The red fox is easily recognized by its color. This species is native to North America, and red foxes are widely distributed in the United States and Canada. Red foxes are suspicious by nature. Many foxes have earned reputations as being clever. This species can adapt to many climates, habitat types, and human population densities. An important farmland predator, red foxes are considered one of the more difficult species to trap.
The long fur of red foxes gives them an appearance of being larger than they really are. Red foxes commonly weigh 10-12 pounds in many areas, with occasional large specimens weighing up to 14 pounds. Red foxes are slightly heavier in the northern parts of their ranges and slightly lighter in far southern locations.
Distinctive marks of red foxes include feet that are usually black, with black fur also on the backs of the ears. A white-tipped tail is common, and the red colors of the fur mute with grayish or whitish fur on the throat, bottom of the neck, and belly areas. Many southern red foxes are blondish, and darker reddish colors are usually found in northern farmlands and forests. Red foxes in the western high plains are somewhat pale in color.
Color phases do occur with red foxes, even in the same litters. Color phases are much more apt to occur in northern or colder regions and almost never occur in southern regions. Other than the most common color of red, red foxes can be black, silver, or a cross between red and silver, known as "cross fox." Black foxes have black-tipped guard hairs, and silver foxes are black with white-tipped guard hairs. Cross foxes often have reddish sides and dark back areas, with a cross of dark-colored fur running from one front leg over the back to the other front leg. Relatively uncommon are red foxes known as "bastard" foxes and "Sampson" foxes. Bastard foxes lack color and are brownish or grayish in color. Sampson foxes have few or no guard hairs in their fur.
The eyes of red foxes are yellow or amber in color with elliptical pupils. Red foxes also have 42 teeth, including four canine teeth to help them catch and kill prey.
Male and female red foxes begin to pair up in December or January, and mating is usually accomplished in January. Evidence suggests that red foxes pair up with the same mates of the past year if both are still alive. The litter is born 52 or 53 days later, usually about mid-March, in an underground den. These dens are often located on slopes with good visibility in all directions, and several entrances and connecting tunnels are typical. Oftentimes, these dens are abandoned woodchuck or badger diggings, which were renovated by the foxes. The average litter size for red foxes is six to eight pups.
During the first week after birthing, the female stays in the den with the newborn pups, and the male brings food to the female at the den opening. Later on, both mates hunt to provide food for the litter.
Foxes usually have an alternative den selection. The female will not hesitate to move the litter if she feels that the den is threatened. Red foxes have one litter a year.
Red foxes have keen senses of sight, hearing, and smell, which they use to avoid enemies and hunt prey. They are normally shy, nervous, and flighty, and they startle easily. Enemies are escaped by running, and red foxes have been clocked at 45 miles per hour. They have good endurance and can run for miles when they are pursued.
Red foxes prefer open areas where visibility is good and often seek out open places in the forests when hunting or resting for the day. Daytime resting areas are usually on elevated spots, such as knolls or haystacks, and usually in sunny places during the winter. Underground dens are used mostly during the rearing of the litters and occasionally during windy or stormy weather conditions.
Red foxes are curious animals, indicating intelligence. However, their suspicious, shy nature compels them to avoid obvious danger. They are playful, another indication of intelligence in animals. Some seem to enjoy being chased by dogs, and some red foxes will make a game out of uncovering traps. Many times, a dropping will be left on the uncovered trap or nearby as a communication either to the trapper or to other foxes who might happen by.
Foxes are well-equipped to hunt, and they commonly pounce in a stiff-legged fashion upon unsuspecting voles, mice, and rabbits. Other important foods include fruits and berries, grasshoppers, snakes, ground nesting birds, and muskrats. White-footed mice are an important food source during snow conditions, as these mice travel on top of the snow while most other mice and voles tunnel under the snow.
Weight: up to 12 pounds
Mating season: January
Litter size: 6-8 pups
Have been clocked running 45 miles per hour
Life span: 12 years
Red foxes do not chew their food; they tend to swallow it whole. This accounts for the abundance of fur and crushed food bones found in fox droppings. They commonly kill more food than they eat at one time and bury the extra food in caches. These caches are made by the fox digging shallow depressions with its front feet. The excess food is then placed in the depression, and dirt is pushed over the food with the fox's nose.
Red foxes are territorial throughout most of the year, and the choice territories are usually occupied by the more dominant foxes. They are thought to mark territorial boundaries by urinating on objects at regular places. These objects are known as "scent stations," which seem to be visited by every fox in the area.
Territory sizes vary according to fox population densities and the abundance of food. Where red foxes are abundant, it appears that territories overlap and, in some areas, seem to be shared by two or even three different family units. In rare instances, communal denning does occur, with more than one female with her litter sharing the same den. Under good habitat conditions, most fox territories will be about 2 or 3 square miles, though, if hunting conditions are good, most foxes will stay within a square mile daily, especially in mild weather.
Coyotes persecute red foxes. Coyotes dominate the better territories where the two species are both found. Red foxes move when coyotes are present.
Juvenile red foxes begin to wander from family units during August and September. Significant dispersals occur during the months of November, December, and January as young foxes seek their own territories and mates. Many older red foxes that have lost mates also seek new mates. Males seem to travel farther than females. Many females prefer to stay in the same territory, even if they have lost their mates.
Red foxes like to climb up on things in order to get a better view, but they are poor tree climbers. Foxes usually avoid getting wet, but they can and do swim when they are forced to.
Red foxes are present in every state except Hawaii. Southern California, parts of Nevada, and Arizona have very few red foxes.
Red foxes contribute to the overall health of prey by keeping the prey species controlled. They can and do take domestic fowl when the opportunity presents itself, particularly during the spring when there is a need to provide food for growing litters. Due to modern farming practices in many areas, this problem is lesser than it has been in the past.
Red foxes are vulnerable to rabies, and rabid animals can infect pets or even man. They are also vulnerable to several diseases, and severe devastation can and does occur when populations are high enough for easy transmission.
Mange and parvo enteritis are two of the most serious fox diseases. Mange is caused by mites that tunnel into the fox's skin, causing irritation and loss of fur. Infections occur as a result of the growing eggs and excrement in the the skin, and caking or crusting occurs particularly around the eyes and nose of the infected fox. Nearly naked tails are observed in mange-infested foxes, and it appears that nearly all foxes infected with mange die slow and painful deaths.
Parvo is a virus that appears to be a mutation of feline distemper. It is probably spread by contact between infected individuals, and symptoms include fever, diarrhea, and nervous disorders. Juvenile animals appear to have less resistance to this disease.
Twelve years of age is considered old for a red fox.