DOWNTOWN — A family of foxes has joined the list of wild animals stealing Chicago’s heart this spring.
In the past few months, people have celebrated piping plovers at the beaches and a chunky snapping turtle along the Chicago River. Now, the foxes are making their home in Millennium Park and joining the ranks of Chicago’s animal celebrities.
The fox family “just walked right in” to the popular downtown park a couple weeks back, said Kathryn Deery, head horticulturalist at the park’s Lurie Garden. The family — two adults and six babies — typically pops out when the park is less crowded in the mornings and evenings.
Deery has watched the “adorable” baby foxes, known as kits, wrestle in the garden and play with food as their parents hunt for rabbits, birds, rodents and plants.
“I know where they all hide during the day, but I can’t say,” Deery said. “Everybody loves the babies.”
Early Tuesday, one of the parent foxes hunted down a rat, which a kit scarfed up as the warm early morning sun glowed on the park.
As the parent went out on the hunt, three kits frolicked and play fought on the garden plaza.
Deery and her team have partnered with Lincoln Park Zoo’s Urban Wildlife Institute to “let the foxes live here,” closing off the garden’s Dark Plate area with metal fencing during the hours the family typically likes to roam, she said.
Curious visitors have tried to track down the fox family to say hello, Deery said. But workers are urging Chicagoans to “be respectful:” The foxes need space and should not be fed outside their hunting diet, Deery said.
Nobody is quite sure how the foxes got to the city center, “but maybe they took the Red Line,” Deery said.
The family is a “welcome addition” to the garden, which has nearly 350 kinds of plants, Deery said.
“We try to create a little ecosystem here; and there’s such a diversity of plant material, it brings small animals and eventually predators, too,” Deery said. “The foxes coming tells us we’re doing something right.”
Foxes have been spotted at Lurie Garden over the years, but there’s never been a full family quite like this, Deery said. The garden workers plan to put signs to educate people about the animals and their habitat.
“It’s pretty freakin’ awesome,” Deery said. “We got foxes Downtown.”
Kits are typically born in late March or April and emerge from the safety of their dens after four to five weeks, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Red foxes are usually nocturnal, but it’s common for them to come out during the day to find mates in the first months of the year and then again in the spring, when they’re scrounging up food for their kits, experts told Block Club Chicago in January 2022.
Red foxes have been spotted at Millennium Park, Loyola University Chicago’s Lake Shore Campus and in backyards throughout the city, according to posts on social media.
It’s common to see foxes near the lake, which Seth Magle, director of the Lincoln Park Zoo’s Urban Wildlife Institute, previously called a “wildlife superhighway.” The lakefront offers miles of connected habitat for all kinds of animals to call home, including foxes, who have made dens along the broken concrete, Magle said in January.
Red foxes are the most common fox in Illinois, and they’re the easiest to spot because of their characteristic red coat. Chicago is also home to gray foxes, which can climb trees, but their populations have dwindled due to habitat loss and disease.
Researchers don’t know the total fox population within the city because they’re a difficult animal to track, Magle said in January 2022.
Magle has monitored the city’s fox population since 2010 through photos collected by camera traps. His team has recorded fewer foxes each year.
Foxes, coyotes and other wildlife started venturing into the city in the ’70s and ’80s. They adapted to their environments by burrowing under backyard sheds and hiding in cemeteries, largely surviving by their ability to avoid 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 previously told Block Club.
Deery said she hopes the spotlight on the foxes is a lesson to Chicagoans that “we can coexist.”
“This is the perfect time to talk about wildlife in urban spaces and that we can respect each other’s space,” Deery said. “We created a habitat in the middle of the city.”
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