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Red Foxes

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.