Foxes, like wolves and coyotes, are members of the canid family. They typically have large ears, long, bushy tails, and slender, pointed snouts. There are four genuses of fox. The genus Vulpes, found in North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa, has twelve species. Genus Dusicyon, restricted to South America, has seven. The genus Alopex contains one species (A. lagopus, the arctic fox), as does the African genus Otocyon, containing only O. megalotis, the bat-eared fox.
Vulpes, the largest genus of foxes, is the most widely spread of the canid genera. Vulpes vulpes, the red fox, is the most widely dispersed of the foxes and it could be argued that this little animal is the most adaptable of ALL carnivores. Foxes have been found living in nearly every type of land habitat on earth, from desert to tropical rain forest.
As is common with highly adaptable animals, red foxes are opportunistic foragers, feeding on everything from insects to crustaceans and earthworms, fish fruits, vegetables, carrion, birds, small rodents, human garbage, and in some unfortunate cases deliberate hand-outs from humans. (At arctic military or scientific installations feeding foxes is something that entertains humans. The foxes can be pests, though. A leather glove, set down and unwatched by its owner for a moment, maybe carried off and eaten by an opportunistic fox!)
All foxes may be seen catching small rodents using a behavior often called the “mouse pounce” (Click here to see an animated gif of a mouse pounce – 2MB). (Scientists sometimes prefer to call this behavior a “stiff-legged jump” because it can be used for things other than catching mice.) This jump involves springing as much as a meter off the ground and diving, forelegs stiffly extended, onto the prey, pinning it with the forepaws. This may literally squash the vertical leap some mice use to evade predators.
Red foxes will also eat earthworms that come out of the ground on warm, moist nights. Walking slowly across a promising worming ground, they listen for the rasp of worms’ bristles on the grass. If a worm’s tail is still gripping the walls of its burrow, the fox will pull it loose – not by pulling sharply and breaking it, but by gently pulling it taut after a momentary pause, a technique used by human fishermen.
Although opportunism is how foxes have survived and prospered, they do display food preferences when given a chance. The red fox will prefer voles to field mice if there is plenty of both small rodents available. Less favored or extra food may be cached for future use when foraging has not gone well. Foxes have excellent memories of the location of their caches.
Foxes’ propensity for raiding domestic barnyard fowl flocks is part of folklore. Despite old, popular songs, such as “The Fox Went Out One Chilly Night”, depicting a raid by a fox on a goose flock, large aggressive birds like geese are rarely preyed on by foxes. Even a rooster, if he is aggressive, can drive a fox away from domestic hens.
Remains of deer fawns and small domestic livestock have been found in fox stomachs, but though some field biologists think foxes can kill fawns, this is probably rare and restricted to only the youngest fawns. Probably the same is true of domestic lambs. Like coyotes and wolves, foxes are undoubtedly blamed for killing animals when they have only scavenged food from animals already dead of other causes.
In the wild, foxes breed once a year, in late winter/early spring. In red foxes, the gestation period is 60-63 days. (Tiny fennec foxes have a very short gestation for canines: only 50 days.) Litters typically have 1-6 young; the largest recorded for a red fox contained 12 kits.
Vixens favor dens, which they either dig for themselves or appropriate from other species. They may also give birth in rock crevices or hollow trees, under houses, or simply in the long grass. Often they may den near roadways, and people think the pups when they emerge, need rescuing.
For years foxes were considered monogamous and rather solitary, but now communal denning and “helpers” (typically young from a previous litter) have been recorded for red foxes, and for some of the other genera. Now that radio-tracking is part of field biologists’ equipment they have discovered that the supposedly solitary foxes have complex societies. Like most animals, their social behavior is closely linked to what nets them the greatest success in getting food and rearing their young. Availability of prey may determine whether foxes in a given area pair bond for life or whether one male may be able to provision a small harem of females, who den communally.
So far the largest recorded group size for arctic foxes is three; for red foxes, six. Apparently the groups are made up of closely related females attended by one unrelated male. No successful cases of vixens joining such groups from the outside are known. Young female foxes may choose to disperse, usually to a territory adjoining that of their mother, or may choose to remain and den alongside their mother and sisters. Young male foxes, on the other hand, emigrate, and always disperse further than female young. The foxes typically forage alone in separate areas of the communal territory. The best foraging grounds are used by the most dominant animals.
Red fox territories range in size from 25 to 5,000 acres. The size is related to the density of prey. Like wolves, foxes mark their territory with urine and feces. They mark throughout their territories, especially in areas they visit often. Both males and females do raised leg urinations when they mark, and dominant animals mark more than subordinate animals.
A red fox may live six years in the wild. Life spans of up to thirteen years have been recorded in captivity. In areas where foxes are heavily hunted by man, few foxes live more than three years.
Fox vocalizations include whimpers, barks, pants, squeaks, aggressive yapping, shrieks, screams, and more. (Essentially, foxes do everything except howl and meow.) Foxes have an extremely wide vocal vocabulary.
Red foxes actually come in a variety of colors, from solid black to solid white, although the most common is the classic red with black ears and legs. The red color can vary from “cherry red” to a more orangish, from pale to quite dark. Common variations include the silver-phase (silver-colored, obviously), and the “cross fox”, which is a more-or-less classically colored red fox with a black stripe over the shoulders and down the back, forming a cross. The more exotic color varieties (white, gold, spotted, etc.) of red fox are the result of selective breeding in fur farms and are rarely found in the wild.
Gray foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) are smaller, arboreal (tree-dwelling) cousins of both the red fox and the gray wolf. They are also native to Indiana, but they are so secretive they are not often spotted by humans, even though they might be living right alongside.
Gray foxes are generally orange on the underside with a distinctive, rich, speckled gray on the top; their beautiful coloration is reflected in their Latin name, cinereoargenteus, which means “ashen silver”. They weigh between 8-15 pounds (like small house cats), and are from 30-44 in long, including the tail; females are slightly smaller than males. Gray foxes do not have the black “socks” on their legs and feet that are commonly seen in red foxes; and, while the red fox has a slit, cat-like pupils, the gray fox has oval pupils.
The gray fox is rare among canids in its affinity for tree climbing, a trait shared only with the Asian raccoon dog. (Other canids can climb trees, but they do not generally live in trees, or spend so much time there, as does the gray fox.) The gray fox is crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) or in some areas nocturnal. During the day it dens in hollow trees or stumps or in burrows “borrowed” from other species. Gray fox tree dens may be located up to 30 feet above the ground. The foxes will bring back the remains of their dinners to the den and the tree may end up festooned with macabre “ornaments”.
Like the red fox, the gray fox is an opportunistic, omnivorous, and solitary hunter (it does not hunt in packs like wolves). It is happy to eat meat (rabbits, birds, and fish), insects, and fruit wherever it can find them.
Gray foxes mate in February to early March. Gestation lasts approximately 53 days, with kits being born in late April to early May in litter sizes from 1 to 7. Kits grow quickly and begin hunting with their parents around three months of age. They remain in their natal group until they reach sexual maturity in late autumn.
The gray fox, and the related Channel Island fox (Urocyon littoralis) are the only currently extant members of the genus Urocyon. The gray fox was once abundant through the eastern United States; although it is still found there, encroachment by humans has reduced their habitat and allowed red foxes (which are more adaptable) to become more common. The gray fox is still more common than the red across some parts of the western United States, however.