Spotlight Species on the Refuge: Red Fox

Spotlight Species: Red Fox

| Article by Dan R. Kunkle | Photos by Dave Levandusky | 

The following article is from Winter 2015/16 issue of Wildlife Activist.

Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)

The Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) is familiar to people throughout the Northern Hemisphere, where it is found across Asia, Europe and North America. They can be seen hunting along the edge of a field or bounding over obstacles in a forest with a long bushy tail that provides balance and doubles as a warm blanket in cold weather.

Red Foxes are native to northern and western North America but were historically absent from many parts of the continent, including Pennsylvania at the time of European settlement. They did not become common residents here in the East until the mid-1800s. As a result, the eastern populations were thought to have come from introduced European foxes. However, DNA studies have proven that the foxes spread throughout the continent are indeed from existing American populations (Stratham 2012).

Known for its plush, rusty red coat and bushy, white-tipped tail, the Red Fox can be up to three feet long (half of which is tail), and stands up to two feet tall. It is a relatively small member of the canid (dog family), weighing in at anywhere between 7-30 pounds, with 30 being an extremely large fox. Following Bergman’s Rule, northern individuals are larger on average than southern ones. Male and female look alike but males are slightly larger. While the coat can vary in color, the throat and belly are white and the legs usually darker than the body.

Red foxes are highly adaptable and live in a variety of habitats from desert and grassland to forest and tundra, and are also found in agricultural landscapes and around towns. They live from sea level to over 14,000 feet and have the widest distribution of any wild canid (Fox 2007). Because they are nocturnal and crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk), they are not often seen at LGNC, but tracks and scat can be found on the trails in the grassland, at the ponds, and even at the Osprey House. Their tracks look a bit like dog tracks but the prints are all in line rather than alternating like a dog’s.

Food for red foxes is just about anything edible. They are great mousers and eat a lot of small mammals. Their acute hearing allows them to pounce on mice under the snow or dig up mice from underground. They will also eat fruit, amphibians, birds, and even worms. Around humans they will steal dog food and eat garbage. A recurring word when thinking about red foxes is adaptable.

Breeding for red foxes begins with mating in winter, with an average of five (but up to twelve) pups born in early spring in a den dug under a log or into a berm of earth. The female, provisioned by the male, usually remains in the den with the newborn pups for four or five weeks. The pups remain with their mother through summer before striking out on their own (Fox 2007). Many young do not make it through that first difficult winter. If they do survive, they can expect to live three or four years, although captive foxes have reached twelve or more years of age. After breeding, foxes are solitary.

Adult foxes have few predators but when coyotes are in an area, red foxes seem to diminish, either killed or driven away by the larger canids. Humans are the most significant predators, either for fur or because of prejudice against predators, even though these are very beneficial mousers. Foxes will sometimes prey on domestic poultry, so in some cases have earned their bad reputation, but most people who persecute foxes do not own poultry. Foxes are also subject to diseases, most commonly mange, which is a mite parasite on the skin similar to scabies in humans.

If you see a fox, you may be uncertain if it is a gray or red fox, both of which occur on our Refuge and throughout Pennsylvania. Look at the tail! Gray foxes often have a bit of rusty color on their shoulders and red foxes are not always red, but the red fox has a white-tipped tail and the gray, a black-tipped.

Red foxes appear almost catlike in their mannerisms and are very agile and athletic. A fox can clear a six-foot high obstacle. They have a variety of vocalizations, the most common being a screaming sound. They also communicate with scat, scent marks, facial expressions and tail and ear posture, much like a domestic dog.

Watch for signs of this rather secretive predator while on the refuge and let us know if you spot a red fox. Keeping us informed of your observations on the refuge helps us keep track of what creatures have returned and which may be thriving in our restored habitat.

 

References

Fox, David. 2007. Vulpes vulpes (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed December 3, 2015 at http://animaldiversity.or/accounts/Vulpes_vulpes/ (University of Michigan)

Statham, M. J., B. N. Sacks, K. B. Aubry, J. D. Perrine, and S. M. Wisely. 2012. The origin of recently established red fox populations in the United States: translocations or natural range expansions? Journal of Mammalogy 93(1):52-65.