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 smart, 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. But, when we think of ‘fox,’ isn’t it usually the Red Fox that comes to mind? It’s 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 eons. Their oldest fossils, found in Hungary, date back to the late-Pliocene and early-Pleistocene Epochs, 3.4 to 1.8 million years ago. Presumably, foxes found their way to North America by crossing over the Bering land bridge, between 300,000 and 130,000 years ago.
Red Foxes are spread out across the United States, 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. The American Red Fox, Vulpes vulpes fulvous, and British Columbian Fox, Vulpes vulpes abietorum, are two of several subspecies that inhabit the US and Canada.
The word “fox” is derived from the Old English and Old Saxon vohs, Middle Low German vox, and Old High German fuhs. The Red Fox, Vulpes vulpes, is in the family Canidae (CAN-uh-dee), which comes from the Latin canis, meaning dog. The family also includes wolves, coyotes, jackals, dingoes, domestic dogs, and others.
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. Their eyes, which are a distinctive amber color with vertical pupils, face forward on their head giving them binocular vision like that of a human’s, but they mostly react to movement like cats do.
The hair color of Red Foxes may vary in shade from a light-yellowish tone to deep auburn-red, and some are an entirely different color—black, silver (black with white hair tips), or red with black across the shoulders. As if that wasn’t enough color variation for the “Red” Fox, there are also several genetic mutations. So, you can’t always expect to identify a Red Fox by its hair color. However, here’s one tell-tale tip, so to speak, that makes it pretty conclusive: The tip of their bushy tail is almost always white.
Red Foxes are smaller than they seem. They have long, silky guard hairs and a soft, thick underfur that bulks up their appearance, especially when they’re wearing their winter coat. Beneath, their frame is delicate and thin—they weigh only 10–15 pounds (4.5–7 kg)—comparable to a miniature poodle. Still, they’re the largest of the fox species, at about 20–26 inches long (51–66 cm), and their tail is another 14–16 inches (36–41 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 bursts they can run as fast as 30 miles per hour (48kmh).
Their sense of smell is excellent, and their hearing is so sharp they can hear small animals digging underground, even under snow (if they’re hungry, they dig them up). They use their hearing almost exclusively in the winter for hunting, listening for the sounds of mice and voles moving about under layers of snow or debris. At any time of year, when they jump on prey, they do it mostly in a northeasterly direction, about 20 degrees off from magnetic north. Curious, isn’t that? It turns out that their success rate drops considerably when jumping from other directions. Researchers think that foxes are using the earth’s magnetic field to triangulate the location of hidden prey. (More on that here.)
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 and produce 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 sound rather plaintive, but the tiny barks of the babies are much like the sounds of our own happy puppies.
Red Foxes communicate in another way, too. Territorial by nature, they mark their home ranges with pungent-smelling urine and feces. They also mark with a fluid from a gland located on the upper surface of their tail. Called the “Violet Gland,” for its mix of chemicals similar to those produced by violets, it seems like it should be pleasant. But it’s too much of a good thing, as it happens, because the foxes produce it in such overbearing quantities it smells something like skunk musk. (Some other mammals, including dogs, have this gland, too, which should make us thankful that Fido doesn’t use it for marking in our homes!)
Here kitty, kitty!
Although obviously canine, Red Foxes share a surprising number of characteristics with cats, beginning with their long, sensitive whiskers; long, thin teeth; and 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 their victim. Like cats, they kill prey with a piercing bite rather than biting and shaking the victim as most other canines do. They sit and sleep with their tail curled about their body, which is certainly cat-like. 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.
Red foxes are nocturnal (out at night), 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, say, squirrel à la carte, a strictly daytime delicacy.
When humans are about, the foxes lay low. Those living in urban areas, however, can become so accustomed to humans they exhibit little fear when they come face to face with people. If you find a fox observing you from only a few feet away, don’t interpret it as a threat because they’re curious by nature. Some homeowners report a fox walking by as they do their gardening. The foxes are 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.
Danger depends on who’s doing the telling
Red Foxes have a reputation as cunning, killing nuisances. These reports come from farmers who lose chickens, and sport hunters who lose small game birds and animals to them. Ranchers, too, who claim they take lambs; Studies, however, 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.
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. Territorial disputes between foxes can sound vicious, but they generally end without bloodshed.
Red Foxes are capable of running at 30 miles per hour (48 kmh), 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 kills the victim; that is, if the fox doesn’t first play with it a bit, just as a cat might do.
Cover and dens
When not hunting, Red Foxes spend their time curled up under a brush pile, under shrubs or in a dense thicket. They don’t generally use a den, unless their thick fur coat and warm, bushy tail, which they use as a blanket, aren’t keeping them warm enough in frigid winter weather. When they do want a den, they dig one or, better yet, take over the abandoned lair of a burrowing animal.
There’s one other time they use a den. That’s when females are raising their young. 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 and may dig one as long as 8 feet or more (0.5–2.4 m), with more than one opening, so they can’t be trapped inside.
Alternatively, she might choose a den site under a fallen tree trunk, under a shed or even inside an abandoned building, and may have several dens, providing “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.
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 in which 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 (113 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 their teeth start growing in. Their eyes are blue at first but change to amber at 4 to 5 weeks. Within a month, their hair begins to turn red.
Their mother (called a vixen) dotes on them, keeping them warm and clean, and stays with them always for the first two weeks. The male (called a dog or dog fox) acts as hunter and caterer, bringing the female whatever meal he’s caught. At three weeks, the parents begin to supplement the mother’s milk with regurgitated meat to chew. At four or five weeks, although 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.
At seven or eight weeks the parents begin taking the kits on short hunting excursions. As their skill grows and they find and catch more of their own food, their mother starts weaning them. She stops them completely at about three months. If their mother dies before they’re able to fend for themselves, their father will continue 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. Both parents are attentive and protective and often play 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. 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.
Red Foxes are considered to be carnivores, but in reality, their diet includes plant foods, making them more like omnivores, Their diet includes rodents, rabbits, grasshoppers, beetles, crickets, birds and eggs, amphibians, reptiles, fish, earthworms, and caterpillars. Their hearing is so keen they can detect small animals digging underground. If they’re hungry, they dig them up, just as the fox shown below is about to do.
In the city they’ve learned to search for fruit, berries, worms, greens, whatever is in a garbage can, leftover dog food, and even carrion. They’ll eat pretty much anything that’s edible. But only a bit at one time; they have a small stomach and eat portions totaling about one to two pounds of food a day. They’re smart about how they gather food, too–take a look at this: Video of Red Fox building a sandwich!
The 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. Using their front claws, they dig a hole and bury it. Your dog probably does the domestic version of this by hiding bones or rawhide chews behind potted plants or between sofa cushions. 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.
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, they refer 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 and being prey for large predators, such as Coyotes.
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.
The most significant predator of Red Foxes is humans, who hunt them for sport, fur and as nuisances. 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’s incorrect. 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 US Centers for Disease Control, across the entire country, there were 325 rabid foxes reported. More than half the states had no occurrences at all.
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*Top photo: Jim Peace / National Park Service, Yellowstone National Park; Public Domain