All about the Red Fox

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Would it surprise you to learn a Red Fox is your neighbor? Even in the city? Could Red Foxes be visiting your yard? Yes! They often stay put when urbanization consumes their habitat, remaining just out sight as the city builds around them. The common phrase “smart as a fox” isn’t an empty one. Red Foxes are clever and resourceful, so they simply exchange their country-bumpkin ways for the life of a city slicker. That might mean calling your yard home, where they quietly rest out of sight by day and stealthily sweep it at night for edibles.

The U.S. is home to five species of foxes, the Red, Gray, Arctic, Swift, and Kit. But, when we think of ‘fox,’ isn’t it always the Red Fox that comes to mind? It is, after all, one of the most widely distributed land carnivores on earth and also the one most often seen in our cities.

Red Foxes have been around for a long while. Their oldest fossils, found in Hungary, show they date back to the late-Pliocene and early-Pleistocene Epochs, 3.4 to 1.8 million years ago. They found their way to North America, presumably over the Bering land bridge, between 300,000 and 130,000 years ago.

Red Foxes are spread out across the U.S., with the only exception being the desert Southwest. They’re everywhere else, too, except Antarctica and South America. There are also 45 subspecies of Red Foxes in the world.

When the modern-day Red Fox was first formally described by taxonomist Carl Linnaeus in 1758, he named it Canis vulpes, which means “dog fox.” The word “fox” is derived from Old English and Old Saxon vohs, Middle Low German vox, and Old High German fuhs. The Red Fox is in the family Canidae (CAN-uh-dee) and the genus vulpes. The Canidae family also includes wolves, coyotes, jackals, dogs, and others. 

Physical description

The Red Fox looks like a little dog, with a long, pointed snout and triangle-shaped ears. It typically has white hair under its neck and on its chest. The ears, legs, and feet are dark-brown to black. However, despite their name, Red Foxes aren’t always red. They usually have red or reddish hair, but, variations do occur, running from light-yellowish to deep auburn-red.

Three small Red Fox cubs huddled together on grassy ground, facing the camera. One is brown, one is red and one is black.

Red Foxes aren’t always red. (sea turtle / Flickr; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0



In addition to a range of reddish colors, there are three other colors (commonly called color phases) — black, silver (black with white hair tips), and red with black across the shoulders. There are also several genetic mutations. Regardless of their color, a Red Fox can usually be identified by the tip of its bushy tail, which is almost always white. (The Gray Fox can sometimes be reddish, but the tip of its tail is black.)

Red Foxes are smaller than they seem. They have a thick coat that disguises their body — long, silky guard hairs and a soft, thick underfur bulk up their appearance. Under all that, their frame is delicate and thin, and they weigh only 10 to 15 pounds (4.5 to 6.8 kg) — comparable to a miniature poodle.

The largest of the fox species, their body is about 20 to 26 inches long (50.8 to 60 cm), and their tail (called a “brush”) is another 14 to 16 inches (35.5 to 40.6 cm). They have five toes on the front feet and four on the back, and long sharp claws. They’re fast on their feet — for short periods they can run as fast as 30 miles per hour. 

Black-and-white Illustration of a complete fox skeleton.

(source: “Royal Natural History,” Vol 1 by Richard Lydekker)



Senses

Red Foxes have amber eyes with vertical pupils and good vision. They have binocular vision like that of humans, but they react mostly to movement like cats do.

They have an excellent sense of smell. Their hearing is so sharp the foxes can hear small animals digging underground (if they’re hungry, they dig them up.) They use their hearing almost exclusively to hunt in winter, listening for the sounds of mice and voles moving about under layers of snow. Recent research has revealed that they use the Earth’s magnetic field to triangulate the location of hidden prey. (More on that here.)

Close up of a Red Fox's face showing its vertical pupils.

Red Foxes have vertical pupils. (Dave C / EOL; cc by-sa 3.0)



Communication

Red Foxes communicate with each other using facial expressions (“grinning” when being submissive, for example), as well as posture and movements of their ears and tail. They also vocalize, producing many different calls that span five octaves.

Adults have at least 12 different calls, and their babies produce eight. Sounds include sharp barks, yaps, yells, raspy “chirps,” howls, purrs, trills, and screeches. Some of them are rather plaintive, but the tiny barks of the babies are much like the sounds of our own happy puppies. (Listen to fox vocalizations.)

Red Foxes communicate in another way, too. They’re territorial and mark the boundaries of their home range with pungent-smelling urine, as well as feces. They also mark with fluid secreted from a gland on the upper surface of their tail, called the “Violet Gland.” It’s named that because the mix of chemicals is similar to those produced by violets. That sounds like it should be pleasant, but the foxes produce it in overbearing quantities that smell something like skunk musk. (Other mammals, including dogs, have this gland, also.)

Curiously like a cat!

Although obviously canine, Red Foxes share many characteristics with cats, including long, sensitive whiskers on their face; long, thin teeth; eyes that have slit pupils and shine in the dark. They also stalk and pounce on prey similarly, and use their paws in a cat-like way to capture and pin prey. Like cats, they kill prey with a piercing bite rather than biting and shaking prey as most other canines do. They sit and sleep with their tail curled about their body, as cats do. They even show similarity in fights, by fluffing their hair, arching their backs and charging an opponent sideways. 

So, considering all this, why aren’t they cats? Scientists say it’s the result of “convergent evolution,” where two species not closely related behave as though they are because of the ecological niche and or habitat they occupy. (More information on this topic.)

Behavior

Red foxes are nocturnal (out at night) or crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk), but they may be out and about any time. If they feel safe in your yard, they might visit it even in mid-day — especially if they have a hankering for squirrel à la carte, a strictly daytime delicacy.

When humans are about, Red Foxes lay low. They’re non-confrontational and make every attempt to avoid conflict. Unless cornered and forced to defend themselves, they won’t attack humans, not even young children. Territorial disputes between foxes, which can sound vicious, generally end without bloodshed.

Although they’re shy, some urban foxes become so accustomed to living near humans they exhibit little fear when they unexpectedly come face-to-face with people. People out for a stroll through a park may discover themselves being observed by a fox only a few feet away. This shouldn’t be interpreted as a threat — they’re curious by nature. Some homeowners have even reported having a fox walk by as they do their gardening.

A Red Fox’s territory is no larger than it needs to be. In the city, where food sources are more plentiful and closer together, a territory may be no more than a few acres, while rural ranges may measure in miles.

Red Foxes are capable of running at 30 miles per hour, but their hunting method is like a cat’s: They slink down to the ground and then, leaping into the air, pounce on the prey with their front feet, pinning it. A series of swift bites with dagger-like teeth promptly kill the victim; that is, if the fox doesn’t first play with it a bit, just as a cat might do.

Food sources

Red Foxes have keen hearing — they can even hear small animals digging underground. If they’re hungry, they dig them up, just as the fox shown below is about to do. 

Red Fox pouncing into the snow for a prey


Red Fox pouncing on prey in the snow.

(Neal Herbert, NPS / Flickr; PD)



Red Foxes are considered to be carnivores, but in reality, their diet includes plant foods, too, making them more like omnivores, Their meat diet includes rodents, rabbits, grasshoppers, beetles, crickets, birds and eggs, amphibians, reptiles, fish, earthworms, and caterpillars.

In the city, especially, they’ve learned to search for fruit, berries, worms, greens, whatever is in a garbage can, leftover dog food, and even carrion. They eat pretty much anything they find that’s edible. They don’t eat much at one time, though; they have a small stomach and eat small portions totaling about one to two pounds of food a day. They’re smart about how they gather food, too:   Video of Red Fox building a sandwich! 

Red Foxes share a trait in common with squirrels: They bury extra food. When they get lucky and catch more than they can eat at one sitting, they cache it: They dig a hole with their front claws, drop the food in and use their snout to cover it. Your dog probably does the domestic version of this by hiding bones or rawhide chews behind potted plants, between sofa cushions and maybe in the toe of a shoe. 

The foxes may have small caches scattered in several places in their territory. Sometimes they dig up a cache to make sure it’s still there, then re-bury it. They also mark it to announce its owner.

A Red Fox and a white cat that are friends; they are facing the camera with the cat standing just in front of the fox.

Friends. They live in Turkey. (photographer unknown; PD).



Red Foxes have a reputation as cunning, killing nuisances. These reports come from farmers who lose chickens, and from sport hunters who lose small game birds and animals to them. Also, ranchers claim they take lambs; however, studies over the past 20 years have consistently shown the lambs were already dead, weak or non-viable. Recently some farmers have begun to welcome Red Foxes, finding them more beneficial than detrimental because of their heavy predation on rodents and rabbits.

Cover and dens

When not hunting, Red Foxes spend their time curled up under a brush pile, under shrubs or in a heavy thicket. They don’t use a den (burrow) except in frigid weather. Their thick fur coat and warm, bushy tail, which they use to cover themselves, usually keeps them comfortable. When they do want a den, they dig one or, better yet, take over the abandoned den of a burrowing animal.

Females raise their young in a den. To prepare for parenting, the female selects a den site (called a natal or maternal den), typically on the side of a hill. She and her mate work together to dig and prepare it for their new offspring. It may be as long as 8 feet (0.5–2.5 m) or more and have additional openings, so they can’t be trapped inside. 

Alternatively, she might den under a fallen tree trunk, under a shed or even inside an abandoned building. She may have several dens, sort of “safe houses,” in the event of a threat. (It’s this kind of cunning that makes them a challenge for hunters and trappers.) She may use the same natal den year after year.

Reproduction

Females have just two to four days once a year when they’re receptive to mating. Mating occurs between mid-January and March, depending on the climate they live in (later in the North, earlier in the South). The babies (called kits or cubs) are born 49 to 58 days later. There might be as many as 10 to a litter or as few as three, but four or five is typical.

The kits weigh only about 4 ounces (114 g) at birth, their eyes are closed, ears folded and they’re toothless. Like a newborn puppy, they already have a coat of hair; it’s charcoal-gray or even black, with a white-tipped tail. In about 13 days or so, their eyes and ears open and teeth start growing in. Their eyes are blue at first, but change to amber at 4 to 5 weeks. Their hair color begins to change at about three weeks.

A tiny, fuzzy Red Fox kit facing the camera and standing on the ground near a leafy greenery.

Red fox kit. (Charles Sharp / Flickr; CC BY 2.0)



Their mother (called a vixen) dotes on them, keeping them warm and clean, and stays with them constantly for the first two weeks. The male (called a dog or dog fox) acts as hunter and caterer, bringing the female whatever meal he has caught. At three weeks, the parents begin to supplement the mother’s milk with regurgitated meat to chew.

At four or five weeks, while still nursing, the youngsters make tentative explorations of the area around the den and their parents bring them small, live prey so they can learn how to kill. If their mother dies before they’re able to fend for themselves, their father continues to care for them.

The kits, curious, frolicsome and energetic, behave much like puppies: They wrestle and tumble over each other, tug and run and chase. They gnaw on twigs, taste leaves, dig up grubs, and torment and chew on bugs. Their parents may leave “toys,” like bones and other objects with which to play. The kits also play-fight and work on their pouncing skills.

At seven or eight weeks, just as their hair begins to grow into a red coat, the parents start taking the kits on short hunting excursions. As the kits’ skill grows and they find and catch more of their own food, they nurse less; at about three months their mother puts a stop to it altogether.

Both parents are attentive and protective and often play with their offspring, too. At first, all hunt as a family, but they don’t take down their prey in a pack, as wolves will do.  Each stalks and kills its own. 

Three Red Foxes romping with each other on mowed grass, bordered by shrubbery.

Playful young Red Foxes. (© Steve Byland)

The offspring are fully grown at about 10 months. They stay together as a family until fall when the male kits go off to establish a territory of their own; females leave a few weeks later. Kits living in urban areas are less likely to disperse than those in rural areas. This may be related to more plentiful food in the city. 

Some males stay in their parent’s territory, but not as part of the family group. Females may sometimes remain with their mother for a year or more and serve as “helpers” with the next year’s litter.

Red Foxes are often mates for life, but in the fall the male goes his own way until the next mating season. The parents may cross paths from time to time, but, otherwise, take a break from each other.

Habitat

Red Foxes are found wherever there are suitable prey and sufficient cover. They use a variety of habitats, including deserts, tundra, woodlands, meadows, and pastures, but prefer a mix of open areas and forest, where they use the edge (transition zone) between these two areas for hunting. Where there’s suitable habitat, three or four foxes may share a square mile. Rural Red Foxes are known to move into cities to avoid competition for food, as well as prey for large predators, such as Coyotes.

Lifespan

Those that live to adulthood survive an average of five years. A 2007 study in Illinois of urban Red Foxes showed that 31 percent were killed by vehicles, and periodic outbreaks of sarcoptic mange killed about 45 percent. Out in the country, mange isn’t a significant problem, but predators are. In captivity, Red Foxes can live up to 15 years.

Predators

The most significant predator of Red Foxes is humans, who hunt them for sport, fur and as nuisances. Many are struck by vehicles. Kits are easy prey for other predators, including Coyotes, Gray Wolves, Mountain Lions, eagles, and owls.

Foxes and rabies

It’s commonly thought that a fox seen out in daytime must be rabid. That isn’t true. Foxes may go out in the daytime to play, find food or just bask in the sun. Although they’re among the animals that can contract rabies, it isn’t common. According to the most recent Rabies Surveillance Report (2015) by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, across the entire U.S., there were 325 rabid foxes reported. More than half the states had no occurrences at all.

*Top photo: Jim Peace, NPS, Yellowstone National Park; PD

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