The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is the most widespread and adaptable mammal on earth. They are found in very diverse habitats from the Arctic to the desert. The also adapt easily to human environments such as farms, suburbia, and even cities. Foxes have a nickname, “reynard”, from the French word renard, which refers to someone who is unconquerable due to his cleverness. The resourcefulness of the red fox has earned it a legendary reputation for cunning and intelligence.
Yellowstone has been home to red foxes for many years, first documented in the 1880s. The red fox is the smallest canid (dog family Canidae) of three found in the park, coyote and wolf being the other two. Foxes rarely howl like wolves or yip and sing like coyotes, they bark. They do have many communication sounds, but primarily they bark. The average female (vixen) weighs about 10 pounds. The male (dog) weighs 11-12 pounds. They stand about 16 inches tall at the shoulder and are about 3 feet long. One third of their length is that beautiful, bushy, white-tipped tail. Although the average lifespan in the wild is 3-7 years, red fox in Yellowstone can live up to 11 years. I guess they love it as much as we do!
The red fox prefers open habitats with brushy shelter interspersed. It may be why they do so well in Yellowstone, particularly in the northern park of the park. There are many miles of forest edge and extensive semi-open and canyon areas offering both their preferred habitat and food. Foxes are considered omnivorous. Although they prefer voles, mice, rabbits, bugs, birds, and other small animals, they will eat veggies, fruits, berries, fish, and eggs to supplement their diet.
Strangely enough, foxes exhibit cat-like hunting behaviors. They may ambush their prey or creep along in a crouched position ready to pounce on unsuspecting prey. Foxes are territorial and mark their territories with urine. A large gland above the base of the tail gives off a very strong odor similar to skunk. If you smell “skunk” along a Yellowstone trail, you can be pretty sure a fox has been here before you. This strong odor is what makes it easy for fox hounds to find the fox.
It is special to see a fox because they are not seen often. They are nocturnal, most active and hunting at night. The fox’s pupils are vertical, similar to a cat, helping them see well at night. However, their keen sense of sight, hearing, and smell also make them more elusive. It is said they can hear a watch ticking 40 yards away.
The best chance of seeing a fox is in the winter. They tend to hunt during the day as well as at night. Perhaps the sun lower in the sky giving golden light normally seen at dawn as well as the many overcast days encourages their daylight activity. In winter they may also visit a wolf kill for an occasional big meal.
Foxes are solitary animals. However, you may see mating pairs together, particularly during the mating season of approximately mid January to mid March. In the breeding season they live in dens. The vixen may dig a den or expand a marmot or badger hole. They have also been known to den in a hollow log, in a brush pile, or beneath an unoccupied building. She will usually prepare at least two dens in case one gets disturbed. She may even dig tunnels between dens. All other times of the year foxes sleep in the open, wrapping that bushy tail around its head for warmth.
A litter of 1-10 kits are born less than two month after mating. The male will bring the female food while she is caring for the kits. Once the kits start to play outside the den, the vixen will feed them regurgitated food. Eventually the parents will bring live prey for them to “play” with and eat. This helps the kits build the life skills they need for hunting. The kits head out on their own at about seven months old.
Red foxes come in other shades and even colors, called morphs. They also are lighter in color as a result of shedding their winter coats, but still retain their black leg socks. In addition, subspecies have been identified through ongoing research within the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
It is always such a treat to see a red fox. I love these sweet cat-sized canids each and every time I’m lucky enough to cross paths with them. Until next time . . .