The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is a member of the Canid family, which also includes the wolf, coyote and jackal. The Cree word for red fox is “Wah-kus,” while among the Chippewa it is known as “Nak-ee.” To French Canadians, the fox is “le renard”. In 1650, the European red fox was imported to the Atlantic coast of what is now the United States. The foxhunting settlers who imported it had found the local grey fox unable to give their horses and hounds a suitable chase. Eventually, a red fox native to more northern areas of the continent encountered and interbred with the imported fox producing the strain found today.
The red fox is found around the world in such widely separated places as Iceland, North Africa, India and Australia. Its Canadian range extends as far north as Baffin Island and from east to west.
About the size of a miniature collie dog, the red fox has a slim build, a deep chest and a thin waist. It stands about 36 cm (14 in) at the shoulder and is roughly 85 to 95 cm (34 to 37 in) in length. Males weigh from 4.5 to 7 kg (10 to 15 lbs), and females weigh slightly less. The fox’s cheeks sport a slight ruff, which emphasizes the long, pointed snout, black nose and large, pointed ears. Its distinctive eyes have vertical, slit-like pupils that can take in a maximum of light at night. Its hearing is sharp and its sense of smell, keen. Its bushy tail insulates the nose and footpads against winter cold when the fox curls up to sleep. The long, silky coat is burnished orange or golden yellow, with a darker shade of rusty brown along the back. The chin, muzzle tip, throat and belly are creamy white. The ears are white inside and black outside. The legs and paws are black. The tail has a white tip, which helps to distinguish this species from the grey fox, whose tail is black tipped. There are three colour variations or phases of the red fox, the red, which has been described; the silver, and the cross. The silver fox has a black coat with white-tipped guard hairs that give it a frosted appearance. The cross fox is a deeper brown colour, and bears dark brown markings in the form of a cross along the back and shoulders. The red fox undergoes little seasonal colour variation, and the pelt is prime in mid winter.
Both sexes reach maturity at the age of nine or 10 months. By late November or early December, the male begins to wander in search of a mate. Breeding takes place in late January and early February, and the pups are born in March or April after a gestation period of 52 days. Litters may contain from one to 14 pups. In northern Ontario, the average litter size is six, while in southern Ontario, the average is eight. The woolly new-borns are blind and deaf, and weigh about 124.2 g (4 oz). Although all the pups have the characteristic white-tipped tail, all three colour phases may appear in one litter. The most common, however, is the red phase, which shows up as brown on the newborns. The pups are weaned at two months. This allows the vixen to join her mate in the hunt for food. If the family den is disturbed, the vixen is likely to move her pups to another site or to split them up among several dens. Gradually, the pups begin to accompany their parents on hunting trips, and use the den less and less often. By early fall, the young have reached three-quarters of their adult size and have the colouring of full-grown foxes. Fall dispersal begins with short trips from home, which gradually lengthen into journeys of two or three days. Eventually, most of the young leave for good to find new home ranges. Some females may stay near the parental range, while others disperse to distances of up to 48 km (30 mi). Young males travel as far as 482 km (300 mi) from their place of birth. The average life span of wild foxes is five or six years in northern Ontario and about three years in southern Ontario.
The red fox prefers mixed terrain and does well in farming country. Ideal habitat consists of open fields (cultivated, pasture or abandoned), abundant hedgerows, rolling hills, river valleys and forest edges. Dens are made along hedgerows, on the sides of gently sloping hills, beneath tangles of exposed roots, or in dense patches of brush. Vacant skunk and groundhog dens are often used. Dens feature tunnels located about 1.2 m (4 ft) below ground and running to lengths of 7.8 m (25 ft). One or more tunnel entrances, about 25 cm (10 in) in diameter, provide escape routes. The nesting chambers are lined with dry grass and leaves. Cleared areas at the den entrances give the pups a place to play. Red fox dens are never found near the dens of coyotes.
Food and Feeding Behaviour
Although the red fox is considered a carnivore, it will eat almost anything. Ninety percent of its diet consists of small mice, and other prey includes groundhogs, muskrats, cottontail rabbits, and European and snowshoe hare. Carrion is also eaten. During the summer and fall, apples, hawthorn, wild rose hip, wild grapes and blueberries are added to its diet. Frozen fruit may be eaten in late winter and early spring. Insects, eggs and birds provide additional food in spring and summer. When hunting, the fox patrols a regular trail, trotting back and forth as it traces rodent scents with its keen nose. When the prey is located, the fox stands motionless with one paw raised and its ears directed towards the sound. It then springs, landing with its front paws on the prey. Larger prey may be ambushed, or chased by several foxes. Leftovers are often cached in dirt, snow or dry vegetation for later use.
Usually, red fox maintain solitary dens except during the breeding season and while rearing the young. Although the male may visit the home ranges of other females, a pair bonds for life and the female always remains within the male’s home range. The pair is most actively together during the breeding season; but, even after the young have dispersed, the male and female appear able to keep track of each other through signs like scent and vocal communication, which consists of yaps, whines and high-pitched howls. The year-round home range varies between three and seven square km (one and three square mi). Faeces, urine and scent posts mark it off. Urine and scent also mark food caches. Three types of scent are produced by glands located on the feet, in the dorsal tail area, and in the anal region. The four foot glands in front of the heels deposit scent on the ground to mark the fox’s trail. Intruders can be identified by this scent. A black tuft at the base of the tail indicates the dorsal tail gland. The exact purpose of this gland is unknown, but the fox rubs it against tree trunks, stones, woodpiles and grasses. The anal glands beneath and on either side of the tail base emit an odour that is believed to signal alarm. A shy, nervous animal, the red fox startles easily. When pursued, it will cover short distances at speeds of up to 42 km/h (26 mph). It is not afraid to swim, and its thick coat provides protection during the winter. The fox is most active just before sunset and during the night. The peak period of activity ceases shortly after sunrise, and daylight movements are restricted to the area surrounding the den site.
Southern Ontario’s fox population peaks every three or four years. The annual peak occurs in winter following the fall dispersal of the young. Hunting, trapping, road accidents and rabies are the major factors controlling population size. Rabies is a significant cause of mortality. Almost one-half of the rabies cases reported in the past two decades have involved the red fox. Many southern Ontario localities with large fox populations experience outbreaks of rabies every three or four years. There are two forms of rabies: the furious, and the dumb. An animal may have one form only, or it may have both forms either at the same time or one after the other. A fox that has porcupine quills in its muzzle or a strong skunk odour is highly rabies-suspect. There are other obvious signs to watch for, including a failure to show fear of men or animals – a symptom of the furious form of rabies, and frothy saliva at the mouth caused by paralysis of the lower jaw – a symptom of the dumb form. After losing its normal sense of caution, a fox with the furious form of rabies goes into convulsions, becomes paralysed and dies. General paralysis and death follow the jaw paralysis and frothing of dumb rabies. A fox with both forms of the disease may go through all these stages.
Since rabies costs the Ontario taxpayer millions of dollars annually and poses a threat to people, pets, livestock and wildlife, a principal concern of red fox management is the control of the disease. To this end, the Ministry of Natural Resources worked to develop an oral rabies vaccine for wild foxes. While working on the vaccine progresses, the Ministry tested the effectiveness of administering it by means of bait. It is felt that the vaccine program has largely been a success in reducing the incidence of rabies. At the same time, the Ministry is attempted to learn more about how rabies is spread by studying the behaviour of red fox populations. Live-trapped foxes, often of the same family, were thoroughly examined, vaccinated and aged, and blood samples were taken. They were then outfitted with radio collars, which allowed researchers to track their movements and to learn how they interact with their own species and other animals. There is currently no quota on red fox and, in southern Ontario there is no closed season.