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? Possibly. They often stay put when urbanization takes over 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 United States is home to five species of foxes, the Red, Gray, Arctic, Swift and Kit. When we think of “fox,” however, isn’t it the Red Fox that usually comes to mind? They’re the most widely distributed land carnivores on earth. Found across the U.S., except for the desert Southwest, and everywhere else, except Antarctica and South America.

The oldest Red Fox fossils have been found in Hungary and date back to the early Pleistocene Epoch (2.6 million to 11,700 years ago). The foxes spread out that there and made their way to North America presumably over the Bering land bridge. Recent research suggests that the foxes crossed from Siberia to North America over the Bering land bridge between 300,00 and 130,000 years ago.

Foxes are in the Canidae (CAN-uh-dee) family, along with wolves, coyotes, jackals, dogs and others, and in the tribe Vulpini. When the modern-day Red Fox was first formally described by taxonomist Carl Linnaeus in 1758, he called placed it in the dog family and named it Canis vulpes (literally meaning “dog fox”). Since then the Red Fox has been moved to the genus Vulpes. The word “fox” is derived from Old English/Old Saxon vohs, Middle Low German vox and Old High German fuhs.

Physical description
Red Foxes look like little dogs with long, pointed snouts and triangle-shaped ears.  They have white hair under their neck and on their chest. Their ears, legs and feet are dark-brown to black.

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.

Genetic mutations can produce many different color variations. (sea turtle / Flickr; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In addition to the 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, as well as 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 in color, but the tip of its tail is black.)

Red Foxes are smaller than they seem. They have a thick coat that fools the eye — long, silky guard hairs and a soft, thick underfur bulk up their appearance. Under that, their frame is delicate and thin, and they weigh only 10 or 15 pounds — comparable to a miniature poodle.

The largest of the fox species, their body is about 20 to 26 inches long, plus their tail (called a “brush”) is another 14 to 16 inches.  They have five toes on the front 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. 

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

Senses
Red Foxes have amber eyes with vertical pupils. Their sense of sight is good, but less so than their other senses. They have binocular vision, like humans do, but they react mostly to movement, like cats do.

They have an excellent sense of smell. Their hearing is keen and, unlike most other mammals, they can detect low-frequency sounds very well. They 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.)

Red Foxes have vertical pupils. (Gregory Slobirdr Smith / Flickr; CC BY-SA 2.0)

Communication
Red Foxes communicate with each other using facial expressions (“grinning” when being submissive, for example), with posture and with movement of their ears and tail. They also vocalize, producing sounds spanning 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.)

Behavior
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.)

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.

Red Foxes lay low when humans are about. 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.

Most Red Foxes are 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.)

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 territories 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 dispatches the victim; that is, if the fox doesn’t first play with it a bit, just as a cat might do.

Habitat
Red Foxes are found wherever there are suitable prey and sufficient cover. They use a variety of habitats, including deserts, tundra, woodlands, meadows, 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 becoming competition and prey for large predators , such as coyotes.

Food sources
Red Foxes are omnivores, which means they eat both animal and plant foods. Their meat diet includes rodents, rabbits, grasshoppers, beetles, crickets, birds and eggs, amphibians, reptiles, fish, earthworms and caterpillars. Especially in the city, however, they learn to search for fruit, berries, worms, eggs, greens, whatever is in a garbage can, leftover dog food and even carrion. They eat pretty much anything they find that’s edible. They’re smart about how they gather food, too. Here’s a video of a Red Fox building a sandwich! They don’t each much at one time, though; they have a small stomach and eat small portions, about 1–2 pounds of food a day.

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 by digging a hole with their front feet, dropping the food in and covering it with their snout. 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.

Fox and wild cat

Similar in so many ways, but unusual as friends, as foxes prey on cats. The pair were discovered by Turkish fisherman a few years ago and were still friends at least a year later. (photo by unnamed photographer)

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

Red Foxes have a reputation as cunning, killing nuisances. This comes from farmers who lose chickens, and from sport hunters who lose small game birds and animals to them. Ranchers claim they take lambs; however, studies over the past 20 years have consistently shown the lambs were already dead, weak or non-viable.” 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 nesting
When not hunting, Red Foxes spend their time curled up under a brush pile, under shrubs or in a heavy thicket. They don’t build a nest or den except in brutally cold weather, when their thick fur coat and warm, bushy tail that they cover themselves with aren’t enough to keep them comfortable. Then they dig a den 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 chooses a den site and the male and female, after mating, dig a den (called a natal or maternal den) — up 20 feet long — into the side of a hill. Alternatively, they might den under a fallen tree trunk, under a shed or even inside an abandoned building. A pregnant female may have several dens, sort of “safe houses,” in the event the den her babies are in is threatened. Females usually take an additional clever precaution of having as many as five entrances to each den so they can’t be trapped inside. (It’s precisely this kind of cunning that makes them a challenge for hunters and trappers.) Within the den, females lay a nest of grasses for warmth and comfort for their kits. They may use the same natal den year after year.

Reproduction
Red Foxes are often mates for life. Females have only two to four days once a year when they’re receptive. 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 five is typical.

The kits weigh only about 4 ounces 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 the kits open their eyes, their ears open and teeth start growing. Their eyes are blue at first, but change to amber at 4 to 5 weeks. Their hair color begins to change at about 3 weeks and reaches adult coloration at about 6 weeks. They’re fully grown at about 10 months. Video of kits coming out of their den. (Gerald Zojer; CC BY 3.0)

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Red Fox kit. (© Joakim Stolt)

Their mother (called a vixen) dotes on them, keeping them warm and clean, staying 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 just three weeks, their parents begin to give the kits 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 fully take care of 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 for them to play with. 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, even playful with their offspring. 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. Just imagine a whole family of these elegant animals, coated in luxuriant red, loping across a hill: heads up, tails streaming straight out behind, moving so gracefully that some folks say they appear to float.

The foxes stay together as a family until fall when the male kits go off to establish their own territories and the females leave a few weeks later. Kits living in urban areas are less likely to disperse than rural kits. This may be related to more plentiful food in the city. Males who don’t disperse stay in their parent’s territory, but not as part of the family group. Sometimes females remain with their mother for a year or more and serve as “helpers” with the next year’s litter. Mom and Dad may cross paths from time to time, but otherwise take a holiday from each other until the next mating season.

Life span
Red Foxes that survive to adulthood live about 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, and many are killed by vehicles. Their kits are easy prey for other predators and many don’t survive to adulthood. Other predators include 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. This isn’t true. Foxes sometimes go out in 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 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, across the entire U.S. there were 427 rabid foxes reported in 2011. More than half the states had no occurrences at all.

*Top photo: (Malene Thyssen / Wiki; cc by-sa 3.0)

Red Fox at a glance

Appearance: Size: Lifespan: Range/habitat: Behavior: Foods: Cover/nesting: Reproduction: . Predators: Called: Scientific classification Kingdom: Animalia Phylum: Chordata Class: Mammalia Order: Carnivora Family: Canidae Genus: Vulpes Species: vulpes 
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