Wilderness Underfoot: The red fox

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-115273781721493.jpg’, ”, ‘The red fox – Vulpes vulpes lives throughout much of the U.S. and Canada, as well as Europe, Asia and even parts of Africa. No other species of carnivore is so widely distributed. In our state, the red fox is most abundant in the north, while the gray fox is must abundant in the south.’);

If you see a fox in our region, it is most likely the red fox.

The fox is the subject of folk tales from the earliest human civilizations right up to modern times, with stories usually referring to its clever or cunning characteristics.

Foxes belong to the family of “canidae,” a group that also includes wolves, coyotes and dogs. As with other canids, foxes are members of the order Carnivora (meat-eating mammals), but red foxes are quite omnivorous, supplementing their meaty diets with plants and insects. They frequently feed on mammals such as Eastern cottontail rabbits and rodents. They also sometimes take birds, and their reputation for snatching domestic chickens in rural areas is well earned. If fresh meat can’t be found, foxes will eat carrion. Among plants, they especially enjoy eating fruit. They’ll also chew on grass, leaves, stems, bark and nuts.

The red fox has excellent hearing, capable of detecting the rustling of smaller mammals crawling in shallow burrows. If it hears a mouse shuffling underground, the fox will furiously dig the soil to capture it. To hunt mice running about in the grass, the fox will stand perfectly still and wait for one of the creatures to come by. Then, it jumps straight up and pins the mouse underfoot. To catch larger animals, such as rabbits or chickens, the fox quietly moves in as close as it can and then suddenly bolts, intent on outrunning the prey. Even after it has fed, it may continue hunting food to store in a cache for later consumption.

Red foxes raise a brood once per year. The pups are born in dens in the early spring, sometimes with more than one female’s litter sharing the space. Litters average about six pups each. Like dogs and many other canids, foxes are born blind, opening their eyes a few weeks after birth. The male isn’t allowed into the den, but he does help provide food to the female. Within 10 weeks, the pups are weaned, and they remain with the mother until fall. Then, they set off on their own.

Red foxes don’t typically run in packs. One male may live in a range covering several miles, along with one or two females and their offspring. If other foxes come into that range, there is often a territorial fight.

In captivity, red foxes have been known to live 10 or 12 years, but in the wild, they rarely survive more than three years. The young are most vulnerable to natural predators. Adults are most vulnerable to humans. Despite more than 12,000 red foxes being hunted each year in Illinois, their numbers have been stable in recent decades. Unlike many other animals in our region, red foxes have benefitted from the clearing of forests and woodlands because they prefer open range. Gray foxes, on the other hand, have suffered from loss of woody habitat.

From the July 12-18, 2006, issue

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