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An Illinois River Almanac

Jason Haupt's Energy and Environment Blog
Silver Fox

Animal of the Week: Red Fox

Foxes evoke a variety of responses. Someone who keeps chickens or other ground dwelling bird species see them as pests, something to be feared, or something to be destroyed. Historically, this is the response to foxes and still seems to be the response when a farmer hears that there is a fox in the area. I can remember when I volunteered for an animal rehab center three fox pups were brought into the facility. A farmer had attempted to poison the foxes and had succeeded in killing the parents and one of the pups. On the other hand foxes are beautiful, mysterious, and extremely clever.

Red Foxes (Vulpes vulpes) are in the Canid family. They are relatives of dogs and wolves. They are the size of a small dog with a pointed muzzle, large ears, and a bushy tail. The most common color is red or yellowish red with black tips to the guard hairs. The inside of the ears, tip of the tail, chest, belly, and cheeks are white. The lower portion of the leg is black. Though very uncommon in Illinois, two other phases can be seen; silver foxes are grey with white-tipped guard hairs and cross foxes are yellowish red or grey with a dark cross on the shoulder. Young pups are dark grey, possibly to help camouflage them. The Red Fox can be found in Alaska, Canada, much of the US, Europe, Asia, and North Africa.

Red Foxes are carnivores. They actively hunt mice, rabbits, and voles. They are known to also eat insects, ground dwelling birds, eggs, carrion, and even some fruits. They will also kill and eat snakes, turtles, crayfish, and other aquatic animals. The ability of a fox to balance on its hind legs to eat berries from bushes has been documented many times. Foxes will also hunt moles and shrews, but often do not eat them. Foxes are known to cache excess food by burying it and are also known to "play" with live prey. They present a significant benefit to humans, as they are excellent at controlling rodent populations.

The biggest threat to foxes is humans. As late as the 1940s, counties offered bounties for foxes. They are often destroyed because they are seen as a threat to poultry production. Adult foxes are naturally threatened by coyotes and bobcats. Fox pups will also be taken by hawks and owls. The estimated mortality for fox pups is as high as 80% and the average life span is five years.

Fun Fox Facts:

Foxes are unique in the Canid family. They exhibit some very cat-like characteristics. They have a vertical slit pupil rather than a round pupil like the majority of their cousins. They hunt using a pounce and pin method and use a sustained bite rather than a grip and shake to kill prey.

Foxes have very good hearing. They will identify their prey through sound and jump high in the air and pin the prey to the ground with their very sensitive front paws.

Foxes will have several dens throughout their territory. If they feel threatened at one site, they will readily move to one of the alternate den sites.

Foxes mark their territory with urine and scat. Their den sites are often marked with urine that has a very skunk-like scent.

Foxes' hind paws are smaller than their front paws.

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