The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is the most familiar of the foxes. In Britain and Ireland, where there are no longer any other native wild canids, it is referred to simply as the “Fox”. It has the widest range not just of any fox but also of any terrestrial carnivore. As its name suggests, its fur is predominantly reddish-brown, but there is a naturally occurring grey morph.
The largest species within the genus Vulpes, the red fox has a native range spanning most of North America and Eurasia, with several populations in North Africa. The Red Fox has been introduced to Australia, where it poses a serious conservation problem.
The red fox is most commonly a rusty red, with white underbelly, black ear tips and legs. It has a bushy tail with a distinctive white tip. The “red” tone can vary from crimson to golden, and in fact can be brindled or agouti. It has bands of red, brown, black and white on each individual hair when seen close up.
In the wild, two other color phases are also seen. The first is silver or black, comprising 10% of the wild population and most of the farmed. Approximately 30% of wild individuals have additional black patterning, which usually manifests as a stripe across the shoulders and down the center of the back. This pattern forms a “cross” over the shoulders, hence the term “cross fox”. “Domesticated” or farmed stock may be almost any color, including spotted, or “marbled”, varieties.
The fox’s eyes are gold to yellow and have distinctive vertically slit pupils, similar to those of a feline. They can see just as well too, and combined with their extreme agility for a canid the Red Fox has been referred to as “the cat-like canid”. Its long bushy tail with distinctive white tip provides balance for acrobatic leaps and bounds. Its strong legs allow it to reach speeds of 45 miles per hour. That amazing speed makes it easy for them to catch their prey or to outrun their predators.
The red fox may reach an adult weight of 6 to 15 lb (2.7-6.8 kg), but this varies from region to region. European individuals are larger, on average, than those in North America.
During the autumn and winter, it will grow more fur. This so-called ‘winter fur’ keeps the animal warm in the colder environment. The fox sheds this fur at the onset of spring, reverting back to the short fur for the duration of the summer.
Habitat and diet
The red fox is found in a variety of biomes, from prairies and scrubland to forest settings. It is most suited to lower latitudes but does venture considerably far north, competing directly with the Arctic Fox on the tundra. The red fox has also become a familiar sight in suburban and even urban environments both in Europe and in North America. It shares territory with the much-maligned raccoon.
The red fox eats rodents, insects, fruits, worms, eggs, birds, and other small animals. It has 42 very powerful teeth that it uses to catch its food. The fox regularly consumes from 1to 2 lb (0.5 to 1 kg) of food per day. Since it is so adaptable, it has a strong population that is above 20 million.
The red fox is primarily active during twilight with a tendency to becoming nocturnal in areas of great human interference. It is generally a solitary hunter. If a fox catches more food than it can eat, it will bury the extra food to store it for later.
In general, each fox claims its own territory. It pairs up only in winter, foraging alone in the summer. Dens may be claimed from previous residents such as marmots, or dug anew. A larger main den is used for winter living, birthing and rearing of young. Smaller dens are dispersed throughout the territory for emergency and food storage purposes. A series of tunnels often connects them with the main den. One fox may only need a square mile of land marked by recognition posts that are special smells that come from a scent gland located just above a fox’s tail.
The red fox has been considered a monogamous species. Evidence for polygamy includes males’ extra territorial movements during breeding season (possibly searching for additional mates) and males’ home ranges overlapping two or more females’ home ranges. Such variability is linked to variation in the spatial availability of key resources such as food.
The red fox primarily forms monogamous pairs each winter, which cooperate to raise a litter of 4 to 6 kits (also called pups) each year. In various locales and for various incompletely explored reasons they may also practice polygamy (multiple males sharing a single female and/or vice versa). Young foxes disperse promptly on maturity at approximately 8 to 10 months.
Socially, the fox communicates with body language and a variety of vocalizations. Its vocal range is quite large and its noises vary from a distinctive three-yip “lost call” to a shriek reminiscent of a human scream. It also communicates with scent, marking food and territorial boundary lines with urine and feces.
Foxes and humans
The red fox has both positive and negative standing with humans, often being loved or hated. This has been most visible in the United Kingdom where fox hunting with dogs was a traditional sport, until this was made illegal on February 18, 2005. Like other wild animals, foxes are considered vectors of disease. The red fox helps farmers by preying on animals that damage crops but is considered to be a pest by farmers involved in poultry farming. The Red Fox is of some importance in the fur industry.