Features

Species Spotlight

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Get to know our area’s amazing diversity of animal species. Here are a few of our wild neighbors.

Gray Fox. Photo by David C. Olson

Gray Foxes

Gray foxes are part of the Canidae family, along with dogs, wolves, coyotes and jackals. They can rotate their forearms more than red foxes, which helps them to climb trees. The only other canine known to climb trees is the wild raccoon dog, native to East Asia.

While they have some reddish coloration around their heads and necks, gray foxes are distinguished by stripes of short, black stiff hair along their backs, which leads to black-tipped tails (red fox tails are tipped in white). Gray foxes have shorter ears, muzzles and legs than red foxes, and stockier bodies. Both kinds weigh 5 to 15 pounds and look like small dogs from a distance.

Personality & Lifestyle: Foxes are shy but curious, and active year-round, day or night. Both kinds of foxes breed mid January to late February and live in an underground den at this time. Mothers produce one litter per year of about four kits. The kits begin hunting when they’re three months old and are independent from their families by fall. Unlike many other canines, foxes live in small family groups, not packs. Although a wild fox may live for 10 years, the average lifespan is just two or three years because of disease and hunting and vehicle strikes.

Habitat: Gray foxes live in wooded areas of Illinois and southern Wisconsin and much prefer forest over brushy areas, unlike red foxes, which often make their homes on farmland.

Diet: Rabbits, rodents, insects; some fruits and corn.

Human interaction: Red foxes are more likely to live near people and may raid trash bins and compost piles. People most often spot them at dusk or dawn. Conservationists advise people not to feed foxes; wild animals should be kept wild, both for their benefit and to prevent bold behavior. Foxes won’t harm people but could view a small house pet as dinner.

Sources: Illinois and Wisconsin departments of natural resources.

Porcupine. David C. Olson photo

Porcupines

Have you ever pitied the porcupine’s mother? Well, fear not. The quills of a porcupette are soft and bendable, hardening up in the first few days of life. Breeding occurs in early winter; mothers give birth to one baby seven months later.

This prickly mammal lives in Wisconsin, mostly to the north, but no longer exists in Illinois. A member of the rodent family Erethizon dorsatum, the porcupine is about the size of a raccoon. Contrary to popular belief, porcupines don’t “shoot” their quills at predators, but defend themselves by swinging their tails and embedding some of their 30,000 loosely attached quills into an intruder’s face. Since most predators don’t have opposable thumbs, and the 4-inch quills are barbed, removing them is difficult.

Personality & Lifestyle: Shy, slow-moving and nocturnal, porcupines are creatures of habit. They travel the same paths and eat up to a pound of vegetation each night. Their eyesight is poor, but their hearing and sense of smell are excellent. While they don’t hibernate, they need to grow fat during warm weather to survive winters spent inside hollow logs or caves.

Porcupines spend most of their time alone or in pairs. Thanks to long, curved claws and muscular tails that wrap around branches, North American porcupines can climb trees; they’re also excellent swimmers.

Habitat: Porcupines prefer coniferous forests and other wooded areas.

Diet: Conifer needles, buds, bark.

Human Interaction: Porcupines don’t seek out people, but they do crave sodium to rid their bodies of excess potassium, so anything handled by salty human hands, such as garden tools, may attract them.

Sources: Illinois and Wisconsin departments of natural resources.

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