Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Red Foxes

     Vulpes vulpes, the Red Fox, is the most widespread carnivorous mammal on earth, with 45 subspecies being found throughout. Our local subspecies is Vulpes vulpes fulva. It is found naturally or has been introduced to many parts of the world, being invasive in some places it was introduced into, such as Australia and some islands. Our version has its own interesting history, not being originally native to the mid-Atlantic, but now being among our most common predators. 
     There are a couple of leading theories as to why we have them around here now. Some believe them to be a combination of the introduced English Red Fox and North American Red Foxes that colonized this part of the country after it was altered by farming to make it more suitable for them. Most others think they moved in when the land was changed for agriculture and that the introduced English foxes were lost in the mix, not playing a significant role in establishing what we now consider our red fox (this is the prevailing theory). 
     Fox hunting has always had an important place in our region and most specially in the Commonwealth of Virginia, as it has in quite a few former British colonies. Many of our forefathers were quite fond of chasing foxes. In fact, our own Father of the Country, George Washington, is considered the father of the American Foxhound as well, a breed he helped develop. The American Foxhound is the Virginia State Dog, and Washington experimented with improvements in breeding this dog due to his great love for the chase. Mount Vernon was the site for regular hunts both before and after the revolution.
     Apparently our own native Grey Fox, due to its preference for deeper woods and its tendency to quickly climb a tree to escape trouble, was considered not as suitable for fox chases. English Red Foxes were introduced instead, and when the habitat changed enough for the red foxes from other parts of North America to colonize, our own red fox was born. Some people think that the red fox's success has come at the expense of our native Grey Fox, but habitat changes are probably the biggest reason for its decline locally. 
     Red foxes are very adaptable, being able to feed not only on the rodents they prefer, but just as easily feeding on fruits, insects, many other small animals, carrion, and sometimes finding other clever ways to obtain food. The ones around suburban neighborhoods and restaurants for example often know when trash day is and know the trash pick up routes. They regularly check out what is being discarded and check to see if any rats or mice are around at the same time. 
     Red foxes generally do not use burrows or dens outside of the breeding season, rather preferring to sleep above ground. Their thick fur coats provide ample warmth and the tails function as blankets and scarves for cold noses. They will readily dive into groundhog holes or other cover to escape predators or bad weather however. Reds also make use of blown down trees, brush piles, and other natural shelters. If nothing happens to them, they can live to 15 years or so, but less than 5 is more usual in the wild.
     Foxes very rarely (if ever) endanger pets, since adult cats or dogs are too dangerous to mess with. During the breeding season however, I often get a call about an amorous fox courting a small dog, much to its frustration. I also get reports of foxes who escort pets when they walk by their dens, keeping an eye on them and hoping to intimidate what they see as a potential predator from getting too close to their young. This is all bluster however, foxes not really willing to confront dogs and cats.

An active fox den, the leaves cleared out from the front.

     In late winter or very early spring, foxes start looking for den sites to raise young. They often search for hill sides that will provide good drainage. They also look for natural features such as large rocks or the stumps of trees to provide extra shelter. Since groundhogs often use similar sites, old groundhog holes are often used. These require much less work to expand and customize for fox use. Dens are rarely used in successive years, as that helps cut down on parasites such as ticks, lice, and mites. Both male (confusingly called "dogs" or "dog-foxes") and female (referred to as "vixens") help raise the young. 

Two red fox kits outside their den in an Arlington, VA park.

     Antics of young fox kits outside their dens are something I hear about every summer. People find them adorable, like little puppies playing and goofing around. We had one family that lived under our nature center. The young used to regularly play tug-of-war with a road-killed (and very flat) squirrel. I must admit it was hard to get as much work done as we were distracted by them day and night. A fox den is often only calm when they think danger is outside. 
     Here's a short video of a fox den with kits in Arlington, VA: 
     Foxes are very susceptible to sarcoptic mange, the mites causing loss of fur and being a primary control on their numbers around here. This sometimes results in my receiving reports of unusual animal sightings, such as of coyotes and even chupacabras, when infected foxes surprise someone on an evening stroll. They can look very different once their fur starts to fall off and especially if they start to bite at their infected parts. For many reason, treating of foxes by citizens for mange is illegal and should not be done. For more on this issue, please check out my other blog on this: 

     Although foxes are considered a rabies vector species in Virginia due to their common nature and frequent encounters with other wildlife, rabies is still rare in foxes. People often report what they consider dangerous animals when they see one out during the day. This is really not that strange for them. Though nocturnal, they will hunt during the day, specially when they have extra pup mouths to feed. Reds also love to sun themselves on cold winter days, making themselves quite visible. Since they may also use our own trails and paths to get around, particularly after deep snows, encounters with foxes are very common place. Only if the animal is acting lethargic, stumbling, or aggressive should we report a fox as being sick or worry about them. Foxes are just trying to survive the best they can, and that sometimes means bumping into us. But we really have little to worry about from any healthy fox. I've had numerous encounters with foxes and have never been worried about any threat from them. 

Fox tracks in the snow. Notice they are in a single file, not side by side.

     The presence of foxes can often be told by the signs they leave behind. Tracks may look like a dogs, but among other things, foxes prints are laid out in a single trail. They direct register their footprints, much like cats, with the the back feet usually landing where the front feet have already stepped. This means you don't get many tracks side by side. Fox scat is also a good clue, often having both animal hair and seeds present. Foxes also seem to like to advertise their presence, so their droppings are often left on top of rocks, logs, or bridges. The scat is also pinched off and pointy on the ends, unlike say the cut-off blunt ends of the otherwise similar raccoon. 
     Red foxes are very inquisitive creatures, investigating anything new in their neighborhoods and using their superb senses of hearing and smell to find food even when it is buried under snow. The one in the first photo was checking out my deer hunting set-up when I snapped these pictures. I took advantage of it stopping to smell the the fake doe scent I had placed on the tree trunks, allowing me the time to get my camera and snap some quick shots before the sound alarmed him enough to run away. Its distinctive black legs and feet are visible, but not the white-tip on the tail that they are also known for, regardless of the various color forms they can be. 
     I once had a red fox that got extremely close. I was working at a park when I heard a flock of gobblers calling in the spring. Having my turkey call handy, I proceeded to try and call them. When they suddenly stopped calling, I thought I had hit a sour note. But that's when I noticed a red fox trying to sneak up on what he thought was a turkey. Foxes will try and catch a turkey, though usually the smaller hen. I hid behind a stump and proceeded to call him. He got so close, maybe 6-7' that I could see he only had one good eye. The chickadees were also mobbing and bombarding him. He kept trying to circle me, not knowing what to make of the situation. I finally decided he had gotten close enough and stood up. You should have seen the look on that fox's face, jumping and running away from what I'm sure he thought must have been the biggest, ugliest turkey it had ever seen. 
     I've also seen foxes actually follow turtles who are trying to lay eggs. They follow the turtle, who they would have a hard time eating due to the hard shell, and wait for her to lay her eggs. Turtle egg laying is often preceded by the mother urinating on the spot she intends to dig up, perhaps to soften the soil. The fox waits until she lays her eggs in the hole and then gobbles them up. Foxes often find nests by sniffing out the places turtles urinate as well, though some species of turtle make fake nests and urinate in random spots to throw predators like foxes and coons off.
     So you can see that red foxes are remarkable, adaptable creatures. Their numbers and range have actually expanded when many other animals have declined. Their varied diets and sly skills allow them to survive in less than wild settings. Whether visiting the local restaurant after hours for leftovers or rodents, to raiding pet dishes left outdoors, to following turtles to get fresh eggs, foxes are true survivors. So we needn't be worried about them around our residences and parks. Rather, we should consider ourselves lucky to be able to see them as our neighbors, day or night. So, what does the fox say? I suspect it's just leave me alone to act like a fox...


  1. Thank you for posting this. Can you say something about their barks and screeches? We heard one scream last night--a prolonged high-pitched shriek in the early morning hours. Very loud!

  2. Yes we've heard that screech and cry too in our street. It was so loud it woke us up and sounded like a baby screaming. Crazy

  3. We get regular complaints about fox screams (and many don't realize they're foxes), especially during the mating season, and since they are at night most of the time. Foxes sometimes will also "escort" dogs and people past their dens, and sometimes amorous foxes will try and get close to dogs, but won't do anything. Foxes can make some pretty strange and eerie sounds.