When a Red Fox kit first emerges from its den, its senses are on full alert and much utilized as it gets to know its new environment. Every leaf and stick is picked up and investigated. Every insect that flies by is snapped at. Every scent is caught. Every bird (American Crow, in this instance) overhead is duly noted and watched.
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When they are three weeks old, Eastern Coyote pups emerge from their dens and see the world for the first time. At first they stay very close to the den, but within a short time the pups are exploring the surrounding territory. Soon they will be accompanying their parents on their forays, learning how to hunt.
Looking and acting much like Red Foxes, one discernible difference is the color of the tip of their tail. Unlike Red Foxes, which have white-tipped tails, Eastern Coyote pups’ dusky-colored tail tips (hard to see in photo) eventually turn black. (Thanks to Marc Beerman, http://www.oldmanphotography.com for photo op.)
The time for nest-building has arrived for Black-capped Chickadees. They most often choose dead aspens and birches as nesting trees, and the punkier the wood the better so that the birds can easily excavate a cavity with their small beaks. While both male and female create the nest hole, the female builds the nest within the cavity by herself.
Most chickadee nests are used only once, and consist of coarse material such as moss for the foundation and finer, softer material such as the hair of rabbits or deer for the lining. The pictured chickadee is only a day or two away from laying eggs, for she is collecting shed fur from red fox kits (they grow three different coats on their way to maturity – gray, sand-colored and red) for the lining of her nest. She found a bonanza of nesting material on the dirt mound at the entrance of an active fox den, where the kits spend much of their time. (Thanks to Jim Block for photo op.)
After spending their first five weeks under the ground, young red foxes get big and brave enough to come out and see the world for the first time. The gray coat which they have had since birth will soon be replaced by a sandy-colored coat. This second coat matches the sandy soil outside of the den and thus helps camouflage them. A third reddish coat, the adult coat and one for which they are named, grows in when they are about three months old. (Note white hind foot on this wild red fox kit.)
Time is marching on…the blue eyes of Red Fox kits are turning brown, as they do once a kit is around two months old. Their coat is slowly being replaced by the reddish hairs for which they are named. While kits still spend most of their time close to their den, individuals will take short exploratory walks by themselves. Frequently they accompany their parent on forays during which they are instructed on the finer points of being a successful predator.
When Red Fox pups are born, they weigh less than a stick of butter and have charcoal gray fur (with the characteristic white-tipped tail). Eventually eyes open, fur grows more dense and teeth begin to come in. For their first month the pups remain in their den, and then, cautiously at first, emerge into the great outdoors.
Around the time they are leaving the safety of their den the pups are engaged in another important process – that of establishing a strict dominance hierarchy. The largest member of the litter, male or female, usually becomes the alpha pup. This position allows it to steal food from its litter mates. Each pup steals food from litter mates below it in the hierarchy. Should food become scarce, the dominant pups get a larger portion of the food and have the best chance of surviving while smaller and more submissive pups may die. By the time the pups are spending enough time outside the den to be noticed by humans, the hierarchy has been established, and we are witness to the less aggressive, playful, puppy-like behavior we associate with fox pups.
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All too soon Red Fox kits will have to fend for themselves, but as of right now, they are still enjoying having most of their meals delivered to them by their parents. If you were to sit and watch what tasty morsels were caught and presented to them, you would see many small rodents, especially squirrels, chipmunks, voles and mice, along with insects, birds and more often than you would think, snakes (see photo). Their diet will expand to include fruits and fungi as the summer progresses, but at this stage fast-growing youngsters need the protein that prey provides.
When Red Fox kits are about three weeks old they are introduced to solid food. Their mother’s milk continues to provide them with sustenance for several weeks more but it is increasingly fortified by prey that their parents catch. At about five weeks of age, just a week or so after the kits are seen above ground, the process of weaning begins. The mother physically prevents them from having access to her teats by lying down on her stomach or snapping at her kits if they attempt to nurse too often.
The kits in this photograph, taken on April 26 several years ago, are approximately two months old, enjoying what may be one of the last warm milk meals they will ever have. Weaning is completed at about eight weeks or a little more, when the kits’ teeth have all come in.
Red Fox vixens are giving birth to one to seven pups (usually three to five) in their underground dens at this time of year. The pictured pup is about four weeks old, and is starting to acquire its sand-colored coat. Red Fox pups are born with a temporary coat of dark grey-brown fur which we rarely see, as they stay in their den for the first month or so, where their mother provides warmth and milk. At the age of four weeks or thereabouts, the pups begin to emerge from the den and sit, nap and play near its entrance. At that time they grow a second coat that is very close to the color of the sandy terrain in which their den is usually dug. Their red coat, for which they are named, develops later in the summer.
Although it’s too early to see Red Fox pups, keep an eye out for active dens which are easiest to find where there is still snow on the ground, as the dirt around the entrance is usually visible. Males can sometimes be seen going back and forth, delivering food to the vixen and her pups.
The next Naturally Curious post will be 3/24/17.
An average Red Fox litter consists of five young. For about three and a half months, an underground den is the center of their universe. While the first month or so is spent inside the burrow, the kits spend much of the next two to three months above ground in the vicinity of the den. At about four weeks of age, the young foxes establish hierarchy, which involves much out-of-sight altercation. By the time they are stepping foot outside their den for the first time and we are setting eyes on them, each kit has its place in the dominance hierarchy and peace has returned to the kingdom. Aggressiveness has turned into the playfulness and comradery we associate with young foxes.
After spending their first month or so underground in their den, red fox kits emerge and discover the great outdoors. This is the most carefree time of their lives – days are spent playing tag, “king of the mountain,” and “hide and seek.” Engaging in mock fights, pouncing on each other as well as on insects (learning how to capture their own food) and tumbling in the dirt are the norm. Food is delivered to them, coats are groomed and life is good.
This two-month-old Red Fox kit (blue eyes turn brown after the age of two months) amused itself for several minutes with this Wild Turkey tail feather – tossing it up in the air, pouncing on it, chewing it and just carrying it around to impress/taunt its litter mates. Kits are old enough to spend much of their day above ground now and their antics are entertaining, to say the least. While parents are off during the day hunting and/or getting a rest from rambunctious offspring, said offspring amuse themselves by digging, scratching themselves, chasing each other, grooming themselves and chewing on any and everything, from sticks and leaves to the remains of past meals, such as feathers and bones.