On the wild side—April, 2012
by Tina Mitchell
In our area, we have 2 species of fox: Red foxes tend to inhabit the moister riparian areas of creeks and the Arkansas River while gray foxes prefer the drier pinyon/juniper habitat. (Colorado has a 3rd common fox species—the swift fox—that looks a lot like a gray fox. But swift foxes are found only in short- and mid-grass prairies, typically with gently rolling terrain, such as in eastern Colorado.) Here, let’s focus on red foxes; we’ll come back to gray foxes in a later write-up.
The red fox holds the honor as the most widely distributed carnivore (meat-eater) in the world, in large part due to its ability to thrive in many different types of habitat. The red fox and stories about this crafty critter have captivated humans for millennia—at least as far back as Aesop’s Fables, circa 600 B.C. Loved by farmers plagued with an overabundance of mice, despised by owners of free-ranging fowl, respected by houndsmen, resented by bird hunters—a red fox resembles a small dog. Although several color phases can occur, a red fox most commonly has a reddish back, a white belly, and a bushy tail distinctively and uniquely tipped with white; the nose, backs of the ears, legs, and feet are black. One of the easiest ways to clinch an ID of a red fox is to check for that white tail tip. No other species that might look, at a quick glance, like a red fox has that—not coyote, nor swift fox, gray fox, nor American marten. Among canids (species in the dog or Canidae family), tail position when running can help too. Foxes hold their tails straight out (making that white tail tip even easier to spot); a wolf holds its tail high; and a coyote tends to keep its tail down by its back legs. A red fox’s tail is long compared to its body—approximately 70 percent as long as the body.
Red foxes produce a musk odor in their urine. To my nose, it seems a bit like a skunk smell without the intensity and pungency. (Too bad we don’t have “scratch-and-sniff” Web sites I can send you too!) Coyotes have a similar but stronger musk odor—although still not as strong as a skunk’s defensive spray. If you smell it when you’re out and about, you know you’re in the near vicinity of one of these canids.
Most active at night, early morning, and late evening, red foxes occasionally appear during the day as well. Their diet consists of almost any available animals ranging in size from insects to birds to hares. Voles are a favored item; they often make up more than half of their diet. Berries and other fruits, nuts, vegetables, and even some grains round out the menu. (In reality, foxes that live in neighborhoods around humans eat nearly anything a human will eat, although meat always remains a favorite.) The hearing of the red fox differs from that of most mammals. Its ears tune most sensitively to low-frequency sounds, such as the sounds made by small creatures moving about underground. The fox listens for the digging and rustling of these prey. When it hears such sounds, it quickly digs into the soil or snow to capture the animal.
Foxes don’t spend much time in and around dens, except during breeding season. They usually have at least one spare den so the kits can be moved on short notice if the original den is disturbed. With a gestation period of roughly 50 days, the young are typically born in early spring—March or April—with litter sizes varying from 4 – 9. (Young foxes are called kits, pups, or cubs, among other terms.) The male (called, just to be confusing, a dog) brings food to female (called a vixen) for a week or so after the kits are born; later both bring food to young in den. For 2 weeks, the young live exclusively on the vixen’s milk. The menu then expands to include food regurgitated by the parents. At about 6 weeks, the youngsters start venturing out of the den. By 10 weeks, they accompany the adults on hunting forays, and by the end of the summer they are on their own.
The scientific name for red fox—Vulpes vulpes—comes from Latin for “fox.” Yet again, taxonomists offer us a scientific name from the Department of Redundancy Department. Bobcats, coyotes, Golden Eagles, and humans pose the major threats to red foxes. Unregulated trapping and eradication bounties—rewards offered by government agencies for each red fox pelt turned in—took a heavy toll on fox numbers for decades. But the collapse of the fur industry and the abolishment of most bounty programs have improved matters for red foxes. With better safety precautions against predators at poultry farms, farmers kill fewer foxes as well these days. In light of these improving conditions, the red fox in the U.S. may be expanding its range, although competition with the wily coyote, which is also spreading into new areas, may provide a restraining effect.
Finally, the red fox shares a number of interesting similarities with the cat family. Similar to cats, a fox’s front paws have claws that retract a bit. In fact, one way to distinguish a fox footprint from a dog footprint is by the lack of claw marks. Its sensitive face whiskers are proportionately longer than those of most other canids—again, much like a cat’s whiskers. Its eyes have vertical, elliptical pupils like a cat’s, rather than the round pupils found in other canines. Red foxes in captivity (e.g., in zoos or recuperating in wildlife rehab) need more taurine—an amino acid important to felines—and are typically fed cat food to meet these higher requirements. The red fox also has some feline-like tricks in its hunting armamentarium when it stalks larger quarry, such as rabbits. It cautiously and quietly moves in as close as possible, synchronizing its movements with those of the prey, stalking as cats do. It then either pounces on the unsuspecting target from above (much as a feline would) or attempts to run it down when it bolts (a more canine-like approach to capturing prey). But have no fear—the fox has always been and will likely continue to be firmly ensconced in the family of canines.
To read more about this species and find links to photographs of fox kits and other color phases, click here.)