The Sometimes Secretive, Sometimes Obvious Red Fox

Red Fox
Red Fox

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Chel Anderson is a botanist and plant ecologist. She lives here in Cook County and joins us periodically to talk about phenology or what’s going on in the woods right now. Welcome, Chel.

Anderson: Hello!

Well, lots of tracks in the snow, and I’ve noticed by the size some must be fox. What kind of foxes do we have here?

Anderson: Foxes. Yeah. Very cool animal. Very common around our area, and pretty much across the state; one of the most successful predators on earth. Very adaptable to many different habitats, which is kind of a common theme. You know, if something’s really common over a large area, then it’s usually because it’s been able to adapt to lots of different kinds of habitats, from woods and forests like we have here to urban areas. So, yeah, fox are very common in Minnesota, in this part of Minnesota.

But, you don’t see them that often, do you? Or is it just me?

Anderson: Actually, I think I see them pretty often. But, I think it’s just a matter of luck, you know, in terms of whether you happen to be traveling regularly in an area where a fox is spending a lot of time and having some success with, you know, searching for prey or near their den or they take up residence near you and you get to see them. I’m sure it’s more or less serendipity. It’s certainly not because I’m out there following them around, but, seeing a lot of evidence of them, of course, in the winter with the tracks, like you mentioned. Here, in this part of Minnesota, the fox that we have is the red fox. The other fox that occurs in Minnesota is the grey fox. We do not have them here, although the red fox has a variety of color phases, which mean that we may see fox which are not the pure, beautiful, rusty red that we think of with black ears and nose and legs and a white tip on its tail. We might see the silver fox, which is more grey and black. There is also a color phase of the red fox that might be all black. Or the cross fox is another color phase which is red with dark bands across the back and the shoulders.

When you talk about phase, I often think of phase as a phase that the animal goes through. Is that true or is this a permanent state?

Anderson: No, it’s a permanent state. Color phase means just that within the genetic variability of the colors of the species, you can get these mixes. Just like in our wolf population. Not all wolves are exactly the same color. But, in the fox they’ve really defined these as color phases. The red fox that we have here stands about 15 inches or so at the shoulder. They’re about three feet long, including that just gorgeous fluffy red tail with a white tip, which is about 13 inches long or so, so a considerable amount of its length is that beautiful tail that’s flying out behind it when you see it scampering across the snow or across the road. You know, they weigh plus or minus 10 pounds. They are primarily hunting and moving around at night. They have fantastic night vision. In part, that’s because in addition to the light-sensitive cells of their eyes, behind that layer, they have another layer of cells that reflects light back through their eyes and really enhances their ability to spot their prey. They also have incredibly keen hearing. They can hear the rodents in the subnivian or rustling in the leaves in the summertime. In the summertime, they can actually apparently hear worms moving on the surface of the ground. Even though their classified as carnivores, they’re very omnivorous in their habits. So, you know, they eat rodents and catch a lot of prey, but they also eat berries and nuts and invertebrates. They’re not real fussy about what they eat.

OK, so they seem to be pretty good with everything, how about smell?

Anderson: Excellent sense of smell.

Might have known.

Anderson: Might of known. How else can you be a successful predator if you don’t have a good sense of smell? They also are very fast. They, for short distances, can run up to 30 miles an hour.

What are they after? Like, snowshoe hare?

Anderson: Sure, they’ll go after hares, red squirrels; they’ll dig down through the snow to get at things that are under the snow. When the snow isn’t, well, even now, when the snow is pretty deep, if you had a chance to watch them closely, you might see them listening closely and then pouncing down through the snow with all their legs come together and pounce down deep into the snow. They can leap up to 15 feet. So, if they hear something, you know, listen carefully and then determine within very close distances just how far that is away, they will leap to it and plow down through the snow and then dig furiously to get at it. This is the time of year when fox are breeding and mating, so in addition to being more visible because we can look for their tracks and maybe even see them out touring around, we might also have the best chance of hearing them. They make many different kinds of vocalizations and use them during the course of the year, but they’re most vocal during this breeding/mating time of year. The most common call is described best by I’m not sure what word, but some people like to say it’s a bark. It doesn’t really sound like a bark to me. Some people call it a scream. It seems more like some combination of that to me; it’s a barky scream.

Go for it, Chel. You’ve done this here before. You’ve given us an impression of animals before.

Anderson: Oh, I don’t think I could do it. It’s too weird. It’s too strange and I haven’t had a chance to just, you know, listen and soak it in enough to really feel like I could make it. To my ear, it also sometimes sounds like it ends almost with a short, little howl. So, it’s a “roooowwwrr.” Especially at night in February, March, these are the good times if you’re out, you know, we have some nice, mild nights this time of year, great time to go out and listen for all kinds of interesting sounds of the night.

Let’s set this record straight, now. Male fox, female fox. Give me the right names.

Anderson: OK, well, female fox are called vixens, and my understanding is that male fox are called dogs.

If the male and females are mating in February-March, when do we expect to have little foxes?

Anderson: Well, the gestation period for foxes is just over 50 days, I believe. So, you know, it could be anywhere from April sometime into May. They’d be born down in the den and be in the den for awhile before they’d be able to come up to the surface so to speak and move around. Then, you know, they hang out and play around the mouth of the den.

Like any canine.

Anderson: Like any canine.

Chel Anderson, botanist and plant ecologist. Thanks for helping us understand foxes.

Anderson: You’re welcome.


Photo courtesy of Ray Chang via Wikimedia.


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