Red Fox Facts: History, Habitats and Habits

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The most common of foxes, Vulpes vulpes, the red fox, calls most of North America home, but few people have had the pleasure of seeing one.
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Distribution of the Red Fox in North America.

Please let me introduce you to a red-haired stranger, learn red fox facts including their history, habitats and habits.

Red Fox Facts: History, Habitats and Habits

If you live in any of the lower 48 states, Canada or
Alaska, at least one of the five North American fox species
— red, gray, kit, swift or arctic — is your
neighbor. And if you reside in Colorado, Utah, Texas or New
Mexico, you have four of our continent’s five smallest
canids as fellow residents — whether you know it or
not. (And you can’t be blamed if you don’t , since
foxes make it their business to see that we don’t see
them.)

Of the five species, the one with the red hair
–Vulpes vulpes, the sly antagonist of
Aesopian fables, the trickster Reynard of French-Canadian
folklore — is far and away the most plentiful and
wide-ranging. In short, it’s the fox you’re most likely to
meet someday. To enrich that encounter, allow me I to
introduce you to some red fox facts.

By the calendar on the wall, the red fox has made its home
in North America for one heck of along time. But in the
long view, the little dog is a relative newcomer. Like most
other creatures that didn’t evolve here but were present
when Columbus’s ship came in, V. vulpes hiked over
from Asia in relatively recent geologic times, crossing on
God’s own drawbridge, that ephemeral ice age isthmus, the
Bering-Chukchi Platform.

It’s no mere coincidence, then, that North American and
Eurasian red foxes are near-twins (the European version
runs a bit larger and evidences minor microchromosomal
variances); they haven’t been separated long enough to have
evolved significant morphological differences. Matter of
fact, though the two were long categorized as separate
species simply because they inhabit different continents,
wildlife taxonomists now lump them under a shared name,
V. vulpes (Latin for “fox fox”).

And thereupon hangs a tale.

Convinced that native American red foxes were both too few
and too plebian to provide their high-bred horses and
hounds with proper sport, aristocratic European settlers
imported, beginning in 1750, substantial numbers of Old
World reds to Virginia, Pennsylvania and New England. But
the immigrant foxes proved less aloof than their importers
and promptly mingled genes with the natives, producing
— for a while, at least — a hybrid species.
This hybridization, in turn, long confused all attempts at
drawing definitive distinctions between the North American
and European species.

Today, most authorities agree that the transplants were too
restricted in both area and number, and took place too long
ago, to have carried through genetically to the present.
Thus, while European and American red foxes are closely
related, and though a Euro-American hybrid undoubtedly did
exist a couple of centuries ago in a few northeastern
states, time has probably filtered any Old World genes from
the native pool, leaving our fox a true red, white, yellow,
gray and brown American — the hues of an adult red
fox’s many-colored coat.

And occasionally, other shades as well.

On the road last spring, my wife and I had just turned into
the Jenny Lake Campground in Teton National Park —
deserted so early in the season save for a young man
sitting in the sun out front of his tent, reading Tolstoy’s
What Is Art ? — when a large, winter-pelted
fox trotted across the campground lane just ahead of us.

Now, fox sightings are no great oddity thereabouts: Teton
is known worldwide for its fecundity of wildlife. What
surprised me was the paint job on this particular model . .
. black underfur salted over with white-tipped guard hairs
to create a distinguished-looking, grizzled-silver pelage.

“Silver fox!” I exclaimed in the excitement of the moment,
reconfirming my quick grasp of the obvious — a grasp
that frequently prompts people to look at me funny and say
things like “right.”

“Right,” Carolyn said, looking at me funny. “So tell me
about it.”

“Well,” I began, “the silver fox is, uh . . . what say we
stake out a campsite before this place fills up?”

Two weeks and a thousand miles down the road, after
sneaking an evening at the college library back home, I
finally “remembered” to explain to Carolyn about the silver
fox.

The silver fox, I explained, is nothing more than one of
three rare color variations, or phases, of the common red
fox. The second is melano, or pure black. And the third,
the “cross” fox, has the normal red-fox color mix, but is
distinguished by two wide, dark brown stripes — one
running the length of its back and another across its
shoulders — forming the cross from which cometh its
name. These variant phases occur randomly anywhere V.
vulpes
ranges, but are more common in the north . . .
in particular on northern fox farms, where all three
variations — especially the silvers — are bred
in captivity for their valuable pelts.

Your typical red fox — no matter its color —
measures about three feet overall, including more than a
foot of luxuriant tail; stands 14 to 16 inches at the
shoulders; and weighs a mere eight or 10 pounds with 12
about tops these days. (Turn-of-the-century naturalist
Ernest Thompson Seton, in his classic Lives of Game
Animals
, reports a record American red fox weight of
16 3/4 pounds — a male raised on a game farm —
and cites a Welsh specimen that went an astonishing 29
pounds. Near as I can determine, both records still stand.)

Although foxes don’t mate for life, neither are they
particularly promiscuous. Each winter, the vixen (female)
prepares a nursery den, often enlarging a woodchuck burrow
in a sandy hillside or renovating a fox den from a previous
season. When she’s set, she’ll send out a scent invitation,
then choose a spouse from among the numerous dog foxes
(males) that come to call.

Once mated, a fox pair will remain together, sharing the
joys and labors of parenthood, until the following autumn.
Next season, the same vixen and dog may get together again.
Or they may not.

Seven to eight weeks after the honeymoon, the vixen will
give birth — usually in late March or early April
— to around half-a-dozen quarter-pound pups. Red fox
kinder resemble fuzzy lumps of charcoal at birth,
save for their white-tipped tails. (This marking is unique
among North American canids, and remains with red foxes
throughout their lives, no matter what color they become
when mature.) Born deaf and blind, the pups will remain
within the womblike protection of the den for their first
few weeks, attended constantly by Mama.

Outside, Papa plays the role of sole family breadwinner
during this critical time, hunting almost continuously to
feed himself and his nursery-bound mate–for whom he
leaves mousy little love offerings at the doorstep to the
den.

After about a month, the pups — their fur now faded
to sandy-gray to better match the earth around the den
opening — will begin surfacing from their
subterranean nursery. Early forays into the great outdoors
are brief and tentative, but will gradually lengthen to
several hours at a stretch. These first few weeks under the
sun are the most hazardous in the young foxes’ lives, since
they look just like lunch to a variety of predators —
notably cats, coyotes, great horned owls and golden eagles.

About 40 days after giving birth, Mama Red begins weaning
her litter and providing them with solid food. At about 10
weeks, the pups begin evidencing adolescent curiosity and
grow hot to trot along with their parents on the nightly
hunts. By autumn — approximately six months from
their birth — the pups, though not fully grown, will
have taken on their adult coloration and be capable of
fending for themselves. Soon they’ll wander away from home
to stake out turfs of their own.

That’s the way a fox’s youth should unfold. But
life is tough out there in the natural world —
survival of the fittest, you know — and more than
half of every litter of fox pups will succumb to the
elements, disease, predators or men with guns, traps and
poisoned baits before reaching maturity. For those making
it to adulthood, the average life span — if not
foreshortened by human interference — is three to
seven seasons.

Like all canids, foxes mark the boundaries of their
territories with urine, also relying on scent to broadcast
other important messages (“Whyuncha come on down to my den
sometime, big boy?”). But the primary means of red fox
communication is vocal, with a language that includes yaps,
barks, mews, whines, growls, churrs, yurrs, gurrs, squalls
and screams. Naturalist E.T. Seton, though a great admirer
of the red fox, nonetheless described the little beast’s
alarm scream as “probably the most sinister, unearthly
wild-animal note that can be heard in North America.”

In light of this “unearthly” quality of the fox’s scream,
it seems safe to postulate that a good many of the eerie
nocturnal cries traditionally attributed to panthers by
nervous campers and countryfolk in fact originate in the
narrow throats of pint-sized canines.

To me, the most intriguing characteristic of the red fox is
the way it conducts business. Whereas wolves, coyotes and
most other dogs evolved as pack animals — group
hunters, practitioners of the cooperative chase and the
open pursuit — the fox is more akin to the cats in
its social and hunting habits.

Except during mating and pup season, the red fox prefers to
live and hunt alone. And rather than running its prey to
ground after the fashion of its larger relatives the coyote
and wolf, V. vulpes relies on catlike stealth,
prowling slowly and quietly along established huntways,
using its sharp senses to locate prey from a distance
without itself being noticed, then stalking close and
jumping its food by surprise — thus avoiding (or at
least minimizing) garish chase scenes.

Canadian naturalist J. David Henry has spent years
observing the hunting techniques of red foxes in northern
Saskatchewan’s 1,500-square-mile Prince Albert National
Park. Writing in Natural History, Henry postulates
that the red fox has two good reasons for hunting alone: 1)
its primary prey are meadow mice — hardly meat enough
there to share among a whole platoon of hungry hunters; and
2) such a tiny quarry is more easily captured by a
pussyfooting loner than by a boisterous pack of brutes.

Henry’s observations have shown that the red fox hunts four
distinct categories of prey and — this is the sly
part — has evolved a specialized technique for taking
each.

The smallest red fox prey are bugs, which Reynard hunts in
a cavalier fashion, sauntering along until he spots a fat
juicy beetle or whatnot, then strolling over, smacking a
paw down on the star-crossed little beastie . . . and
chomp .

Next up in size — and most important to the red’s
day-to-day survival — are mice, voles and similar
minirodents. These the fox hunts slowly and carefully.
After detecting a mouse from a distance and stalking to
within pouncing range, the hunter crouches to compress its
springs, then uncoils in a leap calculated to land its
front paws atop the furry victual.

The third classification is an unlikely pairing: birds and
squirrels (lumped together because they’re of a size and
hunted similarly). According to Henry, the red fox
considers these as “targets of opportunity,” to be taken as
they come rather than hunted deliberately. Upon
fortuitously spotting a ground-feeding bird or squirrel, the
little red hunter begins an impromptu stalk, moving only
when the quarry is looking away, then charges the final
distance in a “crouched, dashing run.” In most instances,
the fox will attempt to grab a bird or squirrel in its
mouth rather than risk pinning it with its paws.

Henry’s final class of fox prey — and the largest
animals these smallest of the wild canids will normally
tackle — consists of rabbits and hares. When hunting
these alert quarry, the fox is rarely fortunate enough to
sneak within pouncing range undetected. More often, the
approaching canine flushes the watchful lagomorph and is
forced to pursue it in a wild, zigzag chase through the
densest brush the bunny can find. If and when the fox
closes on its prey, it will attempt to bring it to ground
by snapping at the hindermost portions. With the quarry
down, the diner anchors its dinner with its paws and
administers the coup de grâce by sinking its
needlelike teeth into the victim’s neck or head.

Cruel?

No. Merely necessary.

We upright predators do most of our hunting these days at
the supermarket . . . bagging meat that’s killed, cut,
wrapped, labeled and no longer recognizable (if you don’t
think about it too hard) as a gentle creature with trusting
eyes. The fox must earn its dinner in a more honest
fashion.

Inevitably, humans and foxes will occasionally find
themselves in competition for the same piece of meat. When
prompted by hard times or tempted with easy pickings, old
Reynard can be not only an adept hen heister, but a
talented duck buster as well — as noted (albeit
philosophically) by avocational duckman E.T. Seton:

“Many a duck have they [red foxes] taken from my stock, but
I gladly forgive them. It is worth more to me to hear that
squalling night-cry under my window in the darkness than to
be the over-fed owner of many fat, stupid table ducks.”

He’s right to forgive the raiders, you know. It’s hardly
fair, or logical, to take umbrage at a natural-born hunter
for snatching unprotected poultry; to a hungry fox, a
chicken (or duck) ain’t nothin’ but a bird.

For those of us who want to have it all — our
poultry, our neighborhood wildlife and our humanity —
the solution to farmyard predation is to put our fowl out
of harm’s way, especially at night. Be forewarned, though,
that a mere fence, no matter its height, won’t suffice:
Reynard will slick right up and over a chicken-wire
barricade like the cat of a dog he is. To guarantee the
safety of your birds, house them in secure, roofed
nighttime enclosures, preferably hard-sided coops.

Deep within the age-parched pages of Animals of the
World
— an obsolete zoological text published
back in 1917 by the University Society (whoever the hell
they were) — I recently unearthed some vintage
“facts” concerning wild canids. To wit:

“The dog family is not characterized by many admirable
traits in its wild state. It is usually cunning, vicious
and treacherous, and exhibits no bravery except where there
are numbers of its own kind. It is furtive and sneaking,
looking for every unfair advantage, and, once in danger, is
an arrant coward. From the commercial side, however, the
family is entitled to respect. The pelts of both wolves and
foxes are of value, those of certain varieties of foxes
bringing high prices.”

There we have it — the prejudices of the times neatly
summarized by the University Society (whoever the hell they
were).

But even back then predators had a few friends. Seton, as
we’ve seen, was one. Another was a lanky, bewhiskered
mountaineer name of John Muir. In 1916 — the year
before the University Society published the myopic canid
dogma quoted above — Muir penned an eloquent,
marvelously iconoclastic little essay entitled
“Anthropocentrism and Predation.” Therein, the father of
the Sierra Club charged:

“The world, we are told, was made especially for man
— a presumption not supported by all the facts. A
numerous class of men are painfully astonished whenever
they find anything, living or dead, in all God’s universe,
which they cannot eat or render in some way what they call
useful to themselves. They have precise dogmatic insight of
the intentions of the Creator . . . . Now, it never seems
to occur to these far-seeing teachers that Nature’s object
in making animals and plants might possibly be first of all
the happiness of each one of them, not the creation of all
for the happiness of one.”

Today, Muir’s views on anthropocentrism
(“human-centeredness”) and predation are at the heart of
the burgeoning environmental philosophy called deep ecology
— a philosophy guaranteed to peeve fundamentalists
and humanists alike, but which, to my way of thinking,
holds great promise for a better world.

Thus the tunnel-view contention that any creature not
providing direct benefit to humanity is a priori
useless, even evil, may finally be chased out of our
collective consciousness . . . like a fox on the run.