While looking for summer birds on the prairie, I surprised a swift fox that was stalking young black-tailed prairie dogs in one of the Chico Basin Ranch’s expanding prairie dog towns. Although the small fox was startled by my presence, it continued to stalk the prairie dogs for a couple of minutes before it circled back, probably to its den site.
Swift fox is a prime indicator of prairie health. Colorado and New Mexico are the current center of the swift fox range and Chico Basin Ranch provides ideal habitat for them.
At four pounds it is our smallest native fox. As the name implies, its impressive running speed, averaging 31 mph, enables it to run to both escape predators and to catch its prey. It is a nocturnal species but in May, June and July they can sometimes be seen during the day, likely because they may have as many as five young to feed. Swift foxes dig a den that can be as deep as 10 feet and the den usually has four entrances enabling the foxes to avoid predators.
Their diet is quite varied and includes small mammals such as rabbits and rodents, prairie dogs, insects, birds, eggs, amphibians, reptiles and they will even hunt for fish if their den is near water. They eat berries and also scavenge so their varied diet enables them to hunt relatively close to their den site. Swift foxes are closely related to kit foxes in California but genetic studies show them to be unique species.
Swift fox is a Great Plains species and loss of habitat,such as conversion of prairie grasslands to agriculture and the historic poisoning of coyotes and prairie dogs caused a 60 percent decline in their population, especially in Canada. A recent reintroduction program in Canada has had limited success. However, in Montana and the western portions of the Dakotas where swift foxes were locally extinct for a century, a reintroduction program, mostly on Native American lands, has been successful.
During summer months you might get lucky and see one like I did.