With all the romping around that they do this time of year, red fox kits manage to get all kinds of leaves, sticks and burrs caught in their fur. It’s a daily battle to keep the kits’ fur from matting, but their mother rises to the occasion and spends hours a day grooming each of her kits. She grabs hold of the burr or other foreign matter with her teeth, slowly pulls it out of the kit’s fur and then spits it out. As you can see, the kits tolerate these sessions with great patience.
Much is happening below ground at this time of year, including the birthing of red fox pups. In late March or early April, about 7 weeks after mating, female foxes give birth to four to ten young. Each pup weighs about a quarter of a pound, and the white tip of its tail is often already evident. During the first month, the pups grow a dark grey coat (they shed this coat and grow a sandy-colored coat about the time they venture out of their den, which is usually dug in a sandy bank). The mother stays with her young in the den, nursing and curling her body around them to help keep them warm for about two weeks, while the father brings her food. She then resumes her normal activity, returning to the den to nurse, clean and play with her pups.
At first glance, this looks like any other kill site, but if you look closely at the hairs, you’ll see that it was a striped skunk that was preyed upon – a rare find, for two reasons. One is that striped skunks spend most of the winter holed up and only amble out during warm spells (which we had recently). Their mating season is also about to begin. The second reason that this find is unusual is that skunks have very few predators, for obvious reasons. Great horned owls and occasionally a coyote, fox or bobcat will risk being sprayed. In this case, tracks were not evident by the time it was discovered. Initially the lack of anything other than hair suggested that the predator was a mammal which carried off the skunk (great horned owls usually eat at the kill site). However, it turns out that the absence of bones, etc. doesn’t actually rule out an owl. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, occasionally when a great horned owl kills more prey than it can eat, it caches the remains for later use. When in need of food, the owl will incubate frozen prey until it thaws and can be eaten. (Discovery and photo by David Putnam.)
The gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), although peppery gray on top, has reddish-brown fur on its sides, chest and the back of its head, which explains why it is sometimes mistaken for a red fox. Its tail has a distinct black stripe along the top, and a black tip (red fox tails have a white tip). Gray foxes are shier and more secretive than red foxes, and are seen much less frequently. Probably the characteristic for which the gray fox is best known is its ability to climb trees. The claws of the gray fox’s front feet are more curved than those of the red fox – an adaptation for climbing. They are very skillful climbers, and once a gray fox has shinnied up the trunk of a tree to a limb, it will jump from branch to branch in pursuit of prey, such as squirrels.
These red fox pups are roughly 7 to 8 weeks old…they’ve worked out sibling hierarchy, sampled solid food in the form of moles, squirrels, snakes and turkey and gone on short forays with their mother, but most of the day is spent tumbling with, pouncing on, chasing, biting and sitting on each other. Occasionally they stop long enough to take a nap. (Note the white toes!)
When red fox kits are roughly five weeks old, not only do they begin spending time outside of their den, but they also start eating solid food and weaning begins. This mother is still nursing her young, but soon she will start discouraging them by not always giving them access to her milk through tactics such as lying on her stomach when they approach her for a meal. Within three weeks the kits will be completely weaned.
For the first month or so of their lives, red fox kits remain in their den. They are born with a coat of dark gray fur, which is replaced when they are about a month old and starting to emerge from their den. Their second coat is sandy-colored and blends in well with the soil surrounding the den entrance, where the kits spend most of their time. By late June they will have acquired the red coat we associate with adult red foxes. Meanwhile, if you know the whereabouts of an active den, there is no better or more fun time of year to watch the antics of young kits than right now – they entertain themselves while their parents are out hunting by pouncing on each other, having mock fights, playing tag and chewing on all kinds of things from sticks to feathers – all of which is interspersed with frequent naps.
Hard to believe as it may be, red foxes spend most nights curled up in the open air — winter, summer, fall and spring–regardless of the temperature. Often they sleep in open fields, in an elevated area, where they can keep an eye out for approaching danger. When making a bed, they curl up in a ball and wrap their bushy tail around themselves, covering their faces. According to Leonard Lee Rue, when foxes sleep in the open, they usually doze for 15 to 25 seconds and then wake up, look around carefully, and nap again. Only when a fox sleeps in dense cover does it go into a heavy sleep, waking every hour or so. If you look closely, you can see two fox beds in this photograph — one at about one o’clock and one at about seven o’clock. Each is about a foot in diameter.