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Article for January - February 2013

For Wildlife Watchers: Red Fox
by Rob Simbeck
photograph by Stewart Grinton

Real opportunists, red foxes will eat anything from insects to carrion, and while the bulk of their diet consists of mice and voles, they eat enough game birds, squirrels and rabbits to earn the enmity of many hunters.

Red FoxWhen we moved to our little white house in the country, fields and woods teeming with wildlife sprawled in every direction. We heard whippoorwills and watched quail scurry across the back yard. Then slowly, inexorably, the city crept toward us. A convenience market here, a subdivision there, and then a Walmart and the race was on. Finally, hundreds of acres of great birding four miles away gave way to a huge commercial and residential development and the countryside was changed forever.

One overcast autumn evening as I stood in the yard, a red fox trotted across a field behind the house. It stopped not twenty yards away, ears cocked, and we stared at each other. This was a striking creature, amber eyes set amid orange-red fur that gave way to white on the chin and chest above dark stockings on long forelegs. I hoped I was not looking at the last fox I would see this close to the house, but I knew with every fiber of my being to treasure the instant. Finally he relaxed and trotted off, but to this day that fox remains a vivid symbol for me of that mysterious bond we share with the wild creatures around us and of the awful chasm between us. We are kindred and we are other.

Given the effect that fox had on me, I never wonder about the hold they have on the human imagination. Foxes can be found from Aesop to Grimm, in the Old and New Testaments, and in myth and folklore around the world. They are portrayed as cunning and deceitful, wise and treacherous, all marks of our respect for their intelligence and adaptability.

Red Fox -
  Vulpes vulpes

Description: Seven to fourteen pounds and three to four feet in length (including a long white-tipped tail). Striking red color, although there are silver, black and "cross" phases.

Range and Habitat: Adaptable, but prefers open space with cover, mixed open/wooded terrain. Found through much of North America and most of South Carolina, particularly in agricultural areas such as the tobacco fields of the Pee Dee and in the pastures of the Piedmont. Increasing presence in suburban and even urban areas.

Reproduction: Begins mating in December and January. Dens utilized for bearing and raising four to eight kits, born after fifty-one to fifty-three days of gestation.

Viewing Tips: Early mornings and late evenings are best. Some daylight presence, especially when kits are young.

We have hunted them for millennia, in part because of that respect, as they present a real challenge to sport hunters. Much of the reason, though, lies in their taste for game we also crave and in our desire for their fur.

Real opportunists, red foxes will eat anything from insects to carrion, and while the bulk of their diet consists of mice and voles, they eat enough game birds, squirrels and rabbits to earn the enmity of many hunters. Then there is their affinity for chickens and turkeys — they kill more than they consume, so they might lay waste to an entire henhouse — and the fact that they sometimes kill baby calves, lambs and piglets. Long considered nuisance animals, they once had bounties on their heads in many states, including South Carolina.

Their fur, thick, silky and attractive, has long been sought for warmth and fashion, and there is still an active market for trappers and ranchers worldwide.

"We are on top of a bubble for fur prices," says Jim Spencer, a widely known outdoor author, editor and columnist who spent years with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, "with buyers in Russia and China really driving demand."

Small and slender, the red fox stands just fourteen to eighteen inches at the shoulder and weighs between eight and fourteen pounds. Adult foxes range from twenty to twenty-six inches long, not including their long, bushy tails, which are used for balance, warmth in winter and for signaling everything from aggression to danger — in conjunction with barks, howls, yips, growls, facial cues and changes in posture.

That red fur is the most common color phase for the species, but there are silver, black and "cross" phases as well. All have white-tipped tails, which help distinguish them from the slightly smaller gray fox, and from larger coyotes and wolves.

Scientists believe red foxes moved from Asia to North America across the Bering land bridge between 130,000 and 300,000 years ago, and expanded their range across the continent between 130,000 and 100,000 years ago. They are present throughout South Carolina, says Jay Butfiloski, coordinator for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources’ Furbearer and Alligator programs, but "the tendency is to find them in agricultural areas, pastures and wooded areas interspersed in agricultural settings, and in some suburban areas where there is a diversity of woodlots and open space."

While numbers are hard to come by, monitoring through fur harvest records and scent station data "indicate a decline from their long-term average," says Butfiloski.

Normally solitary, red foxes begin pairing up in late fall or early winter, excavating or expanding on existing natal dens, which can be fifteen to twenty feet in length, with a side passage or two.

Gestation takes from fifty-one to fifty-three days, and in South Carolina a vixen will give birth to between four and eight kits in March or April. The young are born blind and deaf, weighing just two to three ounces, and though they have fur, they must rely on their mother for warmth. The kits’ eyes open at ten days or so, and after about a month, they begin spending time outside the den. They nurse for another two or three weeks, until the parents begin regurgitating solid food for them, eventually bringing live mice and moles so they can begin to practice killing and then hunting, which involves stalking and pouncing. In the summer, red foxes supplement their diets with fruits and berries.

They travel in family groups through the summer, and the young reach adult size by the fall. Sometimes one or more of the young will remain with the female into the next year, assisting the male in providing for the female while she is in the den nursing.

The kits are taken by hawks and owls, adults and young are both killed by automobiles, and foxes are susceptible to mange and rabies. In fact, says Butfiloski, "red foxes seem to be the leaders of most of the 'random' attacks from rabid animals. This seems to happen a couple of times a year, where one just runs out and nips someone."

Perhaps the biggest force currently at work on their numbers and range, though, is the coyote, which, according to Spencer, "has displaced red foxes in their prime habitat in much of the country. As a result, they are actually now more likely to be seen in suburbia, where you might find them under houses or in vacant lots."

Their continued journey from rural to suburban and urban centers means our exposure to them may well increase. Still, I have waited in vain for a return sighting at our place. The deer and raccoons are with us, as are the turkeys and owls, but the quail and whippoorwills have long since gone, and there has been no more sign of the red fox. I'm still holding out hope.

—Rob Simbeck

Rob Simbeck is an award-winning freelance writer living in Nashville, Tennessee.

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