The Red Fox
(Getty Images / ZenaComp)
Skip down to:
Habitat / Food sources / Cover
Would it surprise you to learn a Red Fox is your neighbor, maybe even a close one? Even if you live in the heart of your city? These animals often stay put when urbanization takes their habitat, letting the city build around them. They simply shed their country bumpkin ways and live the life of the city slicker -- even in your yard if it’s suitable, quietly out of sight by day and stealthily sweeping it at night for edibles.
The Red Fox is a member of the dog family, Canidae, related to wolves and coyotes. Widely distributed -- more so than any other carnivore -- they're found everywhere in the world, except Antarctica and South America. Introduced into the southeastern part of the U.S. from England over 300 years ago, for fox hunting, they've spread out across the U.S., except for the desert Southwest, despite being hunted mercilessly for sport and fur.
The U.S. is home to four species of foxes (or five or six, according to some taxonomists). When we think of a "fox," however, the Red Fox is usually the one who comes to mind, so except where otherwise noted, the following information refers to the Red Fox, Vulpes vulpes. Smart and adaptable, the Red Fox now ranges across the U.S., except for the desert Southwest,despite being hunted mercilessly for sport and fur.
The largest of all the fox species, these handsome canines usually are, as the name says, red or reddish. However, their coloration can span from light-yellowish to deep auburn-red, or even darker. Regardless of the coloring, you can identify him as the Red fox because the tip of his bushy tail (called a "brush") is white. (A similar fox, the Gray Fox, can sometimes be reddish in color, but the tip of his tail is black. Also, he's much shier than the Red and not likely to be living near you.) The Red fox is smaller than you might think, weighing no more than 10 or 15 pounds -- that's comparable to a miniature poodle. It's his thick coat of hair that fools the eye -- under it is a delicate, thin frame.
(source: "Royal Natural History," Vol 1
by Richard Lydekker)
The Red Fox has erect, triangle-shaped ears and a long, narrow snout containing 42 sharp teeth. His eyes are yellow. His eyesight, like that of a cat's, is designed to detect movement and his sense of smell is excellent. His hearing so keen he can hear the sounds of small animals digging underground. If he’s hungry, he digs them up.
They have hairy feet, so it's hard to distinguish their toes. They have five on the front and 4 on the back feet. They're fast on their feet -- they can run for short periods at up to 30 miles per hour.
Red Foxes communicate vocally through sharp barks, yaps, yells, raspy “chirps,” howls, purrs, trills and screeches. Some of their sounds are rather plaintive, but the tiny bark of young foxes are much like the sounds of our own happy puppies. You can listen to fox vocalizations here. The fox shares many characteristics with cats, too: Long, sensitive whiskers on his face, similar teeth, cat-like paws that can flex, claws that can retract and eyes that have vertical slits and glow in the dark. He stalks and pounces on prey just as cats do and he also fights like one by fluffing his air, arching his back and charging his opponent sideways.
The Red fox is usually considered to be nocturnal, but he isn’t strictly so. He could be out and about any time. He prefers night, sunset and dawn, but if he feels safe in your yard, he might visit there even in mid-day. Especially if he has a hankering for squirrel ala carte, a strictly daytime delicacy.
Almost always foxes lay low when humans are about. Despite being efficient hunters, 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 us. 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 them as do their gardening.
Red foxes are territorial and will defend against intruders. As with all animals, territories are no larger than they need to be. In the city, where food sources are more plentiful and closer together, a fox’s territory may be no more than a few acres, while rural territories may measure in miles.
The Red fox is distributed across the U.S., except for arid and semi-arid areas, wherever there's suitable prey and sufficient cover.
Although taxonomists categorize foxes as carnivores, it’s more realistic to call them omnivores – eaters of both meat and vegetation. They eat rodents, rabbits, grasshoppers, beetles, crickets, earthworms, fish and an occasional small family pet. To survive, especially in the city, they also learn to search for fruit, berries, worms, eggs, greens, whatever is in the garbage, leftover dog food and even carrion. In other words, they eat pretty much anything they find that's edible. But, in small amounts; their stomach is small and so are their food portions. They'll eat 1-2 pounds of food a day.
Red foxes share a trait common to squirrels: They bury extra food. All foxes have small stomachs relative to their size and don't eat as much at one time as a dog or wolf. Consequently they eat more often.
When a Red fox gets lucky and catches more than he can eat at one sitting, he caches it: He digs a hole with his front feet, drops the food in it and uses his snout to cover it with dirt. My dog does the domestic version of this with dog biscuits, hiding them behind potted plants, between sofa cushions and sometimes in the toe of a shoe. Your dog probably does, too.
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 rebury it. They mark it and the boundaries of their territories with urine. (During mating season, they also mark with fluid from their Violet Gland, so named because the chemical it produces is similar to that of violets. But the fox’s scent is very strong and smells a lot like skunk musk.)
Foxes have a bad reputation as cunning, killing nuisances. This comes from farmers who occasionally 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, or weak, non-viable lambs.” Some farmers have begun to welcome 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 aren’t enough to keep them comfortable. Then they dig a den or, better yet, take over the abandoned den of a burrowing animal.
The female (called a vixen) also dens when she’s preparing to raise her young. After mating, the pair digs a den, called a natal or maternal den – perhaps as long as 15 to 20 feet – into the side of a hill. Or they might den under a shed or even inside an abandoned building. A pregnant female often has several dens, sort of “safe houses,” in the event the den her babies are in is threatened. She usually takes an additional clever precaution of having as many as five entrances to each den so she can’t be trapped inside. (It’s precisely this cunning that makes their rural kin a challenge for hunters and trappers.) Within her den she lays a nest of grasses for warmth and comfort. She likely will use the same natal den year after year.
Back to top
Red Foxes are often mates for life. Mating occurs between mid-January and March, depending on the climate they live in, and the babies (called kits or cubs) are born about 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 about 4 ounces at birth, their eyes are closed and ears folded. 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 10 days the babies open their eyes. Their hair will have adult coloration at about six weeks.
Cub before adult coloration.
Their mother (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 vixen whatever meal he has caught.
At just three weeks, their parents begin to give the kits regurgitated meat to chew on. At four or five weeks, 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.
The juveniles, curious, frolicsome and energetic, behave much like puppies: They wrestle and tumble over each other, tug and run and chase. They gnaw on twigs and each other’s tails, taste leaves, dig up grubs, and torment and chew on bugs. The kits also 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 babies. At first, all hunt as a family, but they don’t take down their prey in a pack, as wolves will do. Instead, each stalks and kills his own. The Red fox is capable of running at 30 miles per hour, but his hunting method is something like a cat's: He slinks down to the ground and then, leaping into the air, he pounces on the prey with his 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.
The foxes stay together as a family until fall when the male kits go off to establish their own territories; 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 take a holiday from each other until next mating season.
Just imagine a whole family of these elegant animals, coated in lustrous red, loping across a hill: heads up, tails streaming straight out behind, moving so gracefully that some folks say they appear to float. A sight to behold!
Back to top