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Alberta Wildlife Recoveries: Swift Fox

What are swift foxes?

As the name suggests, the swift fox (Vulpes velox) is a speedy little fox species once found in the prairies and foothills of the southern Alberta Rockies and in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The species can be distinguished from other vulpine species by its small size (usually no bigger than a large housecat), which allows them to reach top speeds of up to 60 km/hr. Other defining traits include vertical cat-like eyes, black facial spots on the sides of their muzzles, and long, black-tipped bushy tails (AEP species profile; Alberta Swift Fox Recovery Plan 2006-2011).

Where are swift foxes found?

The swift fox was originally distributed in large populations across the Canadian Prairies, but declined due to poorly implemented trapping and predator control programs and an increase in agrarian development in the late 1800’s. This led the Committee on the Status of Endangered Species in Canada to classify the species as extirpated (locally extinct) in 1978. (ASFPR 2006-2011; COSEWIC).

Thankfully, a large project put together by the Smeetons of the Cochrane Ecological Institute (CEI) successfully re-introduced the species both in Canada and certain states in America, and this project is considered one of the most successful re-introductions of a small carnivore species worldwide (ASFPR 2006-2011; Weagle & Smeeton 1997).

How was the swift fox re-introduced to Alberta?

Initial populations of swift foxes to be used in breeding and captive-rearing programs were taken from populations across North America and brought to Alberta. Between 1983 and 1997, the CEI provided over 800 swift foxes, captive-bred and reared for eventual release into the wild.

The main goals of the associated research were to achieve the first successful re-introduction of an extirpated mammalian species; to develop non-intrusive monitoring methods for at-risk/endangered species, and to use this data to create a “blueprint” for other countries to follow regarding their own endangered species (Weagle & Smeeton 1997).

Among the most important aspects of any re-introduction project is to ensure that the captive-bred and captive-reared species are taught the skills necessary for them to survive in the wild, including hunting for wild prey. However, these skills alone are not enough for a successful re-introduction, as the methods of release and location are also extremely important (Weagle & Smeeton 1997; CEI 1995).

Why was the swift fox re-introduction important?

The loss of any species is always a tragedy, especially when it is due to preventable human impacts. Swift foxes are a unique part of the prairie ecosystem, as they are omnivorous and will feed on almost anything, including pest species such as mice or insects (AEP profile). They are also important bio-indicators (species that can tell us the health of the ecosystem they occupy) as swift foxes thrive best in large, unbroken expanses of short grass prairie with high prey numbers/variation. If the number of swift foxes dwindle, it can tell us that there may be greater ecosystem problems, such as pollutants or excessive prey reduction (Adamus 1996).  It is our responsibility to ensure that at-risk species are given the help they need to survive, not just for the species itself, but for the health of the larger ecosystem they contribute to.

What more needs to be done, and how can we help?

At last estimate, there are less than 100 swift foxes living in southern Alberta, according to the AEP swift fox profile. They are currently protected under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA), the Canadian National Parks and Alberta Wildlife Acts. It is prohibited to kill, harm, or harass the species. But these governmental acts are not enough to preserve them alone.

The Alberta swift fox re-introduction, while deemed a success, in that the species is no longer locally extinct, has had different results than another study (also done by the Smeetons and the CEI) with the Blackfeet Nation in Montana. The study in Montana had full control over release site selection and methodology, and provided post-program surveying and was far more effective, with a survival rate of over 75% after the first four years, compared to the 20% shown in the Canadian study (Weagle & Smeeton 1997).

It is therefore clear that a lot more research, surveying and monitoring of the captive-bred reintroductions is needed in Alberta. Post-release surveys and breeding programs are crucial in helping the species survive.

We lost this amazing species once. We can’t let it happen again.

Are you interesting in learning how to support injured and orphaned wildlife in Alberta? Visit for more information.

By Jonathan Poll, AIWC Volunteer


Adamus, P.R. (1996). Bioindicators for assessing ecological integrity of prairie wetlands. EPA/600/R-96/082. U.S Environmental Protection Agency, National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, Western Ecology Division, Corvalis, OR.

Alberta Environment and Parks, Swift Fox profile (

Alberta Swift Fox Recovery Plan (2006-2011). Alberta Swift Fox Recovery Team. Alberta Sustainable Research Development, Fish and Wildlife division, Alberta Species at Risk Recovery Plan No. 14. Edmonton, AB. 23pp.

Committee on the Status of Endangered Species in Canada (COSEWIC) (

Weagle, K., and Smeeton, C. (1997). Captive breeding of Swift Fox for re-introduction: Final Report. Cochrane Ecological Institute, P.O box 484, Cochrane AB.

Photo Credit: Alberta Environment and Parks

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We need your support to provide wildlife with a second chance. 95% of the cases we see are admitted due to human conflict in some way, whether it be they were hit by a car, hit a window or powerline, were attacked by a cat or dog, or unintentionally kidnapped by a well-meaning individual.

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Every Wild Life Matters

The crow seen in the above photo was admitted to AIWC near the end of May 2017 after being found in a northeast Calgary backyard, unable to fly.

AIWC staff are unsure what happened to the crow. He suffered a fracture to his right humerus and right radius.

The crow underwent surgery at AIWC and is receiving regular physiotherapy with staff. He will recover at AIWC’s facility until he is well enough to be released into the wild.

Crows, which are part of the corvidae family, have often been seen a nuisance due to their abundance, loud calls and fearless manner. However, these highly intelligent birds are actually beneficial to humans as they consume large quantities of insects and pests (“Crows & Magpies”). For more information on the ingenuity and intelligence of crows, see

AIWC operated on the tenet that “every wild life matters”, no matter how small or common the animal may be. Each creature found in our province plays an important role in Alberta’s ecosystems.

In 2016, AIWC treated 1,889 wild animals and helped hundreds more by assisting the public with wildlife-related issues. AIWC welcomes wildlife of all sizes and prevalence, from crows to moose calves.

Are you interested in helping AIWC’s efforts to care for Alberta’s wildlife? Visit to find out how you can get involved today!

Works Cited

“Crows & Magpies.” Crows & Magpies / Alberta Environment and Parks, 19 Feb. 2014, <>.

Birds of a Feather: Some of Alberta’s Most Common Bird Species

They’re tapping at our windows, singing us morning songs and tantalizing Alberta’s felines, but who exactly are these little feathered friends? Aside from the obvious red-breasted robins or black-capped chickadees, how much do you know about Alberta’s most common birds?

Below is a brief introduction to Alberta birds! Be prepared to wow your friends with your bird knowledge!


House sparrow: House sparrows are chunky with full chests, rounded heads and stout bills. Males have gray heads, white cheeks, black bibs and reddish-brown necks, while females are a more dull brown. These sparrows are noisy and come out of their nest holes to pick at crumbs or seeds. They’ve been tolerating humans for centuries and are now quite comfortable hanging out on city streets, zoos, parking lots or more.

American tree sparrow: These plump little sparrows keep busy in the winter months, hunting for seeds, weeds and grass heads. In the springtime, these little sparrows head even further north to their breeding grounds in the tundra. You will recognize an American tree sparrow by his rusty cap and eyeliner on a gray, chubby-looking body.

White-throated sparrow: These are flashy little sparrows with spunk to match. They have black and white striped heads, bright white throats and yellow between the eye and bill. To identify a white-throated sparrow, look for a prominent bill, long legs and a narrow tail. You’re most likely to find these little sparrows in wooded area and forest edges. In the winter, they often nest in parks and woodsy suburbs.


Black-capped chickadee: No one can resist these undeniably adorable little birds. Black-capped chickadees have tiny bodies, oversized heads and big eyes. With a black cap and bib, this chickadee is easy to find and is usually happy to investigate people while searching out seeds, berries and birdfeeders. Often nesting in birch or alder trees, black-capped chickadees stay in Alberta year round.

Boreal chickadee: You aren’t likely to find one of these brown-capped chickadees in Southern Alberta. They are one of the only birds that live completely within the biome of the northern boreal forest. They have brownish caps and bibs and white cheeks.


House finch: The house finch has a bright red head and breast with brownish wings and body. Even if you’ve never seen one of these little finches, you’ve probably heard them! Their long, twittering song is heard in neighbourhoods around North America. These little birds are cheerful and like to frequent birdfeeders, just like the little chickadees! They are hardy birds too, happy to make homes in urban and rural areas or in their native habitats of deserts, grasslands and open forest.

Purple finch: You’re most likely to see one of these strawberry-coloured finches in the winter, when they come by to feed from birdfeeders. It’s easy to mix them up with the house finch, but look closely at their colouring and you’ll notice that the red-pink of their faces mixes into the brown and white of their bodies in an almost ombré-toned manner.


Red-breasted nuthatch: These are active, hoppy little birds that make a “yank-yank” sound as they search tree bark for hiding insects. These tiny nuthatches have short tails, a plump body and almost no neck! They are blue-gray in colour with black caps, white stripes above their eyes and a rusty-red underbelly. Look for these bubbly little birds among spruce, fir, pine, hemlock, and poplar trees.

White-breasted nuthatch: Like their red-breasted friends, these nuthatches are full of energy, springing through backyards as they search for bountiful birdfeeders. Do you wonder how the nuthatches got their name? They like to take large nuts and acorns and ram them against trees until the seeds “hatch.” That’s exactly what you can find these black, blue-gray and white nuthatches doing along woodland edges.

Now that you have a very brief introduction to the types of feathered backyard visitors in Alberta, you can share your knowledge! The more you learn about the beautifully diverse, intricate species that inhabit our province, the more you will appreciate the natural world.

Do you want to help AIWC in its mission to conserve, rehabilitate and spread awareness of Alberta wildlife? You can volunteer, donate and much more. For more information on how you can support AIWC, visit

“Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.”
-Gary Snyder

By Nina Grossman, AIWC Volunteer