photos collected by camera traps installed at over 100 sites in Chicago and the suburbs. 

“I’ve actually been a little concerned about the fox population in the Chicago area,” Magle said. “Each year we’ve been doing our study, we see fewer foxes, both red and gray.” 

Magle suspects it may be due to the jump in Chicago’s coyote population, which has more than doubled since 2005, according to a “conservative guess” from researchers with the Urban Coyote Research Project. 

Coyotes and foxes can be thought of as natural enemies: they compete for the same resources and can have aggressive interactions, which the coyotes usually win due to their larger size, said Magle. Where coyotes move in, foxes tend to move out. 

Credit: Ryan Stavely/Flickr
A Chicago coyote wandering near train tracks.

But why did coyotes, and foxes for that matter, start living in the city in the first place? 

Chris Anchor, senior wildlife biologist with the Cook County Forest Preserve who has spent over three decades studying wildlife in the Chicago region, said the answer lies in understanding wildlife migration patterns into the region from over 40 years ago. 

“Coyotes, whitetail deer, Canada geese, and beavers all started reappearing in the Southern Great Lakes Basin in the period of the late 70s and early to mid-80s,” Anchor said. 

They began extending into new territory, learning to live in closer proximity to humans, and thrived because there was little to no container trapping, Anchor said. But as greater numbers of coyotes moved into the forest preserves around Chicagoland, the foxes who called the preserves home began to leave. 

“When I started my career back in 1981, we had red and gray foxes in all of our preserves, and they were quite common. And by 1985 and ‘86, they had essentially disappeared, and all we had were coyotes,” Anchor said. 

Foxes had started moving into the city, adapting to their new environments by burrowing under backyard sheds and finding refuge in cemeteries, until coyotes found their way to Chicago in the 90s. 

The coyotes adapted exceedingly well to urban living and flourished. They learned to scrounge for human food, survive on smaller prey more common in cities and even mastered looking both ways before crossing roads.

Credit: Provided
A fox is captured on camera at night by the Lincoln Park Zoo’s Urban Wildlife Institute.

Although foxes and coyotes are known enemies in the wild, there is evidence that they may have learned to live together in urban areas.

A University of Wisconsin-Madison study found that in some urban areas, the antagonistic relationship between foxes and coyotes breaks down: food is so abundant they don’t need to compete for limited resources the way they do in rural areas. 

Whether that dynamic exists in Chicago still remains to be seen, but Magle said researchers are working to understand where coyotes and foxes can coexist and where they can’t. 

If one thing is clear, it’s that these animals are incredibly adaptive to their surroundings, including living among humans. 

“They actually make a very good living by keeping away from us, which is sort of a neat magic trick, if you think about it, that they have mastered the art of living in the heart of a huge city, by keeping away from people within that city,” Magle said. 

As for what to do if you see a fox or coyote, Magle recommends that for any kind of wildlife that you “observe, don’t disturb” and that you do not try to feed them — either directly or indirectly by leaving food out — as it may cause them to exhibit atypical behaviors toward humans. 

Red foxes occasionally prey on outdoor cats and chickens, according to Chicago Animal Care and Control. People can keep their animals safe by fencing off the area where they roam.

More guidance on interactions with urban wildlife is available on the Chicago Animal Care and Control website

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