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Red Fox

Scientific Name: Vulpes vulpes

Description

A red fox standing in the snow
~ Photo credit: NYSDEC; Bill Hoffman

Adult red fox have a year-round red coat that is typically much more striking during the winter months; a washed out orange to cherry red. The red portions cover the head, shoulders and back, and the rump may be either red or a light gray. Jet black marks the legs and ears and the chest and throat are typically a light gray to white. Their tails are typically very bushy and cylindrical in shape, and they occur in variety in colors, blacks and reds predominating, with a characteristically white tip.

Males are generally larger than females, but no definitive comparisons have been made. Individuals may average from 8-12 pounds as adults, and vary in total length from 48 - 57 inches. The tail accounts for nearly half of that length.

Distribution and Habitat

Red fox are the most widely distributed carnivore in the world, and are known to occur in nearly every county of New York State. Preference is given to open country, with an aversion to open landscapes devoid of vegetative cover or deep forests. Lands with a mixture of old fields, forest edges, and farmlands may all serve as prime red fox habitat, as a mixed landscape provides ample foraging opportunities and cover from would-be predators.

Residential suburbs also provide ample habitat and a substantial prey base. Broken wood lines alongside lawns, roadside ditches, and utility rights-of-way provide plenty of cover and potential denning sites. Expanding coyote populations (a potential predator of red fox) have pushed red fox further into residential areas in recent years.

Food and Feeding

As with most of New York's predators, the red fox has a variable diet, likely coinciding with local prey populations and seasonal availability of small mammals and birds. Small mammals such as mice, squirrels, woodchucks, and rabbits comprise the majority of their mammalian diet, while birds such as grouse, nesting waterfowl, and other ground-nesting birds and their eggs are the most important avian food items in their diet. Other opportunistic food items such as nestling songbirds, various amphibians and reptiles, invertebrates such as earthworms, and carrion are all consumed as the opportunity presents itself. Additionally, red fox have a sweet tooth as they have been noted to consume ripening grapes and apples in the early autumn.

Use of food caches is common for this species. Foraging behaviors most commonly seen include erratic movements in open grassland, head and ears erect searching for the slightest rustle of grass or a glimpse of fur. Once a prey item is located, a fox will freeze, presumably to zero in on the location, followed by a quick aerial pounce and capture of the prey.

Reproduction

Red fox breed in New York from December to April, with a peak between January and February. This species maintains lifelong breeding companions. After a gestation period of about 52 days, females give birth to litters that vary in number from 1 to 12, with 3 - 6 being common. Young are born blind and helpless, and are weaned by week 12 when they learn to hunt for themselves. Both males and females play a major role in food acquisition for growing pups.

Dens are usually found in abandoned woodchuck or other small mammal burrows, widened to suit the needs of a family of foxes. Their basic structure consists of the main channel, with a chamber or a widening of the main channel, lined with grasses and other forbs to make a dry refuge and birthplace for their pups. Dens vary in location, and may be found among the root systems of large trees along the banks of streams or gullies, in or beneath hollow logs or hedgerows, or anywhere a woodchuck might decide to dig their burrow. It is common to find a den with multiple entrances. As temperatures in the den increase with the onset of summer, red fox will move the pups into a new den site every few weeks to minimize exposure to parasites such as fleas.

Females are ready to breed in their first autumn, but may not produce offspring until their second year. Dispersal among littermates varies by region, food availability, and habitat quality. Between the months of September and January territoriality between parents and offspring occurs after the rearing period has ended, thus resulting in the dispersal of offspring. Some individuals have been documented to travel over 100 miles in search of unclaimed territories.

Behavior

The core of red fox social structure is the family unit, as this species is monogamous and actively defends their territories from other red fox. Territorial disputes are seldom marked by violent encounters and usually consist of antagonistic displays, chasing, and harassment. Territories are maintained year round.

Red fox are highly mobile and can cover long distances on a daily basis. Travel of greater than 6 miles is not unheard of. Range expansion occurs during the winter months, presumably due to a decreased availability of prey, and contract during the rearing season. Displayed feces and scent posts marked with urine are evidence that red fox are wary of other foxes, and as a result territories seldom overlap.

Primarily nocturnal, red fox may occasionally be seen during the day. The activity of females during daylight hours increases with the feeding demands of growing pups; otherwise daytime is spent resting in regular spots, oftentimes above ground.

Predators, Parasites and Disease

Most predators whose distribution overlaps that of the red fox have been known to kill this species as either prey or as competition for food resources. In New York, coyotes have been thought to have a significant impact on red fox populations, and although general distributions may overlap, red fox tend to avoid coyote territories completely or reside on the periphery of established coyote territories. Bobcat and domestic dogs may also contribute to red fox mortality.

Human trapping and hunting efforts and automobile collisions comprise the majority of human-related mortality. Red fox are a historically popular commodity in terms of fur harvest and sales.

Red fox are host to a wide variety of parasites, both internal and external. Internal parasites range from protozoans to roundworms and tapeworms. Of particular importance in New York State are heartworms, a roundworm found in the right ventricle of many canids that is only transmitted by infected mosquitoes.

Red fox are very susceptible to mange, a disease caused by the mite Sarcoptes scabei. Mange mites burrow into the skin, thereby causing irritation, skin thickening (hyperkeratosis), and hair loss. Infected individuals may make it through the summer months, but quickly succumb to hypothermia once winter arrives.

Canine distemper and rabies are diseases that affect the central nervous system in all mammals and are both important factors regarding red fox mortality. Rabies poses a substantial human health risk, while distemper does not. These diseases can be recognized by clinical signs such as disorientation, a marked increase in aggression, and a basic loss of all typical behaviors. Both diseases are transmissible through saliva via bite wounds or exposure of damaged tissue to saliva and almost always result in the death of the infected animal.


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