CHICAGO -- Below the towering skyscrapers lining Chicago’s Millennium Park, an unlikely group is holing up in a garden: A family of foxes.
Several kits frolicked in Lurie Garden as their mother looked on Sunday night. They played on the walkway, groomed one another atop a concrete slab and walked under metal gates lining the park.
As the animals work their way into Chicago’s heart, wildlife experts say the furry family, yet another example of wildlife thriving in Chicago, also offers a lesson in city ecology.
“This is such an amazing example of how animals can really thrive in cities and cities can provide valuable habitat for wildlife,” said Liza Lehrer, assistant director of the Urban Wildlife Institute.
The foxes attracted attention after a photographer shared pictures of the kits on Reddit.
As their images spread, the foxes appear poised to join the list of the city’s beloved wild animals, alongside piping plover couple Monty and Rose, the alligator “Chance the Snapper” spotted in Humboldt Park and, most recently, “Chonkosaurus,” the massive snapping turtle seen atop a Chicago River pylon.
The Urban Wildlife Institute, based at the Lincoln Park Zoo, works with the city to research wild animals in Chicago and make plans that work well for both wildlife and humans.
The institute has been in communication with the Lurie Garden’s managers about the foxes, Lehrer said. The kits appeared over the past few months, she added.
“They seem to be displaying a lot of natural behaviors. They’re hunting, getting small mammals and birds. They don’t seem to be relying on human food at all, which is really nice to see. It sounds like they’re doing quite well in this space,” Lehrer said.
Red foxes are easy to distinguish, Lehrer said. They have striking red coats, long, bushy tales akin to a feather duster and black “socks” on the bottom of their legs that match black markings on the back of their ears.
The animals are more active at night, when they navigate the city and hunt.
“You might see them in the daytime kind of just lounging,” Lehrer said, adding that they often hang out near their dens in the daytime.
When a Tribune photojournalist spotted the foxes at sunset Sunday, they appeared to emerge from holes under trees near South Columbus Drive and East Monroe Street. Signs marking the presence of wildlife were up in the area.
The mother fox played with three kits before walking through the garden on her own. One fox sat on a ledge overlooking the Art Institute.
The foxes’ hoarse barks enlivened the otherwise serene evening in the park. When one woman walked by with her pug, a curious fox briefly followed.
Lehrer advised dog owners to keep their pets on a leash near the foxes. Foxes don’t seek to hunt animals like dogs — adult red foxes typically weigh eight to 15 pounds, the size of a large house cat — but could perceive other animals as a threat, she said.
The critters are more afraid of humans than humans are afraid of them, Lehrer added. She advised people who come across foxes to “observe and don’t disturb.” While it can be exciting and fun to watch foxes from afar, it’s important to not approach them and not feed them.
The animals likely have plenty to eat. Red foxes are omnivores that prey on small animals such as birds, rabbits and squirrels, Lehrer said. In Chicago, dubbed America’s “rat capital” by pest-control brand Orkin for the eighth consecutive year in 2022, small mammal predation goes a long way.
“They’re doing the hard work for us,” Lehrer said, adding that she suspects the Lurie Garden is home to plenty of prey for the foxes.
The Tribune photographer said he smelled what seemed to be prey captured by the foxes near their den Sunday evening, and again Monday evening.
Representatives of Millennium Park did not immediately respond to an interview request about the foxes Monday afternoon.
Despite being located in a dense part of one of America’s largest cities, the managed garden the foxes live in that sits close to The Bean and Jay Pritzker Pavilion is in many ways a well-suited environment. The garden’s plants can grow fairly high and the foxes seem to dart through them, Lehrer said.
“They kind of provide these corridors of hidden vegetation that people can’t really see that well. I’ve wondered if they’re moving in those corridors that go throughout the garden, rather than sort of out in the open space,” she said.
The garden’s vegetation also provides the cover foxes need to shelter, Lehrer said.
Foxes are not a very common in Chicago, Lehrer said. Their populations appear to be on the decline throughout the city, though it’s hard to tell, she added.
“So it’s really exciting to see them doing well in a space like Millennium Park,” Lehrer said. “Cities can be part of the conservation crisis. We can provide habitat.”
The animals sometimes pop up in residential areas or in green spaces such as parks and cemeteries. Foxes might be competing with the city’s coyotes and getting pushed to more densely populated areas, she said.
But it’s not just red foxes that live here, she pointed out. The city’s “bountiful biodiversity” is home to flying squirrels, beavers, mink, muskrats and bats.
“And I haven’t even talked about any other taxa,” she said. “If you just take a closer look, maybe slow down and pay attention to what’s around you, you will be able to observe all kinds of biodiversity here in the city.”