General: The Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) is a clever and cunning mammal, known for its adaptability and broad geographic range, which has expanded relative to human populations. A member of the canidae family, the Red Fox is closely related to the domestic dog, coyotes and wolves and is the largest of all species of foxes. With growing and stable populations, the Red Fox is unique from other fox species in that it is not listed as endangered in any geographic area.
Description: The largest of the Vulpes species, the Red Fox reaches a mature length of 18” to 34”, standing approximately 16” tall. Their full-grown weight ranges from 6.5lbs. to 24lbs., males typically larger than females by as much as 25%. Mature size is partially dependent on geographic location. Populations living in southern desert climates and southern parts of North America tend to be smaller, on average, than populations in northern European habitats. Generally, northern populations tend to have a greater body mass than southern populations.
Anatomically, the Red Fox bear a similar appearance to dogs, coyotes, and wolves, all classified in the canidae family. They have conical muzzles, prominent pointed ears, and tail glands located on the upper portion of the root of the tail, within the dermis. The dental composition is also similar to other members of the canidae family, with molars built for crushing, and pointed premolars. The tooth row stretches half the length of the entire skull. The front paws have five claws and the rear have four. The first digit of each paw, called the dewclaw, is clawed but otherwise simple in structure and does not come in contact with the ground1.
Red Foxes are easily identifiable by their thick coats that range in color from rusty-red, red-brown, or yellow-red, coving their backs, shoulders, and head. Two color variations of the Red Fox exist, including the Silver Fox, making-up 10% of Red Fox populations and silver to nearly black in color, and the Cross Fox variation, a hybrid of the Red Fox and Silver Fox that accounts for 25% of all Red Foxes, with reddish-brown fur and black stripes across the back and shoulders. Red Foxes have white or gray undersides, chins and throats. The rear may be covered in red fur or gray fur, similar to the underside. The bottoms of the legs and pointed, erect ears are black and the nose is either black or dark brown. The eyes of mature Red Fox are yellow. About half the length of a full-grown Red Fox is the bushy, cylindrical tail. The tail, 12” to 22” in length, is typically a combination of red and black and has a white or black tip. The tail of the Red Fox not only aids in balance, but also provides warmth and protection from extreme weather conditions and is used to signal and communicate with other foxes.
Red Foxes are shy animals that are rarely seen during the day. This nocturnal species is most active during twilight hours and at night. Unlike wolves, which are social animals that form packs, Red Foxes are solitary and generally live alone outside of the mating season. They are active year round and only inhabit a den during periods of reproduction. Home ranges are established and used throughout the life of a fox. These ranges are usually distinct from other ranges since Red Foxes are known to be territorial. These ranges may be 2 sq. miles to 4.5 sq. miles in ideal habitats and often contain one adult male and one or more adult females with their young. In habitats with poor or limited food supplies and during winter months, home ranges may expand to include 7.5 sq. miles to 20 sq. miles. In poor conditions, Red Foxes are capable of traveling several miles in a single day. They are a highly mobile species and are able to reach 30mph, jump obstacles over 6’ tall, and span 15’ in a single bound2. In the wild, Red Foxes live an average of 2 to 4 years, but have been known to live to 12 years old in captivity.
Red Foxes use a variety of methods of communication, including facial expressions, tail gestures, scent marking and vocalizations. Red Foxes use urine, feces, and glandular secretions as scent posts. Red Foxes are known to have unique voices and are capable of making upwards of 28 noises, used to communicate in close range and over distances. These noises include a dog-like bark and a scream, emitted when a fox becomes alarmed. In addition to their vocal abilities, Red Foxes have advanced senses of touch, smell and sight3.
Habitat: The Red Fox is a highly adaptable species whose populations are stable and wide spread in a variety of habitats, due in part to their ability to thrive in human-modified environments. They are found at elevations ranging from sea level to 14,500’, in forests, tundra, prairies, mountainous regions, deserts, grasslands, urban and suburban areas, and farmlands. Red Foxes prefer habitats that offer a mixture of vegetation and cover, living in brush piles, root systems, hollowed logs, or ground dens.
Red Foxes establish individual or family dens within their home ranges, used for protection during winter months and for birthing and raising young. These dens may be used for several generations. Their main dens are often supplemented with emergency burrows, multiple entrances, and pathways that connect the dens to food stores or hunting areas4. Red Foxes commonly steal dens from other animals, such as rabbits or woodchucks.
Within their habitats, Red Foxes have few predators. The young are at the highest risk of predation, but pups and adults are preyed on by hawks, owls, coyotes, and wolves.
Location: The Red Fox has the largest geographic distribution of all members of the canidae family. Their range has expanded alongside human populations, especially in areas where wolf populations are tightly controlled, eliminating a major predator and competitor of the Red Fox. Native populations are found across the northern hemisphere, throughout North America, northern parts of South America, Asia, Europe, and northern Africa. Populations were introduced to Australia and the Falkland Islands5 in the mid 1800’s as a sport animal.
Diet: Red Foxes are omnivores whose diets consist mainly of small mammals, such as mice, birds, squirrels, rabbits, opossums, woodchucks, skunks, shrews, voles, and moles. However, as opportunistic feeders, they will also consume fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, worms, frogs, lizards, turtles, crustaceans, insects, domestic dogs and cats, and even carrion (decaying flesh) and garbage. With their excellent sense of hearing, Red Foxes are capable of picking-up the noises of underground animals, which are dug up and eaten. Red Foxes most often stalk their prey, quietly approaching before running the prey down and pouncing. Red Foxes are solitary hunters and do the majority of their hunting during twilight or at night, typically consuming .5 to 1kg of food each day6. Red Foxes are unique in that they are one of the few predators that store caches of food for future consumption.
Reproduction: Red Foxes are typically monogamous breeders, but it is not uncommon for males to have multiple mates, who may live together in the male’s den. A red fox group will not, however, have more than one mating male since males become territorial and aggressive during the breeding season. It is also possible for a mating pair to share their den with non-breeding females who contribute to rearing the young. Red Foxes reach sexual maturity by 10 months of age and breed annually. Estrus and breeding is partially dependent on geographic location, generally occurring in December or January in southern habitats, from January to February in central locations, and in February to April in northern areas. Females’ estrus period lasts from 1 to 6 days and ovulation does not require copulation but is spontaneous7.
Before females (or vixens) give birth, Red Foxes create a maternity den, which may be used for several years. These dens are created by enlarging another animal’s abandoned burrow, or within a hollow log, root cluster, cave, or brush pile. These dens usually have wide entrances (about 3’ wide) and multiple escape holes, and are lined with dry vegetation. Females stay in or around the maternity den prior to birth, receiving sustenance from mates. Gestation lasts from 50 to 60 days and females give birth to an average of 5 pups, although litters may contain from 1 to 12 pups. Pups are born weighing between 50g to 150g, and are blind and grey or brown in color. Their eyes open within 9 to 14 days and the signature red coat grows-in by around one month of age. Both parents, and sometimes offspring from previous litters, provide care to the young until the young are old enough to provide for themselves. Pups are fully weaned by 8 to 10 weeks old and are fed regurgitated meat by their mothers. Mothers begin bringing live prey to the pups in the den so they may learn to hunt and at 4 to 5 weeks old pups begin following their parents out of the den to learn to hunt. Pups live with their parents through their first fall (female pups may stay with their parents longer,) at which point they disperse to establish territories of their own. These new home ranges may be as close as 6 miles and as far as 250 miles from their birth dens8. Once the pups have left, parents may separate.
Notes of Interest: Red Foxes are one of the most common carriers of the Rabies virus. Red Foxes are a nocturnal species, and caution should be used around a Red Fox that is active during the day, as this might indicate an infected animal.
Red Foxes are a staple of the fur industry and are more commonly raised on fur-farms than any other fur bearer9.