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Red Foxes

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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