The National Mall doesn't have wolves or grizzly bears or bison like some National Parks, but it is not without its opportunities for wildlife encounters.
In the winter of 2009-2010, I noticed dog tracks in the snow on the frozen Tidal Basin. My first thought was, "who would allow their pet dog out on potentially thin ice?" And then it hit me. It was the footprints of a fox or foxes hunting on the ice. I followed the tracks and they crisscrossed cover a large area of the Tidal Basin. Moments like this make an ordinary night on the Mall extraordinary.
The red fox (vulpes vulpes) is one of the National Mall's great wildlife success stories. An intelligent, cunning and highly adaptable canine, the red fox is as suited to city life as it is to rural life. An omnivore, the red fox will eat almost anything from fruits, berries, and grasses to birds and small mammals (rabbits, squirrels, mice) and even invertebrates such as crickets, caterpillars, grasshoppers, beetles, and crayfish. In an urban environment, the fox is perhaps a perfect predator . With its omnivorous diet and the type of prey that an urban environment attracts, our red foxes do not go hungry. Rats, mice and squirrels, attracted by the trash humans generate, provide a veritable buffet for the red fox.
Red Fox (USFWS Photo)
The red fox is generally nocturnal, hunting mostly at night, sunset, and dawn, though it will sometimes venture out during the day. Red foxes do not hibernate and will hunt year-round.
Solitary, shy and rarely seen, the red fox lives alone until mating season. After the young are old enough to care for themselves and leave the den, the parents go their separate ways, unlike wolves which mate for life. Females often use the same den for several years. There are numerous den sites on the National Mall but their locations may change from year to year . It is wise to not seek out active or abandoned fox dens as wild animals are fiercely protective of their dens and their young. The red fox has few predators. Hawks and owls may take young, called kits, if possible.
The red fox lives 2 to 4 years in the wild and weighs from 6.5 to 24 lbs. Red foxes live throughout the continental United States, though the foxes on the National Mall may spend their entire lives here.
Red Fox (USFWS Photo)
The best time to see foxes is a winter evening around dusk and after dark, especially after a snowfall, or when it's cold enough that snow lingers on the ground. The contrast makes them easy to spot as they make their rounds hunting, often traversing the ice of the frozen Tidal Basin in search of a meal. I have seen them year-round, but always near or after sunset. Some have come surprisingly close to me. While seeking out wildlife viewing opportunities at the National Mall and Memorial Parks, remember to keep your distance. That way you can help protect yourself and the park's wildlife.