An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide – maryholland505@gmail.com

Red Foxes

Red Fox Kits Emerging From Dens

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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Red Foxes Marking & Mating

It’s that time of year again, when the odor associated with skunks wafts through the air, even though most skunks are denned up and in a state of torpor.  This odor is the perfumed urine of Red Foxes, especially intense during their mating season, which begins around the middle of January. They use both urine and feces to communicate their presence, dominance and sexual status to other foxes and do so frequently (urinating up to 70 times per hour when scavenging at this time of year!).  Stumps, logs and other raised surfaces often serve as scent posts.

According to scientist Dr. Mark Elbroch, Red Foxes “employ any of 12 different positions to urinate upon precarious perches…”.  It’s fun to imagine exactly which one was used that allowed both a foot print and urine to appear on the pictured raised log!

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Eastern Coyote Pups Exploring

6-5-19 standing coyote pup2 1B0A1576When 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.)

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Black-capped Chickadee Robbing Peter To Pay Paul

b-c chickadee 1B0A9061The 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.)

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Red Fox Kits Emerging From Den & Growing New Coat

4-15-19 red fox kit IMG_7280After 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.)

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The Sniff Test

1-30-19 red fox marking img_7153When your quest is to find out as much as you can about the identity, activity, diet and territory of your four-footed neighbors, it is logical to make the most of all your senses. Tracks can be seen, scrapings and bite marks on a tree can be felt and yes, one’s sense of smell can enhance any tracking expedition. Just as the tracks and scat of different species of animals have distinctive characteristics, so does the urine of different animals. Scent marking, including urination, is a behaviour used by animals to identify their territory, and therefore a highly visible sign in winter.

At this time of year, foxes are breeding, and without even putting your nose near where a fox has marked his territory with urine, you can detect its skunk-like odor as you pass by. If you’re so inclined (and I realize many readers may not be) you can heighten your sensory experience as well as your identification prowess by sampling the smell of other animals’ liquid waste. White-tailed deer urine has a pungent, piney smell, quite pleasing to this naturalist’s olfactory receptors. You can detect a porcupine den from a considerable distance by the pungent, very distinctive but hard to describe odor of its urine (which spills out onto and coats the bark of a tree den, thereby advertising the porcupine’s presence). Coyote urine smells very much like a domestic dog’s, and members of the weasel family often have musky-smelling urine, though a recently-sniffed fisher marking had very little scent.

Needless to say, it’s a lot easier to discover and sample urine when there’s snow on the ground and it is more evident. Virginia opossums, snowshoe hares, red and gray squirrels, eastern coyotes, red and gray foxes, raccoons, fishers, mink and striped skunks are all in or entering their breeding seasons, when scent marking is more frequent. Snow is currently on the ground, at least in northern New England. It’s prime time for olfactory activity, if you’re game. (Photo: stump marked by a red fox)

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Foxes Scent Marking

12-14-18 fox tracks_U1A8060Foxes, like all canids, tend to mark their territories frequently with both scat and urine.  Both convey information to other foxes regarding hierarchy and sexual status, in addition to marking territory. As these Gray Fox tracks crossing a pond illustrate, it’s rare for an elevated object in a fox’s line of view not to be visited and anointed. Research shows that when scavenging, foxes urinate up to 70 times an hour, allowing just a small amount of urine to be left in any one place.  In addition to rocks, stumps and other raised objects, the remains of a meal are often urinated on, indicating that the nourishing portions have already been consumed.

Red Foxes are generally solitary animals, except during their courtship period, which occurs any time between December and February.  At this time mates pair up, so it is not unusual to see two sets of fox tracks together.  This is also the time of year when the males’ urine acquires a strongly pungent, skunk-like odor detectable from hundreds of yards away.

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A True Mystery Photo

11-2-18 flying squirrel tails_U1A1190A discovery recently brought to my attention has stumped this naturalist.   What you are looking at is a collection of Flying Squirrel tails lying within a 30-square-foot patch of ground adjacent to a stand of Eastern Hemlocks. For several days in succession, additional tails appeared each morning, eventually totaling 20 or more.

Flying Squirrels, both Northern and Southern, are part of many animals’ diet.  Among the documented predators are Great Horned Owls, Barred Owls, Screech Owls, Northern Goshawks, Red-tailed Hawks, Martens, River Otters, Weasels, Fishers, Red Foxes and Bobcat.  Many of these animals can gain access to the trees where the Flying Squirrels reside.  Others take advantage of squirrels foraging on the ground.

The puzzling part of this mystery is the large number of tails.  In cold weather (usually in winter, but we’ve had below-freezing nights recently), Flying Squirrels huddle together in tree cavities in an attempt to provide themselves with added warmth.  Did a foraging Fisher discover a communal den?  How did it manage to capture so many squirrels?  Did the survivors remain in the same cavity, only to be captured in subsequent nights?  So many questions that this naturalist cannot answer. Perhaps a reader can! (Thanks to John Quimby and Michael O’Donnell, who kindly shared their fascinating discovery with me.)

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Red Fox Kits Maturing

5-25-18 red fox kit_U1A4366Time 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.

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Red Fox Pups Establishing Hierarchy

4-27-18 red fox kit3 IMG_7484When 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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Red Fox Vixens Cleaning Out Dens

2-14-18 red fox den 049A2731You may have heard or seen Red Foxes barking in the past few weeks – a sign that their mating season has begun. The skunk-like odor of fox urine at this time of year (particularly the males’) indicates where they have marked their territory. Most of the year Red Foxes are solitary animals, but in January and February it’s common to find the tracks of a pair travelling together.

Vixens (female Red Foxes) are already scouting out this year’s den site. They often clean out several dens on their territory, one of which they choose for their litter. The typical fox den is on a hillside in sandy or soft soil, often in a forest but close to an open area. They may dig their den, or modify the burrow of another animal. Usually there is a source of water within 300 feet or so of the den. There are several entrances, the largest being about ten inches in diameter. The same den may be used for many years, and eventually taken over by a daughter upon her mother’s death.

Finding a fox den is easiest now, when the excavated dirt is obvious on the snow, and tracks leading to and from it are visible. In roughly two months there may be anywhere from one to ten (usually four or five) kits being raised inside the den.

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Striped Skunks On The Move

9-25-17 striped skunk IMG_1777Winter’s coming and in the Northeast, Striped Skunks are preparing for the cold months ahead. Before they usurp the abandoned quarters of a Muskrat or Red or Gray Fox (or bunk with a willing Opossum or Raccoon), they spend a great deal of time foraging and putting on life-sustaining fat. Even though a state of torpor slows their metabolism down during the coldest months, skunks must bulk up in the fall, as they lose up to 65 percent of their body weight over the winter. Thus, they meander far and wide looking for food this time of year. In addition, this year’s young are still dispersing. For these reasons, you may have encountered the smell of skunk or the sad sight of striped roadkills in your travels lately.


Meaty Morsels For Red Fox Kits

5-4-17 snake & foxes 116

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.

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Weaning of Red Fox Kits Nearing Completion

4-26 -17 red foxes nursingWhen 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.

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Red Foxes Giving Birth

3-22-17 red fox kit IMG_7433Red 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.

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Using All Your Senses

1-26-17-deer-urine-049a2725Many wild animals are nocturnal or crepuscular, limiting our chances of firsthand observation of them. Those of us curious to learn more about their lives take advantage of whatever signs these elusive animals leave. In winter, evidence of their presence in the form of tracks and scat can tell us not only their identity, but their diet, direction of travel, size, etc. Beds, kill sites and signs of feeding also provide crucial information. There is one more sign that is often overlooked and under-utilized for identification purposes, and that is the scent of an animal’s urine.

Not everyone will necessarily wish to add this identification tool to their arsenal of naturally curious skills, but for those willing, scent-detection can be extremely useful, especially if conditions for tracking are poor, or if scat is not found. Not only is the scent of a species’ urine distinctive, it can often be detected at a distance. At this time of year (breeding season) red fox urine can easily be mistaken for striped skunk spray. Porcupine urine is strong and distinctive, but hard to describe. Once you’re familiar with it, it can guide you to the location of a den. Coyote urine is very dog-like; bobcat very cat-like. Surprisingly agreeable is the pine-like scent of White-tailed Deer urine (pictured).

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Red Fox Kits’ Hierarchy Established

red fox kits  IMG_2123An 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.

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Red Fox Vixens Preparing Dens

red fox dens4With their breeding season nearly at an end, red fox vixens are preparing for the arrival of a litter of pups in March or April. This involves locating and cleaning several dens, and then choosing one in which to give birth and raise young. An adult female red fox may use the same den year after year; eventually one of her daughters may take it over.

While specific den locations vary, most are on sandy hillsides, often in the woods but close to an open area, and usually there is water within 300 feet or so. A den typically has several entrances, with the main one measuring about ten inches in diameter. At this time of year (if there is snow on the ground) it is relatively easy to locate fox dens, due to soil that has been removed and scattered on the snow.

Vixens often renovate an abandoned woodchuck burrow, but occasionally den underneath an outbuilding, in a hollow log, rock pile or other sheltered area. Pictured are a typical hillside den as well as an abandoned beaver lodge that has been renovated by a fox.  Scat (located about 2 o’clock in the photo) deposited near the entrance of the lodge indicates that this may well be a den that will be used for raising young.

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Red Foxes Scent Marking & Breeding

2-9-16  red fox marking 017Red foxes communicate in a number of ways, one of which is to scent mark with urine. During their breeding season, which is at its peak this month, male fox urine takes on a strong skunk-like odor, detectable by most human noses. These “sign posts” advertise the fox’s presence, its dominance and sexual status to all other red foxes that pass by.

Foxes leave scent marks along the boundary of their territory, as well as within it. Often you will find both urine and scat placed strategically on elevated objects, such as rocks, stumps and vegetation emerging from snow as well as at the intersection of two trails. Both male and female foxes leave scent marks. Researchers have found that when foxes are looking for food, they mark up to 70 times an hour. When just traveling and not hunting, they do not mark as frequently.

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Red Fox Kits Dispersing

red foxes IMG_4515Remember the playful, carefree red fox kits that were born this past spring? Roughly seven months have gone by, and they are ready to venture out on their own. The males leave earlier than the females and travel farther (as far as 150 miles away), being less tolerated by their father. The young foxes will frequently invade the territories of other established foxes and get chased out. Eventually they will either take over another fox´s range or find an unoccupied area of their own. The females usually stay close to their birth place. In some cases one or more female kits will remain with their parents for a year. These “helper vixens” assist in the rearing of their younger siblings by capturing prey for them. Kits born this past spring will be fully grown and ready to mate this coming winter.

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Red Fox Kits Romping

5-14-15  red fox kits IMG_7313After 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.

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Red Foxes Locating Prey

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADeep snow certainly presents challenges to predators – their prey is well hidden for the most part, and if they are to survive, they must compensate for not being able to see what they are hunting. Foxes are an example of how a predator survives in a winter like the Northeast has had. A red fox hunting for food is constantly listening for the sound of rodent feet under the snow, and when it hears them (they can hear a mouse or vole three feet beneath the surface of the snow) they leap up into the air and pounce on or near their prey with their front feet. Most of the time they are not successful, and come up empty-mouthed, but they usually succeed often enough to survive. Biologists are still working on understanding exactly how they do this.

Researchers in Czechoslovakia, watching foxes hunt in the wild, determined that a fox’s success seems to correlate with the direction in which it jumps. If the observed foxes jumped to the northeast they killed on 73 % of their attacks. If they reversed direction and jumped exactly the opposite way, they killed 60 % of the time. But in all other directions — east, south, west, or variations thereof— they were successful only 18% of the time. Jaroslav Cerveny, the Czech researcher, feels that foxes have a “magnetic sense,” and are capable of lining up the rodent sounds that reach their ears with the slope of the Earth’s magnetic field, and when this occurs, dinner is usually caught. (This theory has yet to be confirmed, but the likelihood that it is correct is great.) (Photo by Susan Holland, in the wilds of northwest Ontario)

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Vixens Screaming

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is the time of year when you might wake up in the middle of the night and hear a rasping, prolonged scream. It could well be a female red fox, issuing forth a “vixen scream” designed to travel long distances and attract a mate. This scream is not limited to females in heat – males also can scream, as can females at other times of the year. Once you have heard it, you will never forget this sound. Red foxes have numerous vocalizations, among which this scream and a high-pitched “bark” are the most common. You can hear several of a red fox’s more than twenty calls on this website: http://miracleofnature.org/blog/red-fox-screams (Photo by Susan Holland)

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Red Fox Vixen & Raccoon Encounter

5-27-14 red fox & raccoon 197While observing the antics of a litter of red fox kits recently, I was witness to an encounter between the kits’ mother and a very large raccoon. The vixen started barking incessantly when she saw the raccoon, and slowly moved closer and closer to it until she was within 10 feet of it. After a short standoff, the raccoon lunged towards the fox, which ran a few feet away and then turned and chased the raccoon in the opposite direction. They took turns chasing each other until the fox eventually drove the raccoon away from her den and kits. While raccoons are omnivores, and a large part of their late spring diet is animals (mainly frogs, fish, crayfish and invertebrates, but also mammals, including squirrels, rabbits and young muskrats). I have never heard of raccoons preying on fox kits, but the mother fox’s behavior indicated that she was not comfortable with the raccoon being so close to her litter. (The following day I noticed that the nose of the runt of the litter had been bitten multiple times. Perhaps a coincidence, perhaps not.)

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