One night last month, residents of a quiet block of Shepherd Park in Northwest Washington were startled when a frantic cry slashed the air. It sounded, recalled Richard Neugass, like a hysterical child. Several people rushed outdoors to see what they could do.

Neugass aimed a flashlight at the sidewalk where the sound had come from and saw . . . two red foxes, darting away.

Neugass and his wife, Margery Goldberg, knew there was a den nearby but had spotted the animals only a few times, usually at a distance. The first time he saw one, Neugass thought it might be a dog, until he spotted the white tip on the animal's bushy tail. "At first, we were alarmed and scared," Neugass said. "And now we go looking for them."

This is the season when you are most likely to see a red fox or to be startled by one. (There also are gray foxes around here, but they are rarer and more reclusive.) They move into dens in late March or early April to give birth, and stay there until their young are able to fend for themselves four or five months later. Increasingly, those dens are close to people, even under porches or decks. The parents go out to hunt frequently, to feed their four to seven young mouths. They prefer the night, but will hunt during the day.

Ken Ferebee, a natural resources specialist in Rock Creek Park, saw a red fox bringing down a kill about six weeks ago, about 7 a.m. "It was attacking a small mammal, having a battle with it, and it was barking. I couldn't tell what it was -- it looked like a baby raccoon," he recounted. "It was jumping around, and it would bark. It could have been a little groundhog. It got it, put it in its mouth and carried it up the hill."

Foxes eat mainly rodents, rabbits, insects and fruit, but they also will go for carrion or trash. Their willingness to gulp down anything, and their ability to figure out where to find it, is a key to their growing numbers in urban and suburban neighborhoods.

Alonso Abugattas, a naturalist at Long Branch Nature Center in Arlington County, said he thinks local foxes keep track of which night is trash night and plan accordingly. Earl Hodnett, Fairfax County's wildlife biologist, said foxes certainly know which households keep pet food on the porch and which ones have bird feeders, which attract mice at night.

One sign that you might have one nearby, Abugattas said, is that "foxes have this interesting habit of wanting to poop on top of something," such as a log or a rock. Their leavings might contain bits of feather or fur.

Foxes will not go after children or pets, except possibly the tiniest animals, Abugattas and Hodnett said. They can carry rabies, though that is rare. Hodnett suggests that if a fox approaches you -- and it's not the season when they might be defending a den -- "that's worth a phone call." Abugattas said some people mistakenly think a fox is rabid when it has mange, a skin condition that makes its coat look "crummy."

Hodnett said it is out of date to think that foxes do not roam during the day. They are increasingly comfortable near people. Not everyone enjoys having foxes around, and some call animal control for help. If you want to keep foxes from returning to a den under the porch, Hodnett advises putting up a barrier such as chicken wire after denning season.

But in some neighborhoods, residents are so tolerant that Hodnett has seen foxes "laying out in a sunny spot in the front yard like they are a family pet."

He has a theory about why foxes are coming closer. Until recently, foxes have had no local predators, but the spreading population of coyotes is changing that. Coyotes will kill foxes, but they only operate at night. Foxes may be using people as a shield.

"The foxes have adapted to that by nuzzling up to us and changing their shift," he said. "The coyotes are working the night shift, and the foxes more and more are working the day."

-- D'Vera Cohn

Red foxes are increasingly comfortable around humans, and their willingness to eat a wide variety of things has aided their adaptation to suburban and urban settings.