This article was written by Elizabeth Poulson, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Naturalist at North Mississippi Regional Park
Living in the city, we can sometimes feel disconnected from nature. Sometimes however, we are reminded that we live alongside many wildlife species, even if we seldom see them. In the still and open landscape of winter, it’s easier to notice the animal activity taking place around you. If you’ve ever taken a walk through a local park or simply looked in your own backyard after a fresh snowfall, you can see evidence of the critters living close to you.
This winter at North Mississippi Regional Park there have been regular sightings of a notoriously elusive creature. Naturalists and visitors alike have spotted and followed the trails of red fox throughout the park. While bird watching, our winter break day campers even came quite close to one as a fox trotted along the river shore!
Red fox are active residents year-round throughout Minnesota, including the Twin Cities. The size of an individual red fox’s territory is largely dependent on food availability, but can be equally impacted by the location a fox chooses to make its home. In urban areas, a fox’s territory can be less than a square mile, but in rural areas can be up to five square miles. Urban foxes tend to be more nocturnal, though they can be seen during the day — particularly in the morning. January and February are exceptionally busy months for foxes as they are courting a mate, then searching for or making their dens, while also actively hunting small rodents like mice and voles to cache for future meals.
It’s no coincidence that more and more wildlife species are being spotted in cities. As people enhance urban areas for aesthetic and community purposes by integrating more natural and green spaces we are unwittingly creating habitat for certain types of wildlife to thrive. Some species, like the red fox, are categorized as synanthropic animals. This is a growing group of animals that has adapted to living close to humans and has benefitted directly from living in or close to human-altered environments, such as urban farms and gardens, greenways and trails, restored ecosystems and even garbage dumps. Other familiar synanthropic animals are coyotes, raccoons, opossums and even squirrels. These animals have learned how to exploit and survive in a mosaic of human created habitats that offer some distance, but also shelter and close proximity to the benefits, such as food resources, they are seeking.
Like their coyote cousins, red foxes are highly adaptable as well as opportunistic in their feeding habits, making them well suited to life in the city. Red foxes are also considered an edge species, because they naturally dwell around the border of woodlands transitioning into grasslands. We have made it easier for foxes to live alongside us by creating and maintaining more edge habitats, where foxes are found naturally in the wild, in the urban landscape. Areas such as railroad corridors, trails, storm water treatment sites, creeks, wooded parks, restored prairies, and other fragmented woody areas provide shelter, denning opportunities and small corridors for foxes and other wildlife to move through the city, often without our notice.
Urban foxes aren’t going anywhere in the near future. So, what should you do if you see a fox in your neighborhood? First, remember they are wild animals and the best practice is to keep a respectful distance. If a fox approaches you or seems “too tame” odds are it has been intentionally fed or has grown accustomed to poaching food from exposed garbage bins or outdoor pet food bowls. Help keep foxes wild by not feeding them or giving them opportunities to lose their inhibitions regarding humans. If foxes and other wildlife become less fearful or even dependent on humans for food, we can unintentionally create future problems.
To learn more about urban foxes come visit the Nature Center at North Mississippi, located at the east end of 49th Ave N. along the Mississippi River. Check out a pair of binoculars to try spotting a fox or our animal tracking backpack to identify tracks, scat and other signs while exploring the park. Join us for free naturalist programs offered each weekend. If you have young children, join the fun with our Nature Nuts playgroup for kids under age six and an adult to explore the outdoors and learn about seasons, plants and animals.
February Public Programs – Free for all ages unless otherwise noted
February 2 –Groundhog Day Celebration, 1-3 p.m. Celebrate a day of weather forecasting woodchucks with art, games and activities.
February 2 –Bird Watching: Birding on Snowshoes, 4-5:30 p.m. For ages 8 and up. Come birding on snowshoes with a naturalist along our prairie, woodland, and river trails!
February 8 –Senses in the Season Hike, 4-5 p.m. After the hustle and bustle of the week, take a peaceful walk through the park to realign your senses with nature.
February 9 –Nature Art: Colors and Ice, 1:30-2:30 p.m. Use the snow as your canvas, create mini ice castles and make icy pictures to take home.
February 14 –Valentine’s Day Fireside Snowshoeing, 7-8:30 p.m. Hike along the river, cozy up around a bonfire while sipping hot cocoa and craft a candle to bring home. $7.50, for ages 18+.
February 16 –Snowshoeing Over & Under the Snow Hike, 2-3:30 p.m. Take a hike on snowshoes as we look for tracks and signs of life in the snow.
February 21—Homeschool Day: Birds of Prey, 1-3 p.m. Examine hunting adaptations, dissect an owl pellet and go bird watching to look for these majestic predators. $5, for ages 5-13.
February 24 –Family Funday: Owls – What a Hoot!, 1-3 p.m. Owls are already nesting! Discover what makes these superb nighttime hunters unique.
Every weekend, Saturdays 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Sundays 1-3 p.m.—Free snowshoe use. Check out a pair of snowshoes to explore the park! Please wear winter boots.
Find registration for these programs and more at minneapolisparks.org or call 612-370-4844 for details. Do you have a question about nature in your own backyard? Then send it our way by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and it could appear in a future article. Like us on Facebook to stay in the loop about what is happening at your park!