– Physical Characteristics
The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is the subject of many stories, songs, fables and parables. Its flashy good looks and ability to live close to people and their varied activities have undoubtedly contributed to this notoriety. A more important factor, however, is probably the fox’s reputation for cunning and intelligence. Several English expressions testify to the fox’s wily mind: ‘sly as a fox,’ ‘foxy,’ ‘outfoxed,’ and ‘crazy as a fox.’ Actually, the red fox does have well developed senses of sight, smell and hearing, which are responsible for much of its reputation.
Also known as the ‘colored fox’ because of its different color phases, this animal is an Old World species with a wide distribution. The red fox is easily recognizable in its red color phase. The classic black stockings and cheek patches, and white throat and chest parts contrast vividly with the red coat. About half of all red foxes are of the red phase. Additional distinctive features of the red fox include its slender, tapering muzzle, very pointed ears and long, brush-like tail. With weight varying between 8 and 15 pounds, it is considerably larger than the Arctic fox, but about half the weight of a coyote.
– Behavior & Home Range
The red fox is one of the shyest members of the canine family and is most active at night, but can occasionally be seen during the daytime. Red fox prefer to live on the edges of forests, in tilled fields and near marshes, but they can also be found on farmland, beaches, prairies, woodlands, and both alpine and arctic tundra. The red fox is a solitary, territorial animal. Home ranges average about 730 acres in size, and are often bounded by rivers or other natural barriers. Related foxes do not share home range resources. Females occupy smaller ranges than males, and it is thought that the sizes and shapes of home ranges are also related to the status of the individual and local food sources.
– Feeding Habits
Foxes have very large ears for their head size, compared to coyotes and wolves. Because of its well-developed senses of hearing, sight, and smell, the red fox is an efficient and lethal predator; as an omnivore, it eats whatever is available, including corn, berries, apples, grasses, and birds. In addition, the larger ear size of foxes enables them to hear and catch mice and other rodents under the snow.
The red fox spends the mornings and evenings of the cold winter roaming around the edges of snow covered clearings and ponds, foraging for mice, voles, shrews, snowshoe hare, and muskrats. With keen eyes and ears, a red fox follows the faint sounds and stirrings of a tiny meadow vole moving through the grass. It will slowly stalk its quarry until it is close enough for a sudden attack. After a few minutes, the fox pinpoints the exact location of the vole, leaps in the air, and drops on its hapless victim with both forepaws.
The melting snow and emerging plant life of early spring provide better hunting for the fox. Along with the renewed abundance of young voles and mice, the eggs of ground nesting ducks and marsh birds create dependable food sources. Grasses and sedges are also eaten in summer, and berries become important when they ripen in the fall.
– Breeding & Young
Although foxes are usually non-aggressive, red foxes engage in skirmishes at the onset of the mating season in mid-January. Dominant dogs fend off other suitors attracted by receptive vixens. Inseparable after breeding, the mated pair traverses the countryside in search of a den.
In mid-March, the vixen beds down in a renovated rodent burrow or an abandoned wolf den on a south-facing hillside or stream bank. There, she usually gives birth to four young, some 52 days after conception. The vixen is confined to the den during the pup’s first few days of life, depending upon her mate to supply food for her. She soon begins to leave the den for short periods to forage on her own. The pups face several dangers while their mother is away, including predation by wolves.
During the first few months of life, the milk diet of the young pups is supplemented with semi-digested meat provided by both parents. By their third month, the pups have been weaned and under the vixen’s critical eye, they begin learning to hunt. Playful interludes during their lessons help to develop the speed and agility so vital to the fox’s survival. In autumn, their hunting skills are well honed. The young foxes rely less on their parents and in early winter the family disbands, each fox going its own way to seek out a new home range.