Remember those sand-colored, fuzzy fox pups of two months ago? They have grown in their third coat since birth (finally they are really “red” foxes!), their noses have lengthened and their size makes them hard to distinguish them from their parents. Even though they appear adult-like, the kits’ continued playfulness gives away their age.
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.
Every track you see in this photograph was made by a red fox. Coming from every direction, they all lead to the tree stump. This stump is to foxes what our general stores, post offices and libraries are to us – a place to catch up on all the local news. Red foxes have these “bulletin boards” scattered throughout their territories. By marking a stump, they convey information such as their age, sex, availability, and much more to every other fox that passes by. Foxes will revisit these posts regularly in order to refresh their scent and update the information they’ve left. They also mark the boundaries of their territory to keep other foxes out. To save themselves unnecessary hunting, they mark spots where they have previously searched for prey or cached prey and eaten it, as a signal not to bother to investigate that area. During mating season, which we are in the height of, the fox also uses a scent from a gland on its tail to mark objects. At this time of year the combination of fox urine and glandular secretions create a skunk-like fragrance discernible by the human nose.
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.
Red foxes (and other animals) communicate in a number of ways, one of which is to scent mark with urine. These “sign posts,” along with scat, advertise the fox’s presence, its dominance and sexual status to all other red foxes that pass by. In addition, foxes mark their cached prey to indicate whether any food remains to be eaten. 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. During their breeding season, which peaks in February, male fox urine takes on a strong skunk-like odor. Only during the past week have I begun to notice this scent where foxes have marked.