I had just sat down to the computer when my husband walked in the room behind me, glanced out the window of our East Memphis home, and asked in disbelief, "Is that a deer?"
I jumped up immediately and looked outside. "A deer?" I retorted, laughing. "With those ears?"
The visitor was not a deer or a coyote, but a sleek red fox stalking our neighbor's bird feeder. (I know what you're thinking, but my husband's a New Yorker.) We were mesmerized by the animal's antics. He circled the bowl, retreated into the shrubbery, and then bounded out again, happy for an easy meal. We spotted him two other times, always about 7 p.m.
As I retold my fox story for the next week or so, several neighbors reported similar sightings, including the folks at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, where a fox family with two kits has been frolicking on the south lawn all summer.
"We always see a few foxes, but this year we are definitely seeing more," says Marilyn Cheeseman, the museum's acting director. "We are delighted, because foxes are a charming part of the Dixon heritage."
While foxes might not surprise Dixon staffers, they are a novelty to many East Memphis homeowners who are more accustomed to backyard visits from possums, raccoons, and squirrels.
Andy Tweed, a game warden with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, confirms that foxes are expanding their habitat into more residential neighborhoods. "Foxes in eastern Shelby County are common, but I rarely saw a fox inside the 240 loop until the past year," Tweed says. "The numbers of foxes in town are definitely growing."
So what's prompting the population shift?
"Like all wild animals, foxes are opportunistic," Tweed says. "So if the number of foxes is growing, that means their food source is increasing."
And what do foxes eat?
"You're not going to want to hear this, but foxes love rats and field mice," Tweed says. "They also like an occasional snake, frog or baby rabbit."
Recent statistics from the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department confirm that rat complaints from residents are substantially higher than last year, especially in East and South Memphis. From January through July, 542 complaints were registered from East Memphis, compared to 161 from Midtown and 200 from Frayser.
Whether the increase in complaints is due to more rats or simply better public awareness about rat control services is anybody's guess. "An increase in rats is very difficult to substantiate," says Brenda Ward Tyll, director of public relations for the health department.
Either way, there is some good news in nature's food-chain scenario: Foxes don't eat pets. "A coyote might go after a cat or a small dog, but foxes won't because they are too scared of people," Tweed says. "They are curious, but they also want to be left alone."