The red fox Vulpes vulpes is a small,
dog-like mammal, with a sharp pointed face and ears, an agile and lightly
built body, a coat of lustrous long fur, and a large bushy tail. Male foxes
are slightly larger than females. Sizes vary somewhat between individuals
and geographic locations—those in the north tend to be bigger. Adult foxes
weigh between 3.6 and 6.8 kg and range in length from 90 to 112 cm, of
which about one-third is tail.
Although "red fox" is the accepted
common name for the species, not all members of the species are actually
red. There are several common colour variations, two or more of which may
occur within a single litter. The basic, and most common, colour is red
in a variety of shades, with a faint darker red line running along the
back and forming a cross from shoulder to shoulder on the saddle. Individuals
commonly exhibit some or all of the following markings: black paws, black
behind the ears, a faint black muzzle, white or light undersides and throat,
a white tail tip, and white stockings.
Other common colours are brown and
black. Red foxes that are browner and darker than most of their species
and have a cross on the saddle that is dark and prominent are sometimes
referred to as "cross foxes." Red foxes that are basically black with white-tipped
guard hairs in varied amounts are known colloquially as "silver foxes."
Silver foxes are particularly valued by the fur trade, and large numbers
were selectively bred in captivity when fox fur clothing was popular.
Signs and sounds
Red foxes have a sharp bark, used
when startled and to warn other foxes.
Habitat and habits
Red foxes inhabit home ranges of 4
to 8 km2 around den sites. Pairs of adult foxes may separate during the
winter, especially if hunting is poor, but they come together again in
the later winter or early spring for breeding and denning. From autumn
until March of the next year, the foxes take shelter in thickets and heavy
bush, even during the coldest winter weather.
Red foxes have been called bold, cunning,
and deceitful, particularly in children’s stories. In fact, they are shy,
secretive, and nervous by disposition, and they appear to be very intelligent.
Young foxes travel widely during autumn
seeking new territories. Young males have been traced as far as 250 km
from their birth sites.
Red foxes have excellent eyesight,
a keen sense of smell, and acute hearing, which help them greatly when
hunting. The slight movement of an ear may be all that they need to locate
a hidden rabbit. They can smell nests of young rabbits or eggs hidden by
long grass. Sometimes they wait patiently for the sound of a mouse moving
along its path in grass or snow and then pounce. At other times, hearing
movement underground, they dig quickly and locate the prey by its scent.
Foxes belong to the same family, the
Canidae, as domestic dogs, coyotes, and grey wolves. Taxonomists, or experts
who classify living organisms, once thought that the North American red
fox was a different species from the smaller fox of southern Europe. It
is now known, however, that they both belong to the same species. The range
of Vulpes vulpes is continuous across Europe, Asia, and North America,
and the species is expanding its range in North Africa and Australia, where
it was introduced a century ago by British fox hunters.
Red foxes are one of Canada’s most
widespread mammals, found in all provinces and territories. There are probably
more red foxes in North America now than there were when Europeans began
to arrive in the 16th century. Scientists believe that the range and numbers
of the red fox expanded at that time because the pioneers created additional
habitat for these small mammals by thinning the dense forests and killing
many of the wolves that had kept fox numbers down.
Probably red foxes eat more small
mammals—voles, mice, lemmings, squirrels, hares, rabbits—than any other
food, although they supplement this with a wide variety of other foods,
including plants. Their diet changes with the seasons: they may eat mainly
small mammals in fall and winter, augmented in spring with nesting waterfowl,
especially on the prairies, and in summer with insects and berries. They
have been seen feasting on eggs and chicks of colonies of nesting seabirds,
and will take other birds, and their nestlings and eggs, when they can
Red foxes have been known to eat and
feed to their young lake trout weighing 1.5 to 3 kg, which they caught
by leaping from the shore onto fish schooling in shallow water. They eat
a wide variety of other items, including seal pups, beaver, reptiles, fruits
of all sorts, and garbage. They will frequently bury or hide surplus food
for later use, but other animals often find and use it first.
Foxes have a bad reputation as chicken
thieves, and they will in fact invade poultry yards when it is safe and
easy to do so. On farmlands, however, they more than compensate for the
odd chicken by eating vast numbers of crop-destroying small mammals and
insects, and they are now usually appreciated by farmers.
Red foxes hunt by smell, sight, and
sound, as do most dogs. They have excellent eyesight, and the slight movement
of an ear may be all that they need to locate a hidden rabbit. They have
a keen sense of smell and acute hearing. They can smell nests of young
rabbits or eggs hidden by long grass. Sometimes they wait patiently for
the sound of a mouse moving along its path in grass or snow and then pounce.
At other times, hearing movement underground, they dig quickly and locate
the prey by its scent. They hunt mostly toward sunset, during the night,
and in early morning.
Dog foxes (males) and vixens (females)
are usually, but not always, monogamous, or have only one mate. Two or
more dogs often court a single vixen, and scientists have records of one
den where three adult foxes tended a single litter of cubs. Home ranges
around den sites are 4 to 8 km2 in size.
Foxes breed between late December
(in warmer areas) and mid-March. After breeding, the foxes seek a suitable
den, which is often an abandoned woodchuck burrow, but may also be the
burrow of another mammal, a cave, a hollow log, a patch of dense bush,
or a customized excavation under a barn or other structure. Small knolls
in fields, streambanks, hedge and fence rows, and forest edges are favoured
locations. Dens in earth are usually lined with dry material, such as grass
or other leaves, to insulate the cubs from dampness and cold. Dens sometimes
have more than one entrance, to permit escape from danger. They are often
south-facing, with good visibility from the main entrance, and are usually
in dry, sandy soil. An undisturbed den may be used by foxes for many years.
A single pair of foxes may have two or more dens close to each other. They
will sometimes move litters of pups from one den to another to escape danger,
although at other times they do so for no apparent reason.
Pups are born from March through May.
Litter size may range from one to 10 pups, but the average is five. The
young are blind at birth, their eyes opening during their second week.
Red foxes are patient, solicitous, and sometimes playful parents. The vixen
takes great care of the very young cubs before their eyes are open and
at this stage usually keeps the dog fox from entering the den, although
he will hunt for the family. After the cubs’ eyes are open and they begin
to crawl, the dog fox will relieve the vixen while she hunts.
At one month, the cubs are weaned,
or have made the transition from their mother’s milk to other foods, and
begin to play about the den entrance. Both parents hunt for themselves
and bring back small game for the cubs to play with. In this way, the cubs
learn the smell of the prey and how to eat it. For as long as two months
the adults feed the cubs at the den site and train them to hunt, by stalking
mice in the long grass. The cubs practise hunting under the eyes of the
adults. When the young are able to feed themselves, usually at about three
months of age, they leave the den site alone.
From autumn until March of the next
year, the foxes bed down in thickets and heavy bush, even during the coldest
winter weather. If successful in surviving their first winter and in finding
a territory, the young foxes may breed the following spring. Pairs of adult
foxes may separate during the winter, especially if hunting is poor, but
they will come together again for breeding and denning.
Humans are probably the most important
predator of foxes. In the past, people considered red foxes pests, because
they eat poultry, as well as game birds and small mammals that people also
hunt, so governments offered rewards, or bounties, for killing foxes. The
effectiveness of bounties in keeping down populations of mammals is doubtful,
especially in the case of foxes, which produce five or more young every
year. Fortunately, most people now recognize that the benefits that farmers
derive from having foxes around far outweigh any damage that they do, and
bounties have mostly been dropped. In recent years, too, long-haired fur
has greatly increased in value, and red foxes are worth a lot of money
Management of foxes in North America
mainly consists of prohibiting hunting or trapping during the season when
young are being raised, and until early winter when the fur is prime for
trapping. Nuisance foxes are often destroyed on a local basis.
Wolves, coyotes, and dogs will chase
and sometimes kill foxes when the opportunity presents itself. Interspecific
strife with coyotes may be the reason that foxes usually occur close to
human habitation in prairie areas. In some areas of British Columbia, Ontario,
Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, coyotes have been aggressively
occupying new range for several decades and perhaps displacing red foxes.
Bobcats, lynxes, and probably cougars may prey on red foxes. Other mammalian
predators, such as bears, are likely not agile enough to catch foxes, except
accidentally. Although eagles and large owls are capable of preying on
foxes, there is little evidence that they do so.
Foxes have occasionally become a serious
menace to public health, particularly in rural areas, when epidemics of
rabies sweep through wild mammal populations. During epidemics, attempts
are sometimes made to control the populations of foxes, raccoons, skunks,
and other mammals that carry the disease. In Ontario, some advances have
been made in the immunization of wild fox populations against rabies by
dropping baits containing vaccine near den sites.
Because the disease is almost invariably
fatal in humans once the symptoms are in evidence, rabid foxes should be
avoided. When rabid, the normally shy and elusive red fox shows no fear
of people, is often seen in daylight, and may foam at the mouth in advanced
stages of the disease. Children should be warned to avoid bold or apparently
friendly foxes. Rabies is transmitted through the bite of an infected animal.
If a person is bitten, the wound should be washed immediately, and a doctor
should be seen on an emergency basis. Rabies is a reportable disease and
as such must be reported to the nearest veterinary authority, usually the
District Veterinary Officer of the Animal Health Division, Food Production
and Inspection Branch of the federal Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food.
The brain of the animal involved should be submitted immediately to a Federal
Veterinary Laboratory. Delay could result in the death of the person bitten.